The cherry-flavoured way to perfect health

The allergist's room at the back of the shop looked less like a clinic than a fairground booth

"WHY?" ENQUIRED my friend, examining the white package on my kitchen table, "are you stirring cherry-flavoured chicken sternum cartilage into your coffee?"

"I should have thought that was obvious," I replied tartly (health food always makes me irritable), "particularly to someone like yourself in the medical profession." My friend is a doctor. "Well, tell me anyway," he said. And when I got my breath back, I did.

I should explain that even mixed with finest Jamaican Blue Mountain, cherry-flavoured chicken sternum cartilage tastes so appalling that, for a minute or so after I'd swallowed it, my entire system shut down. Half- an-hour later he had heard the whole sorry story and wasn't impressed, but then that usually is the way with NHS doctors when it comes to alternative medicine.

For the last year I have been a slave, as they say, to arthritis. I can't play Chopin or Joplin anymore, my fingers won't stretch that far. I can't run round the park because my trainers feel like horse shoes. Only my family and close friends know of my suffering for I am not one to complain. Nor do I believe in burdening others with my problems - unless, of course, they say how are you when I tell them in some detail about my condition.

To cut a long story short, I've tried everything - drugs, exercise, acupuncture, cod liver oil, prayer - no dice. It was my piano teacher who suggested that I might be allergic to something. She's so clever. She found me a whole bunch of tight-fisted Mozart sonatas to play instead of my usual repertoire of waltzes and rags and I'm struggling on. Anyway, she told me about this marvellous allergy-testing clinic in Putney where all you do is eat nothing for 24 hours then go first thing in the morning without even cleaning your teeth so that there's no trace, even of toothpaste, in your system. I balked a little at the prospect of boarding a Number 22 bus with unbrushed teeth, but needs must and I telephoned for an appointment.

"Good as New," said the woman at the other end. "Is this the allergy clinic?" I said. "No, it's a second-hand designer dress exchange," she replied. "The clinic's moved to Purley, but I'll give you the number." From where we live, Putney is a doddle; Purley is a schlepp. The good news was that I could clean my teeth. "We at the One Earth clinic prefer to test synogenistically with essential oils," explained Kadisha the Purley allergist, a dark, handsome woman swathed in fringed shawls, beads and gangling bracelets. Her cell-like room at the back of a health shop looked less like a clinic than a fairground booth where you might get your fortune told. Still, her manner was professional.

She strapped an electrode on to my left wrist, plugged the other end into what looked like a gas meter on the desk, opened a box containing 300 small glass phials and began. Inside each glass phial was the essential oil of a food substance which, via the electrode and the gas meter, registered a score between 1 and 10 on a small screen. One signified a void, 10 meant okay, five indicated caution. For the record, I must eschew milk, wheat, ketchup, chocolate, cloves, red meat and red wine. I should go easy on eel, pineapple and pickled onion and everything else I can pig out on including monosodium glutamates, soya cheese and quark, whatever that is. If I suddenly get the urge to eat rump steak, said Kadisha pocketing the pounds 50 cheque I'd just given her for her services, the poison would be counter-balanced by a solution of honey, cider vinegar and molasses.

She then wrote a long list of recommended health foods to which I was not allergic. All of them, surprisingly, were available in the shop at the front. They included Mrs Lepper's gluten-free millet pasta, Mrs Krimble's fat-free Dutch fruit cake, a nasty-sounding soya ice-cream called Dreem Kreem which, said Kadisha smacking her lips, was absolutely delicious and, of course, the famous cherry-flavoured chicken sternum cartilage to oil my joints.

Enough said. I bought everything on the list, including a home-made flap jack the size of a gym shoe. I ate it on Purley station waiting for the train. There was something curiously acrid about the taste and, come to think of it, the smell of that flap jack. Maybe it was a gym shoe. The man on the bench beside me looked at it hard, looked at me hard, then got up and moved to the other end of the platform. In the end I gave up the struggle and dropped it in the nearest bin where it lay on top of the sweep wrappers, heavy, inert and malodorous like a dead ferret. I promise you, compared to the chicken sternum cartilage that flap jack was fois gras and strawberries. "If I were you, I'd stick to asprins and cod liver oil for your arthritis," advised my doctor friend finishing his coffee. Maybe he's right - doctors sometimes are.

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