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.

Just How Pink Can You Get?

It’s easier to see how brilliant Charles Dickens is by reading a lesser rival. Just as it’s simpler to appreciate home by going away, silence by listening to Sir Paul McCartney and freshly caught fish by eating tinned tuna. For that reason here are some pink/crimson/red things eaten and enjoyed in my house in the past couple of days. All of them were delightful, but none comes close in startling pinkness to what I have in store for you in a moment.

Maybe the beetroot gave the game away. I’ve just made searingly pink beetroot-cured gravadlax which takes the pinkometer into new zones on the dial. As the Mayor of London Boris Johnson might have said, ‘pink-omania is about to go zoink.’


There are various combinations of ingredients that work well, but this is how I like it best:

  • 600 – 700g salmon fillet
  • 300g raw beetroot, peeled and roughly grated
  • 100g sea salt flakes
  • 90g sugar
  • A few turns of freshly ground black pepper
  • Freshly grated horseradish – about 40g
  • 1 bunch of dill, chopped
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 50ml gin

You can leave the skin on, or remove it. It’s really up to you. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Tip half the beetroot mixture onto an oval plate just a little bit bigger than the fish and then place the salmon on top, making sure the underside is completely covered. A plastic container would also work, although you may find it difficult to remove the pink stains later! Use the remaining beetroot mixture to cover the top of the fish. Cover the whole lot with a double layer of cling film and place weights on the top – I use another plate with a few tins stacked on it. Put the fish in the fridge and after 24 hours it will be ready. Wash off all the curing ingredients, pat the fish dry and then slice and eat. I like to serve it with a little thick natural yoghurt into which I’ve grated some more fresh horseradish, along with some salt and pepper.

It will keep in the fridge, covered, for around a week.