Wednesday 21 September 2016

Go Nobó

I do so have friends. I do have social life. There is life beyond The Blob and The Institute. An old friend from London had Irish business to transact in Kinsale and took a lay-over in the Sunny South East for the weekend. We got invited to dinner, which we ate outside watching the Sun set over Bannow Bay. As you might expect when wrinklies get together, the talk was about retirement, pensions and grandchildren but also about the diminishing store of aged parents. Like the boys night in, which I've been passing with 91 y.o Pat the Salt each Sunday evening since February, one of my pals goes up to Dublin every week to spend the night with his widowed mother and sleep in the bedroom that he ceased to occupy more than 40 years ago. He fixes dinner, fixes the gutters, and they might go shopping together while he's there with the car.

A few weeks ago, knowing her fondness for ice-cream, he saw a tub of Nobó ice cream in the freezer section and popped that in the basket. A week later, he was back home and asked his Mum how she enjoyed the Nobó "Oh, I didn't like it at all, dear, I threw it away". Ho hum, I guess the older generation [I soon won't be able to use that phrase, as our parents shuffle off and my generation steps up to the plate for the final play of the game] is quite conservative in their tastes. Isn't it also true that as we age, our taste-buds fall off, and we're reduced to requiring a snow of salt and/or lashings of sugar to taste anything at all at all.

On cue  last weekend, along with fruit crumble dessert, a little tub of  Fresh Lemon Nobó made its appearance, along with Créme Fraiche and plain yoghurt. When we were all growing up in the 60s, none of that would be available, except the fruit crumble, which would have been served with either
  • a ferociously yellow [prev yellow confection] gloop made from milk, sugar and Bird's Custard Powder [cornflour + colouring]
  • fresh cream, possibly whipped
  • plain vanilla ice-cream which would have been flat white in Ireland or pale yellow in England
We've come a long way in 50 years: milk treated with many different species of lactic acid bacteria has raised the variety of dairy products available in Ireland from milk, butter, cheese [two sorts only: red and white], cream and buttermilk. All the extra LABs makes life more interesting and possibly, just possibly, improve the make-up of our intestinal flora [actimel etc.].  But with the increased choice, there has been an epidemic of neuroses about food. It seems that more than half our tree-hugging friends are lactose or gluten intolerant or both and must have more expensive alternatives to ordinary bread and cheese.

There is no doubt that gluten intolerance exists. It is an auto-immune pathology called coeliac disease and can cause distressing feelings of bloating and abdominal discomfort because the intestinal flora cannot handle certain of the wheat storage proteins. I've never heard of anyone dying of coeliac disease although the symptoms are persistent and no fun. There may even be a coeliac "epidemic", in that the incidence seems to have increased up to 5-fold over the last 50 years. But that's from a very low base: was 0.2% in the USA, now scraping 1%; and up to 3% in some Scandinavian countries. This could be more diagnoses as parents and GPs get to recognise the symptoms and/or it could be a 'real' increase driven by changes in the weaning pattern in The West. Or from the wholesale turn-over destruction of the gut flora with repeated doses of oral antibiotics for sniffles and ears ache?

There is far better evidence that lactose intolerance exists, indeed it is the norm in human adults. From an evolutionary mammalian perspective, milk is a super food for infants: every dietary requirement from 0 to 6 months supplied in a one-stop stop. After about six months - as the teeth start to erupt! - the poor old breasts are no long sufficient to supply the growing monster, and extra food needs to be supplied. Lactose, milk sugar, is a disaccharide, as is sucrose, cane sugar, but it consists of glucose and galactose rather than glucose and fructose. Lactose is sweet and delicious but requires an enzyme called lactase to break the bond between the two mono-saccharides as the first step in converting everything to glucose which is the basic internal sugar currency for mammals. In the normal development of most humans, the genes that go to make lactase are switched off when they are no longer required shortly after weaning. In a few human cultures, 10 or 20,000 years ago, some bright spark had the idea of domesticating certain artiodactyl species - cows, sheep and goats mainly - and feeding on their nutritious mammary exudates.
This cunning plan would have come to nothing without a co-incident mutation in the upstream control region of the lactase genes. Instead of turning off in childhood, this mutation allowed the persistence of lactase into adulthood. Lactase is only 'expressed' in certain cells along the lining of the small intestine which leak the material into the lumen of the gut. But only in these cells in some individuals. The map [R from UCL] shows that there are 3 foci where this mutation is at all common: Northern Europe, West Africa and the Middle East. In Ireland pretty much everyone - code red on the map is >90% - can convert milk sugar, and Chicago policemen with lactose intolerance are exceedingly rare.  If you're Chinese, say, or Ashkenazi Jewish or a !ung bushman from the Kalahari, you really shouldn't try ice-cream as you'll find it is 'too runny'.

I know one case of milk allergy, which is different from lactose intolerance, this chap's lips puff up at the least touch of dairy like people who are peanut allergic. Allergic reactions can be fatal and should be taken very seriously. In Ireland, the genetic epidemiology suggests that almost all of the half of my Irish friends who are faddy and demanding in their diet are really suffering from a First World problem. They should try spending a few months in an Ethiopian refugee camp where the EU is unloading its powdered milk lake and wheat mountain. It will be like a medieval witch trial, the true coeliacs and Jews will die, and the neurotic will come back to eat buttermilk scones like the rest of us.

Mais revenons nous a nos Nobós. Nobó, like Deliveroo, was gestated in NYC where everything is available !instantly! but born in Ireland: the brain child of Rachel and Brian Nolan. They are young and hip and media-savvy - nowhere on the Nobó website, for example, does it mention their last name: surnames are for old people. As we've seen above, old people are not the demographic for Nobó. Like Deliveroo, the website is slick and band-width heavy: movie clips, big graphics, luscious pictures and engaging style. If you're accessing the web from a dial-up in Bangalore - if you work in the call-centre for an Irish insurance company, say - then you'll get a lot hungrier before you download the information about a local stockist. But $2-a-day men are not the demographic either.

It will be really frustrating for the fellow in Bangalore because after the long wait, there will be no local stockist because as of this week, Nobó is only available in Ireland, and a handful of outlets in the UK including, conveniently close to Dau.I in Stroud, one in Cheltenham: Wholefoods, Gallagher Retail Park, Tewkesbury Road, Gloucestershire, GL51 9RR  . . . and a rash of them in the United Arab Emirates [all located on the zoomable stockists map so you can pick up the nearest Nobó-shop from your smartphone]. Four in the vicinity of the Dubai Marina for example [L].  I guess either Brian or Rachel has an enterprising cousin out in the Middle East.

I make something of a blood-sport reviewing craziness in the food industry but I will say for Nobó is that the ingredients are pared down to the essentials. Ice-cream usually has a quite frightening table of contents: E-numbers, emulsifiers, guar-gum, stabilisers, colours. But this isn't ice-cream, 'tis a long way from cream it was r'ared, it's a new confection based on the saturated fats in coconut milk and avocado rather than on saturated animal fat and lactose. The product list is, currently, trim as well. Six varieties:
  • Choc and toasted almonds
    • Coconut Milk, Honey, Avocado, Cocoa Powder, Water, Toasted Almonds, Irish Sea Salt
  • Fresh lemon
    • Coconut milk, honey, avocado, fresh lemon juice 6%, vanilla extract, pure lemon oil
  • Passion fruit and mango
    • Coconut milk, honey, passionfruit 11%, mango 8%, avocado, vanilla extract
  • Irish salted caramel
    • Coconut milk, coconut sugar 13%, brown rice syrup, avocado, vanilla extract, Irish sea salt 1%
  • Mint humbug
    • Coconut milk, coconut sugar, brown rice syrup, avocado, vanilla extract, peppermint oil 1%
  • Vanilla coconut
    • Coconut-milk (71%), honey, avocado, vanilla extract (2%)
So they are quite within their rights to claim No Dairy, No Gluten, No Eggs, No Soya, No Refined sugar, No Colourings, No Stabilisers, No Nasties. Just a note of clarification. Coconut milk is not the thin grey stuff than slops about inside the un-cracked nut - that is coconut water. Coconut milk is made in a very similar way to butter. The white flesh is grated and heated up with water to release the saturated plant fat which floats to the top. It is viscous, white with a creamy mouth-feel.
I was persuaded to try a sliver of Nobó on my crumble on Saturday - I'm not an ice-cream fan any more, I ate too much as a graduate student. The Nobó was fine, a bit more like a sorbet than regular ice-cream but that's okay and probably healthier. The brand has won prizes, positive reviews and accolades but I cannot web-easily find out how much the stuff costs. It will probably turn out like when my sister-in-law complained about the price for getting the family's Land Rover Discovery serviced. The manager of the dealership responded "If you have to ask how much a Land Rover costs to run, Madam, maybe you should choose a different marque".

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