Road to Perdition

The Roman Gartree Road is scored straight across south east Leicestershire, sometimes city street, sometimes country lane, more often than not just an ancient trackway between ash and beech, the haunt of owl and fox. It bypasses the Strettons (on the 'street')- Little Stretton, the largest of the two, of course, and Great Stretton, of which virtually all that remains is this little church out in the fields. It makes up for it by being the photograph on the cover of W.G.Hoskins' Leicestershire: The History of the Landscape.

But these acres are now under a threat that would make Hoskins revolve in his grave; but that perhaps would gain immediate grape-eating approval from the Romans. Dev the Developer can't wait to bend the newly-revised planning laws in order to turn this landscape, much of which is a truely-green enclave of Leicester itself, into what is oxymoronically called an 'eco-city'. In this case one the size of Hinckley in the same county. The idea pretends to cash-in on the environmental bandwagon, claiming the desire to build 'green' houses on already richly-green pastureland. We all know that this is a lie, greed dressed-up in eco clothes. The Government, so called, will fall over their miserable ill-thought out commitments to let it happen, intent as they are to ritually destroy the English countryside. But who is selling all this land, in one go, so that Dev doesn't have to spend decades buying it up? None other than the Co-Op. Yes, the 'caring sharing Co-Op' who once used these pastoral acres to graze cattle that supplied milk to their shops. Hang on a minute. Isn't this the Co-Op that was formed in Rochdale to benefit all of us? Apparently not.

Pandemic flu conference calls for papers

Are you interested in issues that relate to vaccines, antiviral drugs and pandemic flu? Then here is an opportunity for you: Seton Hall Law School's Center for Health and Pharmaceutical Law and the Seton Hall Law Review will be hosting a symposium Oct. 23-24 focusing on these very issues.

Abstracts are now being sought from people who want to serve as a panelist or have a chance to be published in a special issue of the Seton Hall Law Review. Interested individuals should submit a CV and a 200-word abstract by April 15. For full details on the symposium, Preparing for a Pharmaceutical Response to Pandemic Influenza, visit the Seton Hall Law Review symposium Web site.

Ducks contributing to bird flu's spread

Chickens aren't the only indicators of where bird flu may occur, new research shows.

Scientists think the combination of rice farming and large populations of ducks are the best ways to predict where bird flu might pop up next. This new evidence, highlighted in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, can guide public health experts as they plan on new and effective ways to prevent future outbreaks of the flu.

Researchers studied three outbreaks between the beginning of 2004 and the end of 2005, and looked at duck, human and chicken populations in certain areas of Southeast Asia as well as elevation and the amount of rice crops. Tracking both the duck populations for the H5N1 avian flu virus and rice paddies by satellite turned out to be the best way to determine where outbreaks might occur next. The outbreaks were found in areas where rice is farmed two or three times each year. In Thailand and Vietnam, chickens were not even close to being predictors of where the H5N1 virus was present, because it usually kills them before they can even spread it, the research noted.

With hope, there will be more research about the link between ducks and bird flu. For now, researchers are going to begin to design maps in other Southeast Asian countries to identify areas where flu outbreaks are the most likely to occur.

Water Marks

I need help. (Muted cyber-chorus of agreement.) Why is it that I find water towers,and I have to say these white-painted ones, so appealing? And at the same time find wind turbines so unattractive to the eye? I found this one on my fenland tour whilst out picking-off candidates for Classic Constructs, a new book for later on in the year. It sits out in the bleak landscape at Newton, where Cambridgeshire narrows to a point up near The Wash, a simple unadorned landmark structure that has enormous appeal for its functional simplicity. Coupled with the fact that thought was given to its placement here by planting a stand of silver birch and willow around it. Water towers are necessary where natural gradients are insufficient to maintain a good head of water, and, like all things, the acceptability of their presence in isolated countryside comes down to design. There are stunning examples- the landmark towers of Ravensden in Bedfordshire, the Wellsian science fiction Mappleton out on the Plain of Holderness. You probably wouldn't want one looking over your back garden- the concrete and glass Haddenham comes to mind- but necessity can still be the mother of inventive design. I suppose it comes down to taste, like good old-fashioned tap water versus over-priced 'eau' run-off from your local volcano.

Visceral Fat and Dementia

This study was released today, demonstrating in 6,583 patients that visceral fat mass in the 40s predicts the risk of dementia in old age. Patients in the highest quintile (20% with the most visceral fat mass) had an almost three-fold higher risk of dementia than patients in the lowest quintile. Overall fat mass was less strongly correlated with dementia. This study is so timely, they must have heard about my blog post.

They used a measure of visceral fat called the "sagittal abdominal diameter", basically the distance from the back to the belly button. In other words, the beer belly.

What we're looking at is another facet of the pervasive "disease of civilization" that rolls into town on the same truck as sugar and white flour. Weston Price described it in 14 different cultures throughout the world in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer and dementia all seem to come hand-in-hand. It's hard to say exactly what the root cause is, but the chain of causality seems to pass through visceral fat in many people.

Fit for Purpose

Having mentioned Fitton Hall in my last blog, I thought it would be churlish not to show it. At first glance I did think it was a derelict railway station, until I realised there was no sign of a platform, no sign of a dismantled line on my map, and in any case no earthly reason why there should be a station of this size here. No, it's just a simple Victorian house, not particularly pretty, but with some attempt made to liven things up a bit with courses of blue brick layered into the stock red. There's also been an attempt to produce a little bit of grandeur with the porch, into which is set a stone roundel with the name and date- 1869. But I think it has immense charm, possibly because of its comparative airy isolation, and because the cart horses and orange slurry tank lend it a certain Animal Farm ambience. The name Fitton comes from 'fit' meaning grassy banks on a river, and 'tun' for settlement. It's perhaps interesting to note that the River Nene is only a short distance away, but before the great reclamations of land around here nearby Wisbech was a port actually on the coast, (there's a section of old sea bank in the next village of Leverington). So previous manors here at Fitton End would have looked out on to the muddy reaches of The Wash, now over ten miles away.

Visceral Fat

This week, I stumbled upon a very interesting series of articles from the lab of Dr. Nir Barzilai.

The first article I came across showed that surgical removal of the visceral fat deposit of rats increased their lifespan. Visceral fat (VF) is the "beer belly", and consists of the perinephratic fat around the kidneys and the omental fat in front of the intestines. It doesn't include subcutaneous fat, the fat layer under the skin.

VF is tightly associated with the metabolic syndrome, the quintessential "disease of civilization" that affects 24% of Americans (NHANES III). It's defined by three or more of the following criteria: high blood pressure, large waist circumference, low HDL cholesterol, high triglycerides, and high fasting glucose. The metabolic syndrome is associated with a 3-4-fold increase in the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, and a 6-fold increase in the risk of developing type II diabetes. From a review on the metabolic syndrome (parentheses mine):

The most common alteration related to the impaired glucose metabolism with aging is the progressively increased fasting and postprandial [post-meal] plasma insulin levels, suggesting an insulin-resistant state.

This is all well and good, but who cares? What's to say VF plays any role other than as a simple marker for overweight?

The longevity paper led me to Dr. Barzilai's previous papers, which answered this question rather thoroughly. Rats raised on standard rat chow, which is a sad little compressed pellet made of grains and added nutrients, develop elevated insulin and insulin resistance with age, just like humans. Unless they don't have VF. Rats that had their VF surgically removed did not develop insulin resistance or elevated insulin with age, despite rebounding to their original total fat mass rather quickly (VF accounts for ~18% of total fat in these rats). These parameters are unaffected by removing an equal amount of subcutaneous fat, which has been shown in human liposuction patients as well.

Removing VF also improved diabetes-prone Zucker rats, which are profoundly insulin-resistant (leptin receptor loss-of-function). It kept wild-type rats just as insulin-sensitive as calorically restricted controls, which had a small amount of VF. This shows that VF isn't just a passive player; it's essential for the development of insulin resistance. It also shows, along with human studies, that insulin resistance is not an inevitable consequence of aging.

Adipose (fat) tissue is being increasingly recognized as an important endocrine (hormone-secreting) organ. It produces many different hormones that affect insulin sensitivity and appetite regulation, among other things. These hormones are collectively known as fat-derived peptides (FDPs). At least one of these FDPs, TNF-alpha, promotes insulin resistance.

Dr. Barzilai's group went on to explore the mechanism of VF contributing to insulin resistance. They increased the rate of glucose flux into the fat tissue of rats by infusing either glucose or insulin into the bloodstream. These treatments both cause increased glucose uptake by fat cells. What they saw when they dissected the rats was striking. The VF had ramped up its production of FDPs from 2- to 15-fold, while the subcutaneous fat had barely changed. Incidentally, insulin increased glucose uptake by VF twice as much as subcutaneous fat.

I'll say this again, because it's important. They forced glucose into VF cells, and those cells dramatically upregulated FDP production. And again, no visceral fat, no FDPs.

In earlier papers, he also showed that the removal of VF dramatically reduces the expression of TNF-alpha and leptin (two FDPs) in subcutaneous fat on a longer timescale, showing that VF and subcutaneous fat communicate to alter the metabolism. Again, TNF-alpha promotes insulin resistance, making it a possible link between the fat tissue and peripheral effects. VF removal had no effect on triglycerides, suggesting that they're only a marker of insulin dysfunction rather than a cause.

Now to take this research to its logical conclusion. Here's a plausible sequence of events leading up to the metabolic syndrome:
  • A meal high in quickly digested carbohydrate elevates blood glucose. OR, excessive fructose causes insulin resistance in the liver which leads to high fasting glucose.
  • Visceral fat responds by increasing production of FDPs.
  • FDPs, directly and/or indirectly, cause insulin resistance in the liver, muscle and other tissue. Liver insulin resistance causes alterations in lipoprotein ("cholesterol") profile (more on this in another post). Fat tissue remains insulin-sensitive.
  • The vicious cycle continues, with increased visceral fat size and glucose uptake increasing FDP production, which makes the liver more insulin resistant, which increases glucose production by the liver, etc.

kid's room

new ideas for Kid's Rooms

curtains ideas and new design

Kitchen design

Game of Two Halves

Fitton End is only three miles from Wisbech, a handful of houses including the derelict Fitton Hall that looks like a gothic railway station marooned in the fields. You won't find the hall in Pevsner or a Shell Guide, but it's certainly worth a look before it gets restored. But it wasn't what made me turn round in a farmyard and retrace my tyre marks. At first glance this pair of cottages look nothing out of the ordinary, the left hand dwelling still almost original. But on looking more closely I thought 'Voysey'. Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857-1941) was a leading member of the Arts & Crafts movement, and is famous for his country houses that, although large, were never grand. His trademarks were pebble-dashing, angled buttresses, porthole windows. And he designed everything from the wallpaper to the knives and forks. This pair of semi-detacheds aren't by him, far from it, but there is certainly a Voysey-inspired architectural game going on here. Out on the fen I see the landowner at breakfast at the Hall, reading Building News and, on seeing a Voysey retrospective, turning down the page corner for a later chat with his estate manager. Rose Cottage maybe painted-up like a lighthouse, but I think Voysey would have loved it.

French Lesson

Out on the Fens again, and a discovery on a back road between Eye and Crowland. This is one of the distinct pleasures of keeping one's eyes open in this, some would say, featureless landscape. Apart from there always being something odd out of the corner of the eye there will also be the names: Teakettle Hall, Whipchicken Farm, Dog Drove South, Dog Drove North. And so Powder Blue Farm. At first I thought it was simply a farm named after a favourite on a colour swatch, perhaps there'd also be a Fowler Pink Farm, a Lamp Room Gray Rectory. Then it occurred to me that Powder Blue might be a local name for the Holly Blue butterfly, here right on the edge of its territory. Thank goodness for Edward Storey's The Solitary Landscape. Storey tells us that woad was grown around here right up to the late-eighteenth century, and the French Huguenots were the only ones prepared to take on the unpleasant task of grinding woad into the blue powder sold as dye to the clothing trade. They would have called it poudre bleu,and their presence is also still remembered in the names French Farm and French Drove. But the condition of this sign still suggests to me that Prairie Gold Yellow Farm might break through at any moment.

Okinawa and Lard

The inhabitants of Okinawa, an island prefecture of Japan, are one of the longest-lived populations in the world. Their diet and lifestyle have been thoroughly studied for this reason. Papers typically focus on their consumption of vegetables, fish, soy, sweet potatoes, exercise, and the fact that some of them may have been mildly calorie restricted for part of their lives.

The thing that often gets swept under the rug is that they eat lard. Traditionally, it was their primary cooking fat. Of course, they also eat the pork the lard came from.

I'm not saying lard will make you live to 100, but a moderate amount certainly won't stop you...

Real Food IV: Lard

Your great-grandmother would have told you that natural, homemade lard is an excellent cooking fat. It has a mild, savory flavor and a high smoke point. It's well suited for sauteing and frying foods, and it makes the flakiest savory crust. It's also cheap to buy and easy to render. Rendering lard is the process by which fat tissue is turned into pure fat. I buy the best quality lard available for $2/lb at my farmer's market, making it far cheaper than butter and olive oil of equivalent quality.

The best place to buy lard is at a local farmer's market. Look for pigs that have been "field-raised" or "pasture-raised", and are preferably organic. This ensures that they receive sunlight and have been treated humanely. The "organic" label by itself simply means they have been fed organic feed; the pigs will often not have had access to the outdoors. I recommend avoiding conventional (non-organic) pork at all costs, because it's profoundly inhumane and highly polluting. This is where I buy my lard.

If you don't have access to good quality local lard, there are a couple of sources on the Local Harvest website. Look for "leaf lard", which is the fat surrounding the kidneys. It's lowest in polyunsaturated oil and thus has the highest smoke point and the lowest omega-6 content. It's also practically pure fat. You will recover 90% of the pre-rendering volume from leaf lard. On to the recipe.

Ingredients and Equipment:
  • Lard
  • Cheesecloth
  • Baking dish
  • Jars
1. Preheat the oven to 225 F.

2. Cut off any pieces of meat clinging to the fat.

3. Cut fat into small (~1-inch) cubes.

4. Place them into a non-reactive baking dish and then into the oven.

5. Over the next 2-3 hours, periodically mash the fat with a potato ricer or the back of a large spoon. The fat will gradually separate from the residual protein as a clear liquid.

6. When you are satisfied that you've separated out most of the fat, remove the baking dish from the oven and allow it to stand until it's cool enough to be safe, but warm enough to be liquid.

7. Pour through a cheesecloth into jars. Save the "cracklins", these can be eaten.

8. If you plan on using the lard for crusts, cool it as quickly as possible by placing the jars in cold water. If the lard solidifies slowly, it will have a slightly grainy texture that works less well for crusts, but is irrelevant for other purposes.

Finished lard has a long shelf life but I like to keep it in the fridge or freezer to extend it even further.

Merry Easter

"It's snowed Dad" shouts Smallest Boy, as he yanks back the curtains. "Happy Easter".I open one eye and see a fir tree and the corner of a barn in the lane rendered in monochrome. Snowflakes still score across the image in precisely-angled lines. "Actually, it must be Christmas" says Smallest Boy. He is very confused, and so am I; I don't think I've ever seen snow at Easter, at least not so much as this. We decide to snuggle-up and sing carols, just in case. I start with 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' and then he joins in with a surprisingly rude version of 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'. Larger Boy moans in his sleep and tells us both to be quiet. I read to Smallest Boy Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, and the wireless greets the day from the Anglican Liverpool Cathedral. I imagine snow driving across the Mersey, the dark pink sandstone block gathering white highlights on the ribs and buttresses. "If it's not Christmas, is there eggs?".Yes, there'll be eggs I'm sure, and a wonderful idea I sneaked a look at in a carrier bag under the stairs- a chocolate rabbit and hen in real wood and wire cages. The snow is starting to melt now, patches of blue appearing like rags caught in the trees. Time to go downstairs and get that rabbit in the oven.

kitchens photo Gallery (2)

new ideas for Kitchen design

Treasure Island

This large island is useful for working and sitting. Lots of cabinets and drawers to store pots, pans and other necessities and a warming drawer at the ready are on the workhorse side. Those wanting to talk to the chef or eat a meal can do so comfortably on the sitting side, thanks to the large overhang of the countertop.

Fixtures with Flair

Modern in design, these three egg-shaped fixtures provide sufficient lighting for kitchen prep work and eating. Opaque shades prevent the glaring reflection in the granite countertop that clear shades would have caused.

kitchens photo Gallery (1)

Modern Kitchen Pictures