Variety is the crux of a healthy gut biome, which in turn is essential to our immune system enabling us to fight infections ranging from the common cold to cancer or Covid. In promoting a healthy gut, Prof Tim Spector sets a goal of eating 30 different plant foods a week. I’m not entirely sure how he came up with this number, nor indeed the significance a week, but it does at least give some idea of what constitutes variety.
In 1699 the famous diarist and gardener John Evelyn wrote the first book dedicated to the subject of salads: Aceteria: A discourse of sallets. It begins with a list of 73 herb and vegetable ingredients that could be used in a salad (no fruits, other than orange, lemon and melon were included). The characteristics and virtues of each were discussed. I have included the list below just to remind us of what a wide range of ingredients can be grown here and how limited, even with the imported foods now available, our choice has become. Have a look and tick off those you have eaten in the last year.
John Evelyn’s Salad Ingredients:
Alexanders; Artichoke; Basil; Balm (lemon – Melissa); Beet (root and stems); Blite (English Mercury/All-good); Borage; Brooklime; Bugloss; Buds (including caper, ash-keys, broom buds); Cabbage (including cauliflower and seakale); Cardoon; Carrots; Chervil; Clary; Clavers; Corn-sallet; Cowslips; Cresses (includes watercress and nasturtiums); Cucumber; Daisy; Dandelion; Dock; Earth-nuts; Elder; Endive; Fennel; Flowers (a long list many of them herbs); Garlic, Goats Beard; Hops, Hyssop; Jack-by-the-Hedge; Leeks; Lettuce (a long list of types); Lemon; Mallow; Melon; Mint; Mushrooms; Mustard (seed and leaf); Nettles; Onion ( a list including chives and shallots); Orach; Orange; Parsnip; Peas; Peppers (sweet and hot); Parsley; Pimpernel (Salad Burnet); Purslane; Radish; Rampion; Rocket; Rosemary; Sage; Samphire; Scallions; Scurvey-grass; Sellery (celery); Skirrits; Sorrel; Sow-thistle; Sparagus (Asparagus); Spinach; Succory (a wild chicory leaf); Tansy, Tarragon; Thistle; Trick-Madame; Turnip; Vine; Viper-grass (Scorzonera/Salsify); Wood Sorrel.
I reckon that only 32 of the 73 ingredients listed here are available in supermarkets, the rest you would need either to grow or to forage. Of course, you may now be able to get some additional ingredients, but even so, I bet you are still far short of 73.
Wild foods feature very little in most people’s diet yet invariably they have a far higher nutritional content than their cultivated counterparts. The Wildbiome Project is currently attempting to collect more scientific data about the impact of wild foods on our gut.
Some foods might be so important to our health that they deserve the label of “super foods”, many of these are already in use in conventional medicine and yet more are still waiting for approval. For example, the use of magic mushrooms in treating depression or giant puffballs for brain tumors, are just two examples requiring more testing. Evelyn lists simply “mushrooms” yet the inclusion of a wider range of wild mushrooms could give a tremendous boost to our gut biomes.
The fact that different varieties of one plant provide different health benefits was never more welcome than when I read recently that variety is important even when selecting the wines we drink! Apparently, most people tend to stick to a small range of tried and tested grape varieties, so take heart, increasing the variety of plant food consumed to 30 a week could be as simple as finding some new wines!
I often turn to my larder for remedies when I feel unwell, whether it is simply a peppermint tea to aid digestion or making chicken soup to cure anything from heartache to pneumonia – it’s not called Jewish Penicillin for nothing! It is particularly pleasing when science finally gives approval to one of my “grandmother’s remedies”. The latest was when a Harvard study confirmed that there might be some truth to the adage that “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” as their study revealed that just 10mg of quercetin a day (contained in one medium apple) reduced the odds of infirmity in over 60s by 20%. As Colin pointed out in his blog post on Cryptonutrients, there are many things that our gut (quite literally) has worked out which science hasn’t even looked at yet.
The availability of nutrients in food is often depleted during storage or preservation, which is why eating fresh local foods in season generally provides the optimum nutrition, although food that has been frozen within a short time of harvesting can be just as nutritious. Colin recommends a return to a more primitive way of eating, and certainly less processing of foods. Eating as our hunter-gatherer forebears did is a lifestyle that had exceptionally low health problems, although it is rare to find people living exclusively by this means today. Nonetheless, more wild food within our diets would certainly bring greater nutritional diversity.
I prefer to look at what we can add rather than what we should be excluding from our diet. Luckily it is often the little things, like herbs and spices, which provide a benefit out of all proportion to their size. I was delighted to read recently that our consumption of tea from Camellia sinensis is falling whilst being compensated for by a rise in our consumption of herbal teas. The British are known for their love of tea, but tisanes – herbal infusions, not so much. Whilst on holiday in Sardinia I was amazed by their afternoon tea ritual. A beautiful platform had been built from which you could watch the sun setting behind the mountains and the menu consisted entirely of herb and spice infusions blended to alleviate various ailments. The Italians are pretty health obsessed, but even so it seemed unusual to pick your infusion, which arrived in a cafetière type pot, by ailment. Of course, we do it in health food shops, but not usually in cafés, I had more expected a cocktail bar for sundowners! I noticed that each tisane consisted of a blend, often including some of the same spices as another, but presumably in different proportions. At home I have a mid-afternoon bag of “detox tea” which contains liquorice, cinnamon, burdock root, ginger, dandelion, fennel and anise plus smaller proportions of 8 more herbs and spices, but I wouldn’t begin to know how to create different blends, in correct proportions, for specific ailments. Incorporating a herbal tea into my daily routine is the kind of tweak to the diet that I am looking for. Another example is the addition of cinnamon to my morning yoghurt which gives the illusion of sweetness without actually adding any sugar.
Adding a course to your meal is another suggestion towards eating more vegetables. Our habit of serving everything on one single plate might be part of why we love a Sunday Roast with all the trimmings. Someone recently commented to me that the Sunday Roast was the only meal with which they ate “proper vegetables” rather than just those that might top a pizza. Actually, it was the second time in a fortnight that such a comment had been made, making me pause to consider how, in eating less meat, people might also be eating fewer vegetables.
Apart from the USA, we spend less time eating a meal than any other country. I have recounted before how a lunch for Italian students, where I had told them they could choose three courses, resulted in mass confusion because several had not even reached a “main course” in this selection! I understand that Italy also is struggling to replace some of their meat consumption with vegetables because their secondo/main course consists of hardly anything but meat, perhaps just meat and potatoes. The best vegetable selection is often to be found as part of the antipasti, equivalent to mezze in Greece, and this menu structure is something we could emulate. Crostini, little rounds of toasted bread, topped with a mound of vegetables is one option, French style crudités, raw vegetables with a dip another. A separate course provides far more options for vegetables than serving them as a “side”. Equally a salad doesn’t need to stand on the side, it can be the main event, but consider also whether it might be better served before, or after, the main course. Whenever you chose to serve a salad, they are definitely a vehicle for additions – nuts, seeds, flowers, shoots, herbs and wild leaves. John Evelyn’s salad ingredients were where I started this discussion on variety, but for some modern inspiration on what to grow I recommend Charles Dowding’s book Salad Leaves for all Seasons.
Having agreed that we need to eat plenty of plants and above all have maximum variety in our diets, that leaves just the “not much meat” part of Colin’s mantra. Colin’s article of 5th April posed the question Should we all turn vegetarian The article is well worth reading in full, but his conclusion was: we don’t really need to be vegetarian, and veganism is not the best or even the least bad option. The best course is to farm agroecologically and emulate the great cuisines.
Here are my thoughts on the subject:
Ideally the meat that we do eat should be 100% pasture fed. The figures that you will read about the contribution that sheep and cattle make to greenhouse gasses are usually based on American feed-lot rearing, although most British farmers will feed as much pasture as possible, even though many finish on grain. 100% makes a big difference from a health point of view, but 80% would still cause less environmental impact. I am however a great advocate of eating wild meat, especially venison, we have far too many deer for their own good but also need to control numbers to prevent the environmental damage they cause. When you eat meat a nose to tail approach is needed to avoid waste. I tend to have whole or half animals for freezing, so I need to come up with imaginative dishes for the less popular cuts and offal – including the bones, which is why bone broth is my featured recipe. Did you know that Beef Tea was once served in hospitals to aid recuperation? The long simmering of beef bones releases gelatine, which is excellent for digestion and gut health, and collagen which aids repair and renewal.
Then there is fish – where does this feature in the diet of our island nation? I have written a whole post on this, but here I will just say that I eat at least two portions of fish a week and that variety is again the crux of this issue. We need to broaden the range of fish we eat to encompass whatever is being caught in our seas, rather than importing or, even worse, farming carnivorous fish.
We should also talk about dairy. Whole milk is the closest to a complete food, nutritionally, that we have. I don’t actually like milk, so my mother spent much time explaining it’s importance for healthy bones and teeth and then finding dairy products that I would eat. Butter was one thing I was allowed whilst the rest of the family had to eat cheaper plant-based margarine (which we now know is a hydrogenated fat, the worst kind for our health). We also ate plenty of cheese and the then new product yogurt. Yogurt is my main dairy intake nowadays. Dairy is the main thing that separates vegetarians from vegans. I don’t believe that a vegan diet is healthy, and certainly requires supplementing, starting with regular Vitamin B12 injections. Unfortunately, many chefs seem to feel obliged to provide vegan options but, in an effort to avoid offering too many choices (with the associated cost and wastage) have decided that vegetarians can be catered for by the vegan options. This is yet another example of how we may actually end up eating more meat rather than less. Many a time, especially at lunch, I might have opted for a lighter vegetable dish, but when you see it has no cheese (or eggs), the dish looks less appetising and so I pick a meat option instead. This is not just about nutrition but flavour. Cheese provides a umami element that is mainly found in meat, although mushrooms are the best umami providers of the vegetable world. If eating were just about nutrition we may as well pop a pill instead, but it’s not, eating should nourish the soul as well as the body.
So, with the above qualifications, I accept the “not much meat” part of the mantra, although for me Maximum Variety remains the most important principle. Diversity is essential not only to our own health but also the health of the planet.
The quality of the bones will determine the nutritional benefit of your broth, so you want pasture fed beef. I rarely have many beef bones, so usually save them up in the freezer until I have sufficient to make stock, as the cooking time is long it is better to make in bulk.
I more regularly have large quantities of deer bones, but where I live these are mainly from Roe deer, which clearly can’t contain the amount of gelatine that beef does, as the stock, whilst tasty, is thin and doesn’t set to a jelly. Fallow deer however produce a wonderful set stock.
Don’t worry if you don’t have all the vegetables or herbs to hand but don’t be tempted to use vegetables that are past their best – it will affect the taste of the stock. Remember that the stalks of the parsley have just as much flavour as the leaves and the green tops of the leek are fine, so you may be able to utilise parts that you have left over. All the vegetables should be cleaned but if you have used organic, they do not need peeling.
This is really the minimum worth making, if you have a large enough stock pot make more.
Beef bones (approx. 4lb/2 kg)
1 large onion or two small
2 sticks of celery
1 handful of parsley
2 sprigs thyme
You will get a more intense flavour if you brown the bones in a roasting tin in the oven first, although this won’t make any difference to the nutritional content. Put the bones in a roasting tin and place in a hot oven to brown whilst you cut the vegetables into large chunks. They can be added to the bones when you have finished cutting them and left to brown slightly as well. Once the bones have taken on some colour transfer everything to a large stock pot and pour over sufficient cold water to just cover the bones. Bring the water just to the boil and skim off the scum that rises to the surface. Add a little cold water and repeat the skimming when it simmers again.
Now turn the heat down low so that only the occasional bubble is breaking the surface. You can, if you prefer, transfer the pot to a low oven (an Aga is ideal for this) but do not cover the pan. Check the pan after about 10 minutes and then about once an hour to make sure it’s not reducing too fast (this is less of a problem if you cook the stock in the oven, but if it cooks very slowly it may need to be cooked for longer).
After about 4 hours simmering you should have a well-flavoured and slightly reduced stock. It will taste good at this point but to release all the nutrient from the bones it should be kept warm for another 4-6 hours. Again, an Aga is ideal for this, but I just turn out the heat, cover the pan, and leave it overnight.
Strain the stock into a clean dish, cover and transfer to the fridge. The fat will rise to the top and set so that it can be lifted off. Now that the bones have been removed from the stock, it can be boiled to further reduce it if you require a more intense flavour or just to reduce the storage space required.
The stock can be kept covered in the fridge for several days or for months in the freezer.