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.


My Homeopathic Dinner Party

Unlike Prince Charles I am no friend of homeopathy. It strikes me as implausible that a substance so diluted that no molecules of the original material can be found in the final solution can be effective, and as far as I understand, no well-controlled experiments have ever demonstrated anything more powerful than the placebo effect. Homeopathy, I feel sure, belongs to the world of pseudoscientific make believe, like Uri Geller’s telepathic spoon bending. Perhaps it’s harmless fun, a brand of quackery that doesn’t hurt, but raising false hope is surely harm of a kind.

So, I was initially sceptical when friends started raving about Madame Anastasia Blavatnik’s homeopathic dinners. Madame Blavatnik has recently arrived from Georgia and has been preparing and serving homeopathic dinners in Prague for the last eight months, apparently with spectacular results. Arguing that like cures like (the Latin phrase similia similibus curentur is often used to lend a spuriously scholarly feel to this nonsense), she firmly believes that the effect of overeating and drinking can be treated with more food and drink, albeit diluted thirty or so times.


Just for fun, and to amuse my friends, I gave it a try last week. For once I was able to promise that my infamously heavy dishes would, on this occasion, be lighter, even if also more lightly flavoured.

Anastasia’s is an out-service. She finishes and serves her dinners in your own home, bringing all her dilutions with her to be heated or chilled. As host you must provide only a ‘succussion’ device to be used just before serving (succussion is the process of firmly striking each container of diluted material a number of times to render it active).

I called her to discuss menus, this being complicated by the fact that one of my friends doesn’t eat meat.

‘To be most effective,’ she said, ‘you must choose courses with the heaviest and richest ingredients. This will counter the effect that such heavy foods in their undiluted form would normally have on you. We must attack the miasms in the stomach, where they lurk. Heavy wines is good too, I find.’

She persuaded me to order a cream of mushroom soup, followed by boeuf bourgignon for the carnivores. I suggested fried lemon sole for the fish eaters but she thought lemon sole might be difficult to find in Prague, substituting cod in a white wine and cream sauce. Pomme dauphinoise and broccoli would be served alongside both main courses, and a strawberry cheesecake with a hot raspberry sauce for dessert. A heavy claret would be offered with the first two courses, and a sweet white wine with the cheesecake.

Madame Blavatnik arrived at six to make her preparations, my guests being due at seven-thirty. The first surprise was her monumental size, though she explained to all of us later that she’d actually lost half her body weight since embarking on her homeopathic dinner regime in Tbilisi just a year ago. Indeed, she had some pictures to prove it, though these seemed to me a little blurred from overuse.

Fortunately she had made all the dilutions in her own kitchen already, and when she unloaded her crates they appeared to contain only flasks of still water. This was no surprise, of course, since homeopathic remedies are considered even by homeopaths to consist entirely of solvent, solvent that has ‘remembered’ the original molecules of the diluted substance. All Madame Blavatnik needed from me was a set of saucepans to heat the soup, main courses and vegetables. These, each in a separate flask, were labelled very carefully to avoid confusion.

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Meat and fish, together with succussion device

‘We do not want to mix up our carnivorous dishes and our fish,’ she said, with what I almost thought was a wink.

When my guests arrived, I introduced Madame Blavatnik, and as we drank a diluted aperitif of what had once been vodka, she explained the ideas behind our dinner. I assumed she would dine with us but she had  already imbibed hers and preferred to concentrate on the exact preparation of ours.

‘Do not expect these dishes to taste of the original ingredients,’ she warmed us. ‘You will have to imagine the beef, the cod, the vegetables and the wines, though the water, I can assure you, will have remembered them.’ There was a slightly wistful look in her eye at this point, and for a moment I suspected that she, too, remembered them.

‘What did you do with the beef, the cod, the mushrooms and the wine,’ I asked, a little mischievously.

‘They are lost in the process of dilution,’ she said, rather firmly and decisively.

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No need for a knife or fork

The dinner was a surprising success, and no one left in a stupor of over-satisfaction, or, in the customary way, muddled by drink. Sadly, the diluted Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1976 (we drank two bottles apparently) had not remembered its alcoholic origins in a way that was useful to us, but we were jolly enough.

‘Do not be afraid if you are hungry at the end of my little dinner,’ Madame Blavatnik announced as we consumed the last of the cheesecake. ‘Eating can do you no harm now. The miasms of greed are defeated, for the moment. I must tell you, though, that one Blavatnik dinner is not usually enough. When I return to feed you once more?’

Indeed, I have yet to feel and see the effect of our homeopathic feast and I will be a reluctant convert even if I do lose a little weight. There are dieticians who say that drinking water before a meal is sufficient to deplete the appetite and thus cause weight loss. And Anastasia Blavatnik does not come cheap. She charges for the full list of original ingredients, and a steep service charge for the dilution and succussion process, even if the latter is done with her host’s assistance.

I will not embarrass my guests by mentioning how much our homeopathic dinner cost, but I must now save carefully if I am to call on her skills for the Christmas party for fifty my partner and I will give in December.