Hunting and Gathering

When I was a young hunter gatherer at an English prep school in the 1960s, there was never enough food. If you ate quickly enough you could hold up your plate for a second helping. Being of a naturally competitive disposition, and as long as it wasn’t Banana Slop, Pig’s Liver, or Chocolate Blancmange, I’d be one of the first to be ready for seconds. Indeed, I’d be at the front of any queue that promised more calories. I’d even join the afternoon biscuit queue twice. Unfortunately I’m still the same, always the first to finish, and as I wolf down whatever is put in front of me, I must resist the urge to hold up my plate and shout out for more. I even ask for seconds on an aeroplane. Don’t ask, don’t get, I find.

Perhaps food is foremost in the mind of any small boy. At my school it was more exciting and digestible than Latin grammar, but only just. I used to keep a diary and in the absence of other excitements (daily religious services don’t get a mention) I noted down the food we were given for breakfast, lunch and tea. There were patterns to discover – Spotted Dick on Tuesday, Jam Roly-Poly on Thursday, fish on Friday, Macaroni Cheese every other Monday, baked beans on fried bread almost every other day, and always Marmite. There were few things I couldn’t eat, but Banana Slop (overripe bananas sliced into cold custard) still fills me with horror.

Food is still somewhere amongst my top five pleasures, just ahead of Wagner, and I cook and eat far more than I should. I shun light food, often to the dismay of my dinner guests, and although I have once attempted a homeopathic dinner party, it’s not something I would repeat. I still take seconds (and even thirds) if they’re offered, and I love to cajole my guests into overconsumption.

Modern life is so decadent. The problem is that hunting and gathering have moved online. It’s far too easy to buy too much. My eyes are still slightly bigger than my tummy. And supermarket marketers are far too clever, too, tempting us, just as Amazon does, with ‘other products you might like’. I try not to shop when I’m hungry, but I love to hunt on the Ocado website and let them gather the basket to my doorstep too. You need never leave home, except to work a little. And nowadays, for most of us in the Western world, it takes us only a few minutes’ work to fill the shopping trolley.

No surprise, then, to read reports over the last few days that more than half of the world is obese, and that diabetes has become one of the world’s most dangerous killers.

It’s so hard to overcome one’s instincts. Our genes say eat when you can. As a child I used to enjoy the satisfaction of a full stomach, and the feeling still trumps the psychological discomfort of a large one.

What can we do about it?

Eat less. Take control. All very well, but let’s be served less, too. I’m on a skiing holiday in Austria, on half-board terms at a lovely hotel in Solden in the Otztal valley. I know that downhill skiing is the lazier form (my brother, for example, prefers the masochistic cross-country variety), but I still kid myself that a skiing holiday is a healthy one. There’s the fresh mountain air and all that swishing and swooshing on the slopes, enough even to justify a hot chocolate or two. I spend an extra half an hour in the pool at the end of the day for good measure.

But then, come dinner time, there’s this:


I’ve rearranged the setting to get it all in shot, but this is what I found at my table on Sunday evening. It was Gala Dinner day, a banquet comprising more than five dismaying courses of hearty Austrian food. All paid for in advance, so another corner of my mind tells me I have to eat it all. But I overcame my instincts, and ate just three courses. I even pushed most of the carbohydrates to the side of the plate, ignoring, with great difficulty, the prep school rule that the plate must always be scraped clean.

There needs to be a law that forbids a restaurant from serving anyone more than 1,000 calories. I’m all for the nanny state if it can make me thinner and healthier.


Outcooking Julie

Blogs about food are often tiresome or mouth-watering and sometimes even both. None has been celebrated more than Julia Powell’s. She set out to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days whilst breaking up with her boyfriend, and without gaining weight. The blog became a book and then a film starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams – Julie and Julia. It’s a wonderful film, with Meryl Streep at her absolute best. I’ve watched it at least three times. One of its few serious points is that ‘if it tastes good, it’s got butter in it,‘ a truth that, unfortunately, keeps the cardiologists in work.


Mastering the Art of French Cooking is actually a difficult cookery book by today’s standards – dense and almost academic in its thoroughness and technical detail. It’s severe rather than encouraging. There’s none of the joshing and personal anecdote that are typical of today’s lighter guides, where food is not always the centre of attention, and where photographs occupy more than half the space.

To my mind, 524 recipes in 365 days is only moderately impressive. It’s only just over 1.5 recipes per day, which is not spectacular, though I suppose it’s hard to keep going day after day for an entire year, and do the shopping and washing up as well. By contrast, I work in bursts, and am more of binge cook than long haul. My big binge of the year coincides with my partner’s birthday. This year I cooked 19 dishes in 48 hours (about 15 hours of cooking all told). We invite about 50 guests for a combination birthday/Christmas party.


I cooked:

  • Lasagne (Elizabeth David’s recipe from Italian Food – a Bolognese sauce with a pinch of cloves, a white sauce with a hint of nutmeg.)
  • Parmigiana di Melanzane (form the famous staple of Italian cooking – The Silver Spoon).
  • Fish Curry (own invention – white fish, coconut milk, onion, butter, curry powder, coriander, lime juice)
  • Beans with chorizo in tomato sauce
  • Paprika Chicken with sour cream
  • Cauliflower cheese (more nutmeg, mustard in the sauce, topped with breadcrumbs mixed with grated parmesan and browned)
  • 36 Cumberland Sausages from Marks and Spencer
  • Fennel baked with honey, white wine, chicken stock and mustard seeds (got this one of the internet a couple of months ago – easy and delicious)
  • Crispy Chicken from Jamie Oliver’s Dinners (chicken legs, tomatoes, chick peas, masses of garlic, and basil in a very hot oven)
  • Potato salad with spring onions and mayo
  • Waldorf Salad (chicken, celery, walnuts and apple)
  • Green salad
  • Beetroot baked with honey, coriander, garlic and balsamic vinegar, cooled and served with goat cheese
  • Caprese Salad
  • Paella from Pru Leith’s Cookery Bible (Chicken thighs, onion, rice, crab meat, prawns, mussels, chopped tomato, saffron)
  • Stuffed mushroom (leeks, tomato, white wine, blue cheese)
  • Grilled courgettes with Parmesan
  • Eton mess (cream, meringue, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries)
  • Strudel (caramelised apple, lemon peel, lemon juice, dates, currents, honey, cashew nuts, ground cloves and cinnamon)

All of the above required some effort, if not great skill. Otherwise it was a matter of opening bags of crisps, tortilla chips, and jars of dips.

Most of these dishes had been consumed by the time the final guest left at 8.30 the next morning.

Apply in plenty of time for next year’s party. I can’t cook for more than 50.