Sending myself a get well tea-mail from Piacha…

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I’ve been sick, on and off, for a month. What started out as simply the world’s most disgusting head cold has ambled on as a strength-sapping virus-chest-infection combo. I’ve been working pretty much throughout (thank God I have an employer that is set up to support working from home) but this week the ongoing lurgy cost me a business trip. Things are… irritating. And that’s where tea comes in.

Tea. So much tea. You guys know I love tea, right? And write about my tea love. And you know that I visited Piacha in Islington and loved that too, and then Pia sent me a lovely email saying ‘hey, wanna try our tea subscription service?’ and basically this is the best possible way I can think of to deal with feeling so utterly grotty.

The way it works is that you pick a tea from the website as usual. Then you choose the subscription option instead of a one-off purchase. You’re asked to choose a delivery interval: 1, 2, 3 or 4 weeks. You set up payment. Then, on schedule, a foil sachet of tea arrives through your door. That’s it.

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Being an absolute gem, Pia let me try my first delivery free. I opted for the Shui Xian oolong I tried in our tasting as it’s a lovely rich, nutty, black oolong. There was no question I was ending the subscription there – I’ve now drunk my way through two deliveries of Shui Xian in a bid to sort out my raw throat. I then fancied a change so I have switched the most recent delivery to 40g of beautiful pine needles white tea which is incredibly delicate and fragrant. Cake is now a very occasional treat for me, but my shelf of tea canisters sees me through each day in which I’m apt to drink anything from 2 to 12 cups of teas of varying colour, flavour and caffeine content. My tea shelf is packed with gems from my favourite tea shops (and one weird Disney World Alice in Wonderland weird strawberry flavoured weird tea). Knowing I’ve got a regular delivery coming from one of my most trusted sources is not only reassuring in terms of keeping my tins topped up, but being able to switch around my options means that my tea promiscuity is well catered for – I can be getting hot and heavy with one blend while flirting unsubtly with another.

The small print, as it turns out, is as uncomplicated as the principle. Price varies per tea though all have free UK delivery (with EU and international options) – plus it’s 10% cheaper than buying one off. The cheapest by volume is £5.31 for 75g of loose leaf English Breakfast and the most expensive is £10.62 for a generous 75g bag of Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolong – with most at the lower end of the scale. My current delivery is just £4.95 per sachet (albeit a 40g pack). Plus of course many loose leaf teas, including oolong, can stand up to multiple brewings. You can log in and change tea type and delivery interval, or skip deliveries, at any point. I know I’ll be away at Christmas, so have already arranged to skip the relevant deliveries.

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One tip from me: if you are going to go for it, then do make one further investment if you haven’t already – tea tins. Piacha teas come in lovely foil sealed packs which preserve freshness, but once you’ve torn a pack open, you’ll want to transfer the contents into an airtight tin to keep them smelling and tasting perfect. Should you be able to resist inhaling it all, tea can stay in decent nick in a tin for up to two years.

In a long, frustrating, exhausting month that culminated in the GP announcing “you don’t look well” before I even described the problem (me: “…”) it’s been a massive source of comfort to have black tea and dark chocolate to hand at all times. I’ve always believed in treating myself, but as tempted as I’ve desperately been to sign up to all manner of beauty boxes and nerd subscriptions, I’ve resisted it due to worries that I wouldn’t really want everything I was getting, or it wouldn’t be fair to have a regular delivery that was just for me. But tea… tea I’d definitely drink. And it’s tea I’ve chosen myself, and want to drink. And I can share it with other people! It’s useful. And delicious. And one of my favourite things in the world. Self-justification made easy, my friends.

And with that, I raise my mug to you and hope that the next time you see a post from me it will be with a clean bill of health. I can guarantee there’ll be a fresh cuppa, too.

Disclosure: The lovely Pia of Piacha kicked off my subscription with one entirely free delivery for review, but all deliveries since then have been paid for by me. All thoughts, opinions and words are my own; the pics are courtesy of Piacha.

Tea for two (or more) at Piacha, Islington

call-me-katie-tea-and-cake-at-piacha-on-upper-street-islington-great-for-tea-and-cake-in-london-03In case it’s escaped your notice – between the multiple afternoon tea reviews, posts about tea and, erm, separate tea Tumblr – I really, really love tea. So when the lovely, totes-unslummy Jo said she was working with a tea shop and would I like to pop in to meet the owner and try some tea I said “hell yes” and “can I bring a friend?”. “The more the merrier,” said Pia, owner and powerhouse behind north London’s Piacha cafe, so my pal and colleague Katie and I scuttled over.

Katie’s post, from which I completely shamelessly stole this surprisingly flattering pic of me snuffling tea like some sort of truffle-hunting hog, goes through the teas in detail, as well as the delicious sandwiches and chocolate we tasted. What I’m going to do instead is give you five good reasons why, if you’re in London or are likely to be in the general vicinity of Islington any time soon, you should get your bum down to Piacha asap. The rest of the photos are distinctly more wonky because I took them…

1. The tea collection

IMG_9304First and most important. There is a very comprehensive mixture of types and flavours here, but what I love about it is that most of them are blends of actual ingredients rather than ‘flavoured tea’. Now, I am not averse to the latter – my breakfast blend of choice is T2’s Brisbane Breakfast and one of the Piacha teas that blew me away was the Black and Cherry – but if you’ve ever had a good chai blend (and Piacha has one of those, too) you know that adding actual chunks and pieces of stuff makes a considerably more subtle and delicious tea. There are good numbers of ‘plain’ base teas – black, green, white and oolong – but also fab infusion combinations, such as roiboos spiked with cocoa husks for a comforting chocolatey hit and matcha mint (not my thing, but very, very popular).

Piacha has enough choice that you could conceivably try a different thing every week, but not so much that you find yourself playing safe. My top ones to try:

For tea purists: Shui Xian Oolong – a black oolong that’s incredibly rich and nutty, with a real kick-ass depth of flavour.

For flavour fans: Black and Cherry. Basically like drinking grown up cherry sweets.

For cold days: Biting and bracing Chilli and Ginger. An infusion that literally grabs you by the throat and can’t help but make you feel better – and I don’t even usually like ginger.

Additionally, there are boxes of the individual added ingredients – cocoa husks, dried rose buds etc – on the counter, so ask to have a sniff if you’re not sure, and buy some to take home and play with your own tea blends.

2. Pia Ikkala

IMG_9326I set out my feminist stall without hesitation, and I’d support a woman’s business if I thought it was great no matter who the woman behind it was. But as it happens, Pia’s an absolute rock star. Coming from a background in corporate law, she’s fiercely sharp and constantly on the lookout for something interesting to try – especially if it involves any of her favourite things: tea, eating and yoga.

It undoubtedly helped that we tend towards the same favourite kinds of tea, but I found her such a joy to talk to, and she’s often hanging out in there. But regardless of whether you actually meet her, knowing she’s behind the business makes you feel in safe hands. I don’t fetishise independent ownership, but here I think it’s what makes this cafe special; the teas are carefully chosen and blends are uniquely created for the shop, the menu is thoughtfully developed to make tasty tea pairings and the friendly atmosphere makes it welcoming to all – such as the little girl standing on tiptoes to slurp down a tea milkshake the next time we visited.

And anyway, even if you don’t care about that kind of thing, I cannot think of a single major coffee chain that does a half-decent cuppa.

3. Nom

IMG_9329The thoughtful Piacha menu infuses tea even into savouries, with lapsang ham sandwiches and genmaicha salmon (the latter pictured on the right of this photo) on the comprehensive tea menu. The apple honey brie sarnies (on the left of the photo) are wrapped in a sweet, dense walnut bread. There are at least three big cakes in the window from which to sample slices – “where there’s tea, there’s cake” said Pia by email before we met, which did indeed predispose me to like her – and a cabinet packed with delightful bites like canelles, macarons, chocolate tiffin slices and more. And recently they’ve added some extraordinary artisan chocolate truffles to the mix, which sounds, I know, like the height of hipsterdom but holy mango and basil, Batman. I’ve never eaten anything quite like it and I’m slightly angry it took 35 years to do so. Other combinations, like raspberry and mascarpone, were quite something too.

If you go for afternoon tea, which is something I’d definitely come back for, you’ll get a broad array of tastes, including four different teas of your choice and matcha ice cream for a little under £15pp. Apparently it gets packed on Saturdays, so book ahead.

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The mango and basil truffle deserved a close up.

4. Tea smoothies and milkshakes

IMG_9375.jpgI know, I know, it sounds weird. But adding vanilla ice cream and fresh peach chunks is so far the only way I’ve ever found to drink Earl Grey that made me like it. Tea adds such a lovely fragrant note that it can only make unusual mixtures more brilliant. Be brave.

This little lovely is a refreshing blueberry matcha iced blend, which is more liquid than the milkshakes, but less of a dessert.

This is not a sugar-free zone. I think you just have to live with that. I did.

5. The setting

IMG_9315Sofas and wooden chairs; an extra, quiet, area tucked away downstairs (seen left); plug sockets everywhere… This is a blogger’s paradise. Not to mention that the teaware and beautifully lit shelves up at the front make for a nice thing to gaze on even if Upper Street is windswept and grey.

Plus, it’s roughly equidistant from Angel and Highbury and Islington stations, so access is easy enough. And when you have, finally, had enough of tea (what’s wrong with you?) there are lots of great shops to potter around in (After Noah. Do it).

About a week after our tasting, Katie and I were back and dragging our pal Christina in for more tea – this time on our dime, so if you’re the type to be suspicious of bloggers, you know we must have loved it for real. I also bought the aforementioned Black and Cherry myself after tasting, and have it for when I fancy a sweeter hot drink or just need extra comforting in my cuppa.

If you’re too far away, you’re not excluded from all the fun, as Piacha does online orders of tea. I’m waiting for one of my caddies – I have a tea shelf stocked to groaning with loose leaf – to be available before nabbing some Shui Xian oolong; it’s a gorgeous savoury and I’m still thinking about it.

Disclosure: Katie and I were treated to a range of teas and treats by Pia and the team. Our opinions of what we sampled are entirely our own.

Brown rice porridge: one cup of rice, four sweet and savoury meals

Ready, set, porridge

Ready, set, porridge

Since I started experimenting with savoury porridge using oats, I knew at some point I was going to bother to try a proper, hearty rice porridge too. It is a little tiny bit of bother in the sense that it takes quite a long time to be ready; on the other hand, it needs relatively little intervention other than a quick stir every so often, so I popped it on while working from home and my husband (also working from home; he takes the kitchen while I commandeer the living room) kindly checked on it every so often while I tapped feverishly at my keyboard.

It’s tempting to whisper the word ‘congee’ here, and this take is certainly a closer relative than oats; however, as I used the only wholegrain rice I had to hand – which was basmati – it’s still not in the immediate family. Also, plenty of people make congee with white rice. Still, the principle is the same: a slow(ish) cooked rice porridge which swells the grains way past what’s desirable in a normal bowl of rice, and makes the starchy liquid a thick soupy sauce. How runny you want to go is entirely up to you.

Lining up the toppings

Lining up the toppings

The ratio I used was 1 UK cup of rice to 6 parts water, plus a dash of salt; I brought it to the boil and then simmered on a low heat for an hour or so. It was running a bit dry sooner than I wanted so I added another cup and continued for 10-15 minutes after that. You will find different ratios all over the internet, up to twice that water (and cooking time). You can only experiment with the time and patience you have. Also, yes, some sites suggest you can use your slow cooker, so do some digging.

I could have used stock or more elaborately flavoured the water, but I wanted to make both sweet and savoury dishes. I would definitely recommend using stock if you’re going for only savoury (it’s a richer flavour) but it will still be delicious without. For sweet you could include coconut or almond milk, but you don’t have to as brown rice has a natural sweetness (where do you think rice malt syrup comes from?).

So how four meals? Well, that one cup made four decent-sized individual servings of porridge, and as I’m not averse to reheating rice for the adults in the family (no, I don’t risk it with our daughter; yes, I know it’s not advisable but living on the edge here, obviously) my husband and I both had some for lunch and then I went on to have more for dinner – brinner, actually – and the last helping for lunch the next day.

Steamy goodness

Steamy goodness

Meals 1 & 2: Leftover chicken

My husband had roasted a chicken the day before, so I shredded 150g of cooked breast and stir fried this in a little coconut oil with fresh chilli, smoked garlic, mushrooms, spinach and courgettes.

To finish, I added some toasted pine nuts and a drizzle of ketjap manis, and fed us each a gloriously filling and warming dish that took less than fifteen minutes of prep and cooking time to assemble.

Who doesn't love breakfast as dinner?

Who doesn’t love breakfast as dinner?

Meal 3: Fruity brinner

I fancied something sweeter and brought the rice back to the boil on the hob with a splash of almond milk. I sliced a small apricot, a pair of strawberries and a couple of raspberries and added them to the now-sweet porridge along with a dollop of crunchy peanut butter and a little under a teaspoon of chia seeds (they add texture and tend to absorb liquid, making them quite filling).

Meal 4: Holy mackerel

I had some mackerel fillets in the fridge looking a little desperate, so while the porridge got nuked I quickly fried one in coconut oil, then used the same pan to toss around a hodge-podge of the tail ends of some 4-for-£4 packs of veggies that were going bendy in the fridge (in this case broccoli, sugar snap peas, spinach and samphire). While this tasted delicious it turned out less than beautiful, so you’re denied photographic evidence!

A 1kg bag of the rice I used costs £4.95 in my local supermarket. A cup being about a fifth of  a bag, each one of these meals cost a base of just 25p and if you use plain water it can become both main meal and a rice pudding-y, porridge-y dessert. Then it’s a question of using up anything in the fridge – poached eggs would be amazing – to go on top, and you can put as much or as little effort as you like or have time for.  Also, they’re all suitable for gluten free diets, and even the one including three types of whole fruit was still remarkably low fructose.

The next taste test will be my daughter – she’s very, very specific about porridge, which she usually likes super plain, so I’ll have to just let her taste mine and see how we go – but since it’s essentially more of a texture than a flavour I have hopes of winning her over.

Clearly I’m not breaking any new ground here – rice and oat porridges have been staple foods since these forms of agriculture was developed and continue to be eaten very widely globally – but as they’re often sidelined to very specific uses in UK households I’m enjoying playing around with flavours and textures I’ve basically ignored for years. And given the reactions of some people I’ve talked about this with, I don’t think I’m the only one. Time to bring back appreciation for some classics, I reckon.

Breakfast, lunch or dinner: the joys of savoury porridge

How I did it, less elegantly but very deliciously.

How I did it, less elegantly but very deliciously.

I got it into my head this morning that I had to make savoury porridge. I’ve been trying to find interesting ways to get veggies into my breakfast for a while but I wasn’t in the mood for an omelette or frittata (the omelette’s slightly more sophisticated cousin).

I was also in the mood for porridge, and a couple of weeks ago I was in 26 Grains at lunchtime inhaling a gorgeous Indonesian chicken brown rice porridge, so the idea of making it savoury had obviously been in my mind for a while.

How 26 Grains did it all professional and proper like.

How 26 Grains did it all professional and proper like.

I had neither the time nor patience to make brown rice happen, but there’s genuinely no reason not to cook porridge oats in a savoury dish; after all, it’s generally the sweetness of the milk (and our habit of adding fruity toppings) that makes them taste more puddingy. While most of the traditional savoury porridge type dishes that you might think of from elsewhere in the world (such as congee) are rice based, there is simply nothing stopping you experimenting.  Inspiration and ancestry need not go hand in hand. At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

So after poking around the fridge and cupboards and supplementing with whatever looked interesting as we took an early morning turn around the supermarket, this is what I made. It’s a bit fast-paced but it’s super easy, all done in under half an hour and MFP tells me it only has 4g of sugar – perfect if, like me, you prefer a low-fructose diet.

Ingredients

(Makes one serving)

40g porridge oats
300ml water*
Vegetable bouillion powder*
85g mushrooms, sliced
A generous handful of spinach, whole or loosely torn
2 spring onions, chopped
A few leaves of basil, rolled up and thinly sliced
An egg**
Coconut oil for frying

Method

Prep all the vegetables first, and boil a full kettle – you’ll need it both to make up the stock and to poach your egg. Make up your stock, and get water into a pan to simmer for your egg.

Start off your porridge on the hob, using the stock. This recipe uses too much water on purpose as I wanted a really soft, swollen-flaked porridge – quite different to the thick, almost chunky “sweet” porridges I prefer. Adjust this to your own preference, but if you use my amount you’ll need a longer than usual cooking time to give the oats time to absorb the liquid. You’ll need to stir this quite frequently to stop it burning, so keep the heat medium-low. This is not a restful recipe, but you’ll make up for that when you eat it.

Put the coconut oil in a pan and start it melting. As it does so, check the poaching water – when it’s right, tip in the egg (this is the method I use). While the egg is cooking, put the mushrooms in the pan to sautee in the coconut oil. I also added all but the green fronds of the spring onion as I find it too strong  to have too much of it raw, but it’s up to you.

When the egg looks done – I like it with a runny, gluey middle – fish it out gently on a slotted spoon and set it to one side to drain. Duck egg whites are a bit more rubbery and translucent, so don’t worry if you haven’t used these before. Also, it will cool a little but this will not matter at all.

Go back to stirring the porridge until it’s the consistency you want. At the same time, the mushrooms will be almost ready – chuck in the spinach towards the end to just wilt, plus half the basil to warm it through. Season.

Pour the porridge into a bowl, spooning the vegetable mix on top. Gently tip the egg onto the top of that, and then sprinkle with the spring onion ends and remaining basil. Season again to taste, and dig straight in.

Runny yolks. Not beautiful to look at but SO GOOD.

Runny yolks. Not beautiful to look at but SO GOOD.

I meant to add a squirt of ketjap manis over the top for a hint of sweetness (and just to complete the ludicrous clash of multiple cultures already going on); I forgot, and it was still the most delicious thing I’ve made for some time. Also, it could probably have done with another texture – some nuts or pine nuts, or even steel-cut oats – but I have to admit for a fondness for comforting, baby food simplicity sometimes.

This is very much a ‘substitute what you like’ type recipe – in fact, it’s not even a recipe; it’s basically an elaborate serving suggestion.

I can feel a new obsession brewing already, as I try to work out what the next wonderful combination I can squeeze onto a plate is. And of course this is far from just breakfast. I’m a big fan of all foods at all times (pizza for breakfast; Shredded Wheat for dinner), but I particularly like the little glow of smugness you get from starting off the day with a couple of handfuls of veggies. Especially on the days when you know you’re likely to finish it on a dinner of a multipack of questionably flavoured crisps.

Oh dear. This is going to be a whole Pinterest board, isn’t it?

*I would usually just use my own stock here but I wanted a lighter vegetable stock and also it was frozen and I was feeling lazy
**I used a duck egg for richer flavour as I was feeling fancy, but as with all the above this is completely optional

Tasty Tuesdays on HonestMum.com

Free From Farmhouse

A Year of Living Sugar-Free

A year ago, almost to the day, I began an experiment: quitting sugar.

A friend of mine, Erin, was raving about it, and – skeptical though I was – I knew I couldn’t continue living with the bizarre relationship I had with food. I’m a restrictive eater / binger of old, and every time I thought I’d cracked the formula for eating really well (I’m a great fan of the principles of the HAES movement) I would, sooner rather than later, come to realise that my internal cues about satiety and my visual ideas of portion control were so heartily messed up I didn’t even know where to begin. I’d made a fair amount of progress in getting rid of some of the worst habits, but I still wasn’t in the place I wanted to be. I needed a line in the sand, a way to move along that line towards freedom from the ridiculous deprivation and overindulgence cycles that – at least from what I’ve observed – seem to plague a lot of women in our privileged society.

Where we have ready access to food, we don’t seem to know how to use it without abusing it; plus I work in London, and am lucky to be able to eat out a lot. More to the point, I bloody love food (I’m not sure I can separate it from love) and cooking, feeding people and being fed. Like, I give people who talk about being ‘so full’ after half their ‘delicious’ breakfast some serious side-eye, because I have been a member of the clean plate club since birth. I wanted to enjoy that relationship more without feeling so damn guilty and compulsive about it.

So I thought “what the hell? I can’t make things any worse”. The programme my friend was on was Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar, so I read the books, found most of it made sense (even if some of it was a bit scientifically woolly and made huge assumptions about budget and accessibility) and started out on week one of the plan. The ‘sugar’ in question with IQS is actually fructose, specifically, and I had a lot of questions about this as I’d always been told fruit – most commonly associated with fructose although table sugar is 50% fructose – was ‘good’ sugar, yet always found bananas (supposed to fill you up for hours) left me ravenous, apples gave me acid stomach and my beloved citrus fruit made me nibbly as hell.  I dipped into David Gillespie and Robert Lustig and gradually came to believe that ditching the fructose was indeed a good health move. Even after I reintroduced some fruits I kept it fairly low fructose and felt better for that (because contrary to misconceptions you do still eat fruit; I tend towards berries and apricots these days, with the occasional kiwi, apple or pear thrown in).

After the eight weeks were up I found I didn’t really want to stop. And a year later I know I don’t want to, even if it’s not always easy for me. I really believe I’ve made a substantial amount of the progress I’ve been looking for and mostly it’s come as a huge relief. While I won’t pretend that everything is now 100% perfect and I never have weird cravings or madly snacky days, they are considerably fewer and my approach to eating is considerably more free.

The fact is, I live and work in a world full of temptations and quitting sugar has made me feel so much better. Of course, I am not immune to making a less sensible choice in this ongoing experiment. Sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes it’s not. You live and learn. Plus I still have some chronically unhealthy habits (is there an I Quit Crisps programme? Because I really need help. I Quit Sitting Down A Lot would be great too). But on the whole quitting sugar is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and I have no intention of ever permanently going back on the white stuff.

So, here are some of the things I have experienced in a year of living sugarless (yes, I heard that in my head as ‘Mississippilessly?!’). As with any personal account – just put a bullet in my sugar head if I start calling it a ‘journey’, yes? – your mileage is bound to vary, but I wanted to give a bit of a warts and all, ups and downs perspective with as much balance as I can bring to the discussion. Zealotry and glowing before-and-after testimonials are unconvincing to me; they seem like a wagon you fall off, an infatuation you grow out of. This is going sugar free after the honeymoon, when the toothpaste caps come off and the toilet seat stays up.

Lets start at the lowest point. If you’ve never gone sugar free you’re probably wondering about what happens when you decide that a slice or three of birthday cake never hurt anyone. Well, a little reframing goes a long way. If I thought of every time I had sugar as ‘backsliding’, ‘coming off the wagon’ or ‘being naughty’, I would be no better off than I was before quitting. I’d just be miserably restricted and the vast, vast majority of the time I don’t think about being sugar free at all until someone else points it out. Unless it’s something like an afternoon tea where almost everything is doused in sugar and I want to avoid feeling the effects too much, I don’t make consciously sugar free choices. I just eat stuff that I like and it usually doesn’t contain much sugar because now sugary stuff is not very appealing most of the time.

Once in a while I do  splash out and if I think negative thoughts my lovely Erin points out that it’s an experiment. No one is coercing me to do this; on the contrary, a lot of marketing, my friend’s eating habits and the reaction of anyone I talk to about this would suggest the pressure is all going the other way. I continued living sugar free after my initial curious commitment because I felt a lot better. My skin improved. My health measures improved. I felt comfortable with the changes to my body. From now on, I choose whether or not to continue, whether or not to make a different choice, how I want to listen to my body’s and mind’s desires. I’m probably never not going to want ice cream, and I’m comfortable with that; if it’s really good ice cream, or, you know, it’s not but I really feel like it, then I’ll have ice cream. Usually, actually, eating sugary stuff really validates me not wanting to eat it more often since I invariably get headaches, sickness or dizziness (I’m sure some might say psychosomatic, but I’ve sometimes found out after the fact and still felt terrible, so…).

That said, I think it can be helpful to re-quit if something has happened to make it all feel a bit like hard work. Eating out a lot, a special occasion, working long hours, stress, illness (or, in my case, a back op – worry not, I’m totally fixed now), going on holiday or some other general disruption to the eating routine knocks me out for anything from a day or two to several weeks and I find myself making food choices that leave me sluggish, snacking, grumpy and constantly hungry (many of the issues I managed to move away from by doing the programme in the first place). Twice in the past year I had a bit of a ‘reboot’ – a few weeks more strictly, consciously sugar free – to lift myself out of it and feel better.

You’d be forgiven for asking yourself if the programme really works if it’s not a permanent ‘fix’, but – contrary to some of the marketing – the original book was really much more what you’d call guidelines. Also, we live in the real world, and not a lab. As soon as it’s embraced as a specific diet programme, quitting sugar fails in doing the very thing I did it for – being free to make food choices based on what I will enjoy eating, without a cloud of sugar cravings and energy slumps hanging over me. But I can only do it if it’s fun, and positive. If it moved from “I don’t fancy that because it makes me feel a bit crappy / I like that savoury thing better” to “I can’t have that because it’s demonically possessed evilsugar and I promised myself / my friend / Sarah Wilson / the world / God that I wouldn’t”, I’d just give it up as a bad job. That way madness lies.

I have just one diety habit, and it’s one not actually ever mentioned or recommended on the programme. I still habitually track my food intake out of curiosity, but I do not consciously adapt what I eat to suit it. I don’t work to goals in my tracking app, just observe what I’m having. That’s sometimes how I realise there has been a correlation in more disordered eating and feeling rougher. But it’s something I think can easily make quitting sugar turn into a weird competition with yourself, so it’s not actually something I recommend – I just wanted to be totally honest. It’s something that’s become a bit of a habit, and I rather like having data about myself to look back on. Marketer’s occupational hazard, I guess…

I realise all of the above sounds negative, which is weird for a decision that has made me very happy. So here are some of the things being sugar free has done for me.

I cook more, and better. And I’m more creative and less wasteful. Recipes that use up bendy veg, a freezer full of homemade stock after every roast dinner; it’s bloody great. I need to step up my game because I’m still spending way to much on lunch instead of generating more leftovers, but I’m generally moving in a fresh, lovely food direction that is making me fuller and happier without me having to spend any more money (boxed sugary stuff is expensive, man).

I’ve also been introduced to new ingredients that I probably wouldn’t have used. While I’m not a coconut fanatic, and regularly reduce the amount used in recipes, I really enjoy using coconut oil in stir fries and granola (and, erm, on my daughter’s dry skin patches on her face, though not from the same jar). In my everyday eating post I mentioned adding chia seeds to Ready Brek (not very JERF of me, is it?!), and I find them kind of fascinating because they do make quick breakfasts more filling and add a bit of texture.  I was already a nut butter fan, but in seeking out sugar and added oil-free versions I’ve become obsessed with crunchy Biona peanut butter (no, I’m not paid to say any of this, yes, I know it’s a legume and not a nut).  I’m not a full-on convert to almond milk, but I do love it for chai and in oatmeal.

Weirdly, I now appreciate sweet stuff a lot more, as I really enjoy the tingly tartness of a fresh, ruby raspberry rather than the increasingly sickening taste of, say, cupcake frosting. I never did do much in the way of artificial sweeteners (aspartame doesn’t agree with me and I’m a full fat or go home kinda gal), so I use glucose in the form of rice malt syrup on the few occasions I cannot fathom not adding sweetness (eg to pancakes). I had a splash of maple on holiday and it actually tasted weird to me now as I’ve grown used to my syrup not having a strong taste. Lovely, because maple syrup is lovely, and I definitely enjoyed it, but it’s funny how tastes change.

It’s funny how I’ve changed.

When I look ahead, I find it impossible to imagine a time when I might want to eat large amounts of sugar again. I don’t know that I’d have felt entirely confident saying that at the end of the programme, or even six months ago, because I know that people fall in and out of these patterns in their lives. But right now, a year on, it seems really, really unlikely. And I’m happy with that.

Here’s to another year, and all it has to show for itself.

Great British Chefs #GBCCookSchool with Adam Gray

Adam shows off a tray of bread-wrapped mackerel

Adam Gray shows off a tray of bread-wrapped mackerel

I’ve talked before about the general wonderfulness that is Great British Chefs, and I was again honoured and delighted to join them for one of their fabulous events. This time it was for a cook school – not dissimilar to when Pinterest kindly invited me along to learn from Tom Aikens – at the aptly named Cookery School in Little Portland Street, London.

This time the chef was Skylon’s own Adam Gray; some years back my then-boyfriend (now husband) took me to what was then Rhodes 24 – where Chef Gray was busy earning Michelin stars. It was one of my first grown up fine dining experiences and I still remember elements of that meal very fondly, so it was great to now be learning tips and tricks from a master of the trade who had already contributed to warm and fuzzy memories.

We kicked off with Adam and his sous chef Damon making a fish dish that essentially required making a spring roll out of very thinly rolled slices of bread wrapped around fillets of mackerel flavoured with a dash of English mustard. He took us from filleting the whole fish to plating up beautifully with rhubarb chutney and sea purslane. There’s an alternative, BLT-inspired version of this on the GBC website.

Totes even and perfectly well-rolled, obvs. Ahem.

Totes even and perfectly well-rolled, obvs. Ahem.

Next came the opportunity to get our hands on some beautiful ingredients and mix Ticklemore goats cheese with cream cheese to form a sort of sausage; this was double-dredged in panko breadcrumbs and fried; with the gorgeous, simple tomato salad that made up the rest of the dish it was absolutely delightful. Plus I can now say a Michelin-starred chef has made suggestive jokes while I attempt to get hands-on with a roll of cheese. #lifegoals.

IMG_6090

Dessert before…

Dessert was a fluffy flourless lemon, almond and polenta cake topped with a warmed strawberry jam sauce and served with vanilla-scented natural yogurt. Sugar-free or not, I did take a bite and it was beautifully light yet rich; I might just work out how to do a lower sugar version. There were so many we couldn’t actually finish them and I ended up bringing some home for the family who were very appreciative.

Learning from Adam was really a great privilege; as well as demonstrating dishes and checking on everyone’s progress, he held a little mackerel filleting masterclass and was very generous with his time and his knowledge. He’s very passionate about British ingredients – he only uses locally produced rapeseed oil, for example, and was specific about the British brands, such as Tiptree strawberry jam, he supported when using a ready-made product. He’s visited the sources and investigated the factories. Best of all, he’s realistic about what can be achieved at home, and recognises the role of budget in the average household; mackerel is a fairly cheap fish, and rapeseed oil is much more affordable than some olive oils (though, being Greek, you’ll pry my olive oil from my cold, dead hands, obvs).

The sticky aftermath.

The sticky aftermath.

The Cookery School is a lovely venue; for my pal Christina, it was essentially her home for the week as she’d been on a baking course for three days and plied me with amazing cheese straws and quiche while supplying macarons and sponge cake to the rest of the crew. It’s well-stocked and spotless and founder Rosalind is incredibly, rightly, proud of what she’s achieved.

Best of all, the people who come along to GBC events are always interesting. We’re a very mixed bag, all connected to food in different ways (other than, you know, eating it, that is). Everyone’s always so ready to get stuck in, help out and produce something beautiful; I leave every event with five new people to stalk online, which can never be a bad thing.

Christina, Tiff and Alex. Never knowingly underfed.

Christina, Tiff and Alex. Never knowingly underfed.

If any of the recipes above sound as delicious to you as they should, you can find the cake under Adam Gray’s profile on the Great British Chefs website, plus a number of his other recipes, including a few other gluten-free options. It is all much more manageable than it might look (looks, I think, are half the problem; I’ll never manage presentation like that!) and the other lovely friend who accompanied me, Tiff, has already made the mackerel dish at home. My thanks again to Adam and the GBC team for another very enjoyable event, and for giving me the opportunity to again learn something new.

Edit: GBC has produced a guide including all the recipes which is right here! Handy.

Disclosure: If it’s not obvious, Great British Chefs invited me to the event.

IQS: Teaching yourself to like dark chocolate (aka my favourite chocolate to nibble on)

One of the things that a lot of people talk about when you give up sugar is dark chocolate. And it’s often hugely off-putting to people who prefer milk – which is probably most people. Especially younger people with more excitable taste buds who can pick up every hint of bitterness in dark, cocoa-rich chocolate. But it is worth gently leading yourself down the path from milk to dark (if you like white chocolate I can’t help you; it’s also not really chocolate), for all sorts of reasons. These include:

  • Lower sugar content. While there are other things added to chocolate, you can get an at-a-glance idea of how much sugar is in it by how much cocoa there isn’t. 70% cocoa? Roughly 30% sugar.
  • More of all the stuff that people bang on about that’s good for you. (I don’t pay too much attention to this – I eat it cos I like it.)
  • It’s considerably harder to overdose – it’s richer, more bitter, more complex and your palate can only take so much.

I’ve embraced dark chocolate enthusiastically enough that I now have a handful of favourites in the 70%-100% category (yes, 100%). If you are starting from a very sweet-and-milky point, then there are a couple of more interesting options that could start expanding your horizons, such as Green & Black’s 37% milk which dials up the cocoa intensity a bit (compared to the Creamy Milk which is 32%). But if your main experience of dark chocolate is the odd cookie chip or nibble of Bourneville and you’d like to move further down that path, there are some far more interesting options…

70%+

Stage one: embracing the dark. Quite a lot of ‘extra dark’ chocolate bars are still only at about 65%, but things don’t really get interesting until the number starts with a seven. Here are my favourites at this level:

Tesco Finest 72% Swiss Dark Chocolate – unexpectedly creamy; this almost tastes like a darker milk chocolate. And it’s usually much cheaper than the alternatives.

Green & Blacks 70% Dark Chocolate – lovely, rich and dense but still quite creamy.

80%+

Stage two: dialling up the intensity. As a general rule, as chocolate gets darker, it gets a little harder and less creamy.

Lovechock Pure/Nibs Raw Chocolate – a really unusual one this, since the coconut blossom nectar has an oddly perfumed taste. But it’s really moreish, and the cocoa nib crunch is very satisfying. (Min. 81% cocoa solids)

Tesco Finest 85% Swiss Dark Chocolate – just a touch darker than the 72% but still very creamy, and definitely one of the most forgiving options at this level of cocoa content.

Green & Black’s 85% Dark Chocolate – quite a lot darker, more bitter and richer than its 70% counterpart. One of my favourites.

Divine 85% Dark Chocolate – a fraction more caramel sweetness than the Green & Blacks, but very similar otherwise.

90%+

Stage three: I was once accused of “ruining chocolate” by people who simply weren’t ready for it (even though my 4yo has eaten and liked both 90% and 100% chocolate, perhaps because of the novelty of mummy encouraging her to have another piece just to make sure). So be prepared for some adjustment. Hotel Chocolat even recommends taking a little nibble of 100% chocolate to ‘accustom the palate’ before eating a full piece.

Hotel Chocolat Coastal Ecuador Hacienda Iara 90% – gorgeously intense but not outrageously bitter, and still retains a touch of creaminess and a mild hint of fruit. Also comes in a 100% variety that I really like, though 100% is hard work for anyone.

Lindt Excellence Dark Supreme Noir 90% – typically creamy in the way of Lindt chocolate, with a lovely crisp bitter edge.

All of the above are particularly nice combined with a handful of nuts. My husband’s favourite snack is a couple of brazil nuts, a square of chocolate and a few raisins (I omit the last, for sugar reasons).

Am I missing a particularly delicious option? Is there a brand I should try? I’ve tried a couple of Valrhona options I wasn’t in love with (too chalky-bitter), and I was surprised and pleased by Ghirardelli’s darker options, but the above are generally top of my list (and mostly much more easily available).

Disclosure: My very sad disclosure is that NO-ONE SENDS ME CHOCOLATE and I bought and tried all these myself in the service of eating chocolate, rather than reviewing it. I’m open to being sent chocolate. I will be honest, but honest with chocolate, which is better than being honest without it.