Category Archives: Diary

Listen To Your Heart – 16 March 2016

Having recently celebrated International Women’s Day my thoughts have turned to women’s health. A story that caught my eye this week appeared in The Washington Post. It was alarming and a cautionary tale so I share it here.

Last January, a woman aged 46 woke in the early hours of the morning feeling unwell. Soon after she threw up. She got back into bed intending to try to get back to sleep. She felt very cold and threw up again. She assumed that she had one of those 24 hour stomach bugs. Fortunately her husband was awake. He was concerned about how clammy she felt and said he was taking her to the hospital. She thought he was over reacting. But he persisted as he thought she might be having a heart attack.

Hang on a minute – aren’t the symptoms of a heart attack pain in the chest? That was the symptom that her father-in-law had experienced when he suffered a fatal heart attack aged 64. But she was just 46 – fit, slim, a non-smoker, a healthy eater with normal cholesterol level and no family history of heart disease.

Probably most husbands would murmur a few reassuring comments like ‘you’ll feel better in the morning’ or ‘remember how much I vomited when I had that tummy bug?’ Her husband insisted they go to the hospital and got her to the front of the queue by saying that they thought she was having a heart attack.

The initial tests at the hospital were a bit abnormal but not suggestive of a heart attack. The tests were repeated shortly afterwards and suddenly the room filled with medical staff. It turned out that she was indeed in the early stages of a heart attack. Fortunately an interventional cardiologist was on duty and he operated immediately, literally stopping a major heart attack in its tracks by removing the blood clot and inserting two stents into her right coronary artery. What the surgeon had found was that her right artery was totally blocked while her central artery, called the LAD, was 70% blocked. Blockage of this artery causes sudden death and is known as the widow maker.

What would have happened had she gone back to sleep? She may never have woken up or, if she did survive, might have had serious damage to her heart.

Most women would probably say that they are more concerned about breast cancer than cardiovascular disease. Yet more women in the UK and the USA die of heart attacks than from breast cancer.

So let us all be warned. Heart attacks can and do happen to healthy women with normal cholesterol and healthy lifestyles. Women do not always have the classic symptoms of heart attack ie pain in the chest. Women are more likely to experience nausea or vomiting, pain in the back or the jaw, and shortness of breath. Because most of us don’t like to make a fuss and are used to plodding on even if we are not feeling so well, it can be difficult to make an assessment of when to call an ambulance or hasten to the hospital. Better safe than sorry seems to be the moral of this story.


Fat Confusion – 3 March 2016

I was talking to a friend about the controversy around fats that continues to confuse me and, no doubt, many other people attempting to lower their cholesterol. As if healthy eating is not itself enough of a long term challenge, the conflicting advice makes my head spin. Should we be eating saturated fats or not? Is cholesterol directly linked to cardio vascular disease or are sugar and inflammation the real culprit? Am I avoiding eating too much saturated fat for good reason or just feeling smug while believing incorrect science? Could I be eating ice cream rather than no fat yoghurt? So many questions and no way to really get to the bottom of it – at least I find it difficult.

One of the clearest and most useful articles I have read recently on the subject was published in January in The Observer. The Science of Healthy Eating was written by a science writer, Dara Mohammadi and a cardiologist, Dr Ali Khavandi.

The article began by debunking the health benefits of low fat foods pointing out that something has to replace the reduced fat content – that something is often extra sugar. I have written several times in the blog about the sugar content of low or no fat yoghurts and encourage you to have a look at the small print next time you are in the dairy section of the supermarket. It is an eye opener.

Addressing the debate about fats, the authors returned to the 1950s when saturated fats began to get bad press. Studies revealed that people eating a Mediterranean diet – high in olive oil (an unsaturated fat) had a lower risk of heart disease. When the food industry responded to these findings (around the 1970s) they replaced saturated fats (butter, for example) with trans fats. Trans fats were made from unsaturated fats that were transformed through the process of hydrogenation. This was good news for the food industry as trans fats could increase the shelf life of biscuits and cakes and processed foods. It seemed like a win-win situation – a healthier fat that could fatten the profits of the food industry.

The belief that trans fats were healthier because they were made from unsaturated fats had a rather different outcome than expected. During the 1980s and 1990s there was an escalation of cardiovascular disease. Not only were trans fats implicated in this increase but it was also found to increase risk of type 2 diabetes. You may have noticed that in the last few years supermarkets have been trumpeting the fact that they have reduced or eliminated trans fats from their products.

Now that trans fats were bad news, saturated fats have come back into fashion. Time magazine had butter on its front cover. Talk about reinventing the wheel.  Weren’t we all eating saturated fats back in the 1950s before we were rerouted by food scientists and the food industry?

Well, the authors of this article don’t believe that eating as much unsaturated fat as you desire is a good idea. They suggest that unsaturated fats (not trans fats made from unsaturated fats) are the way to go. In other words – olive oil, seeds and nuts, oily fish and avocados. Well, what a relief since that is what I have been eating and writing about for the past three years.

After addressing the debate about processed meat and what they term the ‘gluten-free con’ (only 1 % of the population has coeliac disease and will benefit from a gluten free diet yet 20 % of the population now buy gluten free products) – the authors move on to consider cholesterol. They stress the importance of understanding one’s lipid profile is an oversimplification. Do be aware of this when sitting with the GP who is reaching for the prescription pad with Statins written on it. Ask for a printout of your blood test result so that you can have a good look at the ratio.  Many of us have been able to increase  the levels of ‘good’ cholesterol and reduce the ‘bad’ cholesterol through changing eating habits and increasing exercise levels.

The authors dismiss concern about the cholesterol content of eggs and prawns as ‘almost irrelevant’ and focus instead on what you should be adding in to your diet. I was gratified to read that this includes oats, nuts and seeds and oily fish. I would add pulses to this list. Things to avoid are excess sugar and refined carbohydrates – so keep on eating wholemeal pasta and couscous, wholemeal bread, brown rice and the like.

It is not enough to eat healthily if you want to reduce cholesterol. Exercise has a key role to play as I tell myself every time I reluctantly put on my walking shoes.

Healthy Food for Hungry People

Keeping healthy can be very rewarding but also rather boring. Healthy meal after healthy meal has to be put on the table, so keeping interested in cooking is important. As I have said many times before, it is a lifestyle change not just a matter of lowering the cholesterol or losing the weight before returning to old habits.

New ideas in the kitchen are such an important part of keeping on track. I love paging through magazines and cookbooks to get my enthusiasm up for the seemingly endless number of meals. As the New Year rolls around so does a new collection of healthy cookbooks. One of these new books made its way to my door thanks to blogger friend, Dannii Martin, who tells the story of how she lost a lot of weight and has continued to maintain her healthy eating habits.

Called Hungry, Healthy, Happy, this cookbook (as well as Danii’s blog, is packed with recipes that will pep up the weekly cooking. What I like most about this book is that the recipes are perfect for everyday cooking. Most of the time I have to put a meal on the table for the family dinner while also trying to eat healthily myself. I have to balance my needs with those of growing teenagers which is not always easy. Sometimes I eat too much fat or they eat too much lean.

Cooking one’s favourite dishes in a lower fat manner is the way to go when trying to maintain healthy eating habits. We all hark after the meals we love and it is too much of a deprivation to give them up forever. A tweak here and there can make all the difference. So I was pleased to find a recipe for a club sandwich (made with fat free yoghurt rather than mayonnaise), chicken tikka masala (fat free yoghurt again replacing the cream) and even mac and cheese which adds cauliflower and yoghurt rather than the full quotient of pasta and cheese.

Each recipe is labelled as vegetarian, gluten or dairy free, where appropriate. This is a useful time saver when paging through the book looking for a suitable dish. Each recipe sets out the nutritional value of the recipe which is such important information for those watching their salt, sugar, fat and calorie intake.

Whenever I look at a healthy eating cookbook I take particular note of the dessert section. This book has far more on offer than fruit platters. I was pleased to find a recipe for banana ice cream which I have previously tried, unsuccessfully. What I really appreciated was that this version of the recipe anticipates the problem the cook will encounter – the banana crumbles – and tells you exactly what to do to remedy this situation and to successfully end up with a smooth and creamy ice cream. When I served my adaptation (I added raspberries) to my family they could not actually believe that it was pure fruit with nothing added. ‘No cream?’ asked my younger son. ‘Not even sugar?’ asked the older one. They were mightily impressed and banana ice cream will now be part of my repertoire. It is a lovely example of a dish that suits the whole family – cholesterol lowering adults and growing teenagers. Wait until I try the chocolate avocado mousse – I will not be telling them the ingredients until after I have seen their faces – looks of pleasure I hope.

Healthy living is not just for January – 3 February 2016

January is behind us and with it the endless stream of articles on self- improvement, healthy lifestyle and refusing alcohol for the month. I don’t know where the fashion for ‘Dry January’ came from but I can only imagine that the pubs are fuller than ever this week with some very thirsty customers. With Valentine’s Day in February there is a lovely romantic excuse to start popping the champagne corks again. So much for the liver detox.

The problem I have with Dry January is the way an alcohol– free lifestyle is touted for a month a year and then it is back to normal for most. So much of our health improving behaviour suffers the same fate. Gym memberships bought and not used much beyond the first few months, diets begun on Mondays and abandoned by Fridays; I am guilty of these and many more discarded attempts to be healthier.

The biggest challenge I have encountered over the past three years of cholesterol lowering has been the sheer endlessness of it. Not the short number of months it took to get my cholesterol down initially – that only took 90 days. No, the problem set in when I had to maintain what I had achieved. I succeeded in my initial goal to reduce my cholesterol level through sheer willpower and refusal to be tempted off my path by foods that were off-limits. A bit like Dry January, really, except that there were many more foods and it lasted three months.

Similarly to people who try to reduce alcohol intake on a long term basis, I have to make decisions on a daily basis, hourly even, to keep my cholesterol in check. Some days I am better at it than others. Every meal there are choices to be made – do I eat steak with the family or pop yet another salmon fillet in the oven? Do I eat ice cream with the stewed apples or help myself to a bowl of yoghurt? Do I go for my brisk walk or curl up with a box of chocolates and a book? Especially when it is raining.

Some militants might be able to make the right decisions every day, year in and year out. In the early days of my campaign to keep my cholesterol in check I thought I was one such person. Three years on I know I am not. It is a struggle. It is boring. I want to rebel. I do rebel.

I enjoy reading articles that say that the food advice we have been fed over the past decades has been wrong, that fat is not the enemy. But not all fats were created equal and some fats are better than others. Olive oil, nuts, avocado, oily fish – these are all high in healthy fats. Problem is that they also make you fat if you eat too much of them. As a woman of a certain age, that extra weight seems to be settling in for good around my belly which is known to be the worst area to be carrying fat. It increases one’s risk of cardiovascular problems. Even in the past three years I have noticed how much more difficult it is becoming to keep my weight in check. Is it because I am eating too many slices of cake or could it just be that I am eating too many healthy fats? Perhaps next time I will say no to salmon and just get stuck in to a juicy piece of steak with ice cream to follow!

From The Healthy Heart is 3 Years Old – 20 January 2016

Two weeks ago I overlooked a rather significant birthday – From The Healthy Heart turned three. I was too busy celebrating a family birthday with cheesecake (several slices since you are wondering) to notice. It has naturally set me to wondering what has changed – if anything – over the past three years.

I had a good think about this while I walked yesterday. It was one of those fabulous winter days when the sky is bright blue and the sun is blazing coldly. There were patches of ice on the ground but I was warm in my coat and rather pleased to be on foot. Then it struck me that one aspect of my life that has definitely shifted in the right direction is my attitude to exercise. No, I have not yet come to love it exactly but I do now walk 3-4 times a week. Previously I rarely walked. Ever. Hard to believe now. Although I tumbled off the exercise wagon for quite a few months over last summer, I have picked it up again. I also have spent the past year attending a weekly Pilates class so hopefully my core is in better shape although you wouldn’t know it to look at me.

Over the past three years I have read countless articles and research studies about the importance of regular exercise for our general health and life expectancy. Most recently I discovered that whereas previously, people with serious illness or recovering from surgery were encouraged to rest, now the thinking is that they should exercise as much as they can manage. The reason for this is that exercise has anti-inflammatory effects on the body. That is probably also why it helps to mitigate the effects of stress which causes inflammation.

On the food front I am much more aware of what not to eat and, as importantly, what to include in the diet – oats, almonds, pulses, oily fish, good fats (avocado for example). In truth, I am far better at adding in than in taking out. So I find it easy to include the above items, some daily and others weekly. However, it is turning down the homemade cake, the scoops of ice cream, the roast potatoes, the winter puddings and the summer ones come to think of it – all this I find difficult and waver in my ability to stand firm.

Hence, my weight – which dropped rather pleasingly along with a dress size – hovers now somewhere between what I was three years ago and where I got down to at my best behaved. Not that I embarked on this programme specifically to lose weight, but getting to your normal size is all part and parcel of lowering cholesterol.

As for that actual cholesterol result – or more importantly the ratio between HDL (the good stuff) and LDL (the baddie) – that hovers too. It is coming up to that time of year called the annual test. If you have not had your cholesterol tested in the past year, please be encouraged to do so. Everyone over the age of 20 should have their cholesterol tested.

To celebrate the blog’s birthday I will not be treating myself to cake. No, I will start the year as I mean to go on with a healthy and colourful platter of fruit.

Thanks for reading From The Healthy Heart – let’s all enjoy a healthy year together.

Spiralising: Foodie Fun for the New Year – 6 January 2016

Happy new year!

This January I am not going to start up on the new year resolutions. I thought instead I would let you know about a new cookbook I have been having a look at over the past few days. It is simply called Spiralize!

During the summer I bought myself a spiralizer. A table top model. I returned home genuinely excited with my new gadget and happily set about making courgette noodles for my dinner. My family, tucking into their pasta, looked at me with raised eyebrows. When they tasted my noodles they agreed that the taste was good but they were hungry soon after. Perhaps spiralising is not for teenage boys. Mind you, they liked the gadget itself and my son made a delicious carrot and apple noodle salad topped with walnuts. Eaten with several slices of bread and cheese.

Spiralising has gained in popularity especially due to the growing interest in clean eating (a term I find confusing), raw food and veganism. While I am no convert to these eating habits, I am always keen to find delicious ways to reduce my cholesterol and keep my weight in check.

Spiralize! – 40 nutritious recipes to transform the way you eat (Pavilion Books) is written by Stephanie Jeffs. The title itself introduces the possibility of transformation, and for those seeking to do just that, this book offers a range of new ways to cook and eat.

I was not looking to become vegan or even to cut gluten out of my diet. But I did want to dust off my spiralizer which was gathering dust at the back of my cupboard as many gadgets do once they have been used a couple of times.
The first thing I learned was that I was not using my spiralizer correctly, so that was helpful information. I had also only used one of the three available blades. The recipes gave me the confidence to extend my blade repertoire. Jeffs warns that caution is needed with the apparatus as the blades are sharp. True. In fact, I ended up coming unstuck with the dangerous skewer with which I punctured my palm while trying to stabilise an apple on the spiralizer. Ouch.

Jeffs divides the recipes into chapters on breakfast, light meals, hearty meals, sides and desserts. Each dish has full nutritional details provided.

While perusing the recipes I found that I did not have many of the ingredients in my cupboard. That was when I realised that this book is not meant for people like me who want to spiralise alongside eating gluten and dairy. The recipes use a lot of coconut oil rather than olive, coconut flour, coconut yoghurt, yeast flakes to get the cheesy taste; 14 recipes contain maple syrup, 15 contain coconut.

Those trying to lower their cholesterol may well have some discomfort using coconut oil. I know I do and that goes beyond not liking the taste. As coconut oil is high in saturated fats it can in fact raise your total cholesterol so your GP may be unhappy with your numbers. However, it also tends to raise HDL cholesterol (the good stuff) which can improve the ratio between the HDL and LDL (the bad stuff). Overall, therefore, coconut oil can have a positive effect on cholesterol as the ratio is considered to be more important than the total cholesterol number. However, many people sitting in front of their GP may not have a chance to get into these details before statins are suggested.

As I don’t like the taste of coconut oil – or the smell – I prefer to use olive oil.

It being winter, I was immediately drawn to the chapter on Hearty Meals and set about making the Tomato Pasta Bake as I was already familiar with courgette noodles. I was wary of adding dried apricots to a tomato sauce as the recipe suggested, but gave it a try. At this point I nearly gave up on the book as I found the sauce to be both watery (all that tomato and courgette give off a lot of water when baked) and unpalatably sweet. I don’t want my tomato pasta bake sweet. An alternative would be to cook down the fresh tomatoes first into a jammy consistency. This provides plenty taste in my book, especially if sautéed slowly along with onion, garlic, celery and carrots. That is perfectly vegan too.

I continued to try out a few more recipes and thought that the Hot Noodle Pudding with Pistachio and Pomegranate looked enticing on a cold night. I was happy with the outcome although the addition of maple syrup and coconut milk made this quite high in sugars. But then it is a dessert after all and not a dish for every day. I liked the texture of the pistachio nuts and the pomegranate seeds and the overall taste was good. I have earmarked this recipe to serve to a vegan guest and will be interested to get the view of someone who prefers custard made with soaked cashew nuts, vanilla extract, maple syrup and coconut milk.

Lastly, I tried the Crunchy Beetroot and Carrot Noodles with Avocado Dip from the chapter on Sides. This the whole family enjoyed. The noodles were attractive to look at and delicious to eat, the flavour of the vegetables enhanced by having been roasted. I served it as a nibble before dinner and my sons licked out the bowl with the avocado, albeit with crackers.

Not being a vegan, I don’t intend making a Noodle Pizza or a Noodle Burrito but I am sure that there are a growing number of people who might wish to use their spiralizer in these ways.

Spiralize! sets out to help readers transform the way they eat and it certainly introduces many creative ways to do so. I am still planning to try the Asian Noodle Soup, the Cucumber Noodle Salad with Fennel, Chard and Quinoa, and the Raw Chinese Stir-Fry with Crunchy Noodles. Wild Mushroom Yakitori has also caught my eye along with a number of other recipes. I may just leave out the maple syrup in the recipes. I never cook with sugar so I don’t want to add an alternative sweetener.

Spiralize! is a good option for vegan cooks and has certainly encouraged me to use my spiralizer more creatively. It has got me thinking that there may be another spiralising book waiting to be written – one for omnivores. I love courgette noodles with chopped tomatoes, a handful of olives, a scattering of feta cheese and a bunch of torn basil leaves. I have enjoyed courgette noodles with my regular turkey bolognaise sauce mixed in. I look forward to trying a wider range of vegetable noodles with baked salmon or a chicken stir fry. All of these options would make for good cholesterol lowering dishes. I am keeping my spiralizer on my worktop from now on. That sounds like a new year resolution to me.

Eating Well – 23 December 2015

Christmas is upon us. Again. No doubt you have been tempted over the past weeks, not only by the canapes at drinks parties but also about just how much to eat over the next few days.

I have been to a number of Christmas parties recently and have discovered that it is not so much what you eat as how you eat it. Having dined in the company of many slender women, I have noticed that while they eat most of the food on offer – even cake – they only have one helping. My walking friend and I were chewing this over and reflected on how, when we eat at friends’ houses, we tend to go for a second helping. I know I do so even if I am no longer hungry and refill my plate simply because it tastes so good.

Over the past weeks I have eaten several times at buffet tables filled with delightful platters of healthy foods – grain based salads, vegetables in every form from raw to roasted, bowls of nutritious dips, dinky savoury pastries, delicious breads and, yes, desserts that threaten to undo me. On every occasion I have taken the lead from the other guests and have therefore eaten only one helping. Only once was I actually a little hungry at the end of the evening. The other times I was full after one good plate of food.

I realise how much I eat for the wrong reason and that I really need to put more effort into enjoying my one helping and be satisfied with that. I do think that this approach is possibly more sustainable that constantly trying to cut out certain foods from my diet. Yes, I know that old adage ‘everything in moderation’ but clearly I have been unable to integrate it into my life. Otherwise I would not, every Christmas, find myself engaged in the same tedious attempt to lower my cholesterol and my weight.

I am planning to try out a new approach over Christmas. A low fat Christmas meal is never going to cut the mustard of course, and why should everyone else suffer because my genetic inheritance sends my cholesterol in the wrong direction by just looking at the mince pies?

This year we will be tucking in to a large, slow cooked shoulder of venison – a lot less fatty than our traditional goose. I hope no-one will leave the table feeling deprived. I am also not planning a cheeseboard – which only serves to make me feel ill from overeating. I will make two desserts (one a fruit salad) rather than far too many. All this adds up to less temptation to overeat.

Most important, I am going to attempt one helping – a substantial one as befits the day. I will think about eating the leftovers on Boxing Day, rather than scoffing so much on Christmas that there are no leftovers!

As we move towards the new year I hope to resolve to try to eat more mindfully and increase my exercise regime which has staggered somewhat over the past months and is just stuttering back to life. Keeping cholesterol under control is a lifelong process and has its ups and downs. A bit like the rest of life.

I wish you all a very peaceful festive season and good health and contentment in 2016. Thanks for reading the blog over the past year and do keep in touch.

One Size Does NOT Fit All – 9 December 2015

Ever envied the fact that your friend can happily eat cake without putting on an ounce, while you seem to gain weight just looking at the blueberry muffins? Me too. Now it turns out that our informal observation is scientifically accurate.

Research published in November by the Weizmann Institute confirms that each of us has a different blood sugar response to foods. This means that the same foods – for example ice cream or sushi – have a different response in different people. I may experience a spike in my blood sugar level after eating a pastry and you may not. This is also true of what we consider to be healthy foods or foods considered low GI. These findings throw into question the whole low Glycemic Index diet plan whereby we are encouraged to stick to complex carbohydrates that convert slowly into glucose.

All carbohydrate turns into glucose in our blood stream. This glucose is either burnt off through exercise or turned into fat. It lies at the heart of the epidemic of obesity and diabetes which is why the problem with sugar in our diet is now replacing fat as the new evil.

However, it turns out that we all respond in individual ways to carbs. Similarly it turns out that we respond differently to meat and to fats. So a one-size-fits-all diet is of limited value as is all the calorie counting that so many diets are based on.

What the researchers at the Weizmann Institute have shown is that what really determines how each of our blood sugar levels responds to food is our genes and our gut microbes, called microbiomes. They have developed an algorithim that can predict how individuals will respond to different foods. This is the first step towards what they call personalised diets. In the future, we may be able to have a tailored diet that is based on our own bodily responses. The idea is that this could help millions of people to lose weight and reduce the worldwide obesity and diabetes rates.

This research helps make sense of why I went wheat free for 3 weeks without losing an inch while people I know have lost loads of weight. If anything I seemed to feel a little heavier. Turns out that some people do actually put on weight going wheat free. All those gluten free products have to have something to hold them together. A bit like all the low fat goodies that are packed with sugars. Of course if one is gluten intolerant then going wheat free is indicated, and I know that many people report feeling better and losing a lot of weight going wheat free. I just don’t think it is for me.

I feel so frustrated by the annual yo-yoing of my weight and cholesterol level. I look forward to the day when a personalised eating plan is available to all and that for once I will know what really works for me. Who knows, I may just be one of the lucky ones whose blood sugar does not spike after eating ice cream! Fat chance.

Can ham lower cholesterol?

Last week I was invited to an evening to celebrate the Iberian ham. Not quite the event for someone trying to lower cholesterol I thought as I approached the Good Housekeeping Institute where it was taking place. But I was in for a surprise, for Iberian ham turns out to have the sorts of fats that help to lower cholesterol rather than to push it in the wrong direction.

Of course, this superb-tasting product should be eaten in small quantities to prevent weight gain and salt overload – neither of which is good for the heart – but fortunately it packs such a flavour punch that a little goes a long way.

The evening had three wonderful components – top quality ham, the world’s most prestigious ham cutter, and a warm, engaging Spanish chef who demonstrated a couple of dishes for us which could easily be replicated at home.

Iberian ham is a controlled substance – so to speak – in that it is strictly monitored. Made from a special breed of pig with distinctive black trotters, the animals are raised on the pastures of Southern and Western regions of Spain. Known as the Dehesa, these pastures are filled with cork trees and the pigs roam freely, eating the acorns that fall from the trees. The meat is cured for several years, developing a deep red colour and beautiful marbling of fat. Due to the pigs’ diet of acorns, the meat has polyphenols (micronutrients) which contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties which help prevent cardio-vascular disease.

Doing a bit of research I discovered that the fat of these particular pigs contains over 55% oleic acid (a mono-unsaturated fatty acid). Only olive oil has a higher level. This fat is beneficial for those lowering cholesterol as it increases the HDL (the so-called good cholesterol) and reduces LDL (the bad stuff).

When these pigs are fattened on a diet of acorns the proportion of unsaturated fat is over 75% so that makes it healthier than many other animal fats. This results from a combination of the particular DNA structure of this breed of pig coupled with their diet of grasses and acorns.

It is said that aficionados of Iberian ham can taste the difference in the meat depending on who has carved it. I was sceptical of this claim along with the one that meat cut from different areas of the ham has unique flavours. How wrong I was.

At the ham event co-hosted by the Interprofessional Iberian Pig Association, guests gathered around to watch the wonderfully flamboyant and world renowned carver, Florencio Sanchidrián, apply his skill with an array of knives. His love for the large jamón he carved was palpable. While a guitarist played flamenco tunes, he spoke of jamón Ibérico as a lover that seduces him and insisted that it has aphrodisiac qualities. Perhaps for him it does. For the rest of us it had our mouths watering.

When he asked for volunteers to do a tasting my hand shot up. We tasted four different cuts and I was intrigued and delighted to discover that each did in fact have a distinct flavour. The first was intensely deep almost like a rich Rioja, the next was more mellow and caramel-like. Then there was one that tasted of walnuts. I would not have believed that they were all cut from the same ham had I not been standing right in front of the carver. So close in fact, that I ended up eating a slice of ham wrapped around the end of his long carving knife. Seductive indeed. Enough said!

After this extraordinary display we were treated to a cookery demonstration by Omar Allibhoy who has opened four Tapas Revolution restaurants in London. He is a delightful man, approachable, friendly and filled with enthusiasm for his craft. He whipped up a pea and jamón soup in minutes – ‘the sort of thing I cook at home,’ he quipped. ‘Can I come round?’ I wanted to ask. I will just have to make a reservation at the restaurant.

Thinking ahead to the Xmas season I will certainly be making the soup and a few canapes with Iberian ham. Knowing it is doing my heart good will fill me with festive cheer.

If you would like to see some photos of this event, take a look at my blog on Kitchen Journeys

Wheat Free – 11 November 2015

I had lunch with a friend last week – omelette and salad in case you were wondering – and I was bemoaning my recent weight gain and the boring, soul destroying job of starting all over again. Starting again, too, to lower my cholesterol which does not respond well to non-stop pastry eating. Oh the fun things women discuss when they get together! Actually we did have a great talk about a range of subjects but one of these was our physical state. I am pleased to say that we each went away with a new resolution. She challenged me to give up wheat for three weeks and I returned the challenge with the suggestion that she try 30 minutes of exercise 5 times a week.

I think I got the easier challenge – at least it feels that way thus far. I am not quite sure why I am doing it though as I have never before signed up for any of these exclusion eating plans. A week in and all is fine although I did slip up inadvertently eating tempura prawns – I only thought about it afterwards that tempura batter is made with flour. Lunchtimes are a breeze as I can eat rye bread which I really do enjoy. I like those thinly sliced, dense dark ryes that are sold in packs in the supermarkets. They mostly hail from Germany and have a lot of flavour packed into a small slice.

As I hardly ever eat pasta I did not mind getting out my spiralizer and getting to work on making a large pile of courgette noodles to go with the mushroom, courgette and sundried tomato sauté that accompanied the wholemeal pasta the rest of the family ate last night. I do have to discipline myself not to pick on the leftover bread that seems to be a constant presence on the chopping board. Along with spoons of peanut butter straight out of the jar – there are few more tempting snacks and I have been tempted far, far too often recently.

When I announced that I could not eat a cheese toastie made on my son’s new Panini machine (lovely birthday gifts my foodie boys request) my son was incredulous about my having given up wheat. ‘It’s not Lent, mum’ he quipped. ‘That’s chocolate,’ responded my husband. Well, in fact I do believe that you can choose what to give up for Lent! And anyway my deprivation is my business.

So why have I done it? Well, for one thing I do like a challenge. Secondly, I hope to kick start a bit of weight loss which my friend assures me will happen – although she did acknowledge that the absence of all those other pesky wheaty goods like biscuits, cakes and pastries may make weight loss more likely. As keeping weight under control is an important part of lowering cholesterol, any reasonable method is worth a try at the moment. Lastly, it is always helpful to have someone set a challenge that they will follow up on. Like going to a weight loss club, the thought of reporting no effort seems a bit lame. We have agreed to text our progress and meet up again in three weeks. Then we can discuss our favourite topics again, including ourselves!