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.



  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.

    1. 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.

      1. so agree with Sally, Charlie! And I would have loved to heard some of that previously unthought bark vocabulary I’m sure it was in parts very naughty ;-))

      2. Very, very kind of you, Karin – thank you. I’m afraid the bark vocabulary was more Jane Austen than D H Lawrence – sorry about that!

  3. Lovely Scottish skies and a delicious-looking recipe. What more could one want in a photo-food blog. Great.

  4. 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!

    1. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 😉

    1. 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!

I'd love to know what you think - do leave a comment