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.