Written by Emma Boyns: @emmaboynsphotos, @emmaboynsphotos, emmaboyns.co.uk
There is nothing quite like the hunger that erupts after a swim. In the late summer I swim backstroke in the lido, watch the clouds gently roll overhead, imagining spoonfuls of whipped feta, and billowing puffs of cream. The sky is the same shade of blue as the butterfly pea cheesecake I ate in Hong Kong in my early twenties. In the warm evening sun I can see rainbows shimmer through the water, kaleidoscope patterns dancing across the tiles. I think of alfresco dining, rays of yolk-coloured light dripping across the table, crystal glasses casting multicoloured shadows on the cream cloth. The sky darkens, its colour changing from grapefruit to blood orange. In the winter, I swim beneath a full moon, an unwrapped Babybel suspended in a pool of squid ink. Stars sprinkled like icing sugar on a dark marble worktop.
It makes sense that exercise in any form ignites a physical call for food. There’s the necessary post-gym refuel, the need to have a snack after a game of tennis, and the foil-wrapped sandwich stashed in a backpack for a morning hike, always squashed by lunchtime. But post-pool hunger is in another league. Sometimes the link between the sport and the need for sustenance is so strong that the first whiff of chlorine is enough to conjure up a subtle stomach rumble. The physical excursion of propelling yourself forwards through a body of water, gliding like a knife through runny honey, creates an emptiness that beckons to be filled the minute you leave the pool.
"Perhaps it’s not the food that makes a feast, but the hunger. The brilliant biological cry for carbs. The stomach’s fervent demand for fat."
However much I love swimming, there is always a slight relief as the final length is finished, that day’s mile complete, and the reality of food edges that little bit closer. Towel hastily brushed against skin, socks put on still-damp feet and loose dress thrown over wet hair; the urge for sustenance outweighs the need to feel dry or appear the least bit presentable. Sometimes the fuel comes in the form of a jacket potato, cheap and hot, bought without much thought from the nearest cafe. I forget to grab cutlery but I don’t care. Skin scooped up, melted butter running down the backs of my hands.
Sometimes it’s a communal occasion, a race against friends to get dressed fastest, our small, close-knit group falling onto a moth-holed picnic rug inherited from someone’s Dad. There is always a bizarre but brilliant spread of food; intricate homemade pastries meet refrigerated supermarket sausage rolls. Seasonal sponge cake lovingly baked the night before, contrasted by pre-packed chocolate chip muffins from the supermarket round the corner. The battle of the hummus begins when the third person awkwardly pulls a pot from their bag. And the finale is a giant Tupperware of tiramisu, passed around with a spoon. Even hayfever won’t ruin this banquet.
And yet the more intimate dining moments are just as satisfying. Ripping open a paper bag full of pastries on a park bench and trying to elegantly split custard-filled croissants down the middle. Sheltering in a bakery, table for two, conversation elated by post-swim endorphins as rain hammers against the window. A banana and bag of crisps inhaled en route to a friend’s dinner party, because there’s no way you can sit and make small talk on an empty, post-swim stomach.
Perhaps it’s not the food that makes a feast, but the hunger. The brilliant biological cry for carbs. The stomach’s fervent demand for fat. It is a sensation that can elevate any food, transforming a cardboard-esque cereal bar into a gourmet combination of nuts and oats and raisins. It can turn a cheap packet of tuna pasta, usually left cowering in the back of the fridge, into the exact fresh, salty, umami thing my tastebuds crave. And the bliss that the first mouthful brings - hair dripping, water in ears, goggle marks around eyes - is hard to beat.
Emma's piece was originally first published in our Feast issue! Grab a copy of the magazine here: