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  • Writer's pictureAlan Martin

There is a thing called Tweat Up - a twitter feed for London foodies that hosts events in London. One of these, started last year, is Ribstock: a BBQ festival in Hackney where 10 top BBQ chefs compete for a £3,000 prize and the votes of the 800 ticket holders.

Last year tickets sold out within 5 minutes of going on sale. This year, they did not, and my amazing brother and my sister-in-law elect got me a ticket to go with them as a belated birthday gift. It may be one of the best presents I’ve ever had.

But even if I wasn’t getting in free, this would be phenomenal value. The £50 ticket entitles you to a rib from each of the 10 stands, two pints of beer and a generous cocktail. On top of this, 7 of the 10 rib stands gave out a free accompanying shot with their ribs: whiskey, rum, all sorts. If you assume £4 for each pint and £6 for the cocktail, and that the venue and prize fund costs nothing, that’s just £3.50 per rib. And as you’re about to see, the portions were generous. I may not eat again.

One small thing: as we voted for our favourite at the end, I have a feeling ‘Eurovision syndrome’ may set in a bit here - surely the early ones you eat/watch while still ravenous for meat/cheesy dance anthems would fare better? In any case, here’s the guide to each in the order we munched them…

Red Dog Saloon - St. Louis pork ribs with a special dry rub, smoked low & slow over hickory wood and glazed with house made Kansas City BBQ sauce.

This was our starting point. It came with a shot of bourbon, not pictured as mine had been downed rather than sipped while we waited. The oil drum backdrop was our home for the first rib before we learned that if you move to collect your portion you will lose your base, no matter how insalubrious.

Anyway, the rib itself: The meat fell off the bone really nicely, and you could tell that it had indeed been slow-cooked for 8 hours, but my tasting colleagues weren’t as impressed, thinking these ones were a bit fatty. We all agreed the BBQ sauce was perfect though - not too sweet, and very moreish. They don’t sell it in bottles, but apparently they would whip up a batch for us if we dropped by. Nice guys.

Roti Chai Street Kitchen - 'Plantation Pigs’ British belly ribs, tandoor-smoked and slow-cooked, with pineapple & red Naga 'ghost pepper’ chilli marinade.

By this point we had a system in place: two of us heading up to grab the food, and one guarding our precious spot. This is clearly how gang wars break out in the middle class world of gourmet street food.

Anyway, peaking a little early, this one was both my and my sister-in-law-elect’s favourite. Meaty, sticky glaze with the right amount of spice and the weird rice-crispy/bombay mix style side really complimented it well. The shot in picture is a whiskey/cointreau/cinnamon blend which accompanied the smokey flavours perfectly.

Blue Boar Smokehouse - Chunky and juicy baby backs with a fiery Blue Boar dry rub. Slowly smoked then slathered in a zingy barbecue marinade.

I got allocated a particularly massive rib here for being “very tall”: finally, my height pays dividends! And the rib itself did not disappoint, very meaty with an amazing dry rub (which we got a free pot of for filling in a contact form, so PRISM can watch over our future BBQ discussions). We weren’t crazy about the shot here, which was quite icy and with a marshmellow and Turkish Delight style thing included for presentation. The rib though? Top notch, probably my second favourite of the day.

Cattle Grid - Thick cut baby backs slow-cooked and fast-finished with Cattle Grid sauce.

I knew Cattle Grid going into this, so knew what to expect: phenomenally meaty ribs. The problem is that with so much meat the flavour just dosn’t marinate all the way through and while this would be fantastic anywhere else, it became just an also-ran here. The creme fraiche coleslaw was a really nice side though, although the lack of fork something of an oversight.

Unbelievably though, these were the only guys to provide a wet-wipe. A generous one too, lasting a couple of rounds. We briefly considered literally and symbolically cleaning up by purchasing some paper towels at the nearby Tesco and selling each sheet for 10p…

It’s at this point we broke for our free cocktails. I got a photo, but some jerk photobombed me. My sister-in-law-elect, to be precise:

…and from that refreshment straight on to:

Carl Clarke/Rotary - Smoked Oxford Sandy belly ribs, seaweed & sesame crunch, ‘next level slaw’, chilli peanut praline.

My brother’s favourites, these. Good soft meat, extremely moist and the salad krispies once again worked really well with them. It also came with a Pickleback, but to be honest a pretty poor one which left us all feeling a bit rough afterwards.

For the uninitiated, a Pickleback is nothing to do with the band Nickleback, but sounds just as wrong in principal: it’s a shot of whiskey followed immediately by a shot of pickle brine. Unlike the band, it’s like nothing you’ve ever consumed before, and usually pretty life affirming: but not today.

The Rib Man - Freshly made tortillas filled with slow-cooked baby back rib meat, apple, balsa mela & Holy Fuck.

You may be wondering what 'Holy Fuck’ is? It’s an award winning hot sauce (indeed it won the day’s accompanying hot sauce taste off elsewhere), and the milder younger brother of 'Christ on a Bike’. What’s 'Christ on a Bike’? This:

Anyway, it’s a massively overpowering hot sauce which heats up your mouth for a few minutes, killing a few tastebuds its taken hostage in the process. Good if you like that kind of thing, which I do.

This one took a break from the bone gnawing, with the meat pulled from the bone and put into a soft taco in advance. They did toss us a couple of bones, dipped in the sauce, but it wasn’t the main event. Unfortunately the Holy Fuck sauce overpowered the flavour of the rib meat, and the taco was a bit on the heavy side. Meat taken out seperately was good though!

Nanban/Tim Anderson - Spare ribs rubbed with brown sugar, sansho, & shichimi mopped with soy sauce, rice vinegar, pickled ginger, awamori, & katsu sauce.

After the wide collection of bribes sides on the other plates, this one was pretty minimalist. Well, the plate was, as you can see from the list of ingredients they promised, the marinade was anything but:

The flavour was delicate, though the rice vinegar and soy was a bit too strong. The meat was incredibly soft though, and fell off the bone like Luis Suarez falling over in the penalty area: with next to no contact.

Prairie Fire BBQ - Apple & hickory wood smoked pork belly rib, fire kissed in a Kansas City sweet 'n’ smoky sauce.

By far the best sides of the day, as you can see in the picture not only did they give me TWO ribs, but they also threw in a jelly shot, a bit of cornbread and some BBQ beans with yet more meat tucked away inside.

Unfortunately, while the sides were fantastic, the actual ribs were a bit dull. They were pretty dry, and ours were also quite cold by the time we got them back. We were also probably, at this point 8 ribs down, beginning to come down with gout.

Still, no time for whining! Two more ribs to go…

Neil Rankin - Texas/Korean mash-up BBQ. Chicken fried pork spare ribs with Korean buffalo sauce and ginger & lime mayo.

Too salty! Waaaay too salty for us. None of us managed to finish this one, and we weren’t the only ones either, as some guys near us had offered us the rest of theirs earlier on. The deep frying was too much, leaving a taste that just wasn’t as fresh as the other. Maybe if we’d had this one earlier on in the day, but as the penultimate rib it was just too much. Free rum and coke though, which all of us managed to put away.

And finally…

BBQWhiskyBeer – Mesquite-smoked black Angus beef rib with Texas rub & BBQWhiskyBeer sauce. Low & slow.

This one won the popular vote, and is for 2013 officially the best rib in London: a beef rib, controversially. Even the bourbon Bloody Mary served alongside it tasted quite meaty. We loved the burned on glaze on the outside, but found them a bit fatty, and again a bit too salty. Perhaps if it was the first one we’d tried, we’d have been more enthusiastic.

And there we go: 10 ribs, over the space of four hours. I’m writing this a good six hours later, and I’m still feeling full. I will be back next year, and you should go too.

  • Writer's pictureAlan Martin

My birthday for the most part passed by without note. Not in a bad way, it was very enjoyable, but other than my life clock ticking over another year, there wasn’t much to label it anything but a standard Saturday. Except that weighing in the next morning I discovered that for the first time in my adult life, Wii Fit was calling me healthy.

This would seem counter intuitive, given the diet of vodka and Eurovision I had consumed the previous evening (stay classy, Alan), but apparently that was just the thing to kick me under the BMI score of 25. Pushing me from overweight into normal. It was the latest part of a journey that started in July last year, and was no accident.

Sure, I went out to a ridiculously meaty birthday lunch with someone straight after and jumped up to ‘overweight’ again, but within a week I was back in the normal part of the curve.

As you can see from the graph, my enthusiasm kind of tailed off in November last year, 3 stone down, but for the following few months I did what I liked and barely gained a pound. So on realising that I’d left the job 'half finished’ I decided to get back on it. I plan to return to my previous slovenly lifestyle when my BMI is bang in the middle of the normal graph.

In June 2012 I was 18 stone 2 pounds. In November 2012 I was 15 stone 3 pounds. Today I am 14 stone 9 pounds.

Here’s a before and after picture for comparisons’ sake.

June 2012:

Giving a horse a noogie in Spain (I wasn’t really touching him, but he really wanted to hang around me!)

November 2012:

(The tiny flag says 'Well Done’, which I hope is inspiring)

May 2013:

A picture message for my brother to pass on to my other brother, who was so late for drinks that I had to leave.

So how did I do it?

Well, the first thing I’d recommend anyone wanting to undertake such a dramatic transformation is to have a traumatic change in your lifestyle. In my case it was going from in a quasi-married relationship to being suddenly single again. It’s not like I was brilliant at being single last time around, so any advantage I could get was essential. This tallies up rather nicely with the graph above - when in a relationship, my graph has stalled, and when its ended, its taken off again. It’s a frustratingly tightly bound symbiotic relationship.

The second is related: I didn’t doubt for a second that it would work this time. I’ve made efforts in the past, but they’ve ranged between 'half arsed’ and 'easily derailed’. This time I was going to keep at it until it worked, and if it didn’t work I’d change it so it did. This combination is powerful because it gives you no escape routes, but it’s interesting to look back at the difference, because I’m sure in the past I felt that this was for real, but this time I knew, KNEW it was different.

The third, to keep me on the right path, was positive visualisation. Now I have a terrible imagination at the kind of motivational images that will keep you on track, but then I discovered the 'Lose It’ community on Reddit, where people upload their progress photos. By looking for people of similar proportions, I had a clear image of what I could achieve with what in the greater scheme of thing counts for only a couple of months of dedication.

So I started running, every other morning. The rational for morning runs, by the way, was that if I did it while half asleep I wouldn’t remember it later in the day. I’m somewhat ashamed to say that kind of works, but now I actually almost prefer an evening run, and it certainly helps you to sleep afterwards. My route is two miles around the local park, and although my times have improved (I can now do a mile, on a good day, in under 7 minutes 30), it doesn’t really matter as long as I come back having run a decent portion of it. Incidentally, when I first started I got myself a decent pair of running shoes, and got properly fitted. This is important, because if you don’t, you may find your feet don’t move straight which can (medically speaking) knacker your knees. I was in this position, and the Asics store ran tests to prove it, filming me in a treadmill. I did have to sign a release form saying that I wouldn’t hold them responsible if I died there in the store, but if I’d died with 2 minutes of light treadmill work, it’s safe to say I’d have been facing more of a challenge than I ultimately did.

Next up there was the 100 Push Ups app, recommended by a good friend of mine, though I remember thinking during the first week whether or not this is the kind of thing a friend should inflict on someone else. I struggle to put into words how much I hate push-ups, but for the purpose of this post I’ll have a go: it’s a horrible feeling, the feel of your arms slowly turning to jelly as you try and force yourself upwards. The 100 push ups app believes that everyone is capable of doing 100 push-ups, as long as you build up to it, and while I can’t hit 100 yet, I have made progress. When I first started, I barely made double figures and now I can hit 80 on a good day, before my muscles take the unilateral decision to disarm, and I tumble to the floor. This was necessary though, possibly even more than the running. Physically, my arms no longer resemble a cocktail stick protruding from a sausage, but more importantly, greater muscle mass increases the rate you lose weight at. It’s possibly been a more crucial part of my regime than the running.

To be clear, I will never ever be the kind of person that enjoys exercise and physical excursion, but I’ve gotten myself to the point that my body has at least given up trying to mutiny every time my brain starts its personal trainer routine. And that’s all I need.

The final piece of the puzzle is diet, but this doesn’t come into it half as much as you’d expect. Sure, I started off cutting out junk food, and making sure I ate breakfast. My lunches were soup, and my dinners were a meat plus salad. I realised with hindsight that I’d come up with a version of the keto or low-carbohydrate diet purely without trying, but now I’m still losing weight and I’m allowing myself to eat more or less what I want - I guess the break just put things into perspective and changed my attitudes somewhat. I still don’t eat many carbohydrates: potato, pasta and rice tends to be replaced with extra vegetables, but its not something I feel I have to stick to if I have people round, or am eating out somewhere in London, say.

I hope that helps someone. Losing weight is a complete paradox: really easy, yet maddeningly hard. If you follow my model, I imagine you’ll have the same luck, but y'know: not a doctor/dietician/physiotherapist.

  • Writer's pictureAlan Martin

Like most football fan gamers, I have lost many years of my life to Football Manager (nee Championship Manager), and while in my case it was definitely more luck than judgement, I had some reasonable success with it.

Anyway, I had two pseudonyms for any manager I created: Spup van Kipelrooy, a suave former Dutch international and, erm, Roger McTodger, my school in-joke Scottish alter-ego. Yes, yes I know: but it’s important to the story.

What I discovered - purely by accident - was that in those days the games couldn’t have never ending databases, and when it ran out of players it would use the manager name to auto generate some more. If your surname was Martin, that would go unnoticed, but when I did a search for ‘McTodger’… well, I wish I still had the screenshot of randomly generated players it did. Over 50 of them, all oddly Nigerian given I’d definitely put my nationality as Scottish.

I literally laughed out loud, and sent screenshots to friends. My eye was immediately drawn to one particular star: Nigeria international holding midfielder Lucky McTodger, who had 4 caps and 1 goal for his country, and available from VfL Wolfsburg for the bargain price of £1.5m.

I repeatedly tried to sign the young lad, much no doubt to the bemusement of the Wolfsburg manager, but it was to no avail: he couldn’t get a work permit, so he never pulled on the shirt of… whatever club I was managing at the time.

Anyway, I lost the screenshots when I switched PCs, and had forgotten about this whole escapade until last month, when I was browsing our site, and discovered the high-score holder of our latest game was one Lucky McTodger. I immediately knew who was responsible and dropped him an email: one of the guys who I sent the screenshot to still uses it as his alias on our site to this day… and he had no way of knowing I’d see it.

Too bad I never got to sign him from Wolfsburg. A holding midfielder with a 25% goal rate would have slotted in nicely.

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