Aggregating Marginal Gains

I’ve just got back from a fas­cin­at­ing trip to Scot­land. Amongst other things, it involved stum­bling around in a forest in the rain with a woolly scarf tied round my eyes so that I could learn how to describe the tex­ture and scent of sod­den trees without turn­ing to tired old visual meta­phors. I was also able to start using my new favour­ite phrase.

Aggreg­ate the mar­ginal gains’ is the phrase coined by Brit­ish Cycling’s Per­form­ance Dir­ector Dave Brails­ford to define why Brad­ley Wig­gins and his fel­low GB cyc­lists put in such aston­ish­ing per­form­ances at Le Tour de France and in the Olympic Velo­drome. In other words, take a pinch of enhanced hel­met tech­no­logy, a dash of improved diet, a scat­ter­ing of bet­ter bike frames and a twist of new sports psy­cho­logy; add them all up and in com­bin­a­tion those minus­cule improve­ments, those ‘mar­ginal gains’ will add up to more than the sum of their parts. it’s per­fect for any­one other than the Usain Bolts of this world, for whom tiny improve­ments in per­form­ance are utterly pointless.

In that damp Scot­tish forest, wear­ing a blind­fold and trip­ping over my boot laces, my mar­ginal gains were as fol­lows: I didn’t break my leg, I learned that Scot­tish midges are fero­cious and I dis­covered pre­vi­ously unthought of vocab­u­lary for describ­ing knobbly tree bark.

Now that I’ve star­ted liv­ing by MGM — the mar­ginal gains man­tra — I’ve star­ted apply­ing it to everything. Includ­ing din­ner. Take, for example, my pre­vi­ous post about beetroot-cured gravad­lax. Deli­cious though it is, a full 700g of bright red fish turned out to be more than I really wanted to eat. So, aggreg­at­ing my mar­ginal gains, I turned my left-over Scot­tish sal­mon into some­thing alto­gether new. It became din­ner for six people at a cost of about £1 per head. If I keep on aggreg­at­ing my mar­ginal gains like this, who knows what could happen?


Cooked gravad­lax may sound per­verse, but trust me, it’s fant­astic. It’s hard to be pre­cise about quant­it­ies, because it depends on how much gravad­lax you have left over. This, how­ever, is the method and you can simply vary the quant­it­ies accord­ing to how many are com­ing for dinner.

Boil some peeled, floury pota­toes, such as Maris Piper. When just about done, but not over­cooked, cut them into thick­ish slices. Layer the pota­toes in an oven-proof dish, fol­lowed by a layer of very finely sliced raw onions. If you don’t slice them very finely, they won’t have time to cook prop­erly. Next, add a scat­ter­ing of sliced gravad­lax and then a layer of wil­ted and well drained spin­ach. Repeat the potato, onion and gravad­lax com­bin­a­tion and end with a final layer of pota­toes. Make a roux with but­ter and flour and then whisk in enough hot milk to make a smooth, silky sauce. Add a little grated cheese, sea­son with salt and pep­per and add a bay leaf. Pour the sauce over the lay­ers so that it seeps down to the bot­tom of dish and just coats the top layer of potato. Sprinkle a good hand­ful of grated ched­dar cheese on top and bake in the oven at 180 degrees C for 25 minutes. Serve with a green salad — onto which you have, or have not, scattered some edible flowers.

You may well find that one of the mar­ginal gains is that your guests like it so much that they ask for seconds, fol­lowed by thirds. My daugh­ter did. In fact, she would have had fourths, but there was none left.

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14 thoughts on “Aggregating Marginal Gains

  1. Wow, red fish sounds really intriguing. I can ima­gine though that the sal­mon and the cheese go very well together. Your trip to Scot­land sounds most bizarre, and I hope it inspired you to come up with more genius ideas Charlie. Best food blog out there at the moment!!

  2. Your posts are always such a refresh­ing change from the breezy tone of writ­ing that has become so pre­val­ent today, espe­cially on food blogs. Very few can pull it off, and even fewer have the ori­gin­al­ity to explore con­cepts in such an intel­li­gent and pro­saic way and tie them together so effort­lessly. What I’m try­ing to say is — fant­astic read, lovely recipe, gor­geous pics and, as always, food for thought.

    • You couldn’t have said any­thing to please me more — thanks so much Sally for your ever gen­er­ous com­ment. And I’m very glad to have given you food for thought.

  3. Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever had gravad­lax… Mmm, why is that I won­der? Gotta make sure I do next time and then I can also try this won­der­ful dish. Don’t know about cook­ing it again since well I haven’t tried either but it sure looks good to me. love those dark Scot­tish skies!

    • If you do try the recipe Simone, I’d love to know what you think. Dark Scot­tish skies are cer­tainly poetic, but they make for very chilly ankles. It was, though, a fant­astic week.

  4. So inter­est­ing. I don’t have a freezer or at least one large enough to make food for, so great to have a cre­at­ive use of ‘left-overs’ as when I do cook it can be with a bit too much gusto and end up with rather lar­ger quant­it­ies than my shrink­ing house­hold demands.….thanks for com­ing up with it and shar­ing. May I also please start throw­ing ‘aggreg­at­ing mar­ginal gains’ lines into my daily con­ver­sa­tions?! My life even.

  5. This sounds and looks utterly glor­i­ous! And although I am not at all envi­ous of your blind­folded stumble around a Scot­tish forest (the midges are alone to send me scream­ing into the hills!), I am now in love with the MGM. It’s such a great way of think­ing about things — so much more man­age­able than rad­ical change ;)

    • I’m so glad you like it too — I was entranced when I first read about it. It sounds so achiev­able. And it cer­tainly worked for Team GB!

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