While that old saying 'we are what we eat' may be true up to a point, it is also true that we eat what we are, we eat when we are, we eat how we are, we eat where we are.
By that, I mean that our circumstances are the major factor in determining our eating habits and ultimately, our weight and even our health.
I write this because, rummaging around in my office the other day I came across a newspaper cutting I'd torn out last year. It reported on an interesting side effect of the major economic crisis that Cuba faced from 1991 to 1995. As a result of the crisis, food in Cuba was hard to come by and access to fuel was sporadic meaning that industry relied much more on manual labour. I.e. the nation as a whole, unavoidably, had to survive on fewer calories and do more physical work.
Guess what happened? There was a population-wide weight loss of around 5kg – or over 11 pounds – during this time. And as a positive side effect, deaths from both diabetes and heart disease fell by a third!
Bearing in mind that Cubans weren't high on the list of obese populations before this crisis – the thought that on average each and every Cuban lost 11lbs and became considerably more healthy, is quite something.
On a smaller and less dramatic scale, I can think of many examples of how unavoidable circumstances have us losing weight. When we're ill. When a spouse or loved one sadly dies, or we split up from them or go through divorce. When we're too stressed out to eat after losing a job. And also of how circumstances also mean we gain weight – the month-long cruise with endless meals. The broken leg that means we can no longer walk to work but have to take a taxi. The fact that almost wherever you go, food is there, staring you in the face and defying you not to eat it. The daily, boring, mind-numbing grind of living in a tower block with nothing but the company of small children and the TV for company that makes you temporarily ease your chronic depression with cheap biscuits, cakes and chips.
Life leads, our diet and exercise plan follows or fails. If you buck that system, you're one very determined person. Which is why I've often said here that the government making token changes and bringing in petty rules such as taxes on alcohol or cakes or sweets isn't going to touch our national obesity problem. That has already been proved by the inescapable fact that the very poorest people in our country, who you might think could not afford to overeat – those out of work and on benefits – are some of the most obese of all. And that the richest, who you might think would gorge on all the best the world has to offer – for example, those living in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea – are amongst the slimmest and healthiest.
The answer? For us, I'm not sure there is one. Until our fuel resources run out, or we hit another war, or the world population grows so much there is not enough food to go round – or, indeed, our own economy means we can't import enough food to our small island – we will eat as we find – and what we find right now is plenty. 'Too much of a good thing'. Now there's another old saying.
And fancy that, by co-incidence, today you find me in calorie-inducing circumstances. I am about to visit the Old Stables Tearooms in Hay on Wye, where a free tea awaits me in return for a write up in our county glossy magazine, to which I could not say no. Now you know me and scones, and cake. Let's just hope they don't have any coffee and walnut. If I arrive late, maybe it will be scarce.
Ate last weekend:
I had a shoulder of lamb and rather than simply roast it as normal, I spiced it up a bit and slow-roast it. I got a sharp knife and got off as much of the outer fat layer and skin as I could, then made incisions all over. In my mini-chopper, I ground a couple of teaspoons each of whole pre-toasted cumin and coriander seeds and half a stick of cinnamon. Then I added about five peeled garlic cloves, a tablespoon of olive oil, the juice of half a lemon, a tablespoon of ready-made tagine paste and a teaspoon of harissa. I added my secret ingredient – a good shaking of dried rose petals (bought from The Spiceworks – a small chain of shops I regularly use).
I made a paste from all this and using my fingers worked it through the lamb and left it to marinate for an hour or two, then simply roasted it at 180C for half an hour, than at 140C for 3 hours, covering lightly with a piece of foil and adding a glass of dry white wine to the roasting pan and basting occasionally.
I served it with grilled thin strips of courgette sprinkled with mint, lemon juice and seasoning, some roast squash chunks and a tzatziki of Greek yogurt, chopped cucumber, crushed garlic, more mint, a little white wine vinegar and seasoning. Husband said it was completely fantastic and I even caught him licking his plate. If I'd had time I would have cooked it even longer as the lamb wasn't quite falling off the bone but still sliceable. Anyway. It made a great change and there was no need for potato or any other starchy element.