I’ve been on holiday this week. Perhaps you have, too. Not a retreat or an escape or, god forbid, an adventure. A holiday. France. Villa, sunburn, sausage. A long book abandoned on day two in favour of a thriller I’ve read twice before. A commitment to ‘exercise’ amounting to six languid lengths of the pool in the late morning before rolling onto a lounger, like a whale beaching itself, and falling asleep again. Quick, fetch the Sancerre, he’s going to dry out. It felt embarrassing at first, this idleness, like it always does. I woke up and looked at the clock in horror. The pile of empty wine bottles by the front door gleamed reproachfully in the sunshine. Then I remembered that it’s meant to feel like this. Abandoning your good intentions means you are unwinding. The knots are loosening.
Everything else – cycling, yoga, press-ups on the terrace – is self improvement, a version of the same impulse that sends you scurrying to Barry’s Bootcamp or to the rice-cake wing of Whole Foods. A good holiday is the only time you can take the line of least resistance at every turn, like a marble rolling downhill. Want to get up at noon? No problem. Hungering for four pints of four-euro rosé? Who’s judging? (Our favourite this week came from a voluptuous bottle emblazoned with the word ‘Emotion’. Which emotions the wine induced, specifically, were left for the consumer to discover.)
What I’ve noticed this year is how quickly the day, once broken down and without people nagging you for work or meetings, reorders itself around lunch. Lunch becomes the moon dragging us gently but insistently from day to day. The Mediterraneans understand this better than anyone. The French hold lunch sacred and they are still 15% more productive than us, as well as having a proper football team. The Spanish are only marginally less productive, and they literally go to bed in the middle of the day.
As so often with food, the British have it all wrong. Our meals are backwards. Breakfast is revered as the anchor of the day, the only time sugar and starch can be guzzled with impunity. Absurd. Breakfast is a scam, a vehicle for American conglomerates to get rid of sugar and wheat by-products as “cereal”. Don’t let’s start on the Full English, Brexit breakfast, a bloody abomination, a war grave of ingredients, the back of the butcher’s cupboard soaked in lard and cooked without care.
Breakfast ought to be brisk. You should eat only the merest amount necessary to get yourself thinking properly about lunch. A croissant and a coffee. Maybe two coffees. A piece of fruit. Then the serious planning can begin. Everyone does this naturally but our instincts are suppressed by the office grind. Like mob bosses forced to petty skulduggery within the prison walls, in London offices lunch plans extend only to which Pret sandwich you’ll have that day. The same as yesterday, probably. In the absence of time and co-conspirators, the natural lunchtime thirst for gossip and intrigue is replaced by the Sidebar of Shame or Twitter or Instagram. Scrolling with the spare finger while you spoon the Eat soup into your mouth. Why the rush?
Dinner can’t cope with the extra pressure. It’s the big meal, the event, date night, a celebration, a birthday. We are told to beware of dinner, these days, because food eaten in the evening makes you fat. It’s not “fuel”. Often it is tinged with melancholy, too. You talk about what has happened that day. Nothing new can occur afterwards. It’s the end of the road. You might go to a bar. A quick nightcap. But you’re fooling nobody. You’re tired. You’re bloated. It’s bedtime.
Lunch, though. You can do anything at lunch. The world is full of possibilities. There are some rules, of course. No more than three people. Pudding is non-negotiable. Starters, too. The ideal venue is somewhere busy: lunch should be a public affair, no time for starched tablecloths and lockable wood-panelled rooms. It must take no less than two hours, or 90 minutes if you’re in a tearing hurry. Whenever possible, someone should drink. Even the non-drinkers will be more relaxed. Spare us the San Pellegrino brigade. “Nothing for me, thanks,” is the password of the luncher who would rather be somewhere else.
Professional life has few bleaker moments than when the junior employee, having hoped for a glass of something stronger, decides they must follow their boss into a Diet Coke. There was a time when good management involved having three martinis at lunch, coming back to the office, putting your feet up on the desk and giving the rest of the team the day off. Much more effective than any 360-degree performance review. The lunchtime drinker says: I am prepared to ruin whatever I might be doing later in order to have a better time with you. Truly living in the moment. Breakfast looks forward, dinner looks backwards: lunch is in the moment. While you’re eating lunch, you are living.
Feeling hungry? Start making that shopping list/noting your most desired cheese and wine with one of these.