All posts by RTB

The long drive to Poland: Part 2

Having arrived in France much later than we’d hoped, just before 1am in the morning, we headed towards Belgium (see part 1 of the story here).

The going at first was slow, the mass of traffic spilt from the guts of the boat impeding our progress. Eventually the road opened up into a dual carriageway and we were able to pass the lorries.

I dozed off for an hour whilst my girlfriend drove on through the night and into Belgium, waking up as we slowed for a slip ramp to find a hotel on the outskirts of Brussels. Our SatNav had indicated a hotel nearby and we pulled up outside it at sometime after 2am.

It looked very quiet.

Too quiet. The front door was locked. We rang a bell, but there was no answer.

We hung around for a few moments, but realised that it being quite a small hotel, we may be out of luck. We hopped back in the car and checked the SatNav again. Several hotels within a few miles were suggested, and we tried to guess from their names whether they would be open 24 hours or not; we dismissed the ones with ‘guesthouse’ in their names, figuring that they would be smaller establishments and less likely to be open. Then we spotted the familiar name of Ibis; surely that would be open?

It was about another 20 minute drive; I took the wheel this time. I’ve driven many times in Europe on various holidays and have no problem driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, and the Rav4 we were returning to Poland having originally been American and therefore already left hand drive, I had no further issues, and reached the hotel without incident.

It was open! And they had a room. It wasn’t cheap though; £70 for a double. It was an Ibis Expo on the outskirts of Brussels, so we couldn’t complain too much – besides, it was almost 3am now and we were desperately in need of a sleep.

But first the bar beckoned!

To the left of the reception I had seen a welcoming looking bar and a wide selection of Belgian beers on offer.

We were in Belgium… surely it would be rude not to sample a Belgian ale?

When in Rome…

The receptionist confirmed the bar was still open, and we each ordered a drink and savoured the beautiful Belgian abbey beer.

We didn’t stick around though; we were exhausted. We headed to our room and quickly showered – it was most definitely necessary after that long in a car – and it was almost 4am before we went to sleep.

We got up around 10am and we were back on the road for 11am. We had wanted to leave earlier, as we wanted to reach the Polish border that evening. But we still had the rest of Belgium, Holland and Germany to do first!

We hit the motorway and stuck our foot down. We tried to reduce our food and toilet stops; we’d stocked up on snacks before leaving; but we were making the most of the Rav4’s LPG conversion to reduce fuel costs, and had to make regular stops to re gas, which added to our travelling time.

Nonetheless, we had an excellent run, apart from some crawling traffic around Antwerp – which there always is – before heading into The Netherlands.

Progress across Germany however was as smooth as a Pilsner, and we crossed into Poland shortly after 7pm.

France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany and Poland all being EU countries, there had been no border stops, and the only noticeable change of country if you’d missed the ‘welcome’ sign was the change in language on the roadway signs.

Entering Poland however was noticeable – by the jarring of our spines.

We’d crossed the border south east of Forst, near Cottbus, on the E46, which eventually joins up with the E40 to Wroclaw (pronounced Vrotslav).

What we’d forgotten was that the road had been made by Hitler during the war.

Being constructed from concrete blocks meant a constant dumpadumpadumpa sound and vibration as the car crashed off one block and onto the other.

Some roadworks and general poor road conditions didn’t help matters either.

My girlfriend made some half apologetic half joking comment about ‘Welcome in Poland!‘ and the road condition, but to be honest, I’ve experienced much worse roads in Bulgaria.

We had been driving for 8 hours and hadn’t had much sleep the night before, so decided to find a place to stop. We pulled up at the first roadside Motel but it looked very basic. We weren’t desperately hungry just yet and the SatNav suggested another place within 15 minutes so we headed to that.

We arrived at the Hotel Hayduk, on the edge of Iłowa (pronounced Iwova).

It too looked basic, but admittedly much nicer. They had a large restaurant annexed to the side and there was an LPG filling station too, so we decided to stay.

We were glad we did – the restaurant was excellent, and far surpassed our expectations.

They served very traditional Polish food, and the quality and service were great considering that this was a restaurant at a road side

Polish vodka and Warka Strong dark beer
Polish vodka and Warka Strong dark beer

truck stop..! We went for the fermented cabbage soup with meat, and a beetroot soup to start, both of which were delicious. We then had some Russian dumplings with pork fat and fried onion, and some pork neck. Again, they were both excellent. I tried ‘stomach vodka’ (Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka); a herbal, warming vodka, for the first time – very pleasant – and also discovered Warka Strong beer; a dark, sweet, fizzy ale, that reminded me a little of a Belgian abbey beer such as Duvel. Very pleasant – it was the first time I’d tried it and it certainly wasn’t my last!

After our very satisfying meal, we had a relatively early night and caught up on our sleep.

We set off around 10am and made a leisurely drive to Krakow, arriving the mid afternoon of the Sunday 13th October.

Przegorzały Castle on the outskirts of Krakow
Przegorzały Castle on the outskirts of Krakow (can be seen in distance)

The sun was shining and the weather was glorious; before heading into the town we took a detour to Ziyada restaurant at Przegorzały Castle perched high on a hill on the outskirts of Krakow. They serve a wide range of Polish, Kurdish and European food. We stopped for cake and a beer and managed to find a great spot on the balcony and enjoyed the impressive landscape below us, with the Vistula (in Polish, Wisła, pronounced Viswa) river snaking below us.

We then drove into town.

It was my first time in Krakow – and I was very impressed.

My girlfriend drove me around the town, showing me the various points of interest; places she’d lived or worked; important buildings such as the many Universities, and libraries; the architecture was impressive.

True, there’s the usually communist era tower blocks, but these seemed to be relatively well maintained, unlike some of the blocks I’d seen, and visited, in Bulgaria.

We pulled up at one edge of the town and took a walk up a hill, busy

Old stone quarry/nature reserve in Krakow
Old stone quarry/nature reserve in Krakow

with people enjoying the autumn sunshine. There were signs warning people from visiting the area, yet it was teeming with people. The reason was due to several large old stone quarries, that had been filled with water. There were no fences and the drops were quite extreme, hence the warnings, but it’s beauty meant that they were ignored.

Apparently there is a diving school there also.

After enjoying the scenery and the sun, we headed back to the car and drove back to the centre.

We’d booked an apartment to stay in that night, and were due to fly back the next evening. We’d opted to stay in the ‘bohemian’ and fashionable area of Kazimierz.

After unpacking and freshening up, we headed out – first stop, a vodka bar.

There are many, many pubs and bars in Krakow (it does have 21 Universities with about 170,000 students, so what do you expect!), particularly in Kasimierz, all of which sell a vast range of beers, wines and spirits – in particular, vodka.

There’s the ‘stomach’ herbal vodka I previously mentioned, and then a long list of ‘the usual’ flavoured vokdas on sale; raspberry, cherry, pineapple, lemon, mint, blackcurrant, honey – then quite often other flavours such as ginger, hazelnut, cranberry, lime & mint, pear, mango… the list is endless.

We sampled a couple of different flavours each and went for a stroll.

Admiring the historical streets and buildings, we walked south to the Vistula (Wisła) river, the longest river in Poland. We turned east along its curving banks and headed north east back towards the old town and Wawel (pronounced Vavel) Castle.

It being October, it got a little chilly; so we stopped at a floating bar on the river for more herbal and flavoured vodka.

We walked towards Wawel and admired it’s now floodlight lit walls; I

Krakow old town
Krakow old town

expressed my interest to see it in the daylight and we decided to come back the next day. Now though, it was cold, so opting to avoid the old town due to it’s over popularity with tourists and inflated prices, but skirting the edges so I could get a quick look at the splendid centre, we hurried back to Kasimierz to find a warm bar.

There was no shortage.

We opted for a popular subterrean bar made infamous for it’s historical connections with poets, rebels and romantics. It’s small but cosy interior with vaulted ceilings were a perfect setting to try a hot beer – which was interesting, and warmed me up, but hard to digest! So we switched back to sampling all the flavoured vodkas we hadn’t yet tried – or, by this stage – had forgotten we’d already had.

Steak tartare
Steak tartare

Then we took another stroll through the surprisingly busy streets (it being a Sunday evening) of Kasimierz and to a restaurant for me to try for the first time a steak tartare. The pile of uncooked mince meat, random chopped vegetables and raw egg didn’t look at all appetizing. When it was all mixed together it looked even less so. However – it was delicious. I love smoked salmon and sashimi; the raw meat wasn’t dissimilar in taste and texture.

This was, of course, washed down with some more vodka.

Monday morning we were in no rush to get up. However, we did only have the apartment until midday and I was flying back that evening, to return to work on the Tuesday. My girlfriend was staying on for a few days to visit some friends and family and sort a few things out.

We visited a great place for a late breakfast, the Nova Restaurant,

Wawel Castle, Krakow
Wawel Castle, Krakow

just off the main square in Kazimierz. I was impressed with the sheer range of exotic sounding food options, but opted for a simple croissant with bacon. We then walked to and around the castle at Wawel to clear our heads. The castle is quite spectacular, it having originally been build in the mid 1300s.

I was flying back from Katowice rather than Krakow, which is about an hour and a half drive away. Spurning airport food, we decided to go for more food in the wonderful Krakow, and visited a restaurant called Moment, where we enjoyed spicy coconut soup with chicken and shrimps, washed down with a hot tea made with raspberry vodka. Yes, more vodka.

It had only been a very short time spent in Poland but I had thoroughly enjoyed myself. It wasn’t to be my last visit.

The long drive to Poland: Part 1

The first time I visited Poland, a couple of years ago, we drove there.

We didn’t really have a choice – we needed to return my girlfriends car there. She’d bought it across to the UK when she’d moved here six months ago, and the law stated that it could only stay in the country for six months before having to register it.

She loved her car, an American model (2.4l auto) 2004 Toyota Rav4, and we’d considered registering it here in the UK to be able to keep it. However, it was left hand drive so not ideal in the UK, and other tax and insurance complexities meant that it had to go. Selling a left hand drive car in the UK is always difficult, and the market for these types of car in Poland allegedly being good at the time, we decided to drive it back there, and for a friend to sell it on.

On a Friday afternoon in grey  October, I left work on the borders of North Wales, near Chester, early at about 3:30pm, picked up the girlfriend, and we set off for the south coast.

Friday afternoon motorway traffic being what it is, and having to cover a long distance over several major motorways and known congestion spots, we’d decided to set off as soon as we could and had opted for a ferry option that gave us some flexibility.

Long drive to Dover ferry port
Long drive to Dover ferry port

Direct ferries allowed us to buy a ‘standard’ ticket that allowed us (should there be sufficient space on board) to board a ferry one time slot before the purchased time, or one slot afterwards. P&O wanted a significant amount extra to be able to add any flexibility.

We decided to purchase the 10pm ticket (via our favourite site, TopCashBack, of course!). If the traffic was sweet all the way down, the earliest we could arrive was just after 7pm, which would set us up nicely for the ferry one time slot before the midnight slot, i.e. the 8pm ferry. However, we knew that this would be unlikely, and were happy to accept the 10pm ferry. If things were really bad, we could still get the next slot, the midnight ferry.

Some ferries went to Dunkirk, others to Calais – it didn’t make a huge difference to us, as the time made up on the shorter Calais crossing was eaten up by about the same amount of time driving east past Dunkirk and into Belgium.

As it was, it was slow going. We suffered the usually sluggish traffic going down the M6 near Manchester & Knutsford, and hit the expected congestion around Birmingham. The roadworks around Luton had further impeded our progress, as had the petrol, toilet and snack stops. By the time we hit the M25 though, the worst of rush hour was over. Nonetheless, it was still slow going, and traffic crawled pathetically slowly over the Dartford bridge.

Progress wasn’t much better when we got off the M25, due to some more roadworks, and the inevitable slow lorry in front of us on the single carriageways. Added to all this, there was a torrential rain storm, and visibility was vastly reduced. Deep puddles built up at the side of the road threatened to pull us off the road. It was hard going!

At half past 9 at night, bombing towards the docks, we read the ferry arrival procedures. It seemed to suggest that you needed to arrive at least 45 minutes prior to sailing, else they might not let you on. So we may have had to wait until the midnight ferry, which would have been a pain.

We decided to call the ferry company, and let them know we were coming.

The lady on the phone was somewhat stroppy, but she said that depending on how busy it was, they may let us on with fiften minutes to spare.

We reached Dover at 9:45pm.

Searching frantically for the correct port and lane, we bounced along the rough ground and flew into the stop & search area. We were asked to open the boot, and they held a mirror underneath the car, but only delayed us for a moment.

At ten minutes to ten, we drove onto the ferry.

It actually sailed only five minutes later, i.e. five minutes before it was due to leave!

We breathed a sigh of relief and headed off to find some comfortable seats. If we’d had to sit in the car for another 2 hours, in the cold, that would have been very frustrating, especially as we planned to try and drive for another hour or two once we’d crossed.

Had we taken the best route to Dover?

We’d actually had three route options: carry on around Birmingham, taking the M40 down to the M25; turn off at Birmingham and take the M6 to the M1 and to the M25; or cut across the M1 to take the A14 cross country to get onto the A1, down to the M25.

None of them were ideal. We couldn’t avoid the M6 traffic, nor Birmingham – unless we opted to go across country to Nottingham at Stoke on Trent, but we knew that would take longer. But what would be better, the M40, the M1, or the A14 & A1?

The M40 would most likely be the least congested, but it bring us to the wrong side of the M25. This route had the longest stretch of the M25, which put me off.

In hindsight, it wouldn’t have mattered so much – rush hour was more or less over by the time we would have hit the M25.

The A14-A1 option didn’t appeal as it meant quite a few stretches of single carriageway and I knew that if we took this option, we’d have been stuck behind countless lorries and tractors or other slow moving vehicles.

So I’d recommend the M40 option if you are considering doing a similar journey from the North West to the South East on a Friday afternoon at a similar time of day.

Have contemplated this and found a reasonably comfortable corner of a quiet restaurant on board the ferry, we piled our coats up as padding and laid down for a couple of hours, trying to get some sleep.

At midnight the ferry arrived at Dunkirk.

As soon as the announcment came on that you could return to your car and the doors unlocked, a mass of humanity poured to the lower levels to get to their cars as soon as they could.

And waited.

It took about 30 minutes before we could even start to crawl forward; and another 15 minutes passed until we finally drove off the ferry.

It was a quarter to 1 in the morning, on Saturday the 12th of October 2013, but we were in France!

Only that, and three more countries, to drive through, in order to reach our destination.

See Part 2 of the story

Food Intolerance discovery: Part 2

I’d carried out a food intolerance test (see part 1) and I was determined to try and avoid the foods flagged as me being intolerant to for the next 3 to 6 months. How hard could it be?

The biggest kick for me was the cow’s milk. It’s in everything!!

However, I’d already reduced my cows milk intake, after realising how horrific the cow milking industry is and my fiance had found a great substitute coconut based milk called Koko. Oddly, this consists mainly of water and grape juice, but has enough coconut in it to taste like a skimmed cows milk with a hint of coconut!

I’d initially found it a bit thin on it’s own, but mixing half half with cow’s milk had been a great compromise, and I’d been drinking my homemade lattes like this for months already. But could I go 100% Koko? Some people would already argue I was already 100% Koko… but that’s another story 🙂

The short answer is yes – I didn’t like it so much at first but quickly got used to it. I did look at other options; I wanted to avoid soya milk as soya bean had been flagged up as a borderline intolerant food and my fiance’s test had flagged it a definite no no for her – plus I hated the taste! Rice milk was an option for me but not her; but I didn’t like the flavour either.

But what about cheese?

We visited a local health store and checked out their vegan cheeses. Most are made with soya, so no good – but we found a coconut milk based one that’s pretty damn good! It doesn’t melt so well, but we can live with it for a few months. We also found some gorgeous coconut milk based yogurts; the downside with those is that there were bloody expensive!

Eggs though – how the hell to replace those?

Well, in baking, you can – by creating ‘chia eggs’. You take a tablespoon of chia seeds, grind them a little to crack the shells, add 3 tablespoons of water, and put in the fridge for 15 minutes.

What comes out is a gloopy gel – which seems to work as a perfect egg replacement in baking! Well, in everything I’ve made so far anyway, including a gorgeous buckwheat flour (more on buckwheat later) based ginger cake.

But you can’t exactly serve ‘chia egg’ ‘sunny side up’ or as an omelette.

So I’m missing eggs from that side… but I will survive for a few months.

Next to address was wheat.

Not a problem really. I don’t eat bread; see my other posts (life changing bread and keeping fit: the early days). I don’t eat breakfast cereals these days. Gluten isn’t an issue, and nor are oats, the main ingredient of our life changing bread, which isn’t really a bread in the old fashioned sense and contains no wheat.

Except… flour. Most flour is wheat based. That means no croissants or pastries. Now that i sa little distressing! However, these types of ‘naughty’ foods are only an occasional treat anyway, and I figured I could avoid them for three months or so.

Peas and beans I could cope without, and I’ve never been so bothered about raspberries. The three nuts flagged though were a disappointment – the ‘red’ entries, cashews and almonds, were major ingredients in my daily ‘life changing bread’. However, peanuts – the nut that most people have an issue with – was in my ‘green’ list. So, I’ve substituted cashews and almonds in my recipe for red skinned peanuts – and fortunately it works well.

The most serious blow to my happiness though was the indicated intolerance to brewer’s yeast.

Beer and cider contain a lot of this. Definite no nos.

However, to my horror, I discovered that it’s also used in red wine (as well as white and rose).

At this stage I seriously thought ‘sod this‘ and just stick to my usual diet. How could I live without red wine?

Actually, it being late spring at this point, I was drinking less red wine and more refreshing, cooling drinks. Surely I could replace red wine through the summer with some refreshing cocktails?

A new cocktail shaker and a re-stocked liquor cupboard has indeed confirmed that.

Cocktails!
Cocktails!

Actually, it’s debatable whether drinking wine would be an issue with a ‘mild’ brewers yeast intolerance. If I had an actual allergy, even the smallest amount could be an issue, but that’s not the case. The amount of yeast left in a commercial bottle wine will be minute; home brewed wine might be a different matter though.

And some lager is potentially okay due to the filtering process – some lagers are triple filtered.

However, my new found cocktail making skills were keeping me and the fiance happily satiated for the time being.

She decided not to start her diet yet, due to the sheer volume of foods flagged as high intolerance – it will be much harder for her; as a vegetarian she’s also limited. Without being able to eat soya, beans and eggs either and ensuring she gets sufficient protein could be an issue. Chickpeas are a good source, but although they weren’t flagged as an intolerance on either of our tests, we do often feel bloated after having them – and we can’t live on just chickpeas!

However, I was able to cope reasonably well, and was keen to try the experiment. I’d got by the milk issue, but I was missing eggs – especially my staple omelette when I worked from home two days a week and at weekends. What could I eat to fill me up?

I’d mistakenly confused wheat and durum wheat at this stage – so I thought I couldn’t eat pasta or noodles (it turns out I can, as long as they’re not egg noodles). However, a visit to the local health shop found both buckwheat pasta and buckwheat noodles! The former are ok; a tad bland and almost chewy for my liking. The noodles however, I found excellent – buckwheat has a slightly nutty flavour; with some green pesto mixed in they were gorgeous! Unfortunately, they are significantly more expensive than normal noodles though.

I figured I could make a few things myself, using buckwheat flour (also from the health shop) as a substitute for wheat flour. It’s naturally gluten free, so my fiance could also enjoy it. Buckwheat isn’t a wheat anyway – it’s from the beetroot family!

My first experiment was to make ginger biscuits. I replaced eggs for

Buckwheat flour gingerbread biscuits
Buckwheat flour & stevia gingerbread biscuits

the ‘chia eggs’, and made it a little healthier by replacing half the sugar with stevia, agave syrup and honey for golden syrup, and coconut oil in place of butter. My first batch wasn’t bad – a little dry and crumbly. My second was much better; and I will attempt to make a third soon now I’ve discovered a few things about the way the ingredients work together.

As my fiance could no longer enjoy our ‘life changing bread’ – not just because of the gluten in the oat (you can get gluten free oats) but also because of the linseeds and sunflower seeds which were also flagged on her intolerance test – I decided to try and make some ‘normal’ bread but replacing flour with buckwheat.

Most of the recipes I found combined buckwheat flour with rice flour (no good for the fiance) or other gluten containing flours, or flours I’d never heard of, yet alone knew where to source. But then I found a good one that looked adaptable that used buckwheat groats. I didn’t have these, just the flour, so I had to make some estimates on ingredients proportions.

It didn’t work out so well – I ended up with a very heavy and dense loaf.

The next time I actually sourced some buckwheat groats and made it

buckwheat bread
Buckwheat bread

as per the recipe; it came out much better but to be honest I didn’t enjoy it. The buckwheat groats tasted ‘greasy’ somehow to me. I then recalled eating buckwheat in ‘groat’ form previously and not being a huge fan. Yet as a flour it had worked well in the ginger biscuits – where else could I try it?

I experimented further.

My most successful creation was buckwheat tortilla wraps. These are beautiful! They’re thicker than normal tortillas as the chia egg doesn’t ‘flatten’ so much like eggs do, but they taste great.

We also made some pizzas (with coconut milk based cheese). We went for thin, crispy bases. My fiance loved the crispiness but I found it a little too crispy and prefer a chewier dough – still, my daughter enjoyed the mess of making the dough and it was quite a satisfying meal!

My work colleagues had noticed me eating ‘life changing bread’ as well as my fibre drink (see A dieting aid that works) and we spoke about my experiments. He was eating some Jamaican ginger cake. My urge to eat some was overwhelming… I resisted, and instead the infamous words of Barney Stinson (of How I Met Your Mother) echoed though my head: “Challenge accepted“!

The next day I made buckwheat flour based gingerbread cake!

I found three normal gingerbread cake recipes and combined them. Working out the ‘wet’ ingredients and how much sweetness I needed was the tricky bit. I was replacing eggs with the chai eggs; that was fine. One of the recipes was a little healthier and used applesauce in place of so much sugar or molasses (black treacle). Another used golden syrup. I had no treacle or golden syrup, so I opted for a little brown sugar, half the white sugar of those recipes and a dash of stevia to sweeten, apple sauce, honey and agave syrup.

It worked beautifully!

Buckwheat flour gingerbread cake
Buckwheat flour gingerbread cake

Actually it was almost too sweet and too sticky – if such a thing could be said of gingerbread cake!

My fiance absolutely loved it (and has requested I make some this weekend for her to take to friends in Poland she’s visiting) and my work colleague decided it was better than the store bought one – success!

But it still wasn’t exactly healthy; I think I could half the sugar (and up the stevia a little) and agave syrup content and it would still be moist and sweet enough, and be a bit more healthy.

Even with lots of sugar though it’s still far healthier than a traditional gingerbread cake – one of the nice things about buckwheat flour is that it’s a low GI food – that is, it has a low glycemic index. According to some theories (see my blog, Montignac diet: I don’t do diets!), consuming foods with a high GI (such as normal wheat flour) with sugar/fat is far worse for weight gain then combining sugar/fat with low GI carbohydrates. Buckwheat flour also benefits from having a relatively high protein content too. Win win!

Buckwheat flour isn’t the answer to everything though – despite it being incredibly useful. It doesn’t work so well on it’s own in bread, as I’d found. I did some research and found that you need to combine different gluten free flours when baking, as they all have different properties, and you need to somehow replace the effects that gluten would normally create. Buckwheat is quite heavy and nutty too – Sorghum flour is apparently closer to wheat flour, and produces much lighter and fluffier results.

It doesn’t have quite as much protein as buckwheat though, and is apparently harder to digest.

Neither have any starch – something that is required to bond ingredients and help with raising of breads. The usual solutions are to mix in some corn flour or potato starch – but both of these are on our ‘to avoid’ lists. It looks like Tapioca flour (Tapioca starch is the same thing) might be a good solution.

Buckwheat flour also isn’t great as a thickening agent – I made a buckwheat flour bechamel sauce (with Koko coconut based milk of course) last week for a cauliflower and broccoli bake. It tasted great but took ages to thicken. Apparently arrowroot flour is a good thickener.

Another trip to our local health store is in order!

Before I’ve had chance to visit though, I fancied making a moussaka, and this time I combined buckwheat flour with some ground chickpeas – basically gram flour! That worked much better and thickened up nicely.

Seven or eight weeks into the diet now… I will continue to experiment and will post a new blog with any interesting recipes (I want to try and make a gluten free baklava!) I find and will also post after the 3-6 months is up with the results.

Food Intolerance discovery: Part 1

My fiance has suffered from skin problems for many years, and the primary cause appeared to be down to what she ate. The only problem was determining exactly what it was that was causing the problems. Food intolerances – as opposed to food allergies – can take several days to show, and the symptoms are often cumulative.

We’d tried restricting certain foods for several days to try and find the culprit, but often had conflicting results. It seemed that it may be down to a combination of foods, and other conditions, such as sleep (a lack of good sleep seriously affects her skin), humidity and use of skin moisturiser.

She’d seen many dermatologists through the years, but no one seemed to have the answer.

In the end we decided to give one of the online food intolerance tests a try; we chose the Cambridge Nutritional  Sciences blood test. There’s lots of debate on how accurate these actually are, but we thought it was worth giving it a shot. We went for the Food IgG Antibody Testing; this detects levels of antibodies in your blood to indicate which foods you may be intolerant to.

I figured that whilst we were at it, I’d try the test too. I don’t have any major skin problems; just a little dry skin on my hands and occasionally on my cheeks. I do often have a very red nose and cheeks though; I’d previously noticed that seafood could trigger my redness. I’m often pretty bloated too – for years I’d eaten healthily and worked out and have always joked that I have ‘abs of steel’ but that they are buried under a layer of flab! Truth be told, there’s not so much fat there, but my stomach is rarely flat – it’s very often bloated. Could a food intolerance be causing that?

In short, yes, it could. But the tests aren’t cheap, so I opted for a the basic test that indicates whether or not you have any intolerances at all, but doesn’t actually tell you which (although suggests which food groups may be affected) – you can then opt to upgrade and do a more comprehensive test. There are a number of options available, based on food groups. For example, they do tests specifically for vegetarians and vegans.

The blood sample kit arrived. You have to prick your finger with a little device and then squeeze the blood into a tube. It is not easy. For a start, one drop of blood is a tiny amount – they need a lot more than that. After some trial and error, we found the best technique was to put our arm down (to help blood flow) and the other person squeeze the others finger, and scrape the drops into the tube. It took about 20 minutes to fill the tube sufficiently.

We then sent the samples back and waited.

My test flagged up that I had potential intolerances.

My fiance had gone for the full test covering everything – and we were somewhat horrified by the results.

She was intolerant to everything.

Ok, that’s an exaggeration. But the list of intolerances was far more than we’d expected.

Intolerances are listed on a numeric scale; those less than 23 are not considered an issue. Between 23 and less than 30 they are listed as ‘borderline’; 30 and above are problematic and classed as ‘avoid’.

Flagged as ‘avoid’, with the highest level of intolerance first, her list ran:

Pistachio, Egg White, Pea, Yeast (Brewer’s), Yuca, Wheat, Agar Agar, Cashew Nut, Cola Nut, Flax Seed, Pomegranate, Tangerine, Sea Bass, Nectarine, Yeast (Baker’s), Bean (Broad), Couscous, Fig, Radish, Soya Bean, Bean (White Haricot), Milk (Cow), Squash (Butternut/Carnival), Turnip, Hazelnut, Plum, Apricot, Bean (Red Kidney), Gliadin (Gluten), Mango

That’s some list!

Having an intolerance to soya and beans in general was a problem for my fiance, who’s a vegetarian. Rice and potatoes were flagged on her borderline intolerance list.

I decided to upgrade my test and find out my specific intolerances.

Oh dear.

My reading for cows milk was off the scale – 160+.

I drink so much milk! Every day I have one or two large lattes, I often drink milk on it’s own, or with a protein shake – the protein whey itself having originated from cows milk!

Another surprise was that both egg whites (121) and egg yolks (41) came up ‘red’ – I’d usually eat 2 or 3 omelettes a week, made with 3 eggs each. Oh, and with cheese added – made from cow’s milk, of course!

food intolerances results
My food intolerances results

It also showed I was intolerant to peas, beans (red kidney beans and white haricot beans), barley and wheat. Cashew nuts and almonds were also flagged as ‘red’. The only fruit shown was raspberry – yet oddly, strawberry, the fruit most people have an intolerance or allergy too, showed as being fine – this only scored a 1.

What I also found odd was that wheat was flagged as a high intolerance with a value of 53, yet gluten, oat, rye, durum wheat and bakers yeast were shown as green. Brewers yeast was a different story though – in the red at 52.

On the borderline results (yellow) were potato, corn, hazlenut, crab (prawn and lobster were ok and in the green) and soya bean.

So what did this mean?

Well, I wasn’t going to die if I ate these foods – I’d been eating them all my life.

But by avoiding them, perhaps I’d be less bloated. Perhaps my nose and cheeks would be less red.

Apparently, by avoiding the foods flagged for 3 to 6 months, you can ‘reset’ your system and potentially remove that intolerance.

Even if the ‘reset’ didn’t work, I was interested to see what the results would be by avoiding those foods.

After all, how hard could it be?

Life changing bread: The best thing since sliced bread

My girlfriend recently stumbled across the recipe for ‘life-changing bread’ which has, literally, changed our lives.

Okay, if you love your soft white bread then it’s not probably not going to help you. This bread doesn’t really work for sandwiches; it’s too firm. To be honest, it’s consistency is closer to cake – but it’s far more healthy than cake, or even ‘normal’ bread for that matter.

The nice thing about this recipe is that it contains no sugar, and no yeast. There’s a theory that many so-called gluten intolerant people may not actually be gluten intolerant as such; the issue is often down to the way ‘modern’ (since mass production techniques discovered in the ’50s) bread is made. Manufacturers discovered that they could produce bread in half the time, which meant massive savings in production costs. The technology was quick to be adopted, and has more or less been the method used by most bread makers for the last 60 years.

That is, unless you buy ‘proper’ bread that has been baked for a long enough period for the yeast to be fully processed – or sourdough bread which doesn’t use yeast as such.

Modern bread is full of salt, sugar and preservatives too, and is simply no good for you.

I read that many people who were supposedly gluten tolerant had been able to eat ‘traditional’ and sourdough bread without any problems.

I’ve never thought that I’ve suffered from any gluten/bread intolerance, but when I first found out about this, I realised that I’ve often felt very bloated by bread. It seems that this intolerance to the unprocessed yeast can cause some irritation. I switched to sourdough bread and found this much better.

This ‘life-changing bread’ is far better than even that though, and it’s quick and easy to make.

The basic ingredients are:

1 & 1/2 cup of oats
1 cup of sunflower seeds
1/2 cup of linseeds
1/2 cup of nuts (almonds/cashews etc)
3 large tablespoons of psyllium husk powder
2 tablespoons of chia seeds
1/2 tablespoon of salt

1 & 1/2 cups warm water
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoon coconut oil
1-2 tablespoons of nut or olive oil

The psyllium husks are probably not something you have lying around at home… but are apparently essential to the recipe (I haven’t tried making it without though to be honest); we get these from eBay but I guess you might find in health shops… we certainly haven’t seen any in UK supermarkets.

Mix all the dry ingredients together.

NB: Trying swapping/mixing your almonds with hazelnuts, or cashews, for a sweeter flavour.

Tip: use warm water to help melt the honey/coconut butter.

Pour the dissolved mixture over the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. It shouldn’t be too sloppy, nor too stiff.

Leave for at least one hour to soak up the liquids.

The mixture should now be fairly stiff and sticky. Don’t worry if it’s a little soggy still; you can wait a little longer before baking (and add a little extra oats if it’s still too wet) or just bake for a little longer. If liquid is still visible then that’s too wet; add more oats.

Crumple a sheet of baking paper (to make it easier to shape) and line a loaf shaped baking tray. Pack in the ingredients, pushing the mixture down well and into the corners. We fold the baking paper over the top and push down to give it nice square edges.

Pop it into a pre-heated oven at around gas 5.5/6 / 160-180C for about 20-30 mins. The top should start becoming firm and a nice yellow brown colour.

At this stage, remove the tin from the oven. Put a fresh sheet of baking paper on a baking tray and remove the bread, flipping it upside down onto the new tray. Remove the old baking paper, and put it back in the oven, ‘upside down’, for 30-45 mins, depending on how moist the bread was initially, and how ‘crunchy’ you like your bread. Ideally, it should be a nice brown colour – if it starts going black you’ve probably overdone it!

Life changing bread
Life changing bread – my recent version with red skinned peanuts, citrus fruits and ginger

You should be able to ‘tap’ it and it feel firm but not ‘solid’ – hard to explain but after you’ve done it a few times, you know what the right feel is.

Let it settle for a bit before eating – if you try and slice it too soon, it will be incredibly crumbly.

It normally lasts about a week before going off, although in summer I’ve noticed it sometimes going off a day or two before that.

I’d say 8 times out of 10 times it comes out great; occasionally it can be a bit too moist at first (but will dry out with time) or slightly overdone, it which case it won’t last quite as long as it will be pretty dry after 4 or 5 days. You’ll learn the best mix/way of baking for yourself.

It’s delicious dipped in a little olive oil with balsamic vinegar!

This literally has been ‘life changing’ for us, in the sense that we’re no longer snacking on unhealthy snacks – having a ‘loaf’ (more like a brick!) of this around at all times means we have a tasty and handy snack. I take a slice or two to work, and have some in the car in case I get peckish on the commute; we often take some when we travel on holidays – or anywhere for that matter – in case we’re hungry enroute.

It can also easily be modified… we often add pumpkin seeds or different nuts to subtly change the flavour. We often add rosemary for another lovely taste; I once added black olives and sundried tomato. Adding fruit such as raisins is also an option – but bear in mind these are often high in sugar! Our recent batches have been made with citrus fruit peel added – delicious!

My latest attempt added a tablespoon of ginger powder, some chopped crystallized ginger cubes, pumpkin seeds and a smattering of dark chocolate! Not bad, but I’ll add more ginger next time (I can hardly taste it), and this was one of those times when I slightly overcooked it and it’s a bit too dry for my tastes… oh well, can’t win them all!

I’m also tempted to try adding banana and dates (or maybe fig)..!

Enjoy!

NB: This isn’t gluten free... but I believe you can purchase gluten free oats, so you could try making it with those. I’ve noticed some gluten free flours are difficult to get to rise in breads, but this is a different type of bread – there’s no yeast, no baking powder or baking soda – it doesn’t really need to rise as such – so perhaps it will work?

My car history part 21: Finally content?

I’d finally made the decision to buy my next car and had travelled by train to London, over a 2 hour trip with a bus journey added on, to buy the ‘perfect’ car for me – at that time – Mellie, a 2008 Mercedes SLK 200K.

True, it didn’t have back seats.

It didn’t have a spacious hatchback.

But I didn’t really need those; if I ever needed more than 2 seats, I had the use of the fiance’s RAV4.

What ‘Mellie’ did have was looks, fun factor, lack of cabin noise, decent commuter engine power, good fuel economy, and more importantly, for my bad back, exceptionally comfortable seats.

And I’d bought this one as she had heated seats!

Except… on the way home I’d found out that mine didn’t work.

It’d been a private sale, and sold as seen.

I’d figured I’d got a bargain anyway. The car was at least a thousand pounds cheaper than anything remotely similarly, with the specs I wanted – the closest example was £1500 more from a dealer.

So I looked at getting the heated seats repaired.

How much do you think Mercedes wanted for this simply electronic fix?

£1045.20.

Well – that was for a new seat base – as they don’t do a ‘fix’.

Plus labour, to remove the old one, and fit this one.

As Bart Simpson would say: Aye Caramaba!

And that wasn’t even Mercedes themselves, but an independant specialist – i.e. cheaper!!

I did some research.

It seemed heated seat failure is a common problem. Something to do with people kneeling on their seats backward to clean the interior /wipe the rear screen; the wires in the base snap under the pressure. Or simply burn out.

I looked at getting a replacement second hand seat base – but finding the right model, drivers side, with a heated seat element, known to be working… I couldn’t find any.

I considered swapping the passengers side over to mine; after all, it was only me using the car on a regular basis. I queried on a SLK forum as to whether the sides were interchangeable; it seems that the seat backs weren’t, but the bases potentially were – yet when I investigated further I found that there was a difference in the wiring – the passenger seat has a pressure sensor connected to the airbag/SRS system.

The purpose of the sensor is to determine whether or not to employ the passenger side airbag in the event of a crash, depending on whether someone is in the seat or not.

I didn’t want to be messing around with pressure sensors and airbag wiring – I’d read enough warnings about accidental deployment and ‘confusing’ the computer so that it though an airbag had been deployed or was faulty, and having to visit Mercedes to have it (at expense) put right again.

Fortunately there were some articles on how to fix your heated car seat, and others on how to safely disconnect the airbag.

There wasn’t one clear article for my model on the whole procedure, but I managed to piece them together and very carefully attempted to remove my car seat.

I was missing the right star shaped socket for the seat belt attachment, so had to fork out £7 at my local B&Q for one.

Eventually though I was able to remove the seat, it’s cover, and with the help of a multimeter I already have, trace the fault and find the bad wire!

SLK seats removed
‘Mellie’ the SLK – with seats removed

I’d bought a cheap soldering iron from Maplin for £15, and enlisted the help of my fiancee, who has much steadier hands than me – her being a makeup artist and doing eyelash extensions probably helped! Plus, bizarrely, she already had some experience with a soldering iron… and I hadn’t!

She proceeded to fix the damaged wires and the next day I refitted the seat… and lo and behold, the heated seats worked!!

£22 repair.

A bit better than Mercedes’s price 🙂

(I posted the details on the SLK forum for anyone else that was suffering from the same issue)

So, I now have the ideal car, with heated seats… am I still happy with it??

10 months later…

Yes!

Sort of.

I’m missing having something with more ‘oomph’; it certainly feels a little underpowered sometimes. I don’t think it’s been maintained particularly well though, and I realised that the air filter hasn’t been replaced for a long time – an upgrade to a ‘green cotton’ air filter is supposed to help, so I’ve order one and I’m waiting for it to arrive – let’s hope it helps.

But I am starting to get an ‘itch’ for a change…!

My car history part 20: A wise purchase?

I’d travelled all the way down to London on the train with my 6 year old daughter to see a perfect sounding next car: a Mercedes Benz SLK 200K.

Believe it or not, this sporty number was actually one of the most practical cars to suit my needs: sculptured seats that supported by troubled back beautifully; heated, too, to help soothe away my pain; reasonable but not excessive power suited to my commute, but also reasonable fuel economical.

This one sounded ideal in terms of its specs and price – in fact, it seemed too good to be true.

My problem had been with it being a private sale; I’d been concerned about the lack of any guarantee. So I’d called around
the local garages to see if someone could check it over for me.

I’d opted for Halfords Autocentre’s free 12 point safety check.

Never again.

Oh, the guy on the phone at Halfords had been very helpful. I’d explained the situation and told him what time my train would arrive and asked how long the check would take etc etc, and he’d assured me it would all be fine.

The grumpy over worked mechanic in charge on the day though had a somewhat different attitude.

If I don’t have a ramp, I don’t have a ramp“.

Much appealing only left to a half hearted response that if I left it with him then he might be able to do it by the end of the day.

I couldn’t wait til the end of day.

The owner couldn’t wait til the end of day.

My six year old daughter, remarkably patient up to this point, couldn’t wait til the end of the day.

I’d have to make the decision myself.

But how to test drive a two seater car when I’m there with my daughter, without driving off in the car and leaving the owner alone?

I hinted at this possibility.

He didn’t seem to get the hint.

I hinted a little stronger and started suggesting some sort of security deposit.

He didn’t seem to like the idea.

In the end, he suggested that as we were now in a corner of the supermarket car park which was quiet, we could have a drive and my daughter could wait at the side. I didn’t like the idea of leaving my daughter, but she was quite happily playing some make believe game on her own and when I asked, and suggested that I would literally just drive down one straight, turn around and come back, and I’d have her in sight all the time, she was quite happy for me to do that. I got a pang of guilt and even started to say that actually, no, I wouldn’t bother, I didn’t want to leave her, and she – very practically minded for one so young – actually insisted that I test drove it ‘to make sure‘.

As it was, it was a very brief ‘test drive’, as I really didn’t want to let her out of my sights, so I only drove the car for about 100m, turned around and came back again! Still, at least I was able to check the basics, and ensure that gear changes, brakes and steering all seemed ok.

I probably could have drove for longer – my daughter wasn’t concerned at all and was still happily playing – but I had a good feeling about the car and made the decision to buy it.

We shook hands and did the deal. I did an online transfer and he confirmed the payment had been made. The paperwork was
signed over coffee (and apple juice for the little one!) and Mellie (short for Melinda The Mercedes) was all mine!

As we drove out of London and headed for the M1 home, I was able to finally drive her properly – I was terrified I was now going to find some major fault.

The steering and overall handling felt good…

The engine pulled well and sounded sweet…

All the electronics worked…

No, hang on.

They didn’t.

When I pushed the electric heated seat switch, the lights came on… but only for a few seconds. Then they went out.

The seat didn’t get warm.

I tried on the passenger seat – no problem there. Annie was enjoying her heated back.

My seat was cold.

DAMMIT.

I’d specifically bought this car as I wanted the heated seats (to help with my back problem).

When we’d sat in the car I’d tested it!

Actually…

No.

I hadn’t.

I’d sat in the passenger seat with my daughter on my lap when we’d drove across the Sainsbury’s car park to the Halfords branch. I’d pushed on the heated seat light on my side – and the owner had pressed his (drivers) side briefly, showing me the LEDs light up.

What I’d not really taken in was the fact he turned it off a couple of seconds after, whilst I was waiting for the passenger side to warm up.

So he must have known the drivers side didn’t work.

DAMMIT.

Well – it wasn’t the end of the world. I’d just have to get it fixed.

Can you guess how much Mercedes wanted to fix a heated seat??

Mellie - the Mercedes SLK 200
Mellie – the Mercedes SLK 200

My car history part 19: Decision made!

I was still struggling to choose my next car; one that would suit my particular set of needs, but primarily, one that would have suitable shaped supportive seats for my back problems.

I’d test driven 7 different cars:

  • Peugeot RCZ 1.6T 200
  • Nissan 350Z 3.0
  • Mazda MX-5 Mk3.5 2.0
  • Volvo C30 2.5
  • Mercedes SLK 1.8
  • Toyota GT86
  • Jaguar XF 3.0D

I’d liked the RCZ but was put off by it’s ‘Frenchness’, high price for the model I really wanted, and I wasn’t yet convinced about its seat comfort.

The 350Z had been great fun but my coccyx had screamed blue murder at me.

The MX-5 was almost as fun as my 20 year old model, and although improved on the gearing and road noise, still wasn’t ideal for my daily commute.

The Volvo had surprised me with it’s power and comfort, but had lacked a certain sportiness and hadn’t felt quite ‘me’.

Maybe I needed a set of fangs.

Volvo C30 - for Vampires only?
Volvo C30 – for Vampires only?

The Mercedes SLK had also surprised me with it’s unexpected lack of German character and it’s sheer fun factor; but the model I wanted was out of my budget.

The GT86’s seats had failed dismally without having even got out of the showroom: I just couldn’t get comfortable. Plus it was way over my budget.

The Jaguar XF was an impressive car, but far too big and heavy for my particular likes.

I was down to my final option: the BMW Z4.

Would I like it?

Well… I took one for a spin, explaining both my back problems and the need for something ‘comfortable’ and not too noisy on my commute.

The salesman was one of those types that talks a lot and listens little. He ‘knew’ what I want and dismissed everything I said. I explained again how I needed to get the car up to 60 or 70 (not unreasonable on a test drive) to check the gearing and road noise, and I suggested a short route to get to an appropriate road.

He insisted on doing it his way, and took me to a 40mph road that he suggested we could get up to a decent speed on.

Due to other traffic, I didn’t make it over 35mph.

So I wasn’t really able to see how it compared with the MX-5 in terms of high revving/gear ratio and noise through the softtop at speed.

However, I’d already decided I didn’t like the car – it reminded me too much of the BMW 3 series I’d owned – it lacked ‘soul’.

It just wasn’t fun.

Yes, I imagine a larger engine one could be fun, but then that would take me over budget and leave me with a gas guzzling beast.

So: back to the drawing board.

Realistically, I was left with only the RCZ.

Or was I?

I spent a few more weeks looking at alternatives, but nothing floated my boat.

I looked for cheaper RCZs.

I looked at hiring one for a few days, to get a better test drive and ensure I’d be making the right decision, but couldn’t find any locally.

I looked for cheaper SLKs.

And found them.

I really didn’t want the older model, the facelift was slightly ‘prettier’ and packed a few more horses under the bonnet, the former having 163bhp and the preferred having been tweaked to 184bhp – and that was only just enough really for me.

The problem in searching for them was that the model change had come in mid year, so looking for 2008 cars in my price range tended to return just the older models. But by regularly checking, and scouring every picture to try and work out which one it was, I was finding a few private sales at around the 10K mark.

Their mileage was a little high compared to the RCZ – around 70K+ – but I could live with that. What I was fussy about was that I wanted heated leather seats; cold leather is unpleasant in the UK climate. Heated seats also assisted with my back problems.

Mercedes SLK
Mercedes SLK

A few ideal specimens came up over the course of a few weeks – I wasn’t going to rush this (not this time!!) – and I made enquires. There were the usual problems: that’s one already sold, we have another coming in – costs more, or the wrong colour, or the wrong spec; yes that’s available, but it’s a Cat D/damaged car; ah, we can’t find the service history sir, or, oh yes sir, that is available, but there was an error in the advert and it doesn’t currently have an engine or wheelsok, that last one was an exaggeration, but that’s more or less how it was going.

A lot were simply too far for me to travel. I was looking at locations near to my home or my work (being 50 miles apart anyway), but even if I tried to leave work early to see a car, the garage was often closed. Private sales were better in that sense, but I didn’t seem to be finding any locally.

Weekends were the best time to travel, but I normally had to pick up my six year old daughter by 5pm on the Saturday, so that complicated matters.

However, what appeared to be the perfect car came up in London, mid week, when I was taking my daughter for the whole weekend. I realised that she loves the train; so we could make a day out of it, and break up the drive home with a treat, going for a pub dinner.

I made enquiries about the car.

It sounded ideal: the right spec, with heated leather seats, the right colour, mid mileage. The owner would be around to show me at midday on the Saturday, so we could easily get a train down and make it a fun day trip.

Yet there was a nagging doubt at the back of my head: what’s wrong with it?

We all get that feeling sometimes when we’re about to buy a car, or something else relatively expensive. But the price seemed too low; was something mechanically wrong with it?

It had only recently had an MOT – on which there were no advisories. The owner seemed to have a genuine reason for sale.

Perhaps it was a good one.

Being a private sale though, there were no guarantees. So I decided to look into local or mobile garages that perhaps could give it a quick once over. I checked with the owner, and he was happy for me to do this – there was no hesitation, so I got a slightly better feeling already; perhaps he had nothing to hide.

I contacted a few mobile companies but they didn’t have any free slots that day; the most local garage was only open in the morning. However, it seemed that there was a Halfords Autocentre very close by. I rang them up, and asked if they offered any kind of pre-purchasing car check.

Apparently they offer a free, 12 point, safety check. The very helpful guy on the phone ran through the points checked.

It sounded ideal.

I asked if I could book in a slot for that day and he assured me that it was no problem.

All sorted…

My daughter loved the train journey down; we made the most of the trip and had a picnic on board, and I promised to take her for some pub food on the way home again. She was even keen to see the new car, perhaps my car obsessions over the years having made some impression on her (oh dear).

We met the owner at the large Sainsburys car park, just next to the Halfords.

The car looked a beaut. All the docs checked out. I hopped in the passenger seat and my daughter sat on my lap for the very short drive across to Halfords – where all hell was breaking loose.

Several cars were queued up, and we could see several in the workshop, on ramps, having work done, by several frantic
looking mechanics, running around like headless chickens.

Leaving the owner outside I popped into reception to confirm my appointment. There was no one at the desk. After a few minutes I heard car horns outside – the SLK was blocking the workshop entrance.

We moved it, a car drove out of the workshop, and another drove in. Spotting a mechanic, I started to say I had an appointment, and was quickly told to speak to ‘the gaffer’, who was also running around looking somewhat harangued.

I finally managed to get his attention.

I repeated my comment that I had an appointment for a safety check.

I got a surly response of “yeah you’ll be lucky” or words to that effect.

Recovering myself from this unexpected rudeness, I went on to politely say that I’d rang in and pre-booked a slot. He looked around at the ramps in a pre-occupied manner and finally told me that I’d have to leave the car with him, and he might be able to fit it in, but it wouldn’t be done until the end of the day.

I explained that I was here with the owner of the car and he wouldn’t be happy to wait around, and neither could I. He basically said “well I’ve got no ramps so what can I do“.

I explained again that I’d called in and specifically booked an appointment, and had told them on the phone the situation
and had even checked how long it would take, and I’d been told there would be no problem.

He replied more or less along the lines of “so what, if I don’t have a ramp, I don’t have a ramp“. He then added that bookings weren’t guaranteed.

I was stood there, in the rain, with a rather awkward looking owner and my six year old daughter.

I attempted again, explaining that I had travelled down from Nottingham to Hendon on a train, specifically to see this car, and to get it looked over, and could he possibly help.

He glanced around again at his busy bay and simply replied “it’ll be the end of the day“.

I looked at the car owner whose look told me that wasn’t acceptable, so in desperation I asked if it were possible for someone to have “just a quick check“. He replied in an unnecessarily harsh tone that there was “no such thing as a quick check“.

We were forced to leave.

It was too late on a Saturday afternoon to be able to get anyone else to check the vehicle.

I’d come all that way…

So what did I do?

My car history part 18:

I was considering a choice of eight different cars.

Three Japs, two Germans, a Swedish, a French and a Brit.

Quite a mix. The only common aspects were:

  • I liked the aesthetics
  • Enough power for my regular motorway commute, without being excessively thirsty
  • Comfortable bucket/sports seats – which seemed far better for my back problems than standard cars

The contenders were:

  • Peugeot RCZ 1.6T 200
  • Nissan 350Z 3.0
  • Mazda MX-5 Mk3.5 2.0
  • Volvo C30 2.5
  • Mercedes SLK 1.8
  • BMW Z4 2.0
  • Toyota GT86
  • Jaguar XF 3.0D

Unfortunately the GT86 was ruled out almost immediately. I spent 15 minutes wrestingly with the seat controls in a Toyota showroom before giving up – I just couldn’t get comfortable. I didn’t even take it for a drive. Admittedly it was out of my budget too – but it’s probably one of my most desired cars at the moment, ever since I first saw one; and if it drives anything like the old Celica, I’ll love it.

But my poor back was protesting; I needed something more comfortable.

The Nissan 350Z next then. This was my second fave in terms of looks. But it was also the least practical – I wasn’t going to get a great amount of miles per gallon out of it’s 308bhp engine!

Still, I spotted a perfect example and managed to arrange a lengthly test drive. For a good 30 minutes or so the owner took me for an impressive test drive. It felt comfortable; my upper and lower back were nicely supported.

But when it came for me to take the wheel – disaster.

Somehow, in the drivers seat, the seating position meant that I was putting pressure on my injured coccyx (tailbone). It wasn’t even the ‘new’ or more recent back pain (which had stemmed from sitting poorly due to the original coccyx injury) but the more acute ‘pain in the arse’ (almost literally) original cause of all my back woes.

It wouldn’t do; I tried all sorts of seat combinations, but something about the overall seating position of the car meant that with my hands on the wheel and my feet on the pedal, my tailbone took too much of my weight and yelled out in protest.

I’d liked the car a lot; ok, I prefer the ‘kick’ of a turbo rather than a linear powertrain, but the three hundred odd horses on tap pretty much compensated for that. I even looked into the possibility of fitting different car seats in it, but realised that they it could be difficult and costsly, and there were no guarantees it would work.

I went back to the RCZ. I’d already had two test drives, and couldn’t quite make my mind up. It only had a 1.6 engine, but the turbo charged ‘standard’ version still packed 156bhp, and felt nice and nippy. The 200bhp version was even more fun. And it’s quirky looks and funky interior held my interest. But was it comfortable enough?? Maybe. It was more comfortable than the Leon… but it wasn’t as comfortable as my MX-5.

The main problem though was that I was having a image concious issue – I didn’t want a Peugeot! I didn’t want a French car!

My girlfriend suggested I try a Volvo C30. A Volvo?!? But they’re for old men!

Well… not really these days. Especially the C30. But then is it getting a bit too girly, or a bit too much of a Teenage Vampires car??

Volvo C30 - for Vampires only?
Volvo C30 – for Vampires only?

I figured it was worth a shot, and test drove a 2.5 turbo model.

I was impressed.

The seats were awesome; very supportive. The 220bhp engine pulled aggressively and eagerly. Handling – not bad. Not bad; but it felt a little heavy, a little ‘high’, somehow. It was trying to be sporty… but not quite making it.

Ultimately I decided that it wasn’t really the car ‘for me’, despite it being a damn good little car. I respected it.

Then I drove a Jaguar XF. Silly choice really, after deciding that the Volvo wasn’t sporty enough – the Jag is a huge beast! But I was tempted by it’s luxury – surely this would be a comfortable and practical car for the commute? And the 3.0 diesel boasted around 260bhp yet could still get around 40mpg – very tempting!

To get one in my price range though, I had to look at high mileage models. I found a beaut in a gold colour with 140,000 miles on the clock. Too many? Hmmm. The motor was a proven solid lump (Ford engine) so should be good for much more. I took it for a spin.

First point: they’re all autos. I much prefer a manual. Yet it has the flappy paddles to be able to downshift and have some fun when you require.

And fun I had. After being stuck in a traffic jam for 20 minutes, we finally got onto some back roads and let rip. She flew! Ok, there was the slight hesitation from both the huge diesel lump and the turbo, and the auto box – even with me manually flicking down with the paddles – but I could live with it. The growl from the engine was incredibly satisfying too.

What I couldn’t live with was it’s sheer weight & size, and the terror I felt going through the corners at speed.

Yes, it gripped well, but it still felt like a elephant on roller skates whizzing through a narrow canyon.

Perhaps I’d get used to it… as we worked our way back to the dealers, the traffic built up again, and I found myself getting irriated trying to squeeze it’s bulk through the narrow streets and gaps in the traffic.

Truth be told, I much prefer smaller cars.

And suprisingly, I wasn’t finding the seats very supportative – my back was aching after our 45 minute spin.

Another one ticked off the list.

What about an MX-5?

I didn’t mean another 20 year old MK1 – I was on my fifth and (hopefully) final! The gear ratio, small engine and thin soft top meant it wasn’t suitable for my lengthly motorway commute; too much loud high rev howling for a relaxing daily journey.

But what about a more modern version?

I’d hired and driven a MK3 when I’d taken the Transfagarsan Highway through the Romanian Transvaal mountains a few years before. I’d found it underpowered, as the MK3s are significantly heavily than the original MK1. I double checked though; it seemed I’d hired a 1.8 model, and there were 2.0 models available.

Would a newer, more powerful, more modern geared, improved softtop be suitable? I’d read that wind noise was much less.

Only one way to find out.

I found a suitable model at a dealers about 40 mins from home on a bright Saturday lunchtime and headed over, to be greeted by a rather lovely 20 something lass who took me out for a spin. Trying not to be distracted by her chatty flirtatiousness and shapely legging clad legs, I tried to concentrate on what could end up as Maggy the Sixth.

I loved it.

The seats were just as comfortable as it’s predecessors.

The engine was eager and compensated for it’s weight gain over it’s earlier brethern. It even made a nice noise.

The gears were better spaced… but…

Not enough. I hit 70mph and she was stil revving highly; not as much as my 20 year old beloved (and I’ve talking about Maggy now, not the hottie beside me) but it was still going to prove inefficient on a motorway run, and annoying – yes, the wind noise was reduced, but not so much.

If something happened to Maggy… and I had a sensible commuter car… then yes, I’d have one of these. But to have two MX-5s, even with their differences, wasn’t really the answer.

Six down (although I was still considering the RCZ at this stage), two left.

I found a suitable Mercedes SLK 200; the 1.8 supercharged model, in Derby. It was a 2008 model with the slight facelift and the improved 184bhp, up from 163. I.e. not particularly powerful compared to some cars I’d been looking at, but it was small and light.

What concerned me was it’s ‘German-ness’ – every German car I’d driven had lacked “soul”. I was also concerned by the thinness of its sports seats; the shape would be good for my particular back issues, but they might be too firm.

I slipped into the seats and felt like Cinderella’s foot must have felt slipping back into that lost glass shoe – it was the perfect fit.

I took her for a spin.

And soon had a huge grin planted all over my face!

It was so much fun. The little Merc was a German with a wild side! The handling was swift and responsive, the supercharged engine eager and nippy. Sure, it lacked grunt at the top end – but would suffice for the commute. The hard metal roof meant there was no road noise issues either.

The problem was, I didn’t want this car.

Well, not this particular one. It was way too much (14K – I was looking more at 10, 12 at a push) and the wrong colour.

So I started looking around…

Disaster.

The pre-face lift model was all I could afford. But it was nowhere near as pretty, and potentially underpowered.

DAMMIT.

Back to the drawing board?

No: one more option: The BMW Z4.

I found one very local to me, at a bargain price… 2.0 engine in a car that size… this had to be a go-er!!

My car history part 17: Back problems

So, I’d made my mind up to get rid of the practical, efficient diesel hatchback after only a few months of ownership.

It wasn’t quite as efficient as I’d hoped – particularly on the commute I was taking regularly, and I was finding the seats quite uncomfortable. It was starting to have a few age/mileage related issues too. And she was hardly a looker.

But I’d decided to not rush into it this time, and do my research.

The Peugeot RCZ had caught my eye. If I was willing to overlook the fact that it was French, then it seemed a very tempting choice – 44 or 42 mpg from a 156 or a 200bhp engine – rear seats (small, but many of my previous cars had zero back seats), decent boot space, and quite exotic looking.

I took one for a test drive, and liked it.

But did I like it enough?

I’ve driven too many cars for a 10 minute test drive, bought them, and then found annoying characteristics. I needed a long test drive.

I managed to get a 20 minute test drive. But this was the 156bhp model and think I preferred the 200bhp version; I needed to compare. But the nearest in the spec I liked was over a 100 miles away. And pricey.

I was also worried about my back.

I’d been having some problems due to an old back/coccyx injury, my long commute and the utterly useless office chairs at work. I’d started the ball rolling with the Health and Safety people who were supposed to be getting me a new chair, but the usual inefficient bureaucracy & red tape were causing delays and I still had a crappy chair, and my back was not very happy with me.

Hopping into my 20 year old MX-5, with it’s snug sporty seats, I was comfortable.

So perhaps sporty, bucket type seats helped my back more than the rather non descript seats in the Leon. The RCZ seats were rather sportier – but I wasn’t convinced that they were comfortable enough.

Perhaps there were some other options?

Over the next few weekends I test drove an additional seven different cars.

I’d decided that fuel efficiency and practicality weren’t the biggest factors after all, and added some less sensible cars back onto my ‘desired’ list. The cars I drove were:

  • Nissan 350Z 3.0
  • Mazda MX-5 Mk3.5 2.0
  • Volvo C30 2.5
  • Mercedes SLK 1.8
  • BMW Z4 2.0
  • Toyota GT86
  • Jaguar XF 3.0D

Yes indeed – 5 of those don’t have back seats and hardly met my new ‘sensible’ mindset to cars. But it’s incredibly rare that I need them; I’d borrow the girlfriends RAV4 if required.

Oh, and I took out another RCZ – just in case.

In truth, I didn’t test drive the GT86 in the end – I just sat in one. And unfortunately knew that it would be no good for my back.

Plus it was out of the price range!

Nissan 350Z - a sensible car option?
Nissan 350Z – a sensible car option?

Some only fit in the price range (£8-10K, £12K at a push) by having high mileage/older age.

So which one would I choose?