Friday, January 25, 2013

The earliest Atkins

As it's January, the month of diets, I was interested to learn that fad diets are nothing new.

I was at the Wellcome Collection last week for a talk by historian Louise Cockcroft, author of Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting over 2,000 Years.

The slightly depressing moral is that people have been thinking up more or less bizarre ways to lose weight over centuries, and most of them don't work. 

I was struck by the fact that the low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets which have become enormously fashionable in recent years (Atkins, Dukan, etc) had already been invented in the early 19th century. Jean Brillat-Savarin, whose name was mainly known to me from Brillat-Savarin cheese (and gateau Savarin) was a French foodie who insisted that avoiding carbohydrates is the secret of good health.

In his 1825 bestseller The Physiology of Taste, his response to his critics was: "Very well then; eat! Get fat! Become ugly and thick, and asthmatic, finally die in your own melted grease."

Strong words indeed. I can see why you'd lose weight on Brillat-Savarin's diet - if you can stick to it - simply because sugar is banned, along with cakes, biscuits, pastries and so on.  But I don't think I'll be giving up pasta or potatoes any time soon.

Bread: banned by Brillat-Savarin, Atkins and Dukan. Picture: rprata

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Love, loss and finding happiness in small things

I've mentioned my 100-year-old maternal grandmother and her adventurous eating habits a few times in recent months.

Sadly, I won't be cooking for her again, as she passed away last week.

There are so many ways in which I will miss her, so many small regrets for things I still wanted to share with her which feed into the larger sense of loss.

Some of them are food-related: I had already planned the trifle (one of her favourite foods) that I was going to make between Christmas and New Year. As it turned out, she was in hospital by then.

A few weeks ago she mentioned that she'd never eaten asparagus - a fact that surprised me. I wouldn't normally buy asparagus out of season, so this was a dilemma - buy the imported stuff so she could try it, or wait till May so she could eat fresh English asparagus and taste the vegetable at its best? Now I wish I'd just bought the stuff and given her that new experience.

Sometimes I was surprised by what she had or hadn't experienced. Aubergines were new territory, but she was familiar with pomegranates, said she used to eat them "years ago" and found them "a bit boring". So while I imagine them to be a modern import, it sounds like they were eaten in this country in the days when olive oil was something you only bought in the chemist.

Her enthusiasm for trying something new was one of the things that made her remarkable. Whether it was butternut squash, halloumi cheese or Indian food, she'd try it, and nearly always enjoy it. I mentioned in November that she never cooked with garlic in her life, but would happily eat it, whether in my risotto or the Chinese restaurant food she always enjoyed.

Even when frail and very limited in what she could do, she loved her meals. She liked to say: "I've decided to stop saying no to anything." This wasn't strictly true - she would refuse a second glass of wine, but she'd never say no to dessert.

As I observed here a few months ago, cooking for someone is a way of demonstrating your love. To have someone else appreciate it is to know that your efforts haven't been wasted - it's a vital part of the equation. My grandmother was never short of appreciation, love and the ability to take pleasure from the everyday things in life. I hope I can learn from that.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Home-made chocolate brazils

The festive period may have come to an end, but I don't believe in complete self-denial in January. No matter how many Toblerone bars or Terry's Chocolate Oranges or boxes of Roses you've consumed, a few home-made chocolate brazil nuts can still awaken interest.

I made these mainly as a birthday gift for a relative, but naturally, managed to make sure there were a few left over! I happen to think it's also a reminder of the difference in quality between home-made chocolates and most commercial chocolate boxes - the overwhelming majority of which I find too sweet and not chocolatey enough.