What We Talk About When We Talk About Lunch

I have never had much time for lunch. At primary school, lunchtime could bring the whispered excitement of macaroni cheese, swiftly spreading round the hall; it could also bring the dishwater grey of poorly-drained spag in under-reduced bol, our generation’s equivalent of the thunderous cabbage of school dinners past. Pudding might be jelly, with that weird sweet cream which tasted like cake mix, but it might equally be a heavy sponge in a pond of thickening custard, smelling strongly of furniture polish. A packed lunch was a more predictable procession of Marmite-and-cheese sandwich-Petit Filous, except when said fromage frais exploded in my lunchbox; possibly the first but definitely not the last time I would regard my meal through blinked-back tears.

As a teenager, eating is the last thing to do on your lunch break, and food the last thing to spend your lunch money on, while for the student, lunch is the same as breakfast, and both are taken more medicinally than gastronomically; we’ll draw a veil over those years. Then I started working, and a chef rarely eats lunch. It, rather, eats you.

For most of my life, in other words, dinner was the thing. By then, you and your tastebuds have woken up properly, open to spice and fish and offal and, of course, booze – it’s a social occasion, with a dinner party often turning imperceptibly into an actual party. If you’re going to be up until seven in the morning, it doesn’t really matter if dinner starts at 11pm; perfect for a young chef’s lifestyle, but not something I can do any more. The open-endedness of dinner could be its downfall, with any memory of the truffled pork ravioli we had spent all day making dissolving in a slurry of cheap red wine. If you’re already tipsy by the end of dinner, you may as well keep drinking. Lunch, on the other hand (with the honourable exception of the Sunday roast), is a neatly finite affair.

The key to lunch is the proper procession of drinks, for which you need to look to France and Italy – it was there, at least, that I learnt about lunch. The adman’s 3-martinis and the clubman’s magnum of claret are no good for a lunch where you intend to move about afterwards, which is the greatest promise of lunch; what you need is wine by the carafe and a good coffee afterwards. The caffeinated line this draws under the booze is the defining part of the meal for me, whether a thick Neapolitan espresso or a gentler French press. “Enough!” it says; “On with the day.” This done, you can go back to your symposium or your museum or simply your street-wandering, though preferably not your heavy machinery, with a sparkle in your eye and a spring in your step from that carafe.

A lunch wine, of course, should be light. If you’re struggling to agree on one, or if one of your party “only drinks red”, and there’s nothing suitable, get prosecco instead; this goes with everything, at least at lunchtime. You might have to get it by the glass, but if you can get it in carafe (especially¬†on tap), you’re onto a winner. The flattening effect that decanting has on prosecco’s effervescence turns it into the perfect lunchtime drink, especially if you are enjoying it with deep-fried seafood. Soft-shell crab is best, I suppose, but whitebait, calamari or plaice and chips (with a scattering of scraps, of course) will do almost as well, with a shower of rain, starting just after you ducked into the restaurant, the ideal accompaniment; and salad, of course. In fact, you should probably have the salad first, then you can eat as much deep-fried soft-shell crab as you like.

A lunch like this, which, you might have gathered, is not hypothetical but in fact an actual, fondly remembered lunch, has as much of a medicinal effect as those student breakfasts; any tired- or illness, any arguments or problems which might have blighted the morning as you traipsed around an unfamiliar city, getting first thrillingly and then frustratingly lost in the maze of little streets and canals, weaken in the chink of cutlery on plate, the gently meandering conversation, the dying bubbles in the carafe, the espresso’s bitter full stop.