Abu Falafel

Our guide and translator was a Syrian engineer I’ll call Abu Falafel. The first time I met him was at the house he’d been allocated by the ministry on the outer ring of Thessaloniki. It was on the ground floor of a unspectacular apartment building and he shared it with his youngest son, who is deaf.

Abu Falafel started, as all Syrians do, by ignoring our protestations that a second lunch would be unnecessary. He’d gone to so much trouble already, prepping ingredients, that we gladly acquiesced.

And so began the theatre of falafel that would give him his name. Continue reading Abu Falafel

No Meat: Meaty Moths & 3 Observations

After three weeks of No Meat, I feel like I’ve finally arrived as a vegetarian. Mainly thanks to a catastrophically meat-centric encounter at a restaurant. I’ve heard these sorts of stories many times from my vegetarian friends, about being served chicken or thin slices of ham, but I’ve never experienced vegetarian-does-not-compute dining myself.

Until last night.

I should preface this by saying that the meal was otherwise excellent; the two vegetarian dishes we had were superb. But the bread contained meat.

I’ll say that again. The bread contained meat.

We were enthusiastically tucking into hummus and baba ghanoush with hunks of warm flat bread, until my friend pointed out that this surprisingly delicious bread had a certain je ne sais quoi. Then we did sais quoi: ground lamb.

For the sake of the experiment, I took my hummus neat after that. Not too long after, we found a moth in the pomegranate salad. Suffice to say, we got a free dessert…

Observation #1: Identity Crisis

In other news, I’m having an identity crisis. At the restaurant and when others are cooking, I am forced to identify as a vegetarian. As a life-long (and eager) meat eater, this is very odd, especially as vegetarianism is not a neutrally-charged. In our society, being vegetarian comes along with some level of prejudice and judgement – not least by myself.

I’ve been surprised to notice that I like being a meat eater. It’s part of my identity. I like being a meat eater, not for the nutritional benefits of eating meat, but because I like the idea of being that sort of hearty, eat anything, eat everything, sort of person. Vegetarianism, on the other hand, strikes me as being somewhat frail: it feels like an absence, rather than an abundance.

I know that’s ridiculous, especially considering my previous meat and beans diet, but hey.

On the plus side, as a vegetarian, I can share food more often with my vegetarian house mates. Or with anyone, in fact, because no one wants to eat meat and beans all the time.

Observation #2: The Power of Meat

I now fully appreciate the power of meat. That first week was tough. The Friday, five days in, was terrible. I felt dizzy and had to roam the streets at night looking for vitamin pills.

Now I supplement like a Tour de France dope fiend. I take a full A to Z of vitamin pills, garlic capsules, fish oil, extra vitamin D3, as well as my pea protein, creatine and spirulina milkshake.

This brings me onto a related observation: most vegetarians I know eat meat. That might be a weekly fish supper, or monthly meaty treats. This was a surprise to me, but having lived on a purely lacto-ovo vegetarian diet for 3 weeks, now totally understandable.

It’s hard work making sure you get full nutrition on a No Meat diet. My friends seemed to be most worried about iron deficiency. I’m most worried about wasting away, especially with a half marathon next weekend.

Observation #3: The Laziness of Habit

To be honest, I was expecting to go back to meat after that first week, but for some reason I didn’t. That reason was laziness. I simply couldn’t find time to buy any meat, so just drifted on without.

This laziness shows, not only how much my condition improved after that first Friday, but also the power of inertia. Inertia usually works against us, keeping us wallowing in the rut of habit, lazily taking the same bike route to work every morning, annoying our house mates by leaving the washing up in the sink, or popping in for a swift half that always turns into five or six.

With this No Meat experiment, however, it was surprising how quickly inertia flopped over on to my side. It was an additional effort to buy meat, so I simply didn’t.

I also benefit from the positive nature of my decision. It’s not that I can’t eat meat – no one is stopping me. I simply don’t eat meat – it’s my free choice.

Vanessa M Patrick and Henrick Hagtvedt have researched this very linguistic nuance and found that a refusal that is termed as I don’t… is “more effective for resisting temptation and motivating goal-directed behaviour”.

My own I don’t… was tested when I went for a take-away alone for the first time. I could have chosen anything from the extensive meaty and fishy menu. (The two vegetarians who were staying with me both had fish and chips from next door.) But I didn’t. I didn’t even think about it. I freely chose a vegetable masala. And bloody good it was too.

No Meat

After No Hot Showers and No Pressing the Open Door Button on Public Transportation, here comes a positive constraint that is, shall we say, a little more… meaty.

If in doubt, open with a pun, that’s what ma always told me.

My Old Diet: Meat and Beans

For the last two years, my diet has almost exclusively consisted of two ingredients: meat and beans. That might not sound like a varied diet, but sometimes the beans were butter and sometimes they were black. When I couldn’t get either, I’d settle for kidney.

Meat pie. Fray Bentos.
I even once ate this. Yuk.

Of course, I’m slightly exaggerating. These two primary ingredients were bonded together by a tin of tomatoes and served with a selection of coleslaw, hummus and/or soft cheese. That essential melange was what I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For two years.

This diet might not sound particularly healthy, but over those two years I’ve managed to remain an active human being, who runs three times a week and cycles pretty much everywhere. The meat and beans combo is high in calories and protein, which gives me good energy, and low in carbohydrates and fibre, which means I don’t get bloated.

This monolithic diet had a few practical benefits on the side too:

  1. It’s simple.
  2. It’s quick.
  3. It’s filling.
  4. It’s cheap.

What more could a person desire? My taste buds aren’t up to much, so I wasn’t that bothered about endless repetition. In fact, repeating the same meal over and over meant that I got absurdly proficient at its preparation and, for someone whose priority is to spend time in the study rather than the kitchen, that’s a good thing.

More time in the kitchen.
No Meat means more time staring at these. Riveting.

 

Why No Meat?

So why on earth would I trade in that sweet deal for the unknown mystery of a vegetarian diet? The clue is in the question: if there’s one thing that I can’t resist, it’s an almond ice cream unknown mystery. I didn’t know what to expect to learn, but I knew I would learn something. And that’s the best reason for doing anything.

Like all good students, I started my education, not in the kitchen, but slumped in front of the computer watching a film. Cowspiracy examines the devastation the animal agriculture industry wreaks on the environment and, as the title hints, wonders why government, industry and even environmental advocacy groups like Greenpeace turn a blind eye.

Vegetarianism has never appealed to me on compassionate grounds. I am happy to kill animals for food. I’ve lived and grazed alongside pigs, turkeys, chickens and sheep. I killed one of those turkeys for food and I’d do it again. I understand the philosophical arguments for animal rights and I respect those who fight that battle, but it’s just not an ethical dilemma I can get riled up about.

Global warming and the environmental degredation of the planet, however, is something that does concern me. I don’t mind killing an animal for food, but if by killing that animal I am part of a vast unsustainable feeding industry, then that’s a personal moral decision I would like to investigate.

Cowspiracy is unambiguous:

Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption and pollution, is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry, and is a primary driver of rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion, ocean “dead zones,” and virtually every other environmental ill.

You can read more facts about animal agriculture on the Cowspiracy website, complete with percentages and dates, billions and millions.

But the main reason for giving No Meat a try was to learn more about food, food preparation, my body and my health.

No Meat

At the beginning of this week, then, I stopped eating meat. As I hope I’ve made clear, this was no small modification to my diet. Just in case it’s not obvious, about 50% of my calories, 85% of my protein and 50% of my fat came from meat.

This was going to be the biggest challenge: where would I find my calories, where would I find my protein, where would I find my fat if not from the flesh of an animal?

The answer, as it happens, was from different bits of animals: eggs, cheese and milk. So much for avoiding the animal agriculture industry!

No Meat 2015-09-18 001
Delicious saladiness. Spot the animal products.

Since Monday, I’ve been eating salad and scramble. In the salad, we have:

  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Cucumber
  • Red pepper
  • Red onion
  • Avocados
  • Feta cheese
  • Rocket
  • Spinach
  • Chickpeas

All raw and dressed with pumpkin seed oil.

No Meat 2015-09-18 004
Well that looks gross. Sorry if you were eating while reading this.

In the scramble, I put:

  • Eggs (scrambled)
  • Mushrooms (fried)
  • Red onion (fried)
  • Black beans (boiled)
  • Lentils (boiled)

Even this wide variety of ingredients, it’s a struggle to eat enough to give me sufficient calories, fat and protein. Just to give you a sense of the scale of the protein problem alone:

  • I used to eat about 500g of meat a day, which gave me 170g protein.
  • To get the same amount from eggs, I’d need to eat 24 a day. Just about possible without throwing up.
  • To get the same amount from beans, I’d need to eat about 4kg, or 16 tins’ worth. Impossible without growing into a huge ball of bloat by the end of the day.

For every gramme of protein that I consume from beans or lentils, I’m getting at least a gramme of gassy fibre. This is not a good trade, so yesterday I bought some pea protein isolate, which I can throw into a blender with milk, almond butter and a banana to make a 40g protein, 22g fat smoothie.

Without this addition, I think the transition to a vegetarian diet would have been extremely difficult for me. Thank the lord for modern food technology!

The inside of my compost bin.
Real food technology: the inside of my compost bin.

Nutritional Comparison

Because I like to do these things properly, I have analysed, weighed and measured every single ingredient in my new vegetarian diet, so that I can compare it precisely with my good old meat and beans.

One new No Meat meal (excluding the supplemental pea protein smoothie) contains:

  • Much less energy (800kcal vs 1050kcal) because I simply can’t eat enough!
  • Much less protein (42g vs 100g) because there’s no meat, duh.
  • Much more fibre (28g vs 14g), mostly down to the avocados and increased bean intake.
  • Much more sugar (12g vs 4g). That’s those sweet cherry tomatoes and red pepper.
  • Much more salt (3g vs 1.2g), thanks to the feta cheese in the salad. I’ll go with something less salty next time.
  • Comparable carbohydrates (46g vs 44g). Mostly from beans in both diets.
  • Only slightly less fat and saturated fat (44g and 17g vs 53g and 21g). The eggs, cheese and avocados help here.

If I include one pea protein shake, then we can add:

  • 571kcal energy.
  • 38g protein.
  • 24g fat (of which 7g is saturated fat).
  • 48g carbohydrates (of which 34g is sugar).
  • 8g fibre.
  • 1.2g salt.

This pretty much doubles both protein (good) and carbohydrates (less good). Energy, fat and carbohydrate intake now exceeds my meat and beans diet, while protein still lags behind.

Next time, I’ll try it without the banana, which alone adds 31g of carbs. I might even try the pea protein on its own, mixed with water (urgh!).

Practical Difficulties and Lifestyle Adjustments

Unfortunately, however, the problems with nutrition were just the tip of the (rapidly melting due to animal agricuture incited global warming) iceberg.

  • Yesterday I spent 1 hour 15 minutes preparing my vegetarian meals. Cooking meat and beans used to take me 20 minutes, most of which would be spent playing guitar while the pan sat on the stove.
  • Meat and beans is a one pan, one bowl meal. Preparing vegetables uses all manner of kitchen accoutrements: a knife, a chopping board, two pans and two bowls. That means more washing up.
  • It also creates more waste by-products such as onion peel, avocado stones, egg shells and that juice that comes out of feta cheese. Luckily these are mostly compostable.
  • The shopping list for my vegetarian diet is much longer, having risen from three ingredients to fourteen. This means more time spent in the greengrocer. Luckily, he’s a great fella, so shopping turns into more a social occasion.
  • I find that, not only am I almost painfully bloated from eating so much, but I am also visiting the toilet a lot more, which is slightly inconvenient. I’m told that this may well settle down as my body gets used to the diet.
  • Because meat covers so many nutritional bases, from protein and fats to vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids, I’ve got to be much more organised with what I eat. The plus side is that, in doing so, I’ll also learn much more about my food.
  • The basic salad and scramble meal plan works out slightly cheaper, roughly £3 per meal compared to £3.30 for one of meat and beans. The pea protein smoothies cost £1.30 each, however, making the vegetarian diet more expensive in total.
Too much washing up.
Too much washing up.

What’s next?

This week has been largely delicious, if time consuming. I’ve spent a lot more time in the kitchen and learnt a lot more about vegetables and nutrition. As I write these words, I’m a bit hungry, but then it is lunch time. So what’s next?

As far as I can tell, I’ve got three options:

  1. I could continue with this No Meat experiment as it is, hopefully becoming a tastier, faster and more knowledgeable lacto-ovo vegetarian chef.
  2. I could reintroduce meat, but perhaps eat less. If not for the taste (my buds are really not fussed, remember), then for the wider nutritional palette. A 2011 study, for example, found that supplementation with 20g of creatine per day could enhance cognitive functioning in vegetarians. Not to put too fine a point on it, we get creatine from eating animals.
  3. I could go the whole hog (sorry) and try No Animal Products or, as it’s better known, veganism. This is what the makers of Cowspiracy would love me to do, for the sake of the environment. I also happen to have a good friend who is a miraculous vegan chef (I particularly recommend her Chocolate Orange Black Bean Brownies). If I can make veganism work for me the way it so radiantly works for her, then, quite frankly, winner, winner, (no) chicken dinner.

Whatever I decide, at least I’ve started the process of self-enlightenment, which is the primary purpose of all the best experiments in positive constraints. If you’d like to stay in touch with all my experiments – and get first news of the very exciting book – then please join my mailing list.

Now I can join in the meat or no meat conversation: What do you think?

I hate crisps

I hate crisps.

There. I’ve said it.

I really do hate crisps. And I don’t say that lightly or with a cheeky twinkle in my eye. I loathe crisps. I abhor crisps. I detest crisps, crisp-eaters and every aspect and association of this most deplorable variety of snack.

Do you love crisps? Then, I guarantee, I hate you. (At least I do whenever you stuff your slobbering maw with fried potato.)

It never used to be like this. I used to eat crisps when I were a lad. They would be served up as a treat once a week, or poured into bowls at parties, and I would devour them with quick-fingered crunch. Because the addict doesn’t notice the madness of their addiction.

And that explains my hatred: there is no more acerbic anti-smoker than the former-smoker. There is no more hate-filled anti-crisper than the former-crisper. (Indeed, you will occasionally witness me, in a fit of self-loathing, suffer a relapse.)

But my hatred of crisps is founded on rational principles, just as the anti-smoker is medically justified in their high-minded disgust of smoking and smokers.

Forget for a moment your addiction and your long and fond history of crisp consumption and think about the characteristics of the snack. Then decide if you still want to be what you are eating.

Just 5 Disgusting Things About Crisps

Examine the crisp with a dispassionate eye and what do we find?

1. They are noisy to consume, from the constant rustling of the foil sealed for freshness packaging, the rummaging fingers for the right crisp, through to the crunching of the snack chew, the sucking of fingers and constant mastication as the unfortunate victim digs half chewed gobbets of potatoe from between their teeth. Not to mention the scrunching of the packet when finally, mercifully, the crisps are finished.

2. They have absolutely zero nutritional value, being largely a conveyance for salt. This is unforgiveable. If you really need a snack, even a noisy snack, why not just eat a bag of almonds or an apple? Or put a fistful of sand into your fat gob?

3. They stink. There is no smell quite as toxic as the breath fumes of E-numbered crisp “flavours”. Amazed that you can find crisps in flavours like Vanilla Ice Cream and Pecan Pie? How do they manage that?! By poisoning you, that’s how.

Not only will you not get the stench off your breath for hours, but the whole room into which you have just opened your mouth will suffer the olfactory fog of your idiocy.

4. They are addictive. They were invented for the sole reason of making you drink more, you fool. Somehow Pringles tried to make a virtue of this: “Once you pop, you can’t stop!” You could say the same for crack cocaine. Why allow a snack food to be your masochistic master?

5. They are ubiquitous. You can’t go anywhere these days without having crisps foisted upon you. Sit down on any train journey and within minutes you will hear a diabolical orchestra tuning up with rustlings, crunchings and suckings, closely followed by a noxious waft of stinging fumes that will persist like a cloud of pestilance until you get to your destination.

Even restaurants insist on spoiling their food with the addition of crisps – usually before you’ve even caught sight of the menu. Poppadoms: crisps. Prawn crackers: crisps. Tacos: crisps. Meal ruined.

Why oh why oh why?

Given this cursory examination of just five hideous features of the crisp (I could go on), it is clear that they are nothing more than a successful marketing campaign.

So why do people eat crisps? Because they actually enjoy the taste? That I can’t believe. You’ll hear smokers too, talking about the glory of that first cigarette of the morning, shortly after hacking up their guts.

No. We eat crisps because we’re childishly drawn by the garish packaging, by their ubiquity in every shop around the country, because we’re told to like them by our parents and the rest of our moronic nation.

We are cursed, a crisp-obsessed society that has deluded itself into believing fried potato is the optimal snack for every occasion: at meal times, in school packed lunches, on trains, with a drink in a pub.

The only reason we eat crisps is because we are a dogmatic crisp-eating society. You could no more imagine English society without crisps than you could without tea or cricket. It’s pathetic.

But perhaps a society gets the snacks they deserve. We deserve nothing better than a throwaway, antisocial, vacuous snack food. The crisp is garish, loud and ultimately empty. Our garish, loud and ultimately empty society deserves nothing more.

Image by Alex Kwong.

Thank-You Letter to the Daily Mail

THANKS FOR ALL YOUR SUPPORT >> FOLLOW BETH and DAVE ON TWITTER!

UPDATE: Now you can watch us thank the Daily Mail in person!

Dear Our New Favourite Newspaper, The Daily Mail:

A thousand thanks for your tireless support for the much-abused Calais migrants! (Or, as they’re also known, “Fellow Human Beings”.)

Some freeloading scroungers might have cynically used your festive promotional offer with P&O Ferries to go over and stock up on cheap continental booze and fags. But we know you meant to launch a D-Day-style flotilla of solidarity with Fellow Human Beings who have fled the blood and torture and killing and more blood and bombs (paid for by the British taxpayer!) in the hope of joining us in El Dorado where you can’t even have a fag indoors any more.

Your courageous humanitarian stance should be saluted – but instead you’re constantly pilloried by the loony left as “anti-immigration”, “anti-welfare” and “anti-freeze”. Everyone should clearly understand your newspaper is cover-to-cover political satire!

For example, we found your ironic article of January 15, “Michelin Chef And Curried Turkey”, to be an absolute hoot! The story was a lampoon of the highest order – imagine “thousands” of Fellow Human Beings being served “three-course meals” by a “three-star Michelin chef”!*

All this frivolity is “partly-funded”, of course, by… the British taxpayer! We love that catchphrase and the comic effect would simply evaporate if you were to list all the funders, the Cypriot, Latvian and Bulgarian taxpayers – in fact, every EU taxpayer. No, the gag wouldn’t have worked in the slightest.

Satirical Daily Mail Calais migrant story alongside hard-hitting news story about a woman wearing see-through pants.
Satirical Daily Mail Calais migrant story alongside hard-hitting news story about a woman wearing see-through pants.

What a shame fact-starved “Cheddarcakes” didn’t see the funny side, commenting on your spoof article, “They eat better than I do! And when they make it here, they will be put in a 4-star hotel.”

Don’t you hate it when a joke falls flat?

Your comically embellished language conjures up images of Fellow Human Beings dining out on British taxpayer’s money, as they whimsically discuss with the starched-shirted waiter the troublesome quandary of whether to have a starter and a main, or a main and a dessert – utterly priceless!

Of course, everyone knows the food at the miles-out-of-town day centre is not enough to feed even a quarter of the Fellow Human Beings in Calais, even once a day. The people we helped, thanks to your generosity, hadn’t had a meal in two days.

Leafy Calais
“Spacious accomodation in a leafy Calais suburb…”

A straight-laced piece of fuddy-duddy “factual” journalism would naturally have mentioned such realities and maybe too the violent harassment by police, pepper spray in the face, daily beatings – we met one chap who’d been chased into barbed wire, slashing open an eyeball or two!

But you played it for laughs and, inspired by your cutting satire, we used the money we saved on the ferry to do a supermarket sweep for “hundreds of smiling migrants”, packed forty to a room in a squalid end-of-terrace, without electricity, running water or heating.

Beth and Me trolley Calais
“Oh, well, if we’re all having starters..!”

On a border where a Fellow Human Being is killed every two weeks trying to cross the Channel, everyone finds the idea that Britain has an “open door” policy on immigration to be absolutely gut-busting.

Syrian Daniel, 32, said he hadn’t laughed so much in months, not since he was quoted $2000 to cross the Mediterranean in a rusty bucket. He sends his thanks for the morale-boosting laughs – keep up the good work!

In peace and solidarity,

Beth and David

p.s. After running the Daily Mail Big Fact Checker, it was found that this “three-star Michelin chef” had once been a trainee at a one-star restaurant. This is like saying you’re an Oscar winner when you once did an internship with Carlton Television.

p.p.s. Thanks for the free bottle of wine! The perfect way to wind down after a hard day’s solidarity.

Be like Satirical News Journal The Daily Mail and Support Calais Migrants!

1. Book a ferry ticket with P&O by the 1st of February, using code DAILYMAIL4, to take advantage of the Daily Mail’s humanitarian largesse.

2. Pack up a backpack or load up a car with tents, blankets, (men’s) shoes, winter jackets and a couple of sets of dominoes. If you have none of these things, take a warm hug and a friendly smile.

3. Visit the migrant camp at Impasse des Salines or the “Jungle” along Rue des Garennes. If you want to support activists in Calais, contact Calais Migrant Solidarity on +33 75 34 75 159.

4. Enjoy your free bottle of wine, courtesy of our sponsor, The Daily Mail!

p.s. Harkerboy comments that, “We should all go to Calais and demand that we are looked after in this camp”. This picture is for you!

Garder coûte que coûte...
Home, sweet home…

Refuelling: The Food of Tunisia

Tunisia is a wonderful country to cycle around, but it’s an even better place to eat around. One of the beauties of long-distance cycle touring is the capacity to eat like a goat: grazing on anything and everything all the time. Hungry? You will be.

Lemons and garlic at Tunis market
Lemons and garlic at Tunis central market

Two unique and inescapable ingredients distinguish Tunisian cooking from the rest of the Mediterranean.

1. A nose-snorting chilli paste called Harissa:

Harissa by the tin. Serve with olive oil and bread. For breakfast.
Harissa by the tin. Serve with olive oil and bread. For breakfast.

2. Tinned tuna:

Tuna in tins. With tuna, of course.
Tuna in tins. With tuna, of course.

There is no reason at all that I can think of for why the Tunisians love tinned tuna so much. It’s not like Tunisia is land-locked; there’s 1,148km of Mediterranean coastline to fish in. And it’s certainly not like the Tunisians don’t know how to cook a fish (which I suspect is the reason why the English buy tinned tuna). I can vouch for that.

Fish.
Fish.
Ex-fish.
Ex-fish.

But despite this oceanic bounty, the Tunisians will serve tinned tuna with every conceivable dish. If it can be served with, beside, on, in or under a dollop of tinned tuna, you can bet your last dinar that it will be.

I once asked for a green salad, expecting a plate of leaves. I got half a head of lettuce, a tin of tuna and an egg. In my country that’s called a salad Nicoise. I wasn’t complaining – I like tuna – but the menu in this restaurant also listed a salad Nicoise. What would THAT come with?

Tuna is so popular that it can take chefs by surprise when you ask for something without tuna. I ordered a ham sandwich in Tunis and the chef (on auto-pilot) smeared it with a layer of tuna, before sheepishly scraping it off again.

These two ingredients, tuna and harissa, are so ubiquitous that you can assume they are present in every dish, unless otherwise stated. Needless to say, Tunisia is not an easy place to eat if you are a vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish. Or if you have delicate bowels that can’t take a dash of hot sauce.

Talking of vegetarianism, there is actually one reason I can think of for Tunisia’s obsession with tinned tuna: it’s cheap meat. In Tunisia, if you can afford meat, you eat meat. Being a Muslim country, it’s usually chicken or lamb, occasionally beef, but you can also try your teeth on camel or (if not Muslim) wild boar.

Rotisserie chicken. Eaten in quarters, halves or wholes.
Rotisserie chicken. Eaten in quarters, halves or wholes.
Rotisserie chicken, in close up.
Rotisserie chicken, in close up.

The classic Tunisian meal is based around couscous. Couscous is semolina rolled with water and salt. It’s made at home and it takes a day to make 50-100kg, then about three weeks to dry in the sun (hence why it’s made in the summer). After that, it lasts for a year. In Tunisia, the couscous is small and fine; in Morocco they make bigger granules.

Couscous is prepared in a couscousiere, which is a two-tiered pot-steamer. In the bottom you cook your spicy meaty stew and in the top you put the couscous, together with carrots, onions, potatos, chick peas – or whatever you’ve got in the larder. The stew is made with lamb, merguez sausages, fish or camel and, as it bubbles away, its meaty steam cooks the couscous and vegetables and infuses them with flavour.

Merguez couscous.
Merguez couscous.
Camel couscous.
Camel couscous.

I can assure you that it is perfectly possible to get bored of steamed vegetables, but luckily couscous is not the only dish of the day in Tunisia. Ojja is almost like a curry, with garlic, peppers, onion and tomato, a bit like a Kashmiri rogan josh. It’s never served with rice, but is mopped up with a French-style baguette.

Ojja. Plenty of chillies. Like a curry, but without rice.
Ojja. Plenty of chillies. Like a curry, but without rice.

Another speciality of Tunisia is the tagine. You probably already know what a tagine is, so I’ll confuse you with a photograph:

Tunisian tagine: nothing like Moroccan tagine. More like a quiche. Super tasty.
Tunisian tagine: nothing like Moroccan tagine. More like a quiche. Super tasty.

Yes, this is a Tunisian tagine: absolutely nothing like the more famous Moroccan tagine. Thank goodness. This tagine is way nicer. It’s almost like a quiche, with lots of lightly whisked egg. Often served cold. Yum.

Finally, I give you the brik. It is nothing like the English brick. Thank goodness. Instead it is a sort of deep-fried Cornish pasty, filled with whatever the chefs got in. Usually tuna, of course, but sometimes an unexpected burst of boiling fat will sear your tongue. It’s often served as a starter and comes highly recommended – just don’t watch them prepare it if you’re trying to avoid oily fat.

Brik. With tuna (inside), of course.
Brik. With tuna (inside), of course.

Talking of deep frying, here are some more random deep-fried objects:

Assorted fried goods. With tomato and onion.
Assorted fried goods. With tomato and onion.

When Tunisians are not eating couscous, tuna or harissa, they are probably eating baked goods. These are usually a toothsome blend of French patisserie and Tunisian taste. This creates such delights as the Tunisian pizza:

Tunisian pizza! With tuna, of course.
Tunisian pizza! With tuna, of course.

The Tunisian pasty:

One Tunisian pasty for the road. With tuna, of course.
One Tunisian pasty for the road. With tuna, of course.

And the Tunisian deep-friend sandwich, known as a fricasse:

Fricasse. Super oily. With tuna, of course.
Fricasse. Super oily. With tuna, of course.

Galettes, a kind of pancake, are served up everywhere and stuffed with cheese, ham, egg, harissa, tomato, onion, chips, mechouia salad – and tuna, of course.

Preparing galettes on the side of the road. With tuna, of course.
Preparing galettes on the side of the road. With tuna, of course.

Luckily, there ARE limits to the Tunisian use of tuna in baking. You can get decent French baguettes, pain au chocolats and croissants and pretty much every region has its own speciality sweets, all without tuna.

One sweet I didn’t take a photograph of was the Corne de Gazelle of Tataouine, in the south of Tunisia. This is a baked hard cone of pastry (the horn of the gazelle), filled with nuts and seeds and then slathered in syrup. My teeth still hurt from the sugar-rush.

Sweets. Make sure you have sesame seeds, dates and loads of syrup.
Sweets. Make sure you have sesame seeds, dates and loads of syrup.

Biscuits are popular and come in a variety of shapes, like stars and moons and hearts. They probably shouldn’t be called biscuits, actually, because they are very soft – more like the cakey bits of Jaffa Cakes, which are famously NOT biscuits. Perhaps biscuits are taxed at a higher rate in Tunisia as well.

These “biscuits” do not, however, come in a variety of flavours. They are basically flour plus jam. The jam can nominally vary in flavour, but they all taste the same. I advise you to avoid anything purporting to be “chocolate” – it will only disappoint you. The “chocolate” is a brown substance finely sprayed onto the surface of the biscuit, so as to give the appearance of abundance, but it is nothing but appearance.

Lemony biscuits. Very floury and crumbly.
Lemony biscuits. Very floury and crumbly.

Beyond the colonial boulangerie influence, Tunisia has its own native baking tradition. Tunisian bread is flat and often flavoured with yummy things like cheese and olives. And tuna and harissa, obviously. In the country, it comes out of ovens like this one:

A bread oven at a farm.
A bread oven at a farm.

And it looks like this, all lovely and warm like a jumper just out of the tumble-dryer:

Bread! From a campfire at Ksar Ghilane oasis.
Bread! From a campfire at Ksar Ghilane oasis.

Or like this, topped with cheese and impregnated with harissa:

The best bread in the world: impregnated with harissa.
The best bread in the world: impregnated with harissa.

When you enter a Tunisian restaurant, a basket of some sort of bread will be dumped on your table, accompanied by a saucer of harissa. Eat it: it’s free. Quite often you’ll get a plate or two of salads as well. In fact, by the time the main course comes around, you won’t be hungry!

Tunisia does a good line in salads. Salad mechouia is a green splodge that tastes of burnt peppers. It can be very spicy, so dip before you add harissa yourself.

Salad mechouia - with tuna, of course.
Salad mechouia – with tuna, of course.

And, being a Mediterranean country, Tunisia is abundant with fresh vegetables, ripe for the salading.

Tunisian tomato salad. Like an English tomato salad, except this one tastes of actual tomatoes.
Tunisian tomato salad. Like an English tomato salad, except this one tastes of actual tomatoes.

But mostly you’ll get a chopped salad buried under tuna and egg:

A salad. With tuna, of course.
A salad. With tuna, of course.

A post on Tunisian cuisine would not be complete without mentioning drinks. Juices are blended at street stalls: lemon, orange, carrot… Whatever blends, gets drunk. Coffee is an Arab speciality, coming in tiny glasses and as black as your soul. The English word “coffee” comes from the Arabic, incidentally.

So does the word “sugar” and you’ll understand why if you ever take a tea with a Tunisian. Every meal is finished off with a glass of tea, with a twist of mint and an inch of sugar in the bottom.

Tea. Serve with an inch of sugar and a twist of mint.
Tea. Serve with an inch of sugar and a twist of mint.

Phew. I don’t know about you, but I’m stuffed. I know I’ve missed out all kinds of dishes (e.g. Kamounia, a spicy meaty little number), but just like my cycle tour it’s been only a brief taste of Tunisia.

Eating and cycling are made for each other. The one makes the other all the better and they find perfect harmony in Tunisia.

Gourmet-a-tron Mexican Spice Mix

Anything tastes good with this. I know: I’ve tried it with Tesco Value “Mince”.

Ingredients

This usually makes about one spice pot’s worth of spice mix. I’m pretty careless with the quantities; it’s not precise.

  • 2 tbsp chilli powder
  • 1 tbsp paprika
  • 1.5 tsp onion powder
  • 0.5 tsp garlic powder
  • 0.5 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 0.5 tsp cumin
  • 0.25 tsp chilli flakes

You can add some salt and sugar if you want extra flavour-zing. I normally throw in a dash of salt, perhaps a teaspoon.

Mixing

The way I mix this is to throw all the ingredients into a bowl, then funnel the contents into the spice pot and shake the pot until well mixed. Simple and effective.

Use

I shake a generous load all over mince and then fry. I like it spicy and flavoursome so one pot-load usually only lasts me about four 500g meals. But it’s worth it.

Recipe for the-only-thing-easier-than-making-it-is-eating-it hot salsa

This salsa is ridiculously easy. It won’t take more than about five minutes and will leave your lips tingling, but not your tonsils.

Ingredients

Makes 300g of salsa.

  • 1 400g can of plum tomatoes.
  • 2 green chillies.
  • 1/3 of an onion.
  • 1 handful of fresh coriander.
  • 1 squeeze of a lemon.

The total cost of these ingredients is about a £1*. This is cheaper than supermarket salsa, tastes better and doesn’t have Xanthan Gum in it. Whatever that is.

Tools

  • Knife.
  • Bowl.
  • Sieve or colander (optional).
  • Blender (optional).

Method

  1. Drain the can of tomatoes. You can use a sieve or a colander or just pour the juice out of the can. It will look like you’re losing a heck of a lot of product. Don’t panic, just drain those plums! Now throw them into the bowl.
  2. Chop the stalks off your chillies. Take out some of the seeds and pith while you’re there. Throw into the bowl.
  3. Chop off a third of an onion. Throw into the bowl.
  4. Grab a handful of fresh coriander. Throw into the bowl.
  5. Chop a lemon in half and squeeze some into the bowl.
  6. Blend the ingredients until they are salsafied! If you don’t have a proper blender then just mash and chop with your hands and your knife. Salsa should be pretty rough anyway – you’re not making a soup here.
  7. EAT.

You can always modify to taste with garlic, salt or chocolate. I won’t shout at you.


* You will have to buy a whole onion and a whole lemon. Save them for next time.

Haute Cuisine in Sarajevo

A restaurant in Sarajevo. My friend is interrogating a waiter about his establishment’s unhelpful menu.

“…and what’s in this – the Sultan Bey soup?”
“That’s lambs brains fried in offal fat.”
“And this one?”
“Sheep liver with beef.”
“Er, what about this one?”
“Chicken with two types of ham.”
“And this… Tahamoa?”
“No meat.”

My friend pauses to take this information on board. Then he resumes his attack.

“What exactly is in the ‘fishy fillet’?”
“Fish.”
“Thanks. I’ll have that.”

The waiter leaves.

You know, for a city that makes such a big thing about how disgusting the food was during the siege, they don’t seem to have celebrated a return to haute cuisine.


I was in Sarajevo in summer 2007. I loved it.

11 Tips on How to Eat and Drink Less, in 59 Seconds

This is taken from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, a book that wants to make your life better – in 59 seconds or less. It is all based on scientific research. If you like that sort of thing.

  1. Start eating at normal speed, then slow down to enjoy each mouthful
  2. Drink from a tall thin glass.
  3. Place food out of sight to avoid temptation.
  4. Focus on your food – you eat more while distracted. Like popcorn at a film. Or, in my case, Marylands in front of the computer. I can inhale them now.
  5. Use smaller crockery.
  6. Keep a food diary.
  7. Use the power of regret to motivate you to get to the gym: you know you’ll feel bad if you don’t go so just do it. As someone once said. 
  8. Do not exercise in front of a mirror, you’ll get really self-conscious and do less!
  9. On the other hand, do put a mirror in your kitchen to make you aware of your body.
  10. Use more energy in your day-to-day activities.
  11. Diet packs of food just make you lose vigilance so you end up eating more.

    No Supermarket: Week 4 – The End!

    So it’s over: 31 days without spending money in a supermarket. Before the post-mortem, some details about this past week.

    Things I learnt this week:

    • Eggs are cheaper in my local shop: only £1.09 for 6, compared to £1.57 in Sainsbury’s.
    • Tesco Express (i.e. a small supermarket) stocks 26 different varieties of bottled water. You do know that you can get it out of the tap, don’t you? For free.
    • Sainsbury’s is very useful: for their extensive recycling facilities and the pharmacy where I get my (free) prescriptions. This month I have shamelessly used supermarket resources in exchange for nothing.
    • Expenditure at No Supermarkets: £17.00
    • Hypothetical expenditure at Sainsbury’s: £16.18.

    The Final Score

    • Over the course of one month shopping at No Supermarkets I spent £89.94 on food.
    • The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost approximately £80.28.

    So what am I going to now it’s over?

    Will I go running back to the fluorescent-strip-light warmth of Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Lidl? Hell no.

    Was everything perfect about my month of No Supermarkets? Hell no (where the devil can I get decent, reasonably priced cheese?). Can I do it better? Hell yes. I promise myself every week that I’ll go to the local markets more often, rather than running out of food, panicking and buying soup and biscuits for dinner.

    I’ve enjoyed visiting all my local and not so local shops. I’ve built up quite a rapport with a shop around the corner from where I study. Cherry flapjack: £1.05, thank-you very much.

    But why do I like No Supermarkets so much?

    • I don’t have to queue, like I would in the Sainsbury’s just up the road. 
    • I don’t have to walk around six aisles just to find the flapjacks, like I would at the Sainsbury’s. 
    • I’m not paralysed by the choice of six thousand different oat-based snacks you can have from Sainsbury’s. Half the time my shop doesn’t even have any of the cherry ones left. So I have banana. Variety is the spice of life and all that.
    • I’m not advertised at.
    • I can have a little chat with the person who serves me and they say please and thank-you like they give a shit that I came into their shop. Because they own it.
    • It’s closer to the college where I study.
    • I like the fact that their prices are marginally cheaper than the other little shop just across the road. It reminds me that competition is alive and well. It hasn’t just been blown away by corporate supply chains.
    • I feel like the money I’m handing over for my flapjack is going to someone I know.
    • The lighting isn’t so bright. Not everything gleams. The floor might even be dirty. It’s human.

    Yeah. I like it. In fact, I like it so much that I’d feel a bit wrong going into a supermarket now. Perhaps I will for some things. Perhaps I won’t. I no longer feel restricted in my shopping habits. I no longer feel compelled towards those glowing orange lights.

    So here’s to much more No Supermarkets in 2011.

    No Supermarket: Week 3

    No Supermarkets again this week (apart from my little tourism on Tuesday). It’s really a lot easier now than I thought it would be. It’s hardly even inconvenient, in fact it’s fun. When I go some place new I keep my head up for little shops, pop in, have a chat, browse and buy. Already my local shopkeeper calls me ‘a regular’, which is nice.

    Here’s another thing. This week I met up with a friend for dinner. Normally we go down to Sainsbury’s, do some shopping and get cooking. Not this week. We went to a restaurant. Shock. More expensive, maybe, but it’s about more than just the chow – it’s the experience. That might sound like pure guff. It is. But hey, I enjoyed it.

    So how was it price-wise this week? Not including the restaurant, just going on what I bought at shops and markets, here’s the comparison:

    • No Supermarkets: £23.07
    • Sainsbury’s: £18.91

    As usual, there are a few discrepancies: I would have had three less avocados at Sainsbury’s – but one extra banana and a smidgen more spinach.

    One thing I found is that I spend a good deal more on fruit and vegetables at local shops, compared to local markets. This explains a lot of the difference in price this week. I can get fruit and veg cheaper at local markets than at Sainsbury’s, but the shops tend to be a little more expensive. The key to getting good deals at No Supermarkets is to shop around, travel, investigate and explore. The French had it right when they called their supermarket Monoprix.

    I won’t bore you with a great long list of things I bought this week, but here’s a good one:

    • 48 Ibuprofen tablets from New Cross Station Pharmacy: £2.25
    • 48 Ibuprofen tablets from Sainsbury’s: £0.84

    Massive.

    However, this might not be such a big win for Sainsbury’s as it first appears. The purpose of buying Ibuprofen is to kill your pain, right? It shouldn’t matter how much it costs, right? – Wrong. Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, has shown that the more you pay for your pain-killers, the more powerful their effect. You can watch a short video of Ariely here.

    It’s hard to tell if paying more has worked for me, but all I can say is that my foot is much better today than it was on Friday morning, when I started taking the tablets.

    No Supermarket: Air Miles and Bursting Aisles

    I went to my local Sainsbury’s on Tuesday – no, don’t panic, I didn’t buy anything. I went there to do a little research. I wanted to know a couple of things:

    1. Where in the world does Sainsbury’s food come from?
    2. How much choice is there at supermarkets?

    And here is what I found.

    Where is Sainsbury’s Food From?

    Answer: Spain.

    I only looked at the Fruit and Vegetable section because that seemed a reasonable sample size: 119 products. Astonishingly, these products came from a total of 36 countries. The top five were:

    1. Spain (20 products)
    2. UK (19)
    3. Israel (9)
    4. Morocco (6)
    5. South Africa (6)

    I was surprised to see Israel at number three I have to admit. We get tomatoes, peppers, herbs and exotic fruit like kumquats and Sharon fruit from there. The West Bank did also appear on the list with two products, the herbs dill and sage.

    I guess one big reason for the reliance on overseas fruit and vegetables is the time of year. Traditional English Summer produce like cucumbers, tomatoes and spinach have to be shipped in from Spain or elsewhere.

    More concerning, however, was the number of products that ARE in season in the UK, and yet it was still possible to buy them from abroad. For example: apples, pears, beetroot and mushrooms, as well as packaged herbs. It seemed that if you wanted herbs in a pot, then they had to be British, presumably because of the care required for potted plants, but packaged herbs came from abroad, presumably because they are cheaper there.

    The full list of countries supplying Sainsbury’s New Cross Gate (in order of products supplied): Spain, UK, Israel, Morocco, South Africa, Egypt, Italy, France, Kenya, Mexico, Peru, USA, Brazil, Chile, China, Holland, India, Portugal, Senegal, Thailand, Turkey, West Bank, Argentina, Burkina Faso, Canary Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Ireland, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Namibia, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia.

    How Much Choice Is There?

    Answer: Too much.

    To focus my research, I examined just one type of product from Sainsbury’s 30+ aisles: soup. Here’s what I found.

    There are, broadly speaking, four different kinds of soup product on sale at Sainsbury’s: tinned, potted, fresh and dried soup mix. Tinned represent the overwhelming majority of the market.

    There are, in all, sixteen different brand labels on sale, including eight for Sainsbury’s alone: Be Good To Yourself, Sainsbury’s, Chunky, Basics, Microwave, Simmer Soups, SO Organic and Taste the Difference. Prices range from £0.17 for Sainsbury’s Basic tomato soup to £2.29 for some of the posh fresh soups.

    This meant that there were, in total, on sale at Sainsbury’s… Wait for it – 138 different types of soup.

    That, my friends, is ridiculous. Contrast my local shop, where I can purchase one brand in about six different flavours. Fine, considering I only ever buy cream of tomato! Prices there range from £0.89 to £0.89.

    Is Choice a Good Thing?

    Supermarkets rely on the idea that more choice makes us happier. But is this actually the case?

    Malcolm Gladwell makes the case for supermarket-style choice in a TED video from 2006. He recounts a story of the psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz:

    Vlasic Pickles came to him, and they said, “Doctor Moskowitz, we want to make the perfect pickle.” And he said, “There is no perfect pickle, there are only perfect pickles.” And he came back to them and he said, “You don’t just need to improve your regular, you need to create zesty.”

    From this idea, pickles, spaghetti sauces, soups – everything – proliferated, all in the cause of making us happy.

    You can see the full video here:

    But Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, warns:

    Beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures.

    “In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis. And in a culture that tells us that there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression.”

    In other words: choice, generally-speaking, is good, but too much choice is toxic.

    At my local shop I have the choice of about six different flavours of soup. That’s a reasonable selection, given that I could make my own soup if I wanted something a little more customised. But faced with an aisle of 138 soups?

    I wouldn’t know where to start.

    No Supermarket: Week 2

    Week 2 and I still haven’t been to a supermarket – or even so much as a High Street chain. I have to say, it’s going rather well. The Suma order arrived on Thursday with 12.5kgs of oats for our house at only £8. I also got a load of Jasmine tea, raisins and eggs. Cue massive omelets.

    Yesterday, I went to another local co-operative, Fareshares, who sell organic, mostly fair trade food and other household goods at the right price. Here’s what I bought:

    • 1l washing detergent @ £2.96
    • 250g sunflower seeds @ £0.50
    • 100 rooibos teabags @ £2.83
    • 500ml Aspall’s balsamic vinegar @ £2.83
    • 680g sauerkraut @ £1.67

    And I made an incredibly generous (!) £0.21 donation to make it £11.00 in total.

    The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost me £10.34, but I would have had 500ml more detergent, 50g less sunflower seeds and 20 fewer teabags. [Incidentally demonstrating there the way you use ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ in the English language. I’m educational too!] If I’d been able to buy the exact same quantities, Sainsbury’s would have cost me a theoretical extra £0.05, so it more or less evens out.

    However, as I’ve said before, it’s not all about price with No Supermarkets. The stuff I would have bought at Sainsbury’s probably wouldn’t have been fairly traded and certainly wouldn’t have been organic. I also wouldn’t have met the lovely people at Fareshares or ended up with some random sauerkraut!

    Fareshares

    Fareshares is a food co-operative near Elephant and Castle in South London. They buy their stuff from wholesalers and then sell it on to us little people at near wholesale price. The people who work there are volunteers and the only major overheads are for the building.

    They sell all sorts of stuff. There’s lots of dry foods: seeds, rice, millet, oats, nuts and dried fruits. They also sell tinned things like tomatoes, bottled things like oils and sauces, cartoned things like soya milk. There’s also a small stock of fresh fruit and vegetables and bread (on Thursdays only) – and I’m sure much much more.

    It’s a co-operative so try and turn up with a bag or some cartons for your stuff. Then go around picking and packing your own shopping, totting up the total as you go on a piece of scrap paper. Then head to the till and pay. It’s an honesty system, so be honest!

    Opening hours: Thursday 2-8pm; Friday 3-7pm; Saturday 3-5pm
    Address: 56 Crampton Street (near Walworth Road), London SE17 3AE

    Go – it’s brilliant!

    No Supermarket: Week 1

    Well that was resoundingly successful. I haven’t been to a supermarket since 2010.

    Here’s what I bought this week:

    • 3 loaves of sesame bread @ £2.67
    • Le Figaro newspaper @ £1.70
    • 20 bananas @ £3.18
    • 2 cucumbers @ £1.00
    • 15 tomatoes @ £2.25
    • 1 loaf seeded white bread @ £0.97
    • 2 tins of Heinz tomato soup @ £1.78
    • 125g tube of Aquafresh toothpaste @ £0.99
    • 1 punnet of red seedless grapes @ £1.00
    • 200g feta cheese @ £1.69
    • 350g jar of Ajvar sauce @ £1.29

    Total: £18.52

    So what would it have cost at my local Sainsbury’s? Obviously you can’t get quite the same things – what the hell is Ajvar Sauce anyway?

    So, if we exclude that from the list:
    My No Supermarket shopping cost me: £17.23.
    The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost: £16.88.

    So I spent £0.35 more than I should have done. Tsk.

    There are a few differences in the shopping basket to note:

    1. I would have had 24 bananas, not 20 (Sainsbury’s Basics bananas come in packs of 8).
    2. I would have had only 12 tomatoes, not 15 (Sainsbury’s Basics tomatoes come in packs of 6).
    3. I would have had only 100g of toothpaste, not 125g (I couldn’t find 125g at Sainsbury’s).
    4. I would not have bought Heinz Tomato Soup, I would have got Sainsbury’s own brand Be Good to Yourself Tomato Soup, saving me another £0.30.
    5. I would not have bought feta from Sainsbury’s. I normally get mature cheddar on special; this week it would have been Cathedral City Mature Cheddar 400g for £1.99. Ouch. It hurts to see that.

    I think those things more or less even themselves out (apart from the cheese).

    It doesn’t just come down to cost though. It can’t. Even if you include the extra £0.30 saving from the soup, I would have saved only 3.8% on my week’s shopping by going to Sainsbury’s. That is a much smaller saving than I expected.

    The Lessons of Week 1

    If it’s not about cost, then what is it about? I have no idea, but here are some things I learnt this week:

    1. No Supermarkets are less convenient

    My ‘local’ shops are further from me than Sainsbury’s – and the markets are even more of a walk. This shouldn’t have been a problem, but turned into a complete disaster when I developed a debilitating foot injury which meant I couldn’t walk for most of the week.

    2. I need to learn how to shop again

    Without a supermarket crutch to support my dietary habits, my diet has been all over the place.

    I’ve eaten a lot more bread than I normally do, simply because it is filling, tasty and widely available. At times in the week, I confess, I was hungry. I’ve eaten everything that was lying around in my cupboards – including muesli that was over a year old, yum!

    I expect my diet to stabilise as I learn where to buy what I want to eat. And as I learn to walk again.

    3. I can pay by credit card at my local shop

    …if I spend more than £5. This is a nice bonus because the nearest cash machine around my way is… at Sainsbury’s.

    4. There is an awful lot less choice at No Supermarket

    This is a good thing, I reckon. Although it cost me on the soup and the cheese front, it did mean that I got to try Ajvar Sauce! See also #7.

    5. There is a lot less packaging involved in No Supermarkets

    The fruit and vegetables that I bought were either in recyclable paper bags or were loose. This is a good thing because it means I don’t have to lug all my plastic packaging back to Sainsbury’s for recycling.

    6. Fruit and veg at No Supermarkets is a lot more variable

    You actually have to look at what you are buying. Once I’ve got over the shock, I’m sure this could turn into quite a pleasant thing. It might make me less of a shopping machine.

    7. I spent a lot less money at No Supermarkets

    Not item for item, but in total. There is very little opportunity for impulse buying at No Supermarkets because there is a lot less choice and so a lot less to tempt you with. A lack of availability also means that you have to make do without. Things I didn’t buy this week include: a ball of string, a rubber and porridge oats.

    Well, it’s been a promising start and I’m looking forward to increased mobility in Week 2!

    No Supermarket: Suma Co-operative

    I live in a housing co-operative. Which is awesome, not least because the people I live with try to do things together.

    What that means is that every month someone from the co-op orders in bulk from the ethical retailer Suma. Suma is also a co-operative, which means that the business is jointly owned and managed by all the staff. Everyone is paid the same and they work collectively to do all the jobs that need doing (I discuss this mode of business here).

    So today (for the first time ever, I’m ashamed to admit) I ordered some food from Suma. This is my shopping list:

    • 80 jasmine green tea bags @ £4.95
    • 1kg of raisins @ £2.95
    • 6kg of porridge oats @ £6.99
    • 12 eggs @ £2.62

    Compared to Sainsbury’s, this isn’t bad. You can get 20 jasmine tea bags at Sainsbury’s for about £1, so that’s a touch cheaper at the supermarket. The eggs and the porridge come out at about the same cost. I normally buy Sainsbury’s Basics currents, which are dirt cheap at about £0.60 for 500g (I think), so Suma’s raisins are an expensive upgrade.

    Anyway, that should be my breakfast covered for the rest of the month. Now I’ve just got to wait for the delivery on Thursday. At least I don’t have to walk to the shops.

    No Supermarket: Deptford High Street

    Yesterday I went to Deptford High Street for my first No Supermarket grocery shopping.

    And it was rather good fun. This No Supermarket business forces you to pay attention to your surroundings. You can’t just go to the shelf, you can’t just look for the own-brand stuff because you know it will be cheap, you can’t very often even know the price of what you’re buying until you’ve handed over the goods. It forces you to look, to ask, to say no, to negotiate – in short, to connect?

    A couple of traders just said hello to me, for nothing. Can I help you? Aright, mate? Another looked for a smaller ball of string for me. I didn’t have to ask, he saw from my face that it was too much.

    In all, I went to two fruit and veg shops, a bakery and a newsagents – instead of one big supermarket.

    This was what I bought:

    • £1.18 6 bananas
    • £1.00 2 cucumbers
    • £1.25 6 tomatoes (on the vine)
    • £0.97 Loaf seeded white bread (sliced for me by the bakers)

    Total cost: £4.40.

    I reckon at Sainsbury’s I would have spent about the same, or perhaps slightly more. I wouldn’t have spent so much on the tomatoes, but these ones are very tasty. I normally buy Sainsbury’s Basics, to be honest, at about £0.80. But the cucumbers were much cheaper – saved me about £0.50. So it evens out.

    I have to say, pleasurable though this shopping trip was, it was not convenient. It’s a longer walk to Deptford High Street than to Sainsbury’s and I didn’t buy any string, an pencil rubber, porridge oats – or the dreaded toothpaste.

    No Supermarket January

    New Year Resolution: I’m not going to use supermarkets during the whole month of January.

    For me, that’s quite a big deal. I am accustomed to going to my local Sainsbury’s at least four or five times a week, sometimes just for the walk or the simple pleasure of picking up a value bag of sultanas.

    Well, no more. From the 1st of January I pledge not to purchase a single thing from any supermarket, be it Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Lidl, Aldi, Costcutter, Iceland, Netto, M&S, Waitrose, Morrisons – or any of the other behemoths that bestride our consumer culture.

    Why?

    1. I don’t like being too dependent on anything – and supermarkets definitely fall into that bracket of dependency at the moment.
    2. I fancy seeing a bit more of the world – or my local community at least.
    3. It’s embarrassing coming home with a pile of plastic-wrapped food of dubious quality.
    4. Somewhere inside me there’s a vague sense of unease surrounding the operation and supply tactics of supermarkets.
    5. I guess it will support local economy a little bit.
    6. It might be a good way to meet more people in my community.
    7. It might be cheaper, you never know.
    8. It might help me eat better, you never know.
    9. It might reduce impulse buying of sultanas.
    10. It’s something to write about!

    The Toothpaste Test

    At the moment my shelves are looking pretty bare so I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the wonderful (so I’m told) markets in my local area. But, to be honest, I’m a little concerned about where to find toothpaste. I know I can get toothpaste at pretty much any corner-shop or mini-mart, but Sainsbury’s toothpaste is about £0.30 or something ridiculous. I like that: it’s good value.

    The thing is, I’d like to turn this experiment into a long-term life choice, but I’m not going to cut off my nose to spite my face. Sourcing affordable, minty toothpaste could well turn into the acid test of my No Supermarket January. Wish me luck.

    Why Diets Don’t Work (or How to Stop Judging Obese People)

    The Obesity Epidemic

    Obesity has doubled since the seventies. The ruling hypothesis to explain this is that the rise is due to more calories consumed and less exercise performed.

    But, according to food consumption statistics, our diet has ‘improved’. We eat less fat and saturated fat now than we did in the seventies. And we do more exercise now as well. Believe it or not, exercise was seen as potentially unhealthy in the 1960s. The only things that we are eating more of now compared to the seventies and earlier are carbohydrates.

    Furthermore, obesity is linked to poverty, not to the excess food that comes from wealth. In very poor families, the men are very fat – and the women are even fatter, even though they do most of the work. Why would it be linked to poverty? The mass production and distribution of carbohydrates like rice, sugar and wheat means that these are cheap food products compared to the relatively expensive meat, cheese, fruit and vegetables. There is no ‘thrifty gene’ that tells our bodies to store fat when times are good or when we know that food will be scarce.

    The storage of fat is an evolutionary adaptation, not a response to environmental circumstances. For example, squirrels will put fat on in winter, whatever you do. You can keep them from hibernating, you can starve them, you can even perform surgery to remove their winter fat – but their bodies will still put the weight on, and lose it again in the spring. That’s just what happens: it’s nothing to do with their diet and nothing to do with the reduction in exercise during hibernation.

    It’s Nothing To Do With Diet or Exercise

    (Of course, diet and exercise are vitally important in many other aspects of health. I am talking here purely about obesity.)

    Starvation diets don’t work. You lose a bit, then put it back on with interest when you go off the diet. (This has nothing to do with the health benefits of eating slightly less than you want, see my earlier post.) Often the obese eat less than the lean. Gluttony and sloth are not to blame, they are just ways of making fat people feel guilty and of making thin people feel good about their superior morals.

    Positive and negative caloric balance, eating more or less than you need, does not affect weight. Our body finds balance no matter what we do. If we eat more than we need, our metabolism will speed up and burn the excess calories off. If we eat less than we need, our metabolism will slow down and conserve calories (and we might live longer…).

    Forced over-eating

    There was an experiment where volunteers were fed 4000 calories a day. The subjects gained a few pounds and then their weight stabilised, so the researchers decided to increase the calories:

    • First to 5000 calories a day.
    • Then to 7000 calories a day.
    • Then to 10000 calories a day – all while remaining sedentary!

    The researchers noted that there were, ‘marked differences between individuals in ability to gain weight.’ One person gained just 9lbs after 30 weeks of this regimen. Afterwards, everyone lost weight with the speed that they had gained it.

    Calorific balance tends to 0, whether you are on a 1000 calorie diet or a 10000 calorie diet.

    Exercise

    Nor does exercise affect weight. If we exercise more, we eat more. Hence the phrase, ‘work up an appetite’. Exercise only burns a fraction of the calories we consume. You would have to walk up 20 flights of stairs to burn off the caloric input of 4 pieces of bread.

    Danish researchers trained previously sedentary people to run marathons. After 18 months of intensive training:

    • The 18 men lost an average of 5lbs (2.25kg) of fat.
    • The 9 females lost nothing at all.

    There are even studies that show people getting fatter with exercise, just as dieting regimes can do.

    Genetics

    Weight gain varies ten-fold between different people, indicating that it is genetic. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to us: we breed cattle for high fat yield using genetic principles. The difference in the size of cows is not put down to over-eating or sedentary behaviour, so why do we do that for fat humans?

    We are born with a genetically influenced body shape. The proportion of fat on your body will not change even if you lose or gain weight. There are three basic types of body morphology:

    • Mesomorphs: wedge-shaped power houses.
    • Ectomorphs: thin as a rake.
    • Endomorphs: pear shaped.
    Of course, most people have elements of one and aspects of another, but the general principle is clear: your shape is genetically influenced.

    Size is a Class Issue

    There is also a class issue here. McDonald’s is blamed, but Starbucks is not, even though a large frappacino with cream has just as many calories as a Big Mac. People who watch TV are called couch potatoes and lazy, but people who stay sitting at their desk reading books are not.

    Finally: if our environment was toxic, then why aren’t we all fat? It is not down to will-power or moral rectitude, as some people would like.


    This article is based on the information found in The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes (p233 onwards)

    How to Live Longer

    Eat less for a long life

    It has been found that calorie restriction (i.e. eating less) in mice:

    • Extends life.
    • Prevents rapid tumour growth.
    • Makes the mice more active as well.

    Anecdotally, the Okinawans of Japan, one of the world’s longest living and active populations, abide by an old saying, ‘hara hachi-bu,’ which translates roughly as ‘eat until you are 80% full.‘ Of course that is only an anecdote. In reality, they eat, on average, 11% less than the average Japanese diet.

    How does that work?

    It could be because, when you eat, your body produces insulin to metabolize carbohydrates and fats. Insulin also promotes growth. That means it promotes growth in malignant, i.e. cancerous, cells. Diet can change the growth environment of cells, including cancer cells. It changes the nurture, not the nature of cells. Diet does not contain carcinogens. It can just create an environment that cancer cells will flourish in.

    If you restrict rats to 2/3rds of calories then they will live 30-50% longer. Why? Because they have less body fat? Because they have lower weight? No. Obese mice on a restricted diet live longer than non-obese mice on a non-restricted diet and the same as non-obese mice on a restricted diet.

    Eating less is the thing, not leanness.

    Why?

    The popular answer is that it reduces the creation of free radical cells and therefore reduces the oxidation of cells and thus the opportunities for cancerous cells to develop. When food is scarce (i.e. when your body gets a signal that it is not eating a 100% diet) you live longer so that you will survive the starvation period and still be young enough to reproduce.

    This may well be correct, but calorie restricted mice also have:

    • Low insulin resistance.
    • Low blood sugar.
    • Low insulin levels.
    • Low levels of Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF).

    Low-carb for a long life?

    The glucose found in carbohydrates causes IGF and insulin levels to rise sharlply, in comparison to other food groups. So, in 2004, Cynthia Kenyon asked: could a low-carbohydrate diet lengthen lifespan in humans?
    By reducing carbohydrates and glucose she was able to reduce:

    • Blood pressure.
    • Triglyceride levels (a fatty acid linked to incidence of heart disease and strokes).
    • Blood sugar levels.
    • And to increase levels of HDL (High-density lipoprotein, ‘good’ cholesterol).

    While she is not able to conclude, after just six years, that a low-carbohydrate diet will lengthen the human lifespan, it seems to be promising data.


    This article is based on the information found in The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes (p218 onwards)

    How to be Amazingly Happy!

    Here’s a list of the most pleasurable (legal) things humans can do:

    • Have sex.
    • Suck on a piece of dark chocolate (minimum 60% cocoa).
    • Have a relaxed lunch with a friend.
    • Learn something new.
    • Go shopping!
    • Use your sense of smell – really sniff that flower!
    • Do some gardening.
    • Cook.
    • Sit in silence.
    • Go fishing (aka sit in silence).
    • Play or listen to music.
    • Go for a walk (or any form of exercise).
    • Trust others.
    • Have a nap.
    • Dream (including lucid dreams).

    Just for the sake of completion: yes, certain drugs are also extremely pleasurable, but remember how harmful they can be – and just because something is less harmful than heroin doesn’t mean it’s safe!

    Also realise that your use of drugs could give you such a massive high that real life just doesn’t seem that great any more. I’m being serious: a cocaine high can increase dopamine levels by 300-700%, compared to the 100% dopamine increase during sex – and you don’t even want to think about what amphetamines can do. Just remember that dopamine is involved in the wanting (i.e. addiction) rather than the liking (i.e. pleasure).

    Cool, now I sound like your dad.

    This list is compiled from Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure by Paul Martin.