7 June 2014

Sugar Rush

I eat a lot of sugar and it’s been figuring as a dietary demon in various things I’ve been watching and reading for a few years now. I’ve had a sweet tooth since I was a little kid, fuelled by the always reliable treat in the top drawer of a dresser in my grandma’s kitchen; crystallised in one of my few memories of early childhood when I made Russian caramels with her. Unlike many of my friends whose passion for alcohol has dulled their sweet tooth, mine remains keen.

What is sugar? Sugar is a very simple carbohydrate. Indeed, in biochemistry sugar and carbohydrate are synonyms. A carbohydrate is a large organic molecule composed of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. Depending on how complex these carbohydrates are, they are referred to a monosaccharides (the simplest), disaccharides, oligosaccharides and polysaccharides (the most complex).

What we think of as sugars are actually the mono- and disaccharides. The more complex saccharides include things like starch or cellulose (which we think of as carbohydrates) and are both part of what we eat and what we are made of at a cellular level. This isn’t to say though, that simple sugars don’t also form a part of us. The D in DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic – in which the deoxyribose is a monosaccharide.

That’s a lot of syllables. Suffice to say sugars and carbohydrates are the same thing, and they aren’t just what you put in your coffee, they’re basic organic molecules that are absolutely everywhere.

But back to sugar:

- Glucose. You can buy it as a syrup from the supermarket. Plants make it via photosynthesis. It’s one of the three sugars that are absorbed directly into your blood stream during digestion. I like to add it to home-made icecream to make it smoother.
- Fructose. Known as fruit sugar, it is found in fruit, root vegetables, honey and maple syrup.

- Sucrose. Table sugar. It is a disaccharide formed when glucose and fructose link together. Also known as ‘white poison’ in more hysterical circles.
- Lactose. Formed from glucose and another monosaccharide known as galactose. It is the sugar in milk.
- Maltose. Formed by joining two glucose molecules. It is present in germinating seeds and 1950s milk-shakes.

- Smackose. The sugar you can’t stop thinking about. You try to ignore it with will power and clean living, then there’s a 2-for-1 special at the supermarket and you’ve suddenly downed a family block.
- Wankose. Seen increasingly at trendy cafes that don’t appreciate that if the coffee’s good you’ll have it black and unsweetened, but sometimes a latte with 2 sugars is nice… however not so much if their ‘raw organic Haitian cane sugar’ that looks more like dirty sand changes the flavour entirely.
- Chokose. Dusted over Greek pastries this can be easily inhaled by the novice, leading to rapid asphyxiation. Over 3,500 tourists die in Greece every year from inhaling chokose.  
- Artificial Sweeteners: you're eating them because you're fat, worried about the health effects of sugar, or both. Unfortunately sprinkling this shit on your cornflakes still leaves you a cancer-riddled pig at the end of the day.   

Bonus Level: My grandma Barbara Stebbings’s recipe for Russian Caramels:

20 February 2014


The desert is in my thoughts.

Arid nature: the barchan dune; the thorny devil.
Desert culture: the West, the Outback, Islam.

That house where Levon Helm lives in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
The tombs of Ereth-Akbe.
Walt, burying his money.
I still haven’t seen Lawrence of Arabia.

The desert in Bolivia is vastly sublime. We crossed the border from Chile near San Pedro de Atacama, seven of us in a Landcruiser, strung into a dusty line with five or six other vehicles. It was like being on Mars. Huge plains and mountains, dry and red, baked under the blue sky, disintegrating under radiation. We were the only thing moving or living.

Then, around a foothill of Mount Juriques, we come to a salt lake, Laguna Verde: out into cold wind, thin air and harsh sunlight. Pale turquoise water laps powdery white sand underfoot. The sand coarsens; gains colour, ascending to umber mountains.

Later that day there are thin geysers, blown away in the wind, but which still leave the phantom stink of sulphur in your clothes. Cracks filled with boiling mud. Old volcanoes surround people and vehicle. Further on the mountains fall away into the distance. Plains of sand and gravel lead to the Siloli Desert where immense rocks have been scoured to sculpture by the wind. I climb their flanks, quickly breathless in the thin air.

That night I leave the others and walk alone up a small valley carved by a stream. It is freezing and the wind is everywhere. Eventually I find a draw and sit in silence. The little plants in the streambed huddle in silt. The upper slopes of the immense mountain that stands, thrumming, a short way across the plain are still lit by the setting sun. How can snow survive up there?

On the final day we reach the Salar de Uyuni. Prehistoric lakes have evaporated, leaving 50,000 cubic kilometres of salt behind. The spirit has flown but the body remains. It has rained two days before and huge, shallow puddles stretch to the horizon, bisected by the wake of our wheels, reflecting the world. Satellites calibrate themselves around us. Cold seeps through my shoes and salt crunches as I walk. Somewhere the Bolivians are extracting lithium for our mobile phones, but as we leave I see a man sleeping, propped against one of many small piles he has erected amidst the rain-summoned ghost of the dead lakes.

Most of me wants to swap my life for his; remain here and be eaten by the desert.

29 January 2014

Breakfast Buffet

In Argentina you can buy your icecream by the quarter, half or whole litre. A lot of that icecream is dulce de leche flavoured. Argentineans are obsessed with dulce de leche, which is essentially condensed milk cooked down into a caramel with the consistency of a very thick glue. You can buy it at the local supermercado in tins big enough to send a class of 8 year olds into an insulin frenzy. At the breakfast buffet in your hotel there will be small packs of it to smear on your sweet cake (or on your very inferior croissant style pastry, the medialuna, which I would not recommend). Sweet cake smeared with thick caramel seems a strange breakfast choice but the Argentineans have yet to realise that a café can serve pastries, and so they have to work with what they’ve got. You can buy a coffee. You can buy a pastry. Just not in the same shop (medialunas are excepted - but they don’t count). Want to make a lot of money? Open a café in Buenos Aires that serves breakfast with pastries… but don’t forget to charge American dollars because the local peso inflates faster than a dead rat in the sun.

Speaking of breakfast buffets, perhaps one of the strangest I’ve ever encountered was in Buenos Aires, simply because it included small bowls of jelly. The man, let’s call him a chef, in charge of said buffet was more concerned with presentation than actual food, to the point where the remaining slices of bread would be rearranged immediately after you’d taken one. Not having made the conceptual leap to serving pastries, he must have been at his wits’ end as to what to serve the few foreigners who visited his buffet each morning, picking at their selections before exiting stage right; leaving behind a plate of cold toast and half eaten fruit, never to return. Jelly must have seemed like an inspired choice. It’s in a ramekin so you can keep it neat. If no one eats it you can put it back in the fridge and try it out again tomorrow. The lack of an identifiable flavour made it a little disconcerting, but overall I would count it a standout success amid the caramel smeared poverty of the Argentinean breakfast buffet.