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Losing Weight Wasn’t As Tough As I Thought

I’ve always been overweight. The “body mass index” seems fraudulent to me because it takes no account of the shape or build of a person’s body. But despite the prevarication, I’ve known for some time I need to drop a few pounds. Losing weight would make me more healthy, I know that.

But knowing isn’t doing. For years I half-heartedly tried to cut down on calories and failed to halt my ever-expanding waistline.

“Losing Weight is for Losers.”

Earlier this year my attitude changed. After New Years’ it suddenly dawned on me I’d be sixty next birthday. I’m ten years older than Nigel Farage, for Christ’s sake! Shortly after this revelation sank in, I found myself halfway up the escalator at London Bridge rail station. I’d been walking up but I had to stop to take a breather. Out of breath, I became dizzy, with slight pains in my chest.

Other, less dramatic incidents followed, and I decided the time had come for me to tackle my excess weight. Losing weight became an imperative. The weighing machine in the bathroom couldn’t cope with all my pounds, and at my peak, I tipped in at almost one stone (14 lbs).

hungry_years_cover

Around the same time, I read a blurb written by author Jon Ronson for a book by William Leith called The Hungry Years: Confessions of a Food Addict. Ronson blurbed: “This hilarious, self-lacerating memoir of a compulsive eater is a superb book … this is his crowning achievement.” I waddled straight over to the iMac and bought it.

Losing Weight Book Arrives

Before Leith’s book arrived, I only had a vague idea about how obesity worked. As far as I could tell, the process of losing weight involved eating less and exercising more. Large comedian Phill Jupitus summed it up when he said: “You’ve got to shit more than you eat.”

The Hungry Years is not a manual about how to lose weight. It’s more a memoir of someone addicted to food. Leith was putting on weight and simultaneously interviewing people like Dr Robert Atkins for magazine and newspaper articles. He binged on toast, spooned coffee-creamer straight into his mouth, and couldn’t pass a fast food restaurant without ordering fries.

Although I was getting tired of (and disturbed by) his accounts of repeated binges and plummeting self-esteem, I laughed as much as I squirmed. Slowly I began to realise that “Leith the Eater” was an extreme, slightly younger (isn’t everyone?), version of me. He was eventually lured to the Atkins low-carb diet and was amazed to find himself losing weight. While the pounds dropped off him, he looked into the health issues associated with a high protein diet. That was starting to look scary, too.

Losing weight with Fatty Arbuckle
Fatty Arbuckle eats spaghetti with no thought of losing weight…

More fries, please…

After reading The Hungry Years, I sat down and had a quick think. Fries were definitely out, as was toast and coffee creamer. I decided to lower my intake of processed carbohydrates and basically ignore the other stuff associated with Atkins.

For example, I always start the day with an apple. I’ve done so since an Indian guru recommended it forty years ago. An apple a day may not always keep the doctor away but I’ve never spent a night in hospital or had major surgery, so it seems to work for me. Apples before breakfast are a no-no with Atkins because of the natural sugars they contain. I prefer to think of the enzymes doing me good.

After the apple, I’d have a “proper” breakfast, only without carbs. Because I’m a pescetarian, there’d be no bacon or meaty sausage, instead I’d lightly fry up the Quorn equivalent in a little olive oil, with an egg, mushrooms, and/or tomatoes. Or I might have scrambled eggs with cheese. Because there’d be no toast for it to sit on, I’d scramble two eggs instead of one. Sometimes I’d treat myself to a stinky kipper or two. All washed down with mugs of green tea.

Lunchtime at the Oasis (when you’re losing weight)

That’d keep me going until lunchtime. I deliberately never worry about calories. My lunch might be a bag of raw almonds or cashew nuts (over 1,000 calories in itself!) or more likely a salad of home-made hummus with raw carrot, tomatoes, cucumber, olives and green salad. Quorn make some yummy Mini Savoury Eggs, which are like scotch eggs but surrounded in Quorn. They’re almost pure protein and cheap: £1.20-£1.50 for 12. Believe me, a couple of those babies, sliced in half and spread with English mustard, make a good salad even better.

For my final meal of the day, I’d stay pretty normal. Curry with rice, pasta, jacket potatoes, risotto, whatever. I’d always try and use wholegrain rice or pasta whenever possible, but aside from that, the evening meal would be pretty much what I’d have eaten before.

Walking is the New Jogging

To complement the new diet I decided to walk more. Nothing too dramatic, just making myself aware that a shortish walk was better than a short bus journey. After four days I began to notice the difference. I’d already dropped a couple of pounds and it was staying dropped. After a month I was weighing in at zero (19 stone in real terms), and now, two months down the line, I weigh 18 stone 4lbs (256 lbs). I’ve lost a lot of weight, but I don’t feel like I’ve been dieting. My energy levels are definitely higher than they were. In fact, I feel about ten years younger; possibly even younger than Nigel “Beer and Bensons” Farage. My walks are enjoyable and I’ve not felt tired or dizzy after “exercising” since all this began.

The Occasional Slice of Cake

Occasionally, I will eat a slice of cake or a chocolate bar, but not every day. As far as I can tell, these divergences have not had any noticeable effect on my weight. The secret is not to be obsessive and not to binge. Sandwiches and pasta for lunch were what kept my weight on. If I’m out and I want a cheap, tasty lunch, I buy a packed salad and a small container of supermarket hummus or a dollop of cottage cheese, mix them up with a generous splash of chilli sauce and nosh the lot. A big, filling lunch and it costs around £3.

Strangely, I don’t look a lot different to how I did when I was nearly two stone (28 lbs) heavier. Maybe it’s a question of relativity. I can feel the difference, I’m not carrying the equivalent of a sack of spuds around with me any more, my feet are half a size smaller, and my bum has definitely shrunk – which means I probably am half-assed, as many people suspected. This just tells me it wouldn’t hurt for me to lose some more weight. My new target is now 16 stone (224 lbs). Let’s see how that looks.

My Healthy Hummus Recipe

I started making my own hummus, not because it was cheaper – it costs about the same – but because it tastes better and contains higher quality ingredients than the shop-bought stuff. Here’s the recipe I think I’ve almost perfected:

Start with a food processor into which you tip a generous measure of tahini (around 150 grams), two raw chopped garlic cloves, a chopped chilli (red or green) and the juice of one lemon. Drain a large 454g can (or two small cans) of cooked chickpeas and add them, together with a good glug of olive oil (not extra virgin, that can be too over-powering). Replace the lid and start the machine.

It’ll be slow at first and the hummus will look lumpy and plaster-like: but don’t worry. Pour in a tablespoon of cold water, then a tablespoon of olive oil (you can use extra virgin at this stage), and alternate these until suddenly, the magic happens. The humus will come alive and start to turn itself from chopped chickpeas and stuff into a smooth paste. When you like the consistency, stop adding liquid, turn off the machine and taste. Add salt, ground pepper and maybe more lemon juice until you’re happy.

How the Greeks & Turks Like it

Turks and Greeks like their hummus a little rough and grainy. Palestinians and Israelis prefer it smoother and slightly more pungent. I’m with the Palestinians and the Israelis.

I also add more chopped chillies once the mixing is over. I always buy Middle Eastern tahini (ground sesame seeds) in the brown plastic containers when I can get it. Otherwise, the Greek/ Turkish version is almost as good, if a little more pricey.

Enjoy your hummus, whether you want to lose weight or not.

Up until recently, I used to finish with a YouTube video of William Leith talking about his addiction to food. It was very interesting, but since I posted it, William seems to have wiped the internet of all trace of his shame. Instead, we have to make do with a review of the book. It’s almost as good…

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Join the Beer Club for Real Ale (and Cheese)

Britain’s position in northern Europe makes it natural beer, real ale and cider country. It’s all to do with the weather. Southern English vineyards like Nyetimber, Ridgeview, and Rathfinney have recently achieved spectacular success. But our climate is better suited to growing barley and hops. That’s why the UK, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Poland brew the world’s best beers. And why France, Italy, Australia and South Africa are better known for wine.

Ode to Real Ale

A good beer is a wonderful thing. I can’t think of a better meal than a pint of spectacularly good real ale. Something like Harvey’s Sussex Best, Timothy Taylor Landlord, or Caledonian Deuchars IPA. Preferably served with slices hewn from a crusty freshly-baked cob. Also, a chunk of proper farmhouse cheese. The thing cheese has over other sources of protein is that it’s gentle on the teeth. No bones. No hard seeds. And so no need to visit the dentist.

When it comes to cheese, greasy supermarket cheddars and plasticine pre-packed portions will not do. It’s got to be something great. For instance, a crumbly Hawes Wensleydale. Maybe a proper Farmhouse Double Gloucester, or even a smear of Stinking Bishop. Right now, I’m addicted to crunchy Belton Farm Red Leicester, made exclusively for Waitrose. But, as there’s no Waitrose supermarket within an easy gallop, it does mean a bit of a trek. Nevertheless, the full, mellow flavour and salt crystal crunch make the journey worthwhile.

Say Cheese!

The natural accompaniment to our meal of ale and cheese is a flavoursome blood-red tomato. Add a few slithers of potent English onion. Maybe a touch of homemade chutney. The important thing is to complement the beer, not batter it into submission.

real_ale_pint

Being something of a ditherer doesn’t help me decide what I’d choose for my last meal. A pint of real ale and a crusty cheese roll sounds great. But what about the perfect curry? I’d have to say both. But leave room for a pasta course.

People outside the loop simply can’t understand why real ale is a class apart from keg bitters and mass-produced lagers. Unfortunately, these people usually include the accountants and strivers who make decisions for breweries, pub companies, and eating establishments.

Jim Driver: The Time Out Years (pt 97)

Up to a decade ago, I used to write about beer and pubs for London’s Time Out magazine. It was a great part-time job, even if it didn’t pay enough to get drunk on. It was quite usual in those days for me to visit a bar relaunching itself as a gastropub, to find a range of beers similar to those in a boozer on a failing housing estate. Sometimes there’d be an expensive European lager to help boost the bottom line and appease the trendies.

Wine lists would invariably be out of this world and contain rare delights from every continent. The food was usually prepared with care and skill, but at the bar you’d be limited to the usual range of keg lagers and bitters. If you were lucky, there might be a single pump serving “bog standard” house bitter. It was like going to a restaurant striving for a Michelin Star who’d sourced their vegetables from cans in the Tesco Value Range.

What Is Real Ale?

Another name for real ale is ‘cask-conditioned beer’. This just means the ale is allowed to continue fermenting in the barrel. It tastes better that way. To make their life easier, brewery managers developed a technique that killed off the yeast. This made the resulting ‘keg beer’ easier to store and deal with.

The very best beer can and should be compared to the finest wine. Drinks writer Oz Clarke is known as a wine expert. But I happen to know that when given the choice, he’s happiest sitting in a corner of a quiet British pub, sampling the local real ales.

Bottle-conditioned is Real Ale, too…

Real ale comes in two forms: as a pint of living, breathing draught beer in a pub, and as bottle-conditioned. In both cases, the beer contains live yeast. Up to around 1960, nearly every British pub sold only real ale. But the problem is this: good beer requires a little knowledge, care and attention. The best of them can easily be ruined by not being properly cared for. It’s not surprising that business-orientated breweries sought to standardise the quality of their beers. Above all, brewery people like to make money.

red-barrel-bar-mount

But years before, Watneys’ Brewery in south-west London had developed a solution. Back in the hot summer of 1936,  members of the East Sheen Lawn Tennis Club had a major problem. Most players used the club at the weekend, and in the intervening five days the beer in the bar was going off. Luckily for them, one of their members was Bert Hussey, the Watneys’ Master Brewer.

Watneys Red Barrel

Bert developed a premium export bitter that was then filtered and pasteurised to kill off the yeast. The name Red Barrel came about because workers at the brewery  painted the special barrels red to differentiate them from those containing lesser liquids. To replace the yeast’s sparkle, Bert came up with the idea of connecting the barrels to a small tank of carbon dioxide. This provided the fizz, and propelled the beer from cellar to the bar, meaning there was no need for traditional beer pumps. The result was a great-looking pint, served cold and fizzy.

Red Barrel was a great hit with the members of the East Sheen Lawn Tennis Club, and it became available elsewhere as a premium product. Because the gas kept escaping from wooden barrels, this type of beer was soon shipped out in metal kegs. It’s thought that Flowers’ Brewery – later to be swallowed up by Whitbread – were the first to market the new, more expensive product as “keg bitter”.

“It’s better in a keg!”

Keg bitter took hold in the UK in the 1960s. The rise of commercial television and the need for a uniform product was too tempting a prospect for brewery accountants to ignore. Perversely, the likes of Red Barrel, Double Diamond, Worthing E, Youngers Tartan, Ben Truman, Whitbread Tankard, and Courage Tavern, were brewed with more expensive ingredients.

As a result, they were promoted as premium products over the few cask-conditioned ales that survived. In addition, a fortune was spent advertising them.

The poor quality of pub beer at the time had led to a general trend towards bottled beers after the Second World War. By 1958, bottled beers amounted for 37% of the revenue of pubs operated by English brewers. By now, Keg provided a cheaper and more deliverable alternative.

Canned Beer is Here!

Canned beer had existed in the USA since the end of Prohibition, and in Britain since December 1935, when Llanelli brewers, Felinfoel, launched their own beer in a can. Despite the general availability of huge cans of beer like Watney’s Party Seven, the trend for smaller “tinnies” didn’t take off until the 1980s onwards, when major supermarkets aggressively attacked the market.

In addition, national brewers downgraded the quality of the ingredients and strengths of cask-conditioned versions. The desire for standardisation, combined with the rise of lager served in the same manner as keg bitters, made I commercial sense to do away with everything else.

CAMRA

But the way big brewers downgraded cask-conditioned ales led a fightback. Lovers of real ale recognised the value of their favourite tipple. And so, in 1971, CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, was founded. From small beginnings, do mighty acorns grow. What started out as a small pressure group snowballed. And now almost every pub in Britain worth its salt sells at least one cask-conditioned ale.

Today, many fine real ales are brewed by a legion of small independent breweries across the UK. In addition, the major brewers effectively accounted themselves out of business, and the one or two that still exist mostly brew just lager. There are some sad stories.

Whitbread, who began brewing in 1742, stopped producing beer altogether in 2001 and is now in the cut-price hotel and pizza business. Young’s, whose Ram Brewery at Wandsworth was claimed to be Britain’s oldest continuous brewing centre is now just a pub company. All their beers are now brewed in Bedford by Charles Wells. Although property company Minerva plc, who now owns the Young’s brewery site, has built a microbrewery in the old lab so as to keep up the claim of the “oldest British brewery”.

Return of the Breweries

There are now estimated to be 800 breweries in the UK, most of which are small, independently-owned microbreweries. That’s more than twice as many as existed when CAMRA was formed.

Several long-established regional breweries have survived repeated rounds of corporate pass the parcel. The best of these include Charles Wells (now called Wells & Young’s, of Bedford, 1876); Fuller’s Brewery (Grifin Brewery at Chiswick in London, 1845); Timothy Taylor, (Keighley, 1858); and Hall & Woodhouse, (Badger Brewery at Blandford St. Mary in Dorset, 1777). Long may these and all the others continue producing unique British ales we can be proud of.

In conclusion, anyone who thinks that lager is better for Britain that real ale should watch this video from the regional news on BBC North: