We encourage people to cook rather than count

Laudably concerned about Britain’s growing obesity levels, Dr David Clements, a consultant gastroenterologist, emailed with a suggestion. “At present, the recipes in The Times just give details of the number of servings, but I think it would be helpful if all the recipes you published included details of the calorie/nutritional value per serving. As the recipes give details of the ingredients, this shouldn’t be onerous and it may perhaps help people to make better informed choices.”

There’s nothing wrong with the suggestion in principle, but how practical would it be? Tony Turnbull, The Times food and drink editor, says: “It’s a full-time job analysing recipes for calorie content, and even after that it’s only ever an approximation. Relying on calorie counts would presuppose a very precise approach to ingredients, not to mention helpings. What if you don’t have lentils in the house, say, and decide to substitute chickpeas? Or if you have a teenage son, who eats twice as much as the rest of the family put together?”

Lindsey Bareham frequently acknowledges calorie watchers’ concerns in her “Dinner Tonight” recipes: with a Gressingham duck breast, for example, you can make a low-fat ragu which “will be sufficient for two very large appetites, three medium ones or four calorie counters”; or dieters, she suggests, could serve meatballs with steamed veg instead of pasta.

Anything more precise, I fear, we will not be providing. “Personally,” Tony says, “I think calories are rather a blunt way of looking at food anyway. It’s more about having a healthy, balanced diet. By publishing lots of lovely recipes — some healthy, some more indulgent — we are encouraging people to cook for themselves, rather than to rely on takeaways and ready meals, which are the real source of calorific damage.”

Poor Elisabeth Scott, from Standlake, Oxon, has been trying to cook Lindsey’s recipes under a considerable handicap. “I download The Times on my Kindle every day. Recently the layout has been reconfigured, and Lindsey Bareham’s daily recipe moved to Times2. For some reason, the list of ingredients is no longer included in the version I can see. Please could you arrange to restore this. I am a fan of her recipes and often make them, and it is irritating not to have the correct proportions for the ingredients.”

I’m all for improvisation in the kitchen but even I can see this might be a challenge too far. The Kindle edition has been updated recently and, with the exception of this particular glitch, greatly improved. I took the problem up with the production team, and trust that all is now back where it should be. We’re grateful to Ms Scott for mentioning it, and for her forbearing attitude.

Forgotten war
Ann Walker signed up for our weekly email with chapters from The Times History of the First World War — ww1.thetimes.co.uk — and, despite my concern that this week’s episode featuring the 1915-16 campaign in eastern Egypt might be slightly obscure, she was not disappointed.

“So pleased”, she wrote, “that you have included this part of WWI in your most interesting series of bulletins. So few people realise that the Suez Canal was under threat and that there was a campaign in Egypt. My father, a Scottish Territorial soldier, took part in the Battle of Romani and described in his memoir the Arabs using planks to keep guns from sinking into the sand as they were transported. Pleased to have this tiny part of his memoir verified. Thank you for giving WWI a wider context than it normally enjoys.”

Riff raff
‘As a lifetime jazz fan and occasional pedant,” writes Dr David B Cook from Sheffield, “I have to report being irritated by the common use of ‘riff’ and ‘riffing’ in reviews and articles. In jazz, and in the OED, a riff is a short, repeated musical phrase and riffing is playing such a phrase. So, when a reviewer says something like ‘riffing on the subject of x’ he or she actually means ‘constantly repeating the same phrase about x’. I assume that what is meant is (in jazz terms) ‘improvising on the subject of x’; that is, in attempting to seem hip, the writers have got everything upside down. A jazz musician might, typically, improvise over a background riff played by other members of the band.”

Changing times, changing language. The online dictionaries allow (Oxford): “A monologue or spoken improvisation, especially a humorous one, on a particular subject”, and Collins has “to speak amusingly”. I’m surprised by the amusing and humorous bit, given the sort of people who fancy themselves as riffers, but there you are.

Bring on the wandals
I had an email from Arthur T Granger after last week’s nod to 1066 and All That: “I notice that Sellar and Yeatman have the ‘Vandals’ as the tribe who destroyed Rome, etc. I understood that they called themselves the ‘Wandals’, but there being no letter W in Latin a V was used instead. If true, I think we should say things have been ‘wandalised’ — it sounds slightly silly, and may give less incentive to the perpetrators.”

Hmm, it might, or it may get you a sharp punch on the nose. Nice to see that old debate about Latin pronunciation still has legs, though. It was a favourite topic in The Times letters pages for at least a century.