When is a brownie kinder than a fruit salad?

Imagine you live in the stone age when wild animals were not just going through your dustbins of an evening but threatening to eat you and your children. The regime, we may surmise, was feast or famine. After a prolonged period of stress (how much fun do you think living off berries and roots and fending of the local bear actually was?) comes at last the day when the young bucks are successful and bring home meat for dinner. Party time. The big fire gets going, alcohol is unleashed, the resident shaman is warming up and at last there’s hot food, streaming with animal fat. General rejoicing. Nobody back then said ‘I only want a little’, ‘No meat for me’ or ‘I’m sorry I’m on the 5/2′. When there was food, everybody ate what they could get because who knew how long it would be before there was meat and fat again. Simple.

Now imagine you are a new baby, unused to being out of the womb, unused to being on your own, oh and you’ve never been hungry before. (The placenta used to deliver all of your needs before you knew you had them.) Suddenly you’re out in the world and hunger is pretty frightening. Warm sweet milk (our own animal fat), when it arrives, is an end to all suffering. Party time. Eat all you can get. This regime too is feast or famine because just a few moments’ hunger feels like a famine to the infant – witness the noise they make which rivals a fire alarm and produces just one desire in any nearby adult. Make It Stop. The milk almost invariably arrives with a caring person attached so you get company, physical pleasure and an end to some nasty feelings all in one hit. You feel great. Simple.

These two scenarios explain how it is second nature to cheer ourselves up and relax (or self-medicate as the psychs say) with ‘unhealthy’ food. It wasn’t unhealthy food back then (either in the cave or in infancy). It was just what we needed. Have you noticed that under stress the body effortlessly chooses high calorie foods? Bad morning? Before you can turn round the body will have hoovered up a bag of dried fruit and nuts from Pret. (Real food but high cal.) Adding insult to injury, it then tends to hang on to all the calories as long as possible, slowing down your metabolism, rather than burning them up efficiently. When the nervous system has been under threat and then that threat is removed the body wants to eat, eat, eat – and we’re not talking salads here. The body, in its wisdom, wants to restore its wellbeing by wolfing down the highest calorie food it can lay its hands on.

What was an intelligent response in the stone age isn’t so great today when the only threat has been a ticking off from the boss, a tube strike or a visit from your mother. Your nervous system does not distinguish between the agony of the working mother with a sick child and the heart-pounding flight from the sabre-toothed tiger. Your nervous system has all its alarm bells ringing (‘My office, now!’ ‘Can you come home?’ ‘It’s only me…’) just as if your life were in danger. When your break comes a doughnut or some chocolate or a Big Mac may feel like the very thing that will restore your sense of well-being because you feel as though you’ve run a marathon and it’s only 11am. But then comes the kick-back. The voice that makes you feel worthless.

That endless monologue about what you’ve ‘earned’, what you ‘deserve’ has no place in your food choices. What to do?

Back to basics. When we eat those high-fat, high-sugar things we are trying to restore our sense of well-being. They taste good in the mouth but they also signal to the body that the threat is past and the sympathetic nervous system (what a misnomer) can throw itself on the sofa and watch TV for a while. Chill, if you will. In a word, our evolutionary heritage is on the side of MacDonalds. Show it a burger, steak and chips, pancakes with maple syrup and butter and it rolls up its sleeves and digs in before you can say Weightwatchers. As so often, our evolution into human beings is in microcosm replicated by our journey from embryo to adult. If we call ‘bad’ the very foods that produce the sensations of physical safety and which mimic our earliest, sweetest experiences of love it is a short step to confusion, anger and eventual revolt. (The revolt will be high calorie, trust me).

So how can we drag our bodies out of the stone age, out of infancy and into the present where there is no shortage of food and where the ever-present danger is of ruining our health through over-eating? Here is a step by step guide.

  1. Abandon the notion of good and bad. This is not about being good. Reward and punishment have no place in our diet.
  2. Focus on what the food represents for our physiology – that loving attempt to restore our well-being.
  3. Feel into the kindness of that attempt – this is love for ourselves, a way of looking after ourselves.
  4. As you feel into the kindness bring in the knowledge you have of your own situation and what you know about food so that something can emerge which will respect exactly where you are.
  5. ‘Your own situation’ means your health, how much running about you’ve done today, what the rest of the day holds. If you’re in ill health, can’t run about and tonight you’re out to dinner somewhere fun, you need to choose your lunch and snacks with a kind and light hand. If you’ve already done a work out, you haven’t sat down all day and tonight will be a boiled egg and soldiers (my favourite supper when I’m on my own) you need some energy and your lunch should reflect that.
  6. Never again think of things you put in your mouth as ‘treats’. Inherent in the word is that good/bad splitting which keeps us rebelling and eating heavy.


So here is the best brownie recipe I know of. It is also shamingly easy. Humour your body by making them and having a taste each day for a couple of days. Share them widely and you will be much loved and go straight to heaven.

Ultimate Chocolate Brownies (adapted from Gary Rhodes’ recipe)

10 ozs caster sugar

4 eggs

8 ozs unsalted butter

3 ozs cocoa

3 ozs plain flour

8 ozs plain chocolate

4 ozs hazelnuts or pecans, chopped

4 ozs white chocolate in chunks

Whisk eggs and sugar. Melt the butter and add. Then add flour and cocoa. Melt the plain chocolate and add that. Then the nuts and the white chocolate.

Grease a shallow tin and bake at 180 degrees for 25 minutes. Cool before cutting into very small rich cubes. Eat with creme fraiche and raspberries adjusting the ratio of cake to fruit according to your situation.



Asthall Manor

asthall-manorThere is really no excuse for this photo here in my blog except that I was out walking the dog about 7.30 yesterday morning when it was minus 7 and I was bowled over by the beauty of the manor in the frost. I wanted to share it with you. We are renting a small flat in this wondrous building whilst there are builders in our own house and we count ourselves pretty lucky! Former tenants include the Mitfords before they moved to Swinbrook down the road but these days the manor is known for the astonishing sculpture exhibition that happens here every two years and called Onform. The gardens are also exceptional and open to the public in season so we have landed in a very blessed spot.


Since it is proper Winter now I also wanted to offer you this pudding that I made with a glut of cooking apples from the manor’s vegetable garden and the end of a small loaf. I suppose it is an Apple Charlotte but not one of the beautifully constructed sort. This one

apple-charlotte  is rather haphazard although I have to say very delicious. Bread and butter and sugar beneath and on top. Stewed apple in the middle. Cook in the oven on a moderate heat until the bread and butter is crispy. It felt sensationally English and full of historical resonance to be eating this in our manor flat deep in the Oxfordshire countryside.

Apples are the answer



So what is the question?

When I was growing up ‘fruit’ meant apples, oranges and the occasional banana. Grapes were for the sick. Once a pineapple arrived in blue tissue paper from an uncle in South Africa but this was an exotic and unique encounter and I’m not even sure we knew what to do with it. It was bigger than the fridge. I avoided fruit as far as possible unless it was tinned fruit salad for Sunday tea at Grandma’s with thick cream unaccountably also from a tin. (This was the sixties but I guess Grandma was stuck on tins with all that rationing.)

Those of you too young or too posh to have encountered fruit salad in a tin, gather round. It is a fruit lite version of the fruit salad you might make. Indeed it has only a nodding acquaintance with real unadulterated fruit. For a start it comes in tiny, appealing (to a child) pieces and the stuff I ate was certainly in an unapologetic sugar syrup. It contained pieces of cherry (cochineal pink) and pear with its delicious grainy texture. The wee peach slices were like tiny dolphins swimming in my mouth. The little oranges had no pith to speak of and the grapes, no pips. Real fruit, I have to tell you, was a size 18 disappointment in comparison. My tastes moved on (eventually!) from tinned fruit salad to plum tarts and apple pies. Fruit as a vehicle for pastry and cream was close to the meaning of life in my book. Then I learned to make jam – now that’s a way to tame fruit!

Apples and Eating Less

So it wasn’t until I had to lose some weight later on in life (to improve my blood pressure and enable me to avoid specialist (euphemism) clothing shops) that I got to understand just how important it is to befriend the naked apple. What follows is about introducing more apples into your day to help lose weight but if you don’t need to do that, bear with me. Today’s final recipe is a nursery pudding involving apples and Calvados and you won’t want to miss that.

First the apple as the dieter’s friend. Faced with a big incentive (fear) I got creative and decided to test the oft repeated claim that apples are versatile and delicious, the original convenience food. I did not listen to the punishing part of me that said all I should eat was apples because I was fat. I knew that way led to misery and failure. Been there. Done that. But nor did I retaliate against that critical part by adding extra mayonnaise and croutons to my salad. I knew that eating like that was unkind to someone like me carrying extra weight and higher than desirable blood pressure. This is key. You may take notes. It had dawned on me that eating only apples was the same as over-eating the unhealthy stuff. It was abusing my body and being unkind to myself. Somehow I knew that there was a kinder, middle way and eventually I found it. Rather than cutting everything I liked out, I added apples in. This refusal to deprive myself really undermined the critical voices within.

And this is what I found about apples. You can eat as many as you like! They are extremely good at making a salad more filling and are happy bedfellows with chicken, ham, cheese , prawns and all sorts of other things you might put in a salad. I never learned to love an apple enough to just bite straight in (though this may come). They still have to be cored and sliced and made to look tempting – but why not? There are no prizes for eating stuff you don’t fancy. I will not palter with the truth, there was more to my losing a couple of stones than just adding in apples but they really did help and today when my weight goes up a few pounds I up the apple intake and reduce the bread.


Simple Apple and Roquefort Salad

Deconstruct a little gem lettuce onto your plate leaf by leaf and add a beautiful apple sliced elegantly.  Add as many other vegetables as you can lay your hands on also lovingly prepared. (If you have cooked broccoli or sugar snap peas or French beans in the fridge left overs you can add them too). Radishes look pretty sliced. Baby tomatoes halves for sweetness. Black olives add mystery. Cornichons whisk you to Paris. Fresh herbs if you have them. Now make a dressing by mixing two teaspoons of low fat yoghurt or fromage frais with a teaspoon of good mayonnaise or your favourite Caesar salad dressing. Add some water to thin it down; taste it for seasoning and spoon over the leaves etc. Be sparing. Add a few very thin slices of Roquefort and finally sprinkle some toasted nuts (crushed hazelnuts, flaked almonds) over the oeuvre. (Unless they are replacing the cheese you don’t want more than a very few). Welcome to your lunch.

Cooking Apples

Stew as many apples as you can at the beginning of the week and you can dip in whenever you need to. Cooked on high power in the microwave for ten minutes they need neither butter nor water. The important thing is to cook them until they are blitzed. They make brilliant puddings with or without ice cream, custard, cinnamon, yoghurt. But for times of special need try the next recipe.


Apples with Calvados

Spoon your stewed apple (as near puree as possible) into a nice Champagne glass (the fancier the better) and add a tablespoonful of Calvados if you have it, or cooking brandy. Now a dribble of Elmlea or cream. You’ll find the alcohol and cream float on top rather divinely. For the non dieters push the boat out and add sponge fingers on the side. Nursery food with alcohol and no cooking to speak of. Whenever I make this, I notice sheepishly that the effort is in inverse proportion to the chorus of praise and appreciation with which it is greeted. (If you’re channelling Nadiya you can always make the sponge fingers. LOL.)