Whoa! Seven a day! And I’m not talking about Shane Warne. The new 5-2 diet: 5 portions of vegetables and 2 of fruit. It’s a tough one. Like most middle-class people I feel instinctively that my diet is fairly healthy (despite what is surely an addiction to plain chocolate Kit-Kats – must remember to check into the Priory, I’m sure they can sort me out), but I can’t claim to achieve seven a day more often than once in a blue moon. These are good times for vegetarians. We always suspected they might be morally right; then they turned out to be ecologically right; now they’re nutritionally right. How much righter can you be? At the same time fruit is taking a bit of a hammering; fruit juice, in particular, is the turkey twizzler of the moment, about to be hounded out of town (until the day that some bright spark discovers that it prevents Alzheimers, hangovers etc.).
This seven a day decree is a challenge – but not as much of a challenge as it must be in Chukotka, the far north-eastern region of Russia. Sarah Wheeler, in her wonderful book The Magnetic North, writes of a visit to Anadyr, the capital. In 1995, in one of the most profitable privatizations of a decade of profitable privatizations, Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky bought the national conglomerate Sibneft. Abramovich registered his companies in Chukotka to take advantage of the generous tax laws. He was a fairy godfather for Anadyr, investing in buses and street lighting. In 2000 he was elected governor with a convincing 99% of the vote. Upset by the lack of decent restaurants, and being a fan of Bavarian food, he built a restaurant and flew in a Bavarian chef. Wheeler goes to eat in the restaurant, which features home-brewed beer and a live oompah band. She orders sauerkraut “with a Russian twist, the twist being an absence of cabbage”. A bit like playing cricket without a bat. Scurvy is still a problem in rural Chukotka.
What to do?
Last week I stayed at Klosterhagen, a delightful small hotel in Bergen, Norway. It’s in a square full of exquisite colourful 19th century houses, most of them built of wood. The hotel is on the site of an old convent. My room was in the eaves. It was the first hotel room I’ve stayed in which is roughly the same size as its bathroom. The overhead velux window didn’t want to stay open, so I propped it open with the remote control for the TV. When I woke in the morning there had been a ferocious rainstorm and the whole of the bottom half of the bed was soaked. The remote control, amazingly, still worked. The breakfast was the best breakfast I have ever had, as well as being the most nutritious. Absolutely everything is home-made: granola, yoghurt, bread, smoked salmon, cured trout, spiced trout, soused herring, tomato herring, semi-dried tomatoes, roasted beetroot with balsamic vinegar, pickled vegetables… My friend Olivia, with whom I’m working on a choral project in Bergen, came down to breakfast, and said, right let’s get to work. We tried everything, including a weird goat’s cheese which is shit-coloured all the way through, served with honeycomb – hardcore but delicious. Wafer-thin crispbread made entirely with seeds – lovely. Fresh orange juice. Fresh fruit. A cold breakfast in a cold climate – curious. But seven a day was suddenly a doddle. We were pretty much done and dusted by 10am.
I came back thinking this was surely the solution: the mighty nutritional breakfast. But of course there are two problems. One is cultural – in Blighty most of us are only slowly moving away from Sugar Puffs and toast (I’ve got as far as granola and toast, i.e. not very far); and the other is practical – the Klosterhagen breakfast is dependent on an army of people working their socks off. Are we going to start doing this for ourselves? Probably not.
But if you do fancy going Norwegian for breakfast, try this:
Take about 1kg of herring fillets, and soak them in white wine vinegar overnight. Drain them well. Make a mixture of 200g sea salt, 100g caster sugar, a few bay leaves, 10g each of peppercorns and allspice berries, slightly crushed. Pack the herrings between layers of this mixture. Put a plate on top to keep them submerged in the brine that forms. Keep them in a cool, dry place. They’ll be ready after a week, and will keep for several.
When you’re ready to go Norwegian, remove some of the fillets, and soak them in a half-and-half mixture of water and milk. Taste them after a couple of hours. (The soaking time will, obviously, depend on how long they’ve been in the brine.) Drain them and slice them up.
Mix them with some rings of fennel bulb, sliced as thinly as possible, some chopped parsley and a mustardy vinaigrette.
(There are many other excellent ways to use salted herrings. Jane Grigson is particularly good on the subject in her Fish Cookery.)
Take the leaves and stalks off a couple of bunches of beetroot. Put them in an oven-proof dish, sprinkle with olive oil, and add some fresh thyme and a few whole cloves of garlic. Season. Cover loosely with foil and bake for an insanely long time, two hours or more, in a 180C oven. Remove the beetroot, and cut them into chunks. Put in a dish and sprinkle over some balsamic vinegar and a little extra olive oil. Allow to cool.
Neither of these dishes are exactly instantaneous, but they might revolutionise your life – er, well, let’s not overstate it, they might make a minor difference.