Sunday Bumper Crop

Somehow I fitted all of this cooking into three hours, which I think might be unprecedented.

Toasted Snow Peas
I got some snow peas as a substitution in my Abel & Cole box for a much more boring alternative (spring onions, I think, of which I already had plenty lurking at the bottom of the fridge). Snow Peas? Much googling later, I now know they can be treated the same as Mange Touts/Sugar Snap Peas, although I’m still none the wiser as to the difference. Mine were a kind of mottled purple,with a hint of green. Could that be it?

Anyway, Epicurious presented me with this Epicurious, which I proceeded to use as more of a general guideline. Can’t be bothered to weigh what I actually have? Check. Decide to use pumpkin seeds as well as flaked almonds? Check. Mincing shallots? What a faff, they can be finely chopped and like it!

The result is rather more almond-heavy than I’d intended, but none the worse for it.

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Caponata
Felicity Cloake’s “How to cook the Perfect…” series of columns in the Guardian is always interesting. She tries out lots of different versions of the same dish, with a view to creating a definitive recipe. I’d never heard of Guardian before, but her description sounded fantastic, so I thought I’d give it a whirl, immediately ignoring the bits of her method I couldn’t or wouldn’t do.

So my version involved a white rather than red onion, a small marrow and a medium aubergine rather than a courgette and a large aubergine, and I’ve got caper purée, rather than capers themselves. Otherwise I stuck rigidly to her instructions. Except I got over-excited when weighing my ingredients, so my green olives had sultanas and grated chocolate dumped on them before I had a chance to quarter them. Oops!

I’m glad I was firm with myself and stuck with deep-frying the aubergine and marrow, because it prevented the sliminess I’m sure would have resulted in shallow-frying. But it did rather prevent me from sticking with one of my Cooking Commandments: thou shalt not create washing up without good reason. What with the extra pan for the frying (although I did re-use the snow peas pan for the tomato base, so I wasn’t entirely profligate), the bowl for putting the newly rinsed veg, the plate for putting newly fried veg (with kitchen towel to de-oil said veg) and the bowl (with more kitchen towel) for trying to remove even more oil (it’s amazing there was any oil left in the pan by the time I’d finished), I was very grateful for the dishwasher by the end!

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I took photos before and after the addition of toasted almonds, having learned my lesson from the snow peas photo – where you barely get to sea a snow pea for the mountain of almond! The caponata does glisten in a way that makes me think a lot of oil got in there anyway. Speaking of which, that was another diversion from the recipe; shallow-frying in my usual groundnut oil and deep-frying in sunflower oil, rather than the olive oil specified.
Apple & Blackberry Tart
At some point in the dim and distant past, I must have wanted to make fudge (a craving which quickly passed, not least because I just bought some), because I have been the proud owner of two tins of condensed milk (one labelled “light”, one which ought to be labelled “diabetic coma” but isn’t) for quite some time. In a fit of organisational mania, I looked at them a week ago and discovered they were rapidly reaching their date. While I’m deeply sceptical of dates on tins (although, full disclosure, I once nearly poisoned a friend by giving them an elderly Diet Coke, and I now respect the power of phosphoric acacid I thought I’d better do something with them before they start corroding my worktop or what have you.

I’ve sort of disposed of the full-fat tin, in a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided attempt to make small portions for adding to smoothies (short version: condensed milk won’t freeze, at least not solid). I refuse to make fudge; the fact that I haven’t thus far clearly means my subconscious really doesn’t want to and therefore something catastrophic will undoubtedly occur. So bring on the Google! The internet really wanted me to make fudge or banoffee pie, the latter I resisted because eating the entire thing and diabetic comas are a likely result without an imminent dinner party. Which there isn’t. But Apple & Blackberry Tart sounds suitably sort-of healthy (particularly with the “light” tin!) and shouldn’t risk dissolving my teeth, don’t you think?

I’ve been having difficulty recently with pastry, which relatives tell me is my own fault for buying ready-rolled rather than making from scratch. And they’re probably right. But I have fallen in love with the Sainsburys ready-rolled shortcrust pastry, which is just enough for not only one flan case, but also four little tartlets, which is just dinky. The only downside is that, when baking blind, the pastry keeps sticking to the grease proof paper (oxymoron, anyone?). I thought it might be the fault of the “light” version of the pastry not being greasy enough, so I went full-fat this time and gave the pastry a light coating of oil for completeness’ sake. The ?!#* still stuck. Given that my tartlets, which I – bow down before the efficiency queen! – line with paper which comes wrapped round the pastry, don’t stick at all (in fact, they positively sweat – sorry for the visual!), I’m forced to blame my elderly Waitrose grease proof paper. Can paper go off?

To counteract the all-encompassing sweetness, I bought a Bramley Apple and sliced it with the skin still on (although that was laziness, rather than any thought of taste, texture or vitamins). I rather under-fruited my flan, as the custard quantities completely intimidated me (just think of my smoothies for the next week, loaded up with a dollop of condensed milk and rapidly browning Bramley). Plus the cooking time was nonsense; it needed at least another fifteen minutes for the custard to be anywhere near set. And I still had enough custard for two tartlets. But it’s very pretty, n’est-ce pas?

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Now what to do with two empty tartlets? #ponders

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There’s Something Worse Than Kale

Sorry for the hiatus. Life, whattayagonnado?

Last year, I bought a Nutribullet 900, primarily in an attempt to make a dent in my GLV Mountain (green leafy vegetables -you know, kale, spring greens, that stuff you put in everything that takes forever to chop and you still seem to have as much as you did when you started). As discussed in a recent Guardian article, it is basically a blender for lazy people. And, as one of those, I have really enjoyed using it. Given that it attempts to market itself as something other than a blender, I feel it misses the opportunity to point out how easily it does blending-type jobs. But I cannot deny it has helped me with that aforementioned primary goal; consuming GLVs.

The other day, it occurred to me that it might be able to help with my summertime nemesis: lettuce. My considered opinion of lettuce is that it is pointless and – as if that wasn’t enough – bitter. But,given my Nutribullet could help me consume GLVs without noticing, it had to be worth a go with lettuce. Right? Wrong. Well, semi-wrong.

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Smoothie, and half a head of lettuce for the next one

This smoothie was made up of:

Half a head of Red Lettuce
One Banana
5 Raspberries
Peanut Butter
Low Fat Greek Yogurt
Coconut Water (about an inch-worth in the cup)
Alpro Chocolate Almond Milk (up to the maximum level)
It was ok, but the bitter under-taste of lettuce was in every gulp. Which is unfortunate. I’m not sure what you can add to counter-act it (suggestions please!). I shan’t be buying any more lettuce, though, unless I have a plan for its consumption. Truly, there is something worse than kale.

Banana Bread For The Soul

I had some overripe bananas that were at the point of heading binwards. However I woke up this morning with an enthusiasm for baking, so I dug out my favourite banana bread recipe and got cracking.

The beauty of this recipe is the (not so) secret ingredient: chocolate. Is there anything more divine than the combination of banana and chocolate? There may be, I suppose, but it’s pretty hard to beat. As is my usual habit, I adapt it a bit; ground almonds instead of the faffing about with toasting then grinding hazelnuts, plus my mother is about to visit, so I used gluten-free instead of wheat self-raising flour.

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If I say so myself, this banana bread is pretty hard to beat. It’s almost worth failing to eat your fruit, so you have the excuse.

 

Autumn Comforts

As the nights are drawing in, the weather gets – by turns – chillier and wetter, my thoughts inevitably turn to home comforts. I’ve been stocking up on snuggly pyjamas and bedsocks.

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Source: marksandspencer.com

Last year – as mentioned in a previous blogpost – I discovered the wonders of an electric blanket, and this item, on its own, transforms the entire season from one of discomfort to one permitting an overdose of comfiness.

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Source: amazon.co.uk

I got mine from Amazon (£49.99), and I am officially smitten. I feel slightly foolish for not having tried one out in the past. I blame the public education films I was exposed to as a small child which left me with (in addition to a lasting phobia of striking matches, thankfully since shaken off) an association of electric blankets with house fires. I somehow internalised the notion that they were as dangerous as smoking in bed, and was therefore reluctant to adopt one. Luckily, I have now realised that was the stuff of childhood nightmares, only relevant to elderly or shoddily made blankets.

I am enamoured of the environmentally friendly aspect of them. I haven’t done a study of it, but I’m pretty sure the use of an electric blanket (together with jumpers/duvet on the sofa for television marathons) can hold off the switching on of the central heating for a little while. It makes the bed so cosy, and raises the background temperature of the bedroom, I’ll warrant.

I’m particularly impressed with the model I’ve got, which has dual controls for a double bed. This results in my heating of only one side of the bed, and let me tell you, the heating is quite targeted. The other side of the bed is distinctly chilly. I imagine this could appeal to many couples out there with differing attitudes and/or experiences of night time temperature. However I came a cropper of this feature last night when both my boys, Oscar and Toby, set up shop during the night on the heated side, pushing me over to a cold bed. I retook possession, I assure you, but it was a salutary reminder of the heavenly nature of the electric blanket.

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Oscar (l) and Toby (r)

Catcalling – but cats would never be so rude

Since I started blogging (albeit sporadically) three or four years ago, I have wondered whether I am prepared to be more political online. My blog so far has been very topic-focused (e.g. food). I dipped my toe into the water a few months back, but this post is not representative, in that it is very narrative rather than opinionated.

I am very aware of some of the downsides of having an internet presence as a woman (and, particularly, one expressing feminist sentiments – to quote Rebecca West, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”), particularly following a couple of events. First, the campaign to put Jane Austen on a bank note (following the removal of Elizabeth Fry which made sterling a boys-own club) which resulted in extreme misogynist trolling (including rape and death threats) of the campaign leader Caroline Criado-Perez. Then, more recently, with the discussion of Gamergate.

I have a number of blogposts running in my head, at any one time, that could broadly be termed feminist. But over the last couple of days, I have had one that is bursting to get out.

You may well have seen the recent video of a woman walking through New York City for one day, and the amount of catcalling she experiences during that time. I watched it about a week ago, and had an interesting reaction to it. What I liked about it was that a (small) number of the “catcalls” identified in the video were nothing more than a “good morning”, a larger number were references to her attractiveness (e.g. “god morning beautiful”) but, seemingly, without any expectation of response, and the frightening ones were continued one-sided “conversations” where the speaker seemed to resent either her facial expression, the fact she didn’t acknowledge or reciprocate his compliment, or (in one creepy example) a guy who said nothing but spent more than ten minutes walking next to her, staring at her.

For me, it was quite a revelatory video. Every woman has her own experiences to call on, when talking about catcalling. My own experiences range from:

  1. As a teenager, walking home from the pub with three (female) friends, finding ourselves with a tail who – once we were on low-lit suburban streets – took his penis out and started muttering about what he was going to do to us;

To:

  1. In my early thirties, walking home at night from the station in my duvet-style coat in winter (I kid you not, a spectator only knew I was a woman because of my height, this coat was so shapeless), when a passer-by said “nice tits!”).

My own view is that, in isolation, it is impossible (and possibly wrong) to object to someone saying hello. It is difficult to object to being given a compliment. But the point of this video is that, for women, even a simple “good morning” is in a tricky context.

When the salutations and the compliments come in the context of:

  1. Being told by everyone that what you wear and how you conduct yourself dictates how you will be treated, and that therefore, if you were wearing the wrong thing or reacted the wrong way, it is your fault if you are assaulted;
  2. Together with the above, a few people being creepy can make the majority seem creepy too.

I was ready to leave the video be, a little bit with “I’m forty-something” making me feel complacent. And then I watched this video from CNN.

Have you ever seen someone as blissfully unaware that his opinion is irrelevant? Reading the intro, I was ready for “mansplaining” meaning he was going to be “new man”. How wrong was I? My three favourite things:

  1. His inability to hear what women think, explained calmly and rationally by a woman;
  2. Her succinct explanation that, regardless of how the video was made, it represented an authentic experience; and
  3. The anchor’s ability to recognise when she was auditorialising, and pulling it back, so the interviewee could give her view.

My take?

It is difficult for men to understand how their public interactions with women are interpreted. But they should watch this video and learn. There is no single female experience, but when seeing women on the street, they should bear in mind the possibility that the woman they want to compliment is:

  1. A rape survivor, who does not find any male attention “complimentary”;
  2. Busy;
  3. Thinking seriously about the day ahead, or her next meal, or what she read in a book just now, or anything; or
  4. Not attracted to them.

None of these is a good reason to yell at them that they are either ugly, a lesbian or frigid. Or indeed anything else. It is not a woman’s job to be attentive to all men they meet. Nor is it her job to be physically attractive or smile all the time (“seriously, how do you know I’m not having a bad day?”). And while it would be lovely if someone saying “good morning” could always be reciprocated, in a world where a tiny number of men see that as invitation to rape and murder, please excuse women if they don’t always reciprocate.

While we’re at it, the nutty guy in the video seemed to think the appropriate way for a woman to deal with catcalling is to turn around and holler back. Given that he was criticising a video made by an organisation called Hollaback, that’s quite entertaining. However there’s a reason that women don’t holler back, that they tend to avoid eye contact and speed up. Actually two. One was brought up in the above video; women suffer violence when they stand up to catcalling. The other is that sometimes law enforcement perceive the woman’s verbal reaction as being more serious than the original verbal incitement (even when it is persistent). Because gender stereotypes identify a vocal woman as more aggressive than a vocal man or men.

Ye Olde Literature

It just occurred to me today that I have spent a significant amount of this year in Tudor England. No, I am not in possession of a time machine – except in the most allegorical way. But the books I have been reading over the last few months are, in large proportion, set in Tudor England. This is largely because I have been catching up on various book series.

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Source: amazon.co.uk

First, I finally got around to reading Bring Up The Bodies (BUTB) by Hilary Mantel – the sequel to Wolf Hall (WH), which I read when it won the Booker Prize. I have no excuse for why it took so long to get to the sequel, except that I found some of the linguistic techniques she used in WH quite hard-going, and so the sequel had failed to be the first to my hand when looking for something to read. When I finally did pick it up, I sped through it; Mantel appears to have dropped the conceit for the second book which caused me the most difficulty with the first (not using quotation marks, or a new line, for dialogue; together with marking it only with “he said” or “she said”, rather than the name of the character). It made BUTB a much easier read, but a contrary bit of me misses the literary device. I read very quickly, almost too quickly, as I can miss a lot of the detail. Proof of this is the fact that I can often go back and read a book again, straight after finishing it, and pick up new things on the second read. So it was a useful discipline, having to read more slowly (or rather, to be accurate, read the same paragraph a couple of times) so I could follow the dialogue correctly.

Both books (and there is, I believe, the promise of a third to complete the trilogy) focus on the life of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from humble origins to become Henry VIII’s chief minister. WH is set during the years of Henry’s wrangling with the Church to obtain a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, which resulted in the split from Rome and the establishment of the Church of England with Henry at its head. I trust that doesn’t represent spoilers for anyone reading this! BUTB is set during the period of Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry VIII, and documents her fall from grace.

I am embarrassed to admit that I was barely aware of Thomas Cromwell before embarking on WH. Since then, both from reading Mantel’s books, and some of the others listed below, I have realised quite how influential he was – which, given the times he lived in (where, for instance, your class dictated what you could wear, and to flout the ”sumptuary laws” was a criminal offence), was quite a feat – but at the same time, humanises a historical figure considered by some to be a monster.

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Source: amazon.co.uk

I am currently reading the sixth in the Shardlake series, Lamentation, by C.J. Sansom, also set during Henry VIII’s reign. The first five – Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation and Heartstone – were interesting companion pieces to WH, as Thomas Cromwell appears as a character in some of them. Indeed, I read the one in which Cromwell dies (I forget which one that is) just before reading WH, which confused me greatly! The series are, broadly, whodunnits with Matthew Shardlake, a (fictional) hunchbacked lawyer as the central character. But the richness of atmosphere Sansom creates gives a wonderful insight into the social, religious and political culture of the times the books are set in, together with the “sightings” of real historical personages within Shardlake’s narrative. As well as standing up well on their own within their genre, these books are a real treat for anyone with some knowledge of the history. Skip the next paragraph if you haven’t read all of this series and don’t want to read spoilers.

SPOILERS! I think I whooped out loud when I read Shardlake’s description of “the Lady Elizabeth”, and realised this was the adolescent future queen (sorry, I’ve forgotten again which one this was in). And Heartstone features Shardlake taking a trip to Portsmouth, culminating in him finding himself on board the Mary Rose as she sinks! This may not sound all that impressive to some of you, but I have a vivid memory of being pulled out of my primary school class to watch the raising of the very same Mary Rose, which had been lying at the bottom of the Solent ever since. That’s how to bring history to life (not making schoolkids watch interminable hours of not very much happening, but establishing a personal connection between the reader and subject)!

Spoilers over! Lamentation is set near the end of Henry’s reign, but the political and religious intrigue is as fierce as it ever was. I’m really enjoying it, not least because I have come to really like Matthew Shardlake, who Sansom brings to life as a complete human being, with successes and failings both.

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Source: amazon.co.uk

Another couple of series as well, albeit different from the first two for a couple of reasons: they are set in Elizabethan England, rather than the earlier Tudor times I have been reading about, and they involve – to varying degrees – one of my guilty pleasures, the supernatural. I have read all of Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series, about a woman vicar in Herefordshire who has taken on the role of diocese exorcist (or “deliverance consultant” as the modern church would have it – although that just makes me think of rednecks duelling with banjos, which is unfortunate). So I was pleased to discover a couple of other books by Rickman, about Dr John Dee, again a historical figure who was an adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. The Bones of Avalon and The Heresy of Doctor Dee are, like Sansom’s Shardlake series, whodunnits but with a bit of a supernatural twist.

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Source: amazon.co.uk

I was on tenterhooks waiting for the final instalment of Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy, The Book of Life (BOL), to come out in July, and filled in the anticipation of that event by rereading A Discovery of Witches (DOW) and Shadow of Night (SON) to prepare. I am a big fan of the fantasy sub-genre that has many names but I like to call urban gothic, i.e. set in a recognisably modern world, but with vampires and werewolves and things that go bump in the night. A wider discussion of my love of this sub-genre shall be reserved for a possible future blogpost, but Harkness’ trilogy deserves an honourable mention for anyone interested in the genre but wants to draw the line at teenage angst. These books are about grown ups.

DOW is set in present day Oxford, where an American historian can’t escape her witchy heritage when she discovers a strange book in the Bodleian library and meets a mysterious vampire. The first book establishes the mystery that our main protagonists, Diana (the witch) and Matthew (the vampire), investigate throughout the trilogy, and leads us from Oxford, to southern France, to New England. SON has Diana using her magic to take herself and Matthew back to Elizabethan England (with a trip to Prague) in search of more clues; a tricky visit, not least because Matthew has already lived through this period once. BOL brings us back to the present day, with a whirlwind of cities as Diana and Matthew race to solve the mystery, and save themselves from persecution for their forbidden relationship.

It may seem odd to include this series under the Tudor England category, when only one book is set there. But when you have a book about vampires who have lived through that time, the series continues with an Elizabethan flavour despite the setting. Plus SON involves so many walk-ons by historical characters (including a certain Dr Dee) that it is a joy to turn the page.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how important Audible has been, during my immersion in ye olde England. I first started listening to audiobooks in my teens, primarily to help me get to sleep. At that time, it was well nigh impossible to get anything but abridged versions on cassettes (then later, CDs), so it was with untrammelled joy that I discovered Audible – whose catalogue is increasing all the time and are now primarily unabridged versions. There is nothing worse than looking forward to a favourite passage of a book, only to find the abridger has cut it out! Whilst there is still the occasional misstep, particularly with unusual names or specialist vocabulary (as an Oxford graduate, I winced at the American narrator’s pronunciation of “viva” and “Magdalen” in the Harkness books), I can rise above that to enjoy the luxury that is being read to.

Blipping Marvellous

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Well, three weeks have gone by since my last post and I’m going to have to coin a new word to mean “blip, only longer”. I’ve been describing it as a hiatus. That doesn’t sound too serious, does it? Suffice to say, those three weeks went by in a bit of a blur, but with no running. I went swimming with a friend once, but exercise-wise the last three weeks were somewhat lacking.

Until this Monday, when I managed to get back on the horse (not literally, obviously; that would be a whole other sport). The single biggest factor in getting me back on my metaphorical horse was that my friend Louise ran 100 miles this weekend just gone. Here’s the event that she ran, and here’s a post about how she did. If she can get out of bed and run for 25 hours, it really does put 3 minutes into perspective.

I decided to press on and start Week Three of the programme (a few weeks late, but moving fast), although I kept in the back of my mind that I might need to repeat the week, as three weeks without running was bound to have a deleterious (I know, I’ve been mining the thesaurus) effect.

Monday’s run was difficult, probably the hardest to date. Not surprising when you consider the circumstances. Not only did it follow a three week plus break (given that it took me more than a week to do Week Two), but the jump from Week Two to Three seemed quite steep. Week Two runs involve 6 intervals of running for 1.5 minutes (with walking in between), whereas Week Three is running for 1.5 minutes, 3 minutes, 1.5 minutes and 3 minutes (with walking in between). I know it is the same number of minutes running, but 3 minutes all at once feels significantly more! The first 3 minute run I did involved a lot of mental narrative along the lines of “it must be 3 minutes by now, surely!”. But don’t get me wrong, it was still doable; I was just very pleased when the invisible lady said it was time to walk.

Knowing myself, as I do, it was quite important to run again on Tuesday. I know I’m supposed to leave rest days in between – and I will when I’m doing runs that are a bit longer – but it was important for me to go and run again to break any mounting belief that Monday’s run was too hard. Plus I was looking at the weather forecasts for the rest of the week, and it seemed a shame not to make the most of the dry bits before the heavens opened. Do you know, running for three minutes was easier on the second outing.

I decided to have a proper rest day on Wednesday and did absolutely nothing energetic at all. Yesterday, I thought I might try a bit of yoga and discovered that what I had thought was a bit of hand ache from too much time spent with puzzle books was actually a hand/wrist that could not support my weight in Downward Dog. So Thursday became a rest day as well.

I had planned to go for a run this morning, and that plan came and went, but I managed to persuade myself to run this afternoon. And so you find me, following my official first rainy run, feeling quite proud of completing Week Three. Hurrah!

So what have I learned?

  1. There are no rules. Just because you would like, in an ideal world, to run first thing in the morning, does not mean you are forbidden to run at other times of the day.
  2. You will feel better, after a run, than you did before it.
  3. The second time you run a distance/time, it will generally be easier than the first time.
  4. Running in the rain is not unpleasant, except for (as a glasses wearer) being unable to see much beyond general impressions as your glasses mist up/get drenched.
  5. While running with Toby is fun, running occasionally without him does allow for fewer distractions. Given that he hates the rain with a fiery passion, trying to take him with me today would have involved a degree of resistance training (i.e. pulling a dog along behind me while he tries his best to go home) that I didn’t fancy.
  6. Remember to turn your phone off silent, or you won’t hear the invisible lady tell you when to run and when to walk. Today, I didn’t notice that was the problem until the first 1.5 minute run was almost over (and I was still doing my warm-up run). My solution? Insert the missing 1.5 minute run into the 3 minute walk (so I did 3 minutes, 1.5 minutes, 1.5 minutes then 3 minutes, with less walking in between). Probably not the best solution, but I am quite pleased I could do it without problems. But next time I’ll check my phone volume first!

Now Week Four beckons. That’s running for 3 minutes, 5 minutes, 3 minutes and 5 minutes (with running in between). Strangely, I’m looking forward to it.