Are you giving anything up for Lent?

My relationship with food has fluctuated since my birth almost forty years ago. After a struggle with breastfeeding I was, so I am reliably informed, fed with carnation milk. My toddler self was extremely fussy but this thankfully morphed in to a constant hunger and willingness to eat anything once. Home cooked food in the eighties was simple but made of good quality, ‘real’ food – as opposed to many of the ‘food like’ products consumed today. Mum’s cooking certainly laid great foundations for my appetite as an adult.

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As a young woman my pre-existing heart condition began to have an impact on my well being at around the same time as my interest in cookery appeared. As the illness developed so I learnt to hold on to health through good food choices. This became crucial as I entered the final phases of heart failure and battled to not only stay well but maintain a healthy weight with very little physical activity.

In 2009 I received a heart transplant and a healthy lifestyle was the lynch pin to my initial recovery. Sadly, as a result of my experiences with life limiting illness I am now taking the first steps to tackling clinical anxiety and depression. My patterns of eating fluctuate with how well I feel at the time and I tend to swing between eating way too much – and eating obsessively healthy foods.

I have found mindfulness a useful approach, most particularly with regards to my anxiety levels. As a food lover I was fascinated to read about the principles of mindful eating and happened across author Julian Baggini and his book, The Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Think. Here he discusses the choice of abstinence as a form of mindful eating;

True freedom therefore requires the ability to exercise self-control rather than simply being carried by whatever desires and impulses arise in you. Only eating certain things at certain times…is a way of countering our tendency to slavishly follow our desires, breaking the link between desire and action, impulse and acting on it…It’s a way of exercising choice very knowingly.

As a teenager I took part in a sponsored 24 hour famine to raise money for the charities working in Africa. I then made an active choice to adopt a vegetarian diet for two years. Twenty years later my fascination with medieval food introduced me once again to the concept of fasting. But it wasn’t until reading chapter 16 in Julian’s book that I considered it as a part of my own life. Last summer my husband and I attempted abstinence together and gave up meat for the month of July. It was a fascinating and empowering experience.

My mental health has wavered in recent months and along with it every iota of self control. Despite knowing that processed sugar does me no good whatsoever I continuously reach for the cakes and biscuits. The run up to Shrove Tuesday and Lent prompted my thoughts back to that piece on fasting, and this blog post. For the first time in my life I have decided to observe Lent and will give up processed sugar. I hope to introduce greater mindfulness to my food choices and in some sense, press the reset button on some bad habits.

You may not wish to join me on this abstinence path but if you are interested in combining philosophy with food then I fully recommend getting hold of a copy of Julian Baggini’s new book. There is certainly plenty of food for thought.

A slice of life.

Today I share my first bite of food writing. Originally written for The History Girls, A Slice Of Life evolved into an opinion piece and doesn’t truly fit their remit any more.



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2015 is soon developing a focus on traditional bread making skills. Before January was out The History Girls had enquiries for an Anglo Saxon loaf, a workshop on sour dough techniques and plans are even afoot for an exciting collaboration with Love Bread CIC in Brighouse. Then, lo and behold, Radio 4’s The Food Programme met with growers working to resurrect some near lost variations of wheat.

As some of you know I work for a local baker, selling his hand made bread twice a week on the market. It is a fantastic opportunity for chatting with people about their concerns and as you might expect, the issue of wheat and it’s place in our diet is a regular topic. Is it the modern breeding of wheat triggering the intolerance that so many people describe –  or the Chorleywood bread process upsetting our constitutions? Do these intolerances exist or is wheat simply the newest ingredient to be vilified by the diet industry? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but the recent Food Programme episode seemed to confirm my suspicions that modern production demands take precedence over variety and possibly nutrition. Where once we consumed a small amount of a large number of different and locally native grains, we now have access to a vast quantity of only a few, globally farmed forms of wheat. Then there is the previously mentioned Chorleywood process – producing a loaf which couldn’t be further from the often home baked bread we consumed just a hundred years ago.

Throughout history bread has provided a crucial source of carbohydrate and calories. During World War Two it was the one food stuff to never go on ration as it was deemed so important to both diet and morale. Seventy years on and some in the dieting industry portray it as fattening and unhealthy. I truly feel that instead of instructing people to omit a whole food group from their plates, we should be campaigning for better access to real bread made with a diverse range of grains.

There is nothing quite so satisfying as hand made bread, or as tasty as a sourdough loaf. It is one of the oldest methods for producing leavened bread and there is something archaic about the chewy, tangy flavour. I encourage every one to give it a go and try this ancient flavour for themselves. Whilst making a starter is relatively simple, the various stages can be intimidating so this is the first in a series of posts aimed at guiding bakers through the steps of making their own sourdough loaf.

Sourdough starter

Stage One

250g strong white bread flour

250g flour of choice. Try ancient wheat varieties such as spelt, emmer and einkhorn, or wheat free rye and barley.

130ml water (room temperature)

Whisk the flours and water together in a large bowl or jug. There is some belief that the chlorine in tap water can prevent the natural growth of bacteria required for a ‘sour’ starter so I use bottled mineral water. Leave, covered with a teatowel, for 3 days.

Stage Two

125g flour
85ml water

After three days the mixture should have developed a sweet smell and you should be able to see bubbles forming. Throw away half the mix and ‘feed’ it with the extra flour and water. Cover and leave for another two days.

In 5 days time we will see how your starter should be looking and take the next step towards home made sourdough.

Light bulbs

It is a little cliché, but a writers life seems to be full of light bulb moments. Particularly – it seems – when food is the muse. The difficulty is not finding things to write about but managing the sparks before they trigger an inferno and leave you struggling to douse the flames. Uncontrolled they simply run around my head shouting for attention. I end up with a headache and writing nothing.

Thankfully the trusty notebook is at hand. At the moment I am writing for three different spots – Greedy Wordsmith, The History Girls blog and local on line magazine YorkMix. Without my notebook I could never keep track. All I need to do now is put the hours in to plump these rather thin notions of thought into the rich, satisfying dishes they deserve to be.

But first, breakfast. Ah, now that’s an idea.

The First Post

Getting started on a new blog is the ultimate challenge in the blank page, blank mind phenomena. My plans for Greedy Wordsmith are simple enough, a home for me to grow my skills in non fiction, document my experiences as a writer in my chosen subjects and, ultimately, act as a platform for me to demonstrate my work to potential employers.

I already produce a blog on behalf of The History Girls in York. HG is a collaborative project offering events and other projects in hand with other local businesses. I love this work as I am passionate about food history but, as a food writer I often find myself with a desire to write on the numerous contemporary issues related to what and how we eat. If you leave my page with thoughts on your next meal I have succeeded in my goal.

So we have the first post.