Health food stores really are such depressing places. The musty smell of arid, desiccated fruits and nuts; the greying packets of various withering beans and seeds; the assortment of tragic soy products that with every bite remind you how much you crave a huge, bloody, juicy steak; the lingering odour of crushed hopes and disappointment as yet another jar of £18 coconut oil fails to transform you into Miranda Kerr overnight. And why is it that customers browsing in health food stores are such a poor advert for the stores themselves? I can't say I've ever entered a health food store, seen someone poring over a shelf of Manuka honey or powdered flaxseed and thought "woah, I'd better get me some of that if it means I can look like him/her". Generally, health food stores are seen as breeding grounds for the socked-and-sandalled, the hairy-legged, the old and mad. You can feel the vim, zest and gusto being slowly sucked out of your soul as soon as you cross the threshold of one, as if some kind of health Dementor had zoomed down upon you and sucked your joie de vivre out through your mouth, replacing it with a pint of cod liver oil or an omega-3 supplement.
If I were the CEO of Holland & Barrett or the like, I'd kick-start an elaborate and extremely lucrative marketing campaign. Taking my inspiration from Abercrombie & Fitch, I'd replace all the store assistants with lithe, muscular young things with glossy hair and perfect teeth. I'd then stick a couple more of these young things in every store, masquerading as browsing customers - rather like plain clothes policemen. Companies would pay me millions in advertising to have one of these blooming beauties purring over one of their products for the entire day, ensuring every customer that came through the door bought one in order to guarantee their own healthy dose of gorgeousness. There they'd stand, pouting prettily as if deep in thought, turning that jar of sugar-free fruit spread over so as to read the nutrition information, flicking their waist-length curtain of blonde hair to one side to get a better look at the number of carbs per gram, seductively caressing the curvaceous exterior of the jar. Sales would skyrocket, profits would double, and we'd all be a lot healthier for it, I'm sure.
I'm almost reluctant to post this groundbreaking idea on the internet without patenting it first.
It's a shame, really, because a lot of the stuff health food stores are selling is really very tasty when used in the right way. Yes, there are a lot of horrible oddities that I would rather cook my own cat than eat, but generally you can find weird and wonderful ingredients that, with the right know-how and probably more than a little butter, you can transform into something delicious.
They're always good for finding the more obscure dried fruits that small supermarkets are unlikely to have: cranberries, mango, pineapple, papaya. They're also a treasure trove of tasty seeds for making bread: linseed, pumpkin seed, poppy seed, sunflower seed. You can usually find store-cupboard staples like tahini paste and the super-trendy rapeseed oil, as well as slightly lesser-known pulses and grains that are always handy for more exotic recipes.
What you can also find are the ingredients for this granola, and that is reason enough to celebrate the humble (if slightly depressing and musty) health food store.
Those of you who know me or read this blog often will know that I am a huge fan of breakfast. Quite literally, huge. The size of my morning bowl of porridge or muesli never fails to draw comments from friends/boyfriend/family (imagine how many oats you'd need to feed a stable of horses. Add how much milk you'd need to feed a barn of baby cows. Heat up. Stir in half an orchard's worth of fruit, and serve in a vat). It's my favourite meal of the day, and one I always love to experiment with. Though generally I rotate between porridge, muesli, and homemade soda bread with homemade jam, or ricotta cheese.
One of my favourite cereals is Jordan's Crunchy Oats. I discovered this in the early days of my relationship with my boyfriend - after one 'let's-impress-the-new-girlfriend' breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, he clearly realised he had secured my affections and complacently reverted to cereal from the cupboard. Not just any cereal, though - my first mouthful of this I still remember quite clearly. "WOW! It tastes like flapjack!" I exclaimed in delight, before proceeding to demolish the rest of the bowl and - I imagine - help myself to three more, firmly establishing early on that I was not some girl to be fobbed off with a handful of muesli. Proper breakfasts only, please, or I will go elsewhere.
The problem, as you might suspect, with cereal that tastes like a flapjack is that it is loaded with fat and sugar, as I discovered one sad morning upon looking at the back of the bag (until then, said boyfriend had decanted the cereal into a plastic tupperware. I wish he had done this before I sneaked a peek at the bag. Not only had that tupperware preserved the cereal; it had preserved my innocence). Oh Jordan's, how could you let me down? I always assumed anything bearing your brand name was guaranteed to keep me slim. Maybe it is, if you stick to the recommended serving size. Unfortunately, there is no way I could eat Crunchy Oats in the quantity I would want every morning and not have thighs the size of Asia.
It's the same story for most granola. The whole point of granola is that it is sweet and crunchy. To facilitate this, you have to coat the oats in something that will toast, usually oil, and something sweet, usually pure sugar or - not really any better, calore-wise - honey. The end result is perhaps a little better for you than a chocolate bar, but not by much, especially as its so damn moreish that you'll eat far more than is healthy. 'Everything in moderation' is an impossible maxim to follow when it comes to granola (other things it fails to apply to are: chocolate buttons, chocolate fingers, satsumas, grated cheese, pringles, chocolate-covered raisins).
But do not despair, lovers of all things oaty, toasty and sweet - there is a solution. Make your own.
By making your own granola, you know exactly how much fat and sugar goes into it. You can control this - there are clever ways to cut this down and end up with a much more healthy product. Even if you're not so bothered about the fat and sugar, making your own granola has another perk - you can make it just the way you like it, adding the nuts and fruit that you love without having to be dictated to by the arbitrary whims of Kelloggs or Jordan's. Hate raisins? Find the fact that all muesli inevitably contains raisins the bane of your grape-loving life? Don't put them in! Allergic to nuts? Fine, chuck in more fruit instead! Want your kitchen to smell like heaven as you toast a batch of sweet, nutty oats to crunchy perfection? Do it!
I tried to make my own granola a couple of years ago while at university, but it was a bit of a disaster. Namely, I burnt it. The result was barely edible, the almonds coated with sticky black carbon, the whole thing possessing a bitter aftertaste that even handfuls of raisins could not counteract.
This, however, is the stuff of breakfast joy. It's slightly sweet, delightfully crunchy, and has beautiful bursts of sweetness from the fruit and toasty nuttiness from the coconut and almonds. It's also much better for you than anything you'll buy in the shops, and infinitely cheaper too. I bought the muesli base mix, fruit, almonds and coconut from the health food shop for about £6, but it made the equivalent of over three bags of supermarket granola, which often command a hefty price tag of at least £3.50 each. Money and calories saved - hurrah.
The key is to use unsweetened apple compote to coat the oats for toasting, instead of any oil. The Americans are big on this - you'll see "unsweetened applesauce" used as a substitute for butter and oil in a lot of recipes. It's not easy to find over here (you definitely don't want to buy 'apple sauce', as you'll most likely end up with something more suited to roast pork that homemade granola), but it's easy enough to make your own - peel, core and chop some cooking apples, simmer in a little water until mushy, then whisk or blend to a puree. If you make a big batch you can freeze it in bags so all you have to do next time you want to make granola is get one out to defrost the night before.
Yes, there is added sugar, in the form of honey or maple syrup, but it's not drowning in the stuff. Other than that, it's just cinnamon, vanilla, a little salt, and all natural goodness from the nuts and fruit. There's a hint of sweetness, but not enough to make you feel guilty. There's no fat added, only the natural (good) fats from the nuts. Admittedly, dried papaya and pineapple contain a lot of sugar, but you can omit these or replace them with healthier dates, apple, prunes or apricots instead, just as you can skip the nuts if you're really worried about fat.
That's the beauty of homemade granola - you can put whatever you like into your base of crunchy oats. I call this 'tropical' because it features coconut, papaya and pineapple. The combination is a really delicious one, but I'm also keen to have a go at an 'orchard' variety featuring dried apples and prunes. Use the recipe below as your guide, but have fun experimenting with whatever fruit and nuts you like.
Breakfast just got infinitely better.
Have you ever made your own cereal or granola? What flavour combinations do you love most at breakfast?
Tropical granola (makes about 1.5kg)
1kg muesli base mix (available in health food shops or some large supermarkets)
320ml apple compote (cook chopped apples with a little water until turned to mush - any left over will freeze for another batch of granola)
120g runny honey or maple syrup
1.5 tsp vanilla extract
1.5 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp salt
100g flaked almonds
50g desiccated coconut or 100g flaked coconut
125g mixed dried papaya and pineapple, or 65g of each
Pre-heat the oven to 170C/160C fan oven. In a large bowl, whisk together the apple compote, honey/syrup, vanilla, cinnamon and salt. Add the muesli mix and stir well, ensuring all the mix is evenly coated with the wet ingredients.
Spread the mixture out evenly on two large baking sheets and put in the oven for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes to make sure it toasts evenly. After 30 minutes, add the almonds and coconut and bake for another 10 minutes.
When cool, mix in the dried fruit. Put in a jar or plastic box and save for breakfast (if you have the willpower).