Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My top post-Christmas diets

“Woke up this morning, feeling bloated as can be. Yeah, woke up this morning, feeling bloated as can be. Yeah I was feeling so bloated, I fell into the Christmas tree.”

If that little snatch of Christmas Tree Stomp by master bluesman Hugh “Stoutboy” Dixon (lyrics based on his own personal experience) strikes a familiar chord, then it’s time to  start thinking about your New Year resolutions and planning a diet.

And “planning” is the operative word here. There’s no point in setting yourself unreasonable goals which you have no possible expectation of living up to.

If your body has become accustomed to five mince pies and a bottle of red wine a day for the last three weeks of festive over-indulgence, then going cold turkey isn’t really an option. (See what we did there, readers?)

Wean yourself off slowly: by mid-February you should be down to one sticky pie a week and just the occasional glass of the good old Shiraz Pinotage.

Your waistline will have reduced from a portly 42 inches to a more svelte 40, you’ll only get a little bit out of breath when you climb the stairs, and you’ll feel rather less like you’ve been hit on the head with a nine-pound hammer every time you wake up in the morning.

But if this approach to dieting sounds a bit too laid-back to you, here a couple of other suggestions you might like to try.

First off, the No Sleep Diet. Simply rig up your mains-powered smoke alarms to go off repeatedly, starting at four in the morning, for three days in a row.

A short dose of stress, coupled with REM sleep deprivation, will quickly trim your figure to Kate-Moss-like proportions.

We tried this one just before Christmas and it really worked! The only side-effects were a facial expression more gaunt than Dracula’s great-uncle and a tendency to tremble uncontrollably when required to engage in intelligent conversation.

Surely a price worth paying, though, for the ability to slip into those skinny jeans you haven’t worn since your mid-20s.

If that doesn’t appeal, maybe the No Carb Diet would be more up your street.

Doing without crustaceans for weeks may seem like too much of a sacrifice, but you’ll soon reap the benefits as you notice a spring in your step and a distinct lack of fishy smells from your dustbins.

Oh, wait a minute. That’s the No Crab Diet. Still, never mind, it might be worth a try.

Finally, there’s the good old High Protein Diet. This involves stuffing yourself with large quantitites of roast beef for breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with a weekly “treat”:  full English breakfast.

If it doesn’t reduce your waistline, it’ll certainly do the trick for your bank balance. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Stuffed at Christmas

Right. That's it. No more shopping. Mrs D has gone out and bought so much festive grub that the supermarket shelves are empty, the checkout conveyor belts have ground to a halt under the load and the Dixonmobile has pinged a shock absorber trying to ferry the whole lot home.

We will have to survive on what we've got, although luckily what we've got would probably feed the population of a small Alpine principality into 2010 and beyond.

Even culinary items which some might consider quite counter-indicative to Christmas cheer – sprouts, dates and parsnips spring to mind – are oozing from under the pantry door at Dixon Towers.

It's a bit worrying when you start to consider how much of our traditional festive fare seems to come from overseas. Sprouts from Belgium, nuts from Brazil, swedes from Sweden, cabbages from Savoy, turkeys from Turkey – it's all some ghastly international plot to keep us regular over the Christmas period.

And at Dixon Towers there's one more ingredient to throw into the cross-cultural gastronomic mix – Mrs D's Polish Christmas Eve special.

This is an Anglicised version of the traditional Wigilia festive meal. Some of the more exotic elements of the original are substituted for more easily obtained ingredients. Your average Sainsbury's doesn't go big on carp, and your columnist vowed many years ago that he wasn't going to go out and catch one. But smoked salmon makes a reasonable and less bony replacement.

There's stuffed cabbage leaves, there's vodka, there's cheesecake, there's more vodka, there's prunes in chocolate and there's even more vodka, though not necessarily in that order. And then there's vodka.

There's even a curious ceremony in which the head of the household (i.e. your humble columnist) gets a spoonful of a dubious-looking concoction made of honey, wheat and poppyseeds and throws it at the ceiling. Whatever sticks is an indicator of what will be plentiful in the coming year. Whatever doesn't, ends up in the vodka.

But the metaphorical icing on the cake of all this middle-European bounty is the unpronounceable beetroot soup, barszcz. Just try saying that with your mouth full of szczupak.

Much stress goes into the preparation, for barszcz must be clear, red and tangy.

The tanginess comes from kwass, a pungent brew of fermented beetroot and rye bread which Mrs D started three weeks ago and is now sitting in the fridge, staring balefully at anyone who comes near it.

The redness comes from not boiling the soup.

The clarity comes from... well, let's not go into too much detail about the clarification.

Suffice it to say that you won't find methods like it in the pages of your average Jamie Oliver, and that Mrs D rarely manages to accomplish it without swearing.

It ain't half good, though. So Merry Christmas, one and all.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bath Chronicle End of Term Examination

Quieten down, students, and pay attention. This is the Bath Chronicle end-of-term exam, and attendance is compulsory.

Sharpen your pencils, grease up your dividers and stop chewing at the back there.

Candidates must answer all the questions in the allocated time of 30 minutes. No talking, no peeping and don’t write on more than one side of the paper at the same time.

1: Physics
Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was recently injured by an attacker wielding a model of the notoriously spiky Milan Cathedral. Use your knowledge and understanding of mass, density and materials to explain which of the following would be the best to use in model form if you wanted to carry out a similar attack. Give reasons for your choice.
(a) Bath Abbey;
 (b) The Guildhall;
(c) The Busometer.

2: Applied Mathematics
Construct an orthographic projection to show the optimum angle of attack using the instrument you chose in question 1. You may use a protractor, but not compasses.

3: Current affairs
Name the politician you would most like to wallop using the method of attack you described in question 2. Explain why, in elaborate detail.

4: Greek
Translate the following Greek phrases into good plain English:
(a) Public Realm Consultation;
(b) Regional Spatial Strategy;
(c) Infrastructure Modelling.
Extra marks will be awarded to candidates who answer in words of less than two syllables.

5 (a): Physical Geography
A family  is approaching Bath from the east by car. Unusually, traffic towards the city centre appears to be flowing somewhat slowly. Use your knowledge of Bath’s transport network to explain how this could possibly be the case, and suggest what the family should do next. Turning round is not an option.

5 (b): Mental Geography
Use your coloured pencils to draw a detailed map of Bath, outlining long-term solutions to the problem in question 5 (a). Be as imaginative as possible: your answer may include such elements as dedicated bus lanes, park and ride schemes, cycle routes, trams, monorails, jet-boats and unicopters, but it must not offend or inconvenience a single landowner or special interest group.

6: Home economics
Explain, with the use of diagrams, how to remove Christmas tree needles from (a) the car; (b) the sofa; (c) your socks; (d) the cat.

7: Creative writing
Candidates who have answered questions 1-6 to the satisfaction of the examiners will be deemed also to have answered question 7.

That is all. You may begin.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Christmas enemies, featuring Kirstie Allsopp and Delia Smith

Hurry up, hurry up. It’s time to write your Christmas list. No, not for cards. You should have done that in October.

And if you haven’t already written your cards, addressed the envelopes, sealed the envelopes, unstuck the envelopes, put the cards in, stuck the mangled envelopes back down with Sellotape, gone out for stamps, come back with lightbulbs and Maltesers, gone out for stamps again, stuck the stamps on the cards you meant to deliver by hand... then to be quite frank you’re far too late.

Just forget it for this year, and try to do better in 2010.

No, the kind of list you need right now is a Christmas enemies list: a list of things and people that get right up your festive nose and rattle your Yuletide cage.

The kind of thing or person you want to avoid until January 14  at worst, and forever at best.

Top of this list for any right-thinking person is the sprout.

Let’s not drag up its association with  the capital of Belgium: it only starts pedantic arguments about spelling it with a capital or lower-case “b”.

And there’s no need to constantly remind the Belgians that the sprout is their national shame. (And bad driving, but let it lie.)

The sprout is a puny excuse for a cabbage and a huge waste of culinary effort. What normal vegetable has to have a notch cut in its sprouty stalk before it can be cooked to the satisfaction of the tiny number of people who actually like it? And what normal vegetable attempts to avoid capture by disguising itself as a Morris dancer’s jingly hand bell shaker?

Enough said.

Next on the list is that Christmas DIY show on the telly. You know, the show that belittles your own festive efforts by suggesting that the only good Crimbo tree is one you’ve cut down yourself.

The show that makes you feel a failure because you don’t have the wherewithall to blow your own glass baubles for said tree.

The show that suggests, if you want to make a Christmas garland, that all you need to do is scour your “back yard” for evergreen sprigs.

Presented by Kirstie Allsopp.

Kirstie has her very own Christmas house, which  exists in some sort of time warp in the hills of Devon, its floors unsullied by children, fur-shedding pets, old video games and two-week-old copies of the TV guide.

In Kirstie’s house, everything is colour co-ordinated. In Kirstie’s house, you just have to say “I want red ribbons and evergreens. Everywhere.” And it will happen.

Kirstie’s house is a TV set. It goes on the list.

(Our house has a holly tree. With yellow berries, not red ones. Whoever planted that goes on the list too.)

Delia Smith is another one. Yes, she’s a national treasure and has her own football team. And your humble columnist risks getting drummed out of the Boys’ Brigade for saying it.

But she doesn’t half go on, especially at Christmas time.

We watched Delia’s Classic Christmas the other day. She didn’t give out the quantities: perhaps you have to buy some sort of book to find out how you actually cook all this festive fare. And the best thing that can be said about her roast collar of bacon with blackened crackling is that the kids would scream if you served it up to them, and the grown-ups would probably mutter something like  “Interesting” and not come back for seconds.

All right, we’ll leave Delia off the list. But her crackling stays on.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Christmas mysteries

Here we go again. It's December. For a brief moment the sky clears, the temperature drops and the frost does whatever frost does. Frosts, probably.

Give it a day or two and we'll be back to torrential unquenchable rain, but in the meantime we are, at last, officially allowed to start talking about Christmas.

Christmas, of course, is a time of mystery and wonderment. And the mysteries start right now.

Mystery number one: how can the unique and fragile Christmas decorations Mrs D has brought back from Poland have made it safely through baggage handling at Heathrow but still look too vulnerable to hang on the tree?

Mystery number two: by what hitherto undiscovered osmotic process have the boxes containing last year's decorations, fairy lights, festive CDs and other assorted baubles managed to migrate to the far end of the loft behind a whole load of other boxes that you know for a fact haven't been touched since October 2007?

Have the mice been on a Charles Atlas course or something?

Getting the boxes out of the loft is a bit like one of those puzzles where you have to slide blocks around a grid in the hope of releasing a single block. The sort of puzzle you get given as a Christmas present, fiddle with once and then chuck at the cat in sheer frustration.

If you're having trouble picturing it, just imagine Sainsbury's car park on a Saturday afternoon. Plus you're scrabbling around on your knees, in half darkness, with a musclebound mouse polishing its fangs somewhere close. Welcome to your winter wonderland.

Mystery number three: how many Advent calendars does a normal family need? At the last count, our place can boast six in all: three common-or-garden ones with kitschy pictures behind cardboard flaps; two of the chocolate variety to be consumed after breakfast BEFORE YOU BRUSH YOUR TEETH; and one allegedly traditional candle marked off with a 25-day countdown.

If you ever need reminding about how few days you have left to panic about how unprepared you are for Christmas, then Dixon Towers is the place to be.

Mystery number five: how many times will you be able to stand playing through Now That's What I Call Christmas before it goes back in the loft? Even if you're allowed to skip A Spaceman Came Travelling and Kylie Minogue's toe-curling remake of Santa Baby?

Mystery number six: the same goes double for such festive delights as Carols from King's, The Messiah on Ice and Miriam Margolyes Tells The Story Of The Snowman.

(Incidentally, some of these are not real CDs. And anyone still nursing lingering fantasies about the Cadbury's Caramel bunny should be aware that she was voiced by the aforementioned Ms Margolyes, who was also the puritan in Blackadder II. Just thought you'd like to know.)

Mystery number seven: what's Miriam Margolyes got to do with Christmas? And what happened to mystery number four?

Mystery number eight (which for some reason ended up as a second mystery number seven in The Bath Chronicle): who comes to your staff Christmas lunch when you're a department of one?

Anyway, that's quite enough mysteries for one Christmas, and the wonderment will have to wait for a different week. Preferably some time in April, after the dust has settled.