Monday, 25 August 2014

Fighting Fit

People keep telling me that I am “glowing” and noticeably relaxed, having just returned from a fortnight holiday. Although we have been home for nearly a week, memories of India still crowd my mind – the sizzle of spices frying in a pan; the scent of crushed ginger leaves underfoot as we walked through the spice plantations; the panicked flight of parakeets and pigeons over the palace in Madurai as an eagle swooped to catch its lunch;

and the harsh clash of metal and sparks flying as two men with swords and shields tried to defend them selves from the other’s onslaught. I now know what it must have been like to be a spectator at a Roman gladiatorial fight. On a local contact’s suggestion, we went to watch a display of Kalaripayattu – the traditional martial art of Kerala (a beautiful region of Southern India). The demonstration was varied, ranging from group warm-ups and stretching, which resembled a yoga session combined with modern dance;

carefully choreographed fights that would not have been out of place on the stage or in a Bollywood film;

displays of skill and dexterity; and

high impact demonstrations of bravery and timing, which at times rivalled anything presented by the world famous Cirque du Soleil.

In India Kalaripayattu is known as the “Mother of Martial Arts”- it is certainly an ancient skill that came into being before the 11th century AD, during a period of extended warfare between two Indian dynasties, the Cholas and the Cheras.  It was formally taught in places of learning “Kalari” (which translates as “school” or “gymnasium”), prior to the introduction of the modern education system – not dissimilar to the Ancient Greek approach. (“Payattu” means “to fight” or “to exercise”.) During the colonial period the practice of martial arts was discouraged, but the practice, which was practiced by devoted followers from a range of castes and religions, was not stamped out.  Today the Kalaris are still treated as places of worship, with a shrine and offering lamps lit when they are in use.

The dedication, fitness and determination of the men demonstrating their skills to us were impressive – if only I could inspire similar degree of focus and effort from my children at home or employees at work.

India was a wonderful holiday. There is no doubt that taking a break, away from the constant flood of emails and incessant demands, has been good for me; I am confident that my thinking is clearer, my ability to prioritise is more effective and I am not letting day-to-day pressures get to me as much as they did a month ago.  Long may this continue…

Chalk kolam on pavement outside family home
for prosperity and good fortune
Pondicherry, India
Given my current state, I can understand why French unions and employers, in the high-tech and consulting sectors, have formed a labour agreement enabling workers to establish a set period during which they have an “obligation to disconnect communication tools”. Various organisations are encouraging their staff to switch off their smart phones and Blackberries and take a break – the German car and truck maker, Daimler, has installed “Mail on Holiday” software, which permits employees to set their out-of-office response systems so that all incoming emails are deleted, with the sender notified and offered an available alternative contact in case the matter is urgent. This means that employees can return to work refreshed and without the time-consuming distraction of an over-flowing inbox. Other organisations, primarily those in the financial services sector, are introducing policies to control email and phone usage for employees while on vacation. Deutsche Bank allows staff to monitor emails, but forbids them from conducting business or influencing transactions, and Barclays permits emails but bans the receipt of or response to phone calls.

For many years Compliance and Risk specialists have advocated employees taking an uninterrupted fortnight’s vacation, as that length of absence is usually sufficient time for fraudulent activity to come to light. In my opinion it is good now to see organisations beginning to be more mindful of the health, wellbeing and effectiveness of their people, instead of being solely focused on corporate risk. I am aware of one CEO who banned all internal emails for a week – after a degree of initial shock and resistance, employees realised that email is most effective as a means for delivering supporting documentation and not a tool for project managing or getting things done (other than simple admin such as diary coordination). For many employees, email takes up significant hours of their working life, without it people found that they had time to do the tasks that formerly they had put off. They also found that they had to be better at prioritising what actually needed to be done and taking ownership of tasks and outcomes.

I am of the opinion that exhausted and stressed employees are a risk to their employers as well as to themselves. People make mistakes when they are tired – last year there was a case in Germany where a tired bank clerk dozed off, but left his fingers resting on the number 2 on his keyboard, resulting in a transfer of 6222 million Euro, as opposed to the 62.40 Euro amount that a customer had expected. A Harvard Medical School study claims that insomnia may be the cause of as many as 274,000 occupational accidents in the USA with an annual cost of US $ 31.1 billion per annum. Few, if any, employers have policies relating to rest, sleep and insomnia although the risks posed by exhaustion are formidable.

That Dreadful Insomnia by *Sheeyo on deviantART
Stress can prove as damaging to individual health and productivity as exhaustion. Throughout my career I have noticed that accident levels increase when individuals are put under pressure. This pressure/stress can result from a range of causes, including:

  • Periods of enforced change (such as the introduction of new systems or procedures);
  • Inappropriate relations with colleagues;
  • Times of audit or inspection;
  • Corporate actions, such as when redundancies, divestments or M&A initiatives occur, and the anxiety that these can arouse in employees if communication is poor and people are left to speculate on what the future may hold;
  • Poor management (especially from critical and dictatorial individuals who establish fear in those who work for them which results in a blame culture where people hide things or pass blame to others);
  • Long hours, performing similar and usually repetitive tasks; and
  • The actual work environment (for example poor equipment, misaligned seating, inappropriate floor layouts, bad lighting, etc...)
The UK Health and Safety Executive has identified six factors that can lead to stress in employees if not managed properly: Demands, Control, Support, Relationships, Role and Change.

Weeping Woman, 1937
Pablo Picasso
My maternal grandfather, Guy Crowden OBE (known in the family as "GP"), was a leading Professor of Applied Physiology. As an aside from this post, amongst other things he helped with the creation of the iron lung, (he advised Philip Drinker, whom he had met through their mutual research into industrial hygiene, (Drinker was the editor-in-chief of The Journal of Industrial Hygiene and GP had numerous research papers published ranging from the similarities in twins to the need to encourage physical activity across society to foster better health). GP was against patenting the discovery of the iron-lung, (originally designed to help with industrial respiratory issues), as he felt it should be a life-giving gift to mankind – it is interesting to note that when John Haven Emerson introduced an improved and less expensive iron lung in 1931, Drinker and Harvard University sued him for patent infringement. Emerson’s defence, which proved successful, was based on the moral requirement to keep lifesaving devices freely available).

Image from The Use of a New Apparatus
for the Prolonged Administration of Artificial Respiration."
Article published by Drinker and McKhann, 1929
My grandfather dedicated most of his life to researching the impact that working and the work environment has on people and their bodies – he believed in bridging the gap between research and everyday life. He was keen to find ways to enhance employees’ experiences at work as well as their performance, by researching the impact that the working environment has on people – he was very hands-on, for example attaching pedometers to nurses and postmen to determine some of the physical demands that their jobs made on them and assessing the correct height of desks for typists. He was a leading global expert on the impact that hours of work and the rate of working have on exhaustion and stress. An area of particular concern for him was “cumulative fatigue” – something which, in our constantly in touch, globalised world, is a serious risk for us all.

We need to switch off, in order to be fully switched on later when required to be alert. The Kalaripayattu practitioners looked after their health and wellbeing, through stretches, exercise and healing massages, as well as ensuring that they were suitably prepared before providing their demonstration. We have a duty of care to ourselves, as well as to others (including family, friends, the wider community and our employers), to ensure we too are fighting fit to face whatever the world throws at us.

Fighting mongoose and cobra

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Spicing things up a bit

It was the lure of spices that first attracted traders from Europe to seek a route to India - Vasco da Gama, from Portugal, was the first to reach the continent in 1498. Similarly, given my family's love for spicy food, journeying to where the plants are grown was also an attraction for us, when deciding to visit India this summer. We have now reached Kerala, and, rather than rushing to the coast, we have chosen to stop over in the mountains, where the best spices are grown. We are 1000 metres above sea level and it is cooler than on the plain, but very humid (the bed-sheets are clammy - and were so before we arrived - and swimming costumes refuse to dry). However, the air is wonderfully clean (it reminds me of the zing you get when breathing deeply at some sites in South Island of New Zealand) and the aromatic scent of the vegetation is wonderful - perhaps due to the regular, soft rain, which agitates the soil and plants and encourages rapid plant growth - no wonder the frogs and insects sing all night.

This morning we toured a spice plantation, so I thought I'd share my pictures of the plants and provide a little information about them. I am writing in the order they were seen:

1.   Cardamom – the third most expensive spice in the world (after Saffron and Vanilla).

Fat Cardamom berries and flowers near the ground
The area we drove through is known as the Cardamom Hills and, en route to our hotel, we passed wonderfully named establishments, such as the Cardamom Growers’ Secondary School and Workers’ Mess.
Cardamom flowers (they are small, white tinged with pink and almost pansy shaped) and the seeds are produced close to the ground, underneath tall standing leaves. The plants rely on certain types of bee for pollination – they are smaller than UK honeybees and noticeably stripy.
I was surprised to see that the pods on the plants are plump and cylindrical (rather like green rosehips). It is only after a complex drying process that they assume the familiar, three-sided shape that most Western Europeans recognise. As well as being great in curries, adding an exotic flavour to desserts such as Crème Brulee and being a key ingredient in the Scandinavian drink “Glogg”, Cardamom is considered a remedy for kidney diseases, bacterial infections, sore throats and digestive problems. Some people swear by a concoction of Black Pepper and Cardamom to settle an upset stomach.

Cardamom plant with berries at base

2.    Pepper - sometimes called the king of spice. It was the main spice that drove explorers towards India. Highly valued for millennia, pepper has been used to pay dowries, keeps well (for many years without deteriorating. Black, green and red pepper all come from the same plant and are simply the berries at varying stages of development/ripeness combined with the manner in which they are prepared. Traditionally, Pepper is used for medicinal purposes in aiding digestion, ceasing flatulence and bloating and aiding with toothache. Scientific studies have shown that pepper is an excellent antibiotic and anti-inflammatory agent.

Pepper berries, hanging like catkins off the vine
 3.    Cinnamon - after simply scratching a piece off the trunk and smelling and tasting it, it was clear that the tree we stood beside was cinnamon.

    Straight off the tree it is surprisingly sweet. No wonder it was prized in the 16th century, when sugar was rare and honey hard to procure. It is great in cakes and biscuits (where the rolled, inner bark should be used) or in curries and mulled wine or cider (where the outer bark is best).
It is an astringent that has proven beneficial when treating fungal infections and can help reduce perspiration.

4.    Clove - I had not appreciated that the hard black cloves that we can buy in Western Europe appear as they do due to having much of their oil extracted. Fresh cloves (which are the buds of a flower) are reddish pink.

Clove flower buds
For centuries (and across continents) cloves have been used to treat tooth ache, skin irritations, vermifuge, analgesic and to help reduce morning sickness. I like cloves, especially when I have a cold or sore throat - a mixture of honey, lemon and cloves in hot water (perhaps with a dash of Scotch) always makes me feel better.

Clove tree leaves
5.    Turmeric – a plump rhizome to be found underneath some lush leaves of a plant related to ginger.

Turmeric leaves
The leaves are close to the ground but is shape they resemble Cardamom. Ground turmeric is a key ingredient in Hindi Tilaks (more commonly called Bindis - from the Sanskrit bindu, meaning drop or dot). Initially the powder from ground turmeric was used, but it came off too easily. Mixing turmeric with lemon juice to create a paste became the preferred approach, this also changed the powder red though a reaction with the citric acid. Turmeric is supposed to be helpful for treating stress and tension, intestinal worms, sleep disorders and cleansing.

Turmeric rhizomes
It is an exceedingly effective natural antiseptic and, by reputation, excellent at warding off the evil eye (not just when worn).

6.    Ginger – the few palm like fronds, low to the ground, smell almost like Lemon Balm when crushed in the hand. The root is a common ingredient in curries, drinks and desserts.

Ginger leaves hiding in the undergrowth
Useful for reducing nausea, sore throats, and travel sickness. Both the Indians and Chinese believe that it can ease the pain and stiffness of Arthritis and hypertension. 
Ginger root
7.    Allspice – Christopher Columbus found Allspice in 1492 (and mistook the berries for pepper, having never seen fresh black pepper), when he journeyed around the Caribbean, thinking it was Asia. He was seeking an easier spice trade route.
Allspice berries

          Allspice is supposedly good for Bruises, inflammation, gastro-and tooth infections. The leaves make a delicious tea.

Allspice leaves
8.   Chilli – we saw Piri Piri (also known as the African Red Devil, because it is so hot). Chillies were first discovered in Latin America and brought to India by European traders in the sixteenth century.

Piri-piri chillies

    Unlike most chillies, the pods point upwards, rather than hanging down. It is grown for food and pharmaceutical use (for preventing vomiting and nausea) pain relief, digestive aid, asthma, diabetes and back pain.
A talisman made of chillies and lime
often hung near prize possessions (home, car, shop front)
to ward off envious and evil eyes
in Southern India

   Chillies contain about 4 times more Vitamin C, gram for gram, than oranges. Ingesting chillies stimulates the creation of mucosae, the protective lining of the stomach, they (like garlic and onions).


9.    Vanilla – the second most expensive spice. 
Vanilla orchid grown up a host tree.
    The pods are the fruit of an orchid that is usually grown up a supportive tree such as the Coral tree. Flowers have to be pollinated by hand and the drying process is complicated. A good Vanilla pod that will last wll should be flexible when bent by hand. Vanilla is fantastic for infusing in milk or cream for custards and ice cream.
Dried Vanilla pods
10. Nutmeg – the hard centre of the fruit of a tree.
    Nutmeg is usually consumed in a grated form. In small quantities it is a delicious addition to both sweet and savoury additions. Eaten in larger quantities it can be hallucinogenic and more than four ground nutmegs consumed in a single sitting can prove fatal.

Nutmeg fruit
11.  Mace – the bright coloured, lacy inside of the nutmeg fruit,

    which encases the actual nutmeg – often red or yellow in colour. It is usually dried. Reputedly good for sweetening breath.

We also saw:

1.     Rubber - first discovered in the Amazon by the British explorer, Goodyear, who exported the trees to Asia and later founded the well-known tyre and rubber business.
    Later on our journey we drove past acres of rubber plantations – the clear plastic sheets in most appearing like the Willis in Giselle vanishing into the woods.
    This photo is of trees with blue shields for the cups as they are easier to see – given the amount of rain I can understand why the improvised umbrellas are required.
2.    Coffee – Robusta – not the large number of berries. This is the type of coffee used for cheap, mass production, although its flavour needs to be enhanced through blending with Arabica beans.

3.    Coffee – Arabica – legend has it that a goat herder noticed that his flock, after nibbling the berries from the Arabica coffee tree, became more frisky and alert. He tried them and discovered that, after roasting and grinding, a delicious drink could be made which was as effective for people as goats.
    As you can see, the more flavoursome Arabica produces fewer cherries per branch than the Robusta plants.
4.    Cocoa – I was delighted to see cocoa pods, they remind me of some of my friends in the UK who are exceptional chocolatiers.

    The late Mott Green would have approved of the cooperative cocoa farms and artisanal chocolate producers in this area. The chocolate is rustic but delicious, often made with local cashew nuts or raisins added for extra texture/flavour.

The ones that got away (in other words spices that are commonly used in India, and which we have eaten, but did not feature amongst the horticultural species seen on our trek). The health usage is what I have been told whilst here and not a recommendation based on science or personal experience:

Ajwain (also called Thymol o
r Carom) - both the leaves and the ovoid, light brown coloured seeds are used in Indian cookery. They come from a small flowering shrub of the same family as carrots and parsley– good for stomach pains, common colds, bronchitis and kidney problems
Aniseed – often provided, encased in a sugar crust, along with toothpicks at the end of a meal in an Indian restaurant
Basil – usually Holy Basil is found in Indian dishes and is called Tulsi, it is also hung for good luck over door lintels. The nicest soap on our trip had finely ground dried Holy Basil leaves included and the scent when you washed your hands was wonderful. Other types of aromatic Basil are available and used in cooking or as a herbal infusion. Basil is good for sore throats.
Bay – Indian Bay is related to the Bay used in Western Europe. The leaves are the most common part of the tree to be used and are usually dried and added to a sauce midway through cooking.
Capers – the immature flower buds and at times the berries of the Capparis Spinoza, a small bush. The dried leaves can be used as an alternative to rennet for cheese making.
Celery – the seeds are added to food (and are not simply one of the extra "secret" ingredients for an exceptional Bloody Mary or, mixed with salt, excellent with hard boiled eggs).
Charoli – small yellow granules that look a bit like pebbles.
Coriander – both the fresh green leaves and the dried seeds are used in a wide range of dishes. digestive disorders, anxiety and insomnia, hay fever and loss of appetite
Cubeb – also called Kebab Cheeni – green leaves. Cumin – Digestive disorders, cardiovascular issues, ulcers
Curry Tee (or Sweet Neem) leaves.
Fennel – traditionally given at the end of a meal in India to sweeten people’s breath and to aid digestion.
Fenugreek – both the leaf and the seeds are used. traditionally used for arthritis,, sinus problems, hernias and Tuberculosis.
Garlic – perhaps not strictly speaking a spice. Popular ingredient in many cultures, not just for frightening away vampires but also for cleansing the blood and helping with heart disease and ulcers. In addition it is claimed to help with memory loss and soothe colic pain.
Garcinia Gummi-guttagreen gourd-like pods that are dried and turn black - sometimes referred to as the Malabar Tamarind or Kodampuli. A key ingredient in Kerala fish curries. The fruit is sun-dried and then smoked and adds a wonderful sourness to curries. The flavour is almost like a cross between a pickled walnut and a smoked oyster. I have heard it referred to as Kokum

Ink Nut (Terminalia Chebula) – called Harad or Harr – looks like a small black fig. It tastes like a combination of an olive and a pickled walnut. A common addition to hot Kerala fish curries where it adds depth and astringent complexity (probably similar to the Roman seasoning Garum, although this is a natural plant in its raw form, rather than a sauce created out of fermented fish)
Kalonji – (Nigella seeds- the absolute favourite of Goldfinches in my garden at home). Reputedly good for migraines and coughs.
Liquorice – the root is ground into a powder
Long Pepper – originating from Indonesia, this is more fragrant and complex than the plain black pepper and I mix it in with corns in my grinder at home. The seeds look like little elongated fir cones about 2.5 cm long.
Mint – many varieties are used both in cooking and  as a herbal tea or infusion. We were greeted with a choice of 4 types of mint tea  on arrival at our first hotel in Kerala
Mustard – supposedly a good treatment for scorpion stings, respiratory illnesses, muscular aches and rheumatism
Panch Phoron – small green seeds resembling fennel
Pomegranite – the fresh seeds are a common addition to dishes
Poppy – the tiny, round black seeds are added to dishes. Pleasant, nutty flavour and a slight crunch. Rumour has it that if you eat sufficient seeds you test positive in drug tests for opium usage – I have not put this to the test
Saffron – the most expensive spice in the world – the best is grown in Turkey, Iran, India and Mexico. It adds a natural sweetness and vibrant yellow colour to both sweet and savoury dishes
Salt – we saw saltpans and piles of sea salt as we drove along the coast
Sesame – usually the seeds are eaten, although the pressed oil is also an ingredient in Chinese influenced recipes – the Chinese were regular traders off the southern coast of India for centuries before the Europeans arrived.
Star Anise – good for Rheumatism, indigestion, and analgesic and a treatment to aid the symptoms of viral flu.
Tamarind – the pods add a sharpness that cuts through rich foods. Believed to be useful for aiding weight loss, constipation and removing intestinal parasites and constipation

The spice trek and the fabulous meals we have enjoyed act as a reminder that it is often the little things in life (like the spices in the curries) that make things special and memorable.