Spanakopita

It’s been ages since I posted but nothing’s wrong, it just didn’t make it to the top of the to-do list until now.  One thing that has kept me busy is watering at the allotment as it was dry for so long.  The heat wave ended with a glorious thunder storm and then several days of showers so after a few days of not getting there things had been growing like mad.

I’ve been harvesting kale for a while.  I have dwarf green curled, Cavalo Nero and red Russian.  The first two of those had produced a lot in my absence and there were some courgettes and some runner beans too.

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Only the day before I’d read and article on allotments as therapy, which referred to a recipe for spanakopita, the delicious Greek spinach and feta cheese pie.  The article said that it could also be made with kale so I thought this was the perfect opportunity.

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The recipe calls for 1Kg of spinach, but I figured that spinach wilts down a lot more than kale so I used just over half that amount.  That still filled quite a large pan before steaming it down.  I then let it cool in a colander before pressing it down to remove the last of the liquid and proceeded with the recipe.   I used onions from the allotment and just used more of them rather than a mix of large and spring onions as per the recipe.  I reduced the amount of mint as D isn’t keen on it and neither of us like dill so I substituted a little fresh French tarragon.

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The recipe says to cut the pie into portions before baking.  That seemed a a bit odd to me.  So much so that I forgot to do it and had to get it out of the oven again to do it.  A quick tip from my Greek friend O, is to only cut the top of the pie.  If you don’t do that it all shatters and makes a mess when serving, however if you leave the bottom intact you stand a chance of being able to lift the whole thing out onto a board.  Served with French beans from the allotment but the carrots were bought.  There are carrots at the allotment but I forgot to lift any and we had a few at home to use up.

Personally  I don’t think I see the allotment as therapy.  Quite often it feels like just another chore to add to the list.  On the other hand, eating just-picked fresh vegetables in a home made pie is most definitely therapeutic.

 

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Essential Foot Care

I just thought I would write up my thoughts on something that I have come to take seriously when I’m travelling in Thailand. Of course when we are away from home we pack some essential toiletries and a few things to take care of ourselves such as antiseptic cream, aspirin or paracetamol, something for insect bites.

I wear sandals in the Summer in England from time to time, but in Thailand I more or less live in them. Those who chose to wear flip-flop type shoes are even more exposed. For feet conditioned to living in shoes of one kind or another this is a bit of a shock. It didn’t occur to me the first time I travelled, and I don’t recall having trouble travelling in Brazil in my 20s. Maybe my older skin is less resilient. Perhaps my female friends are more used to having to take care of their feet, but for me it was something of a novelty.

The skin around the heel and sometimes the ball of the foot starts drying out. It can crack and become painful. On top of that the feet can get incredibly dirty and washing them before getting into bed at night becomes important to avoid soiling the sheets. Just rubbing the soles of the feet with a bit of shower gel on the hands really doesn’t do the job. So here is the essential kit I now always pack:

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  1. Shower gel
  2. Nail brush
  3. Something abrasive like a pumice stone
  4. Moisturiser

You’ll need the nail brush not just to clean around the toenails, but to scrub all over the soles of the feet to deal with the worst of the dirt that gets ingrained. With that and the shower gel you should be able to get things looking a bit more respectable. Next, while the feet are still wet have a go at any hard skin, particularly around the edges of the heel and the ball of the big toe. When everything is dry, and before getting into bed, use some sort of moisturising cream in those same areas. This helps keep the feet soft but also acts as a barrier cream for the dirt of the next day.

Wishing you happy feet on your travels.

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Chiang Mai 2019 – first report

I’m writing this in a hostel in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. I’m here to take further training in Thai massage with Ajahn (Master) Suwat at Thara Massage. I called about coming in January about the start of December and they let me know that Ajahn Suwat was celebrating his birthday by running an intensive ten day course. Most people in the West would celebrate their birthday by either pretening that it wasn’t happening or by taking a week off. It tells you something about the nature of this man that he would choose instead to open his clinic building to about 50 students, most of whom are sleeping on mats on his floors, and dedicate his entire day for 10 days to teaching. They even checked with me that I would be OK with most of the people on the course being Thai. Yes, of course I was OK with that.

I immedately booked a flight for 31 December, which meant having the interesting experience of celebrating the New Year somewhere over Hungary by turning to my seat neighbour on the flight and shaking his hand at the point I noticed that “local time at current location” had passed the 00:00 mark. Emirates presumably give more attention to the Muslim calendar as they didn’t see fit to comment. Their flights, nevertheless ran to time and delivered me to Bangkok pretty much on schedule. I spent a couple of nights there to get over the jet lag (not 100% successful it has to be said) and then caught a Bangkok Air flight to Chiang Mai.

The Chaing Mai White House, where I have stayed before didn’t seem to have a website any more so I presumed that BP and his family had moved to Switzerland as that had mentioned they might when I was here last. I had a little look on line and booked a single room the Sunita Hostel instead. The ‘room’ is miniscule and the price rather more, but it is so far turning out to be OK. In any case I’m out of the building by the time most people are up and in bed pretty early in order to achieve that.

I confess I didn’t realise that course hours would be quite so long. I arrived as advised at 09:00 on the first day to find that prayers were already done and Ajahn was already teaching. I’ve been there for 08:00 each day since. The first day we finished about 21:00, but after a few days teaching has ended by 20:00. There is a two hour break for lunch and a one hour break from 17:00 to 18:00 for dinner. All the same that is pretty intense.

About the third day I realised that I was going down with a cold. Initially it seemed like the constant change between the actually quite pleasant Chiang Mai temperature of around 25C to 30C and air conditioning and fans was getting to me. That might not have helped but clearly somewhere along the line I mingled with someone with a virus I would rather not have accepted as a gift. Fortunately a few days of living on ginger tea with a dash of fresh lime have seen the worst of it and I didn’t have to miss out on the course.

The ginger and lemons came from the market I walk past on my way to school each morning. This is the main food market for Chiang Mai and it is complete bedlam. The roads through it are little wider that the asiles of your loca supermarket – the difference here is that it is not only filled with people on foot, some of whom are pushing or pulling barrows of purchases – but hundreds of customers on motorbikes. No one seems to get injured and no one gets angry, but I don’t get the impression that anyone is enjoying themselves either.

The minimum amout of fresh ginger root I could buy was 1Kg. That was somewhat more than my reqirements but it only cost about £1 so I wasn’t complaing. Ten lovely limes cost about the same.

Not only is my cold just about over but so is the course. Tomorrow is the last official day. However Ajahn Suwat has announced that in order to cover all the material he intended he will teach an extra two days for those who can stay so I shall take that opportunity. This evening we had a lovely activity where everyone lit a candle from their neighbour. As they did so they spent a minute talking about what they had appreciated from the course before placing it in a central bowl. Many were tearful at the end of the course and we all expressed thanks to our teacher for passing on his knowledge and to our fellow students for making such a loving community.

I’ve not had the oportunity, given the schedule, to get up to anything much in Chiang Mai. The notable exception being getting out of school early one evening in order to make it to an Argentine Tango Milonga in the private house of a tango enthusiast. That was a very pleasant evening too. After the course extension is finished on Tuesday I hope to take time to relax, walk about and get a massage or two without having to provide feedback or think about technique.

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Fast Response Mk2

So, as promised here is a follow up on my relatively short fast of seven days.  Yes – I know, some people call that an ‘extended fast’ but this post is all about how I feel about it.  My current feeling is that skipping a meal or two isn’t really significant.

A number of friends have asked me to talk about how it felt and I can summarise that quite simply:  after about a day of feeling a little under the weather it felt absolutely fine.  The big lesson for me out of this is that the human body is designed/evolved/adapted to cope with the food supply being variable or unreliable.  Even someone like me with a BMI in the ‘normal’ range can continue a moderately active life without food for quite a long time.

The main ‘issues’ were around habit patterns.  Initially the body has a rhythm of expecting food and starts to prepare for the next meal and the time it normally arrives.  When that doesn’t happen we feel ‘hungry’ and our tummy grumbles.  Drinking a glass of water or some black tea sorts this out.

After a couple of days, when the body no longer expects food what I noticed is that the mind is still looking for it.  Food is a significant part of our self-reward system, a pastime, an entertainment.   I noticed this, but it really wasn’t a problem.  I simply did something else with the time.

Metrics

After stored sugar levels are used up the body starts releasing fats to provide energy.  Most cells work well on these but I understand that the nerves, so of course the brain, and also the heart muscle, can’t use fat as a source of energy.  The body copes with this by producing ketones.  It seems as though when first switching system it produces rather more than is needed and the excess gets excreted in the urine.  Simple dip tests are available to check for this so I tracked this during the fast.  I also took a note of my weight at significant points.  If I were to do this again with some preparation I might get blood monitors for ketones and sugar levels, but this method was simple and cheap.

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As you can see nothing happens for a couple of days and then ketone production kicks in big time.  Remembering that this is a measure of excess production it’s not surprising that after a short period the body reduces the excess.  I’ve no idea what caused the sudden second peak.  Naturally enough excess ketones dropped off pretty quickly once I started to eat.  I kept my diet very low in carbohydrates for a couple of days, which may explain why levels didn’t drop to zero immediately.

Despite consuming more water than usual during the fast it seems that initial weight loss is mostly water.  This is water used by the digestive system (some suggest it is specifically required for processing blood sugars) and of course that system is shutting down.  This explains why this weight is regained immediately on re-feeding.  Sure enough I immediately regained 2kg.  One reason for delaying publication of this post was to see how permanent that loss was.  After a month I was still around 66kg and now two months later I hover between 67 and 68kg.  I suspect this is because we are now into mince pie and Christmas cake season!

 

 

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Fast Response

Eating disorder trigger warning:  This isn’t about being quick – it’s about not eating.  And I don’t mean not eating for part of the day as in a Ramadan fast, or ‘intermittent fasting.’  I mean not eating anything at all for an extended period.

Fasting,  has been reported to have many health benefits.  It has been touted by people marked down as ‘quacks’ for a long time.  Recently people with some pretty serious research behind them such as Dr Valter Longo have been getting in on the act.  There appear to be benefits in not only type 2 but also type 1 diabetes, various forms of heart disease and even cancer are being listed.  Not to mention the elephant in the room with many of these: obesity.

Dr Longo has developed a thing called the ‘fasting mimicking diet’ but he readily admits that actual fasting is better.  The problem is that people are so brainwashed to think that they have to eat that he had to develop a packaged diet.  This has the handy side effect that it can be prescribed by a doctor, and of course charged for.  No disrespect to Dr Longo: where else is he going to get research funding?  If there is no product or pill at the end of it there is little or no funding for it.

There is increasing evidence that periods without eating not not only give our digestive system a chance to rest and re-set, but that some housekeeping functions in our body only kick in during the fasted state, or when transitioning back to feeding after an extended fast.

I don’t, so far as I know, have an issue with heart disease, or diabetes.  My BMI is typically 23.5 which puts me in the ‘normal’ range.  That’s considerably lower than the average man of my age in my part of the world which is a worrying 28.8 according to the most recent national health surveys for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  Even so, having read so much about the benefits I was interested to experiment.

By chance I didn’t make lunch to take with me when I was stewarding at ArtSpring Gallery and I was so busy doing the finances for the month whilst I was there that I ended up skipping it.  I was feeling a little congested in the evening and decided I would also skip dinner and have an early night.  The next morning I thought that I might fast for the day and see how that went.  Then I checked my diary and realised that this was a good opportunity to do a fast of five days.

As it happens I was away on a conference the next three days.  Whilst the food at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham is excellent it was really no problem to skip it.  I would just make a cup of black tea and sit in the beautiful garden room, reading or watching the autumn colours in the garden.

On Sunday the Birmingham half marathon had closed some streets around Birmingham New Street station and I had to run for a solid five minutes to make my train.    On the way back through London I went over to Pink Jukebox at the Bishopsgate Institute and danced for two and a half hours.  Clearly plenty of energy was available to do that despite it being day five of fasting.

I had picked up a passing comment in an interview given by Dr Longo that autophagy (The process of the body consuming older cells and unnecessary growths, research into which was the subject of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.) really kicks in after five days and that he recommends seven days if that is the goal.  I therefore decided to extend a further two days.

Re-feeding

At the end of seven days I was emotionally ready to eat.  My body seemed perfectly happy to continue but it seemed unwise to just keep extending the period in an unplanned way.  I started with a light breakfast of yoghurt with a few raspberries and nuts sprinkled on the top.  The taste was amazing and afterwards I felt as though I had eaten a full Christmas dinner.

A potential pitfall, which can be a serious issue after a long term fast is that running on glucose requires phosphorous in the cells and during a fast this can be depleted.  Whilst this is not generally an issue with the length of fast I had done I wanted to give my body a chance to recover phosphorous levels before hitting it with a lot of carbohydrates.   Phosphorous is mainly found in meat, dairy and nuts.

I chose to stick with low carbohydrate vegetarian food for a few days and to try to incorporate fermented foods in each meal.  My theory being that this would encourage the proliferation of the desirable bacteria in my gut as it started to re-activate.  Lunch on the first day was soup and in the evening a green salad with nuts and avocado.

Ketones are molecules produced by the body when breaking down body fat.  They are the power source for the body in the absence of glucose.  Any excess is excreted in the urine and there are dip tests available to check for their concentration.  I tracked this throughout the fasting and re-feeding process and I aimed to delay the return to running on glucose fore a few days whilst my body adjusted to eating again.

What did I consume?

Primarily tap water and tea (either green or black) without milk.  Sometimes I would add a dessert spoon of cider vinegar per (UK) pint of water, which gave it a refreshing taste.  After suffering cramps in my feet at night I decided to include some salts.  I made a 50/50 mix of sea salt and lo-salt (which is mostly potassium chloride) and put about half a teaspoon in water morning and evening.

Benefits?

So am I healed of whatever ailed me?  Well nothing much was ailing me.  I did have a bit of a problem with post-nasal drip left over from a cold in early summer.  My doctor got me to take a steroid nasal spray for a month to reset that and it worked whilst I was using it but it was making a return.  During the fast I would have occasional sudden nose runs of clear fluid.  Since eating again the constant throat clearing does seem to have cleared up.

The main thing though was to experience at first hand that the human body has systems which enable us to work perfectly well without a continuous source of food.  Even someone like me with a ‘normal’ range BMI is carrying resources that will last for weeks.  Once these mechanisms kick in it’s like starting up the emergency generator: life goes on as normal.

Fast Response: conclusions

I think that the human body is capable of surviving and thriving on a variety of diets.  Even diets which are at apparently opposite ends of the nutritional spectrum can support a healthy human.   The natural human diet is likely to have been highly seasonal, with periods of eating mostly plants and other periods of eating some or even mostly animal foodstuffs.  The most unnatural foods are the highly processed products which sadly fill most of the shelves in our supermarkets.  Particularly refined sugar in both foods and drinks.

Periods without food are also completely natural and it is possible that the body uses these periods to spring clean systems, effect some repairs use up some out-of-date supplies before re-stocking with fresh.  I the modern Western world, where for most of us the food supply is unseasonal and continuous, fasting from time to time is probably wise.  And it turns out that it really isn’t hard at all.  The human body is truly amazing.

PS: I kept some stats during the fast and re-feeding and they will be the subject of a future post.

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Pumpkin Time

Pumpkins

I’ve made no posts for quite a while.  Everything is fine, it has just been a busy summer and world news has been a little scary.  I have a sense of holding my breath. (Not literally of course, I would be more than a little purple in the face by now) It feels like watching a ski crash in slow motion and hoping that the racer will somehow recover balance and swosh past the finish mark.

Meanwhile the UK experienced a rare event: a real summer.  Day after day the sky was blue, the wind was light and warm.  There was talk of water shortages and hose pipe bans but it seems that there was enough water from the previous season.

Of course that didn’t help things at the allotment and it was necessary to try to get there almost every day to water.  Even so, things have suffered somewhat.  My potatoes produced a good crop but neighbours have not done so well.  The climbing beans eventually made it to the top of the poles, but the crop has been about half the usual output.  Most of the beans for drying are already picked and sitting in bowls in our living room.

We had strawberries, but they were over fast.  The pumpkin and winter squash pictured above were picked at the end of August, whereas I would normally wait until the end of September at the earliest.  The Crown Prince are a good size, but the spaghetti squash and Turk’s Turban are smaller than usual.  The only reason I have a good crop is that I ended up with an extra bed where I re-structured the old compost bins and planted it up with all my spare plants.

The weather has returned to our usual mixture of sunny intervals and showers over the past few weeks and the grass soon greened up.  The runner beans are producing a new flush of flowers and the yacon have finally started to grow.  It feels as though the Earth is finally breathing again – at least my little patch of it.

As to the political situation?  Still hoping.

 

 

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Today I Re-potted a Tree

20180625_171253.jpgFinally the allotment is under control, the squash and pumpkins have taken off, the beans are climbing the poles, and even flowering.  I’ve harvested the last of the strawberries and the raspberries are coming on stream.  I’ve picked the first few blackcurrants.  This morning I picked the first of the broad beans and dug up the first potato plant in the row to find half a dozen new potatoes under it.  It was jolly warm down there by 11am and there’s been no rain to speak of for weeks so after many trips with the watering cans everything has enough to keep it going for a day or two.

It’s not really the time of year for re-potting bonsai trees, especially deciduous ones.  The norm is to do them just before the leaf buds are about to break in the spring.  The thing is I didn’t get my act together and make the new pot in time.  Then I didn’t have enough of the granular potting soil that they seem to like.  I tried to get that at Heron’s Bonsai last week, but they don’t have it.  On Friday I found some on Amazon and ordered it.  I was sitting for meditation later that afternoon when the doorbell went.  I didn’t move as I thought D would get it and it would probably be for him in any case.  It was my bonsai soil.  It turned out that the supplier is based in Dartford and as the chap was coming this way he just stuck some in his car and dropped if off as he was passing.  Order to door in about two hours – that’s service!

So this afternoon I pruned the tree hard.  It is very vigorous and I do this every year.  Having removed so much of the top growth it seemed safe to disturb the roots so I re-potted it in the pot that came out of the kiln last week.  Then I sat down with a cup of tea to admire the work that nature and I have collaborated on.  I started this tree from garden centre stock abut 15 years ago.  It is Acer Palmatum ‘Bloodgood’, and although the leaves are a bit big for bonsai they are such a fantastic colour in spring and autumn that it’s worth it for that alone.

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