Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

I can't break my addiction to a deadly white powder

Heston Blumenthal
Heston Blumenthal

It's January, so thoughts turn to avoiding all the dieting advice that clutters up newspapers. I've taken a bit more interest this year for, though I normally make no resolutions, a work colleague has put the fear of God into me over my salt intake.

The ready meal was invented for the late worker and the lazy, so perfect for me. They'd become the norm these past months. Late again from work, bung in the microwave, slump in front of the 10 o'clock news.

Except I hadn't realised the calories and salt content of these things, even the ones labelled deluxe, finest, or exquisite, rather than own-label floor scrapings and best gristle.

Since her warning, I've now discovered the labels on the packets which tell you how much of your recommended daily requirement of calories and salt they offer.

It's horrific reading. It appears I'm basically a pillar of salt laced with 47 varieties of additives and I didn't even know I was doing it to myself.

Indeed, so much salt have I partaken of in the last couple of years I suspect my body will be perfectly preserved for 2,000 years. If dug up, scientists will marvel at how their ancestors prepared for the afterlife by salting their bodies BEFORE they died.

Food is a problem for me and I expect most men of low culinary imagination. In supermarkets, we head for the rows of shiny packets, rather than authentic fresh produce.

We marvel at the 100 different labels for beer and stare in imbecilic appreciation at Heston Blumenthal's Hong Kong sour peanuts in their golden foil, while the lovely rows of colourful courgettes, peppers and tangerines are unknown lands.

But this salt thing's actually got me worried. You see, I have a savoury tooth. Put a bathtub full of Bombay Mix in front of me and, goldfish-like, I will keep eating until spice-induced coma. So I've got to crack it.

The other day, I picked up a bag of pretzels instead of peanuts and marvelled at the low fat, low salt, low anything of the former. Trouble is, once home another low emerges... taste.

The Germans have a lovely, dismissive, arrogant-sounding word for such things. It's geshmacklos (tasteless), which sounds like it reads and, by golly, do pretzels fit the bill. But I have to plough on. I've started cooking a bit, even though it's always late in the evening.

I've found a recipe that I made regularly a few years back. It's Dutch pea and ham soup and it's fantastic.

You have to get hold of a packet of green split peas, soak 'em, boil 'em and cook a hock of ham within 'em and then serve with crusty bread.

I'm actually quite efficient at this Low Country staple, but here's another rub. It's all I'm cooking. No good at multi-tasking, or experimenting, I will continue to make this dish until resembling a weedier version of the Incredible Hulk.

And, of course, without labels, I've no idea how much salt's in the dish. It might contain three-times more than seven days' worth of Loch Lomond Fish Mornay ready meal for all I know, but at least I feel a sense of moral superiority over the lazy saps supermarket-sweeping the Indian meals-for-two into their baskets. I blame the mothers of the 60s and 70s, who spoilt their sons, giving them the impression that food was something that magically arrived on the table. How it got there they didn't have to worry their middle-parted heads about.

Later on, when my kids were very young, I did get into cooking a bit, but it was always the glamour side I was interested in. The Saturday night food that needs two hours of loving, solitary labour with music and wine at hand.

Screaming brats were elsewhere being entertained by the house's regular, and slightly resentful, chef. To be truthful, I wasn't often around for the Tuesday night fish-finger-and-mash outings.

Trouble is, this do-it-yourself stuff can't last. Salt has me, drug-like, in its grip. The other day, I couldn't avert my eyes from the chicken breast and French fries packet with its saucy sachet of ginger and soy (lift film and pour liberally over chicken after eight minutes) as I walked the aisles looking half-heartedly for fruit.

Come on, it seemed to be saying, you know you want to. I'm quick, easy and tasty. Why waste your time with those hard-to-get meals?

I fled to root crops, but as sure as the tide comes in I will be returning some day to that aisle of shiny, seductive wonder.

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