Let Them Smell Tea

The inevitable has happened: I need to lose weight. This isn't anything like a surprise given the events of the Christmas holidays, in which I decided that trying every single flavour of crisps that Lidl had to offer was a Good Idea.

Mercifully I don't eat meat, or that could have worked out far worse than it actually did. I have never seen so many flavours of crisps in my life. Roast turkey and stuffing. Pigs in blankets. Gin and juniper roast pork. Pulled pork and wildflower honey. There was a lot of pork going on.

I believe that all of this may have been cunningly executed so that you could have Christmas dinner entirely in crisp form. While I didn't sink quite that low, I did have what could be classed as many extra meals inbetween meals. The Sea Salt and Balsamic Vinegar course. The Mature Cheddar and Red Onion course. The Hand-Cooked Mixed Vegetable Crisps Seasoned with Sea Salt, Garlic and Oregano course. All rounded off with goat's cheese and apple chutney. No, wait...goat's cheese and apple chutney crisps.

When the final crisps left the building last week (paprika flavour: XXL bag) I looked down at the bathroom scales and realised that the crisps hadn't really left the building at all.

What to do? A few years ago I had great success calorie counting through MyFitnessPal, losing two stone piled on after surgery, so I decided to start that back up. Oh, how I had forgotten the hell of having to account for every single thing consumed, particularly when nobody on the internet seems to be able to construct a reliable database of anything. But that's for another day: my biggest problem was not eating things full stop. I may have controlled the crisp pest at home, but my workplace has a bigger infestation known as 'endless sugar'. Entire sectors of the South American economy are propped up by the sugar consumption in my department. If the office is ever besieged by zombies, or the spiders finally take over the planet, we should be able to last a good few years just from the pile of biscuits and mind-bogglingly gigantic cupcakes on the top of one filing cabinet.

There are many, many filing cabinets.

As a result, sticking to anything less than around 17000 calories a day is problematic. It is possible to trip over an untied shoelace and discover that you've accidentally eaten several milk Lindor and a Reese's Round. I realised that I would need to come up with a cake-avoidance tactic which did not involve wearing a hazmat suit, and found the solution in a rather unexpected place.

The tea aisle at Waitrose is not somewhere I go as a matter of course. I was so unlikely to be found there that it was on my top-five list of places to go if I am ever being pursued by the security services. But the reasons unknown I ended up in it, possibly because it was the only way out of the bakery section, and something caught my eye. Cherry Bakewell green tea.

You read that correctly. Green tea. As I couldn't work out how the words 'Cherry Bakewell' related to green tea in any context at all, I stepped up for a closer look.

"The almondy cherry taste is a delicately softened with smooth vanilla flavour to create a delicious, indulgent green tea blend." This appeared to be promising that the green tea would actually taste like a Cherry Bakewell. I didn't believe this for a second. Most fruit teas taste less like fruit and more like the liquid that escapes when you tear a bin bag. I've been fooled before. But this involved cake. I put it in my basket. If anything, I was intrigued by how bad it could be.

The worker at the checkout, apropos of nothing, told me that she had tried it herself and that it genuinely tasted of Cherry Bakewells. Not only that, she had gone back and bought 'the other flavours'. There were other flavours. She had a cupboard full of them. Her family got them in for her whenever she visited. There were other flavours. She had gone from not liking green tea to drinking three or four cups a day. There were other flavours. She spoke about the green tea with same reverence normally reserved for cult leaders, and there were other flavours, and I had already decided that if Cherry Bakewell was any good I was going back for all of them.

Against all the odds, Cherry Bakewell green tea did indeed taste like Cherry Bakewells. It was ultimately green tea, but it was enough like - and certainly smelled enough like - the cake to earn the name. This excited me. I had read the articles about how the smell of chocolate could stop you from actually eating it. It was even in New Scientist. This wasn't made up by people trying to flog Eau de Cocoa. This was SCIENTIFIC FACT.

I went back for the other flavours.

Salted caramel. Gingerbread. Lemon drizzle cake. The Waitrose tea aisle contained a world of previously-unimaginable possibilities. The next-door bakery section contained the real thing. The tea aisle contained the tea thing. The following morning I took an entire virtual bakery into work. I discovered that if the Cherry Bakewell flavour was a good effort, the Lemon Drizzle flavour was some kind of sorcery: it didn't just smell of lemon, or even lemony cake, but of actual lemon drizzle cake. If you had blindfolded someone and asked them to smell both, they would have struggled to tell them apart were it not for the steam burning the end of their nose. And I may well have asked people to smell my tea. I talked about it to anyone who would listen. If they wouldn't listen, I made them listen. I had joined the cult of the Waitrose checkout operative, proselytising from the platform of my employment, at one point getting unsuspecting new staff who thought they had come for a training course to admit that I was right about just how much like lemon drizzle cake it smelt.

Earlier this week we had a minor office celebration involving two outrageously huge, lavishly-iced Victoria sponges which could have been used as ballast. One slice would have led to MyFitnessPal screaming that I had no calories left for at least the next week, and that if I wanted to burn it off I would need to become an ultra-runner. I was not swayed. I went to the urn, brewed a mug of gingerbread tea, and breathed in. Any attraction to work cake ebbed away, replaced by the satisfaction of knowing that I would be able to eat actual meals that day. Potential calorie catastrophe: big. Calories recorded: 4.

I am not so naïve to think that this will last. Tea is not cake. It is possible that cake-flavoured tea is a gateway drug to many undesirables, not least cake itself. Further, tea is not crisps. I am yet to find an ingenious substitute for these, and if they come out with salt and vinegar green tea I can promise you right now that it's not going to work.

Nevertheless, I am confident that my faith in tea will not waver for the foreseeable future; or at least until it's no longer on quite a good offer at Waitrose.

For the record, sweet chili and sour cream crisps taste nothing like either sweet chili or sour cream, and were ultimately a massive disappointment. If you want to do it properly I can recommend Tyrrell's Sea Salt and Cracked Black Pepper flavour, which are so good that the colleague I sent out to get them one lunchtime* had almost eaten the whole 150 gram bag by the time I'd got around to them. I expect, at some point when he cannot stand the smell of bakeries from my desk any longer, he may ask me to induct him into the cult of tea. He's not having the lemon drizzle.

*Yes: I had enablers

Twinings cake-flavoured teas - not pictured: Lemon Drizzle (I've already drunk it all)

That’s not a spork…

Epic spork

...THAT'S a spork!

If anyone is wondering, it's from a carton of Itsu Vegetable Festival crystal noodles:

Itsu Vegeteable Festival crystal noodles

For the record, while the soup is very nice, it turns out I ain't too skilled with a spork.

Street Food: Because I’m Worth It

Happy Easter! Slightly belated (unless you follow me on Twitter) because I have been on a jolly to the city of Birmingham. What tempted me out there was not a musical thing, for once, but the promise of 'Street Food Inc', in which Brindleyplace would be filled with stalls offering all manner of foodstuffs.

This is exactly what was there, and I was quite impressed with the variety of cuisines on offer. Let's see exactly what I ate...

Vegan Grindhouse

First up is a classic burger van, but this does not sell any old burgers: it sells vegan burgers! And vegan ice cream, and vegan milkshakes, and vegan hot dogs, and...I really did need to buy something and get out of the way, so I went for the 'Little Kahuna' burger, with 'bacon' and' 'cheese' and 'burger sauce' and something really weird called 'salad':

Little Kahuna burger

It got sneaked back to the hotel in the disguise of a paper bag from GNC, which turns out to be exactly the right size for burger-sneaking. Thanks to Vegan Grindhouse.

I went back the following day having spotted one of my all-time favourite things: MEXICAN FOOD.

Cantina Carnitas

This is Cantina Carnitas, home of nachos, tacos and THE BEST VEGETARIAN BURRITO EVER:

Giant burrito

This created a new condition on Twitter called 'Burrito Envy'. Sweet potato and mushroom chilli, rice, beans, sour cream, guacamole, cheese, coriander, and probably some other stuff. Served up in a handy foil wrap and scoffed down far too quickly. Burritos are following me on Twitter: you should follow burritos.

I also had a pancake with cinnamon and sugar. More on that later...

I wasn't intending to go back for a third time, but talk of the van with the wood-fired pizza oven played on my mind all night. How could I leave Birmingham without experiencing VAN PIZZA? So back to Brindleyplace it was, to get a load of THIS:

Bare Bones Pizza

That's a VAN. With an OVEN.

Here is that oven:

Bare Bones pizza van oven

And it was used to make this:

Vegetarian pizza

The crust tasted fantastic done in a proper oven, and a blood orange San Pellegrino washed it all down very nicely. You can follow van pizza here.

Obviously I needed something sweet for dessert, and Platinum Pancakes were there (with at least 100 jars of Nutella) to provide a cinnamon and sugar pancake the first time around, and a chocolate sauce one today. Here is the construction of said chocolate sauce pancake:

Making pancakes
Making pancakes with chocolate sauce
Chocolate sauce pancake

For the uninitiated, this is not fish and chips. This is chocolately goodness.

Chocolate sauce


Anyway, eating it all out by the fountains was a very relaxing experience. The weather got better as the long weekend went on and I believe I may have achieved Nirvana. This picture doesn't really do Brindleyplace much justice:


Not to be left out, my hotel did quite a good job as well...

Belgian chocolate waffle

If I had been there for the full four days, I suspect I'd have also tried the fries with cheese, nachos, tacos, milkshakes, stuffed dumplings, lemon pie and any number of other these that caught my eye whilst wandering round. A thoroughly enjoyable experience!

Happy Chinese New Year!

It's Chinese New Year, and at my workplace we will use any excuse to hold a lunchtime buffet.

As the buffets are usually cold, it was a bit of a challenge working out what people should bring in. But, with a bit of ingenuity, we decided that we could serve up hot food alongside the cold snacks. Knowing how interested you all are in these things, here are the results...

Duck spring rolls

For starters, a great big heap of duck spring rolls. We had plum dipping sauce, sweet chilli sauce and hoi sin sauce. They were baked away from the office and placed into a delivery sack borrowed by a colleague from a real Chinese takeaway! Of course, everyone brought in prawn crackers, so we had a gigantic mound of those as well.

Prawn toasts

There was also the biggest bag of prawn toasts you have ever seen. In the bowl is egg fried rice - we used the microwavable packets.

Chinese buffet

In the bowls are soy chunks (very chewy but an interesting meat replacement), sliced water chestnuts, and bird's eye chilli coated peanuts. Also featured is one of the empty packets from the noodles we used - you can just put ramen in a bowl with some boiling water and it will cook itself, no need for a stove or a pan, so I took orders by e-mail and then made up individual bowls and delivered them to people's desks. We had chow mein and chicken and sweetcorn flavours.

Not pictured is two kinds of soup: a colleague made chicken and sweetcorn and hot and sour vegetarian soup which we kept in polystyrene containers until it was ready to be served.

Chinese food

Here's my first helping - prawn toasts, egg fried rice and water chestnuts with soy sauce, and a bowl of chicken and sweetcorn flavour noodles (no actual chicken involved)...

Chinese buffet desserts

...and here is dessert. Chinese desserts are either a bit fiddly or not really suitable for a work buffet situation, so we just improvised - in this bowl is red velvet cake, millionaire's shortbread squares, and tropical fruit salad with added mandarin segments. I had intended to add canned lychees, but there was not a can of lychees to be found in the whole town. I got some fresh ones instead.

Also pictured is a brown sugar glutinous mochi ball with red bean filling. I really enjoyed them but they are a bit of an acquired taste and very filling. Plenty of those left over for me to gorge myself on tomorrow!

Have you done anything for Chinese New Year! Tweet me your food photographs!

CHEESE: Because you’re worth it

Hello Ladies and Gentlemen! Today I am here to talk about something very important and close to our hearts, namely:


Yes, it's cheese made of cheese. Those of you who know me at all will know that I actually make things out of cheese - a bit like how you probably make things in Minecraft, only clearly better.

Some people have asked how I do this, and how it started. It was Hallowe'en last year when the first cheese thingy appeared, as I had decided to throw a party for Ghostwatch: The National Séance 2012 and needed food ideas.

Most Hallowe'en foods are more daft than edible, but one really stood out - the pumpkin cheese ball. It just needed soft cheese, Cheddar, some spices and the stalk from a pepper. And wow, was it good:

Pumpkin cheese ball

It tasted AMAZING. But what I had noticed was the recipe created a cheese which could be moulded into anything, almost like a modelling clay. And thus, at Christmas, I decided to try something a bit more involved. The image of it was in my head for weeks beforehand, and here's what I ended up taking to the work buffet:

Cheese Christmas tree

As you can see, I had started to experiment with decoration - the leaves are flat-leaf parsley, the tinsel is paprika, the baubles are olives and the trunk is black pepper. Ever versatile, the cheese went with all of them and the black pepper part, which I had feared might not work at all, got destroyed first.

You can never really tell what people think of your food - the pumpkin got a lot of compliments and requests from around the office for the recipe, but the tree seemed a little less popular. I was wrong. At Easter, I set myself the challenge of making easter eggs, with the idea of actually colouring the cheese with the herbs I was using to flavour it. It turns out that I can't make an egg shape to save my life, but an empty egg box helped out with that:

Cheese Easter eggs

They promptly disappeared, and the new flavours of barbeque seasoning and smoked paprika went first. I had added them in for more variety in the design of the eggs and they turned out to be very good choices.

This Christmas I am planning something which can only be described as insane, and I have no idea if it will work. The actual moulding and decorating can take real patience, but if you want to introduce the cheese into your parties by starting with the pumpkin ball - Hallowe'en isn't far off now - here's how to do it...

I'm in the UK and will name the popular brands, but you can substitute whatever is available to you in your country.

You'll need:

200g (8oz) of original Philadelphia (1 small packet)
200g (8oz) of chive and herb Philadelphia
200g (8oz) of a strong, hard Cheddar cheese such as Cracker Barrel
1-2 teaspoons of paprika
1 teaspoon Cayenne pepper (optional, but better with)
The stalk of a pepper
Somewhere reasonably cool to make it, and a fridge

1. Grate the Cheddar and mix it in a bowl with the two packets of Philadelphia and the paprika and Cayenne pepper. This takes a bit of strength and you might find a metal spoon works better than a wooden one.

2. Roll the mixture into a ball and leave it in the fridge to set for at least a couple of hours.

3. Get the cheese out and put it onto the surface you ultimately intend to serve it on - you won't be able to easily move it after you've worked with it.

4. Mould into a rough ball shape, squash slightly from the top and use the end of a wooden spoon (or similar) to create the sections.

5. Put the pepper stalk into the top.

It really is that simple! Be aware that the cheese will start melting immediately when you use your hands to shape it - the cooler the room, the better, and in winter I've been known to take outside to give myself more time to work with it.

It will keep for a few days, although it starts to dry out if you leave it too long. Any flavours you add will get stronger, but it's much better eaten as fresh as possible.

In case you're wondering, the flavours used in the CHEESE above are black pepper, crushed chillies, barbeque seasoning, smoked paprika, an Italian herb mix, and normal paprika.

Mmmmmmm, cheese!

Mediterranean Feast!

It's Mediterranean buffet day at work tomorrow - an idea cooked up by my team to stop people constantly bringing in unhealthy rubbish to the office. Because I know you like this sort of thing, here are my contributions:

Mediterranean potato salad (with two kinds of olives, fresh tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, flat-leaf parsley, Greek-style cheese, cayenne pepper, lemon juice...)

Mediterranean Potato Salad

Tomato and roasted pepper pasta salad (a pre-made tomato and basil pasta salad vastly improved with roasted peppers, fresh tomatoes, fresh basil and some cayenne pepper)

Mediterranean Pasta Salad

Devilled eggs with a Mediterranean twist (mayo, mustard, balsamic vinegar, two kinds of olives, flat-leaf parsley)

Mediterranean Devilled Eggs

You Woz Ere

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