Munch Munch Luncheon

The first proper formal lunch I remember eating was in 1946 at North London Collegiate School. Staff and students alike, we were recovering from the long-lasting effects of the Second World War. Miss Turpin, who ran the spotless kitchens with arms of experienced steel, stood majestically at the top of the dining-hall, facing the rows of wooden tables and lines of expectant eyes.

“You may begin,” she boomed.

Ravenous, we duly did.

Pale-pink pigs’ livers, perfectly cooked, nestled against crispy curly bacon. Sharp green lettuce leaves floated in a delicate handmade mayonnaise. Bread and butter puddings vanished in five minutes flat. And among the swiftly cleared plates clanked our mugs of water, made of battered grey wartime iron. They bounced as we put them down. The metal gave the liquid the scent of war, a reminder of the men who had fought for our young lives – but did not return to eat another lunch.

It took several years before we drank from thick, weather-proof glass. I have often wondered what happened to the mugs. Are they buried in a secret hoard in the rose gardens of my old School? Were they melted down in an angry furnace of fire?

At the University of Perugia, where I spent a pre-university three summer months learning Italian and fighting off seductively beautiful Italian men, there was one special restaurant that served as lunch two eggs cooked in a heaven-sent oil which we ate with fresh white bread. Nothing I have eaten since has come anywhere near such bliss.

At the University of Reading the food we were given was so profoundly revolting that I abandoned formal meal-times altogether and instead snacked alone in my shabby room. Lunch was always one fried egg and an orange. The egg, cooked in semi-rancid butter (my room lacked a fridge though it did have a much trodden window sill above a communal fire-escape ladder where the butter sat before it fell on some climber’s head), spat at me from my tiny frying pan, trying to be Perugian but always falling well short of the mark. The perfume from the orange peel refreshed my studies throughout the afternoon.

When I began working as a journalist for Marshall Cavendish in London’s Soho, lunches were sometimes boozy affairs that took longer than an hour but never two. As an Editor for Oxford University Press in Ely House, I was allowed to eat in the Small Dining Room. Free alcohol was supplied and consumed in vast quantities, before the Accountants moved into the Press and closed down this smugglers’ den of drunken vice, sloppy afternoon mistakes and angry telephone calls that could barely be recalled the next morning.

I avoided alcohol altogether. Being stone cold sober was a crucial necessity when collecting a small, intelligent and energetic small boy from his beloved nursery school in St John’s Wood in the middle of every working afternoon.

During the Three Day Week, we were treated to a special lunch with the arrival of Oxford University Press’ new Chief Executive. The room was lit by three thin and swiftly diminishing candles. Somebody handed me a plate of salad. Too busy talking to an interesting guest, I swallowed a whole walnut by mistake. Minutes later I was squirming on the floor, struck by my allergy. A car was summoned. I was sent home. My body crawled with what felt like a host of flies buzzing beneath my skin. I scratched every inch to no avail and the taxi driver’s open-mouthed incredulity.

Back in my apartment, I telephoned my doctor.

“I am dying,” I told him. I thought it best to get straight to the point. “Some twerp- head in Ely House gave me a walnut for lunch. We were sitting in the dark.” My body continued its race towards certain death. “And I have swallowed it … The walnut, not the dark.” Sweat broke out all over the scurrying flies. It lurched down my back. Heroically I continued to sit in a growing puddle on the floor. “This is the end. Could you come to help me as quickly as you can?”

“No, I can’t,” my doctor said. “I’m extremely busy with my mother. She has influenza. She’ll be ninety-four next Tuesday, if she’s lucky … Make yourself a cup of tea and lie down. You’ll feel better in the morning.”

I did, but it was one hell of a night. I never forgave my doctor’s mother – and I never saw him again. I am sure he never noticed I had vanished, together with my malicious walnut, into the then clean air of Primrose Hill.

Then austerity struck its blow for abstinence and the pendulum swung the other way. Long lunches in professional London became a distant memory. Sandwiches, stale, fresh, boring or delightful, sprung up among the new computers like wheat in Theresa May’s field. Because the screens were never turned off, the pre-packed food was swallowed at the rate of knots in front of them, while half-eaten apples turned brown among the dusty files and lumps of mouldy cheese stank to the ceiling.

As BUPA’s Publication Manager I was allowed to trundle down to the basement of their offices on London’s Strand and for half the normal price eat an enormous three-course lunch. I needed it. Commuting from north Oxford’s Wolvercote meant I was up at 4.30am to catch an early train and be at my desk by 7.30. Without a decent lunch I would have faded into a starved shadow every afternoon.

Sick to death of waiting for the train home at Paddington station, where Iris Murdoch in her long greasy mackintosh was a frequent sight for sore eyes, I set up Wordwise, my own editorial consultancy in Wolvercote. Now I had nobody to cook me anything. Lunch became an apple and a large chunk of Feta cheese. Delicious and all I needed in the middle of my own working-from-home day. I always make scrambled eggs for breakfast and have never written anything worth reading after a heavy meal.

I could not afford alcohol, but regular cups of Indian and Earl Grey tea kept the proverbial wolf from the door. When really hungry with nothing in the cupboard I reassured myself by reading wartime diaries, where rationing dominated everyone’s life and even eggs became a luxury. But every night I would go to sleep dreaming of fillet steak and spinach.

Today, living in the heart of Woodstock’s thriving town, and close to Blenheim Palace, I have, as the saying goes, come up in the world. Apples and eggs still play a large part in my diet. But if I have guests for lunch I take them to Lucio’s divine fish dishes at La Galleria or to Mev’s equally marvellous Brothertons where Luis regales his customers with fabulous stories of his Woodstock life. I can have coffee in Blenheim Palace, their own ice cream, wine, water or honey; tea and ginger shortbread in The Oxford Museum; a light supper in the bar at The Bear Hotel or a more formal meal in their dining-room.

I am, in fact, spoiled for choice.

Except I am not spoiled at all. After the lean and often hungry years, dominated by standing at bus stops in the pouring rain, waiting for the delayed gin-riddled train at Paddington, or going without supper because I was too exhausted to eat anything, I appreciate the chefs who stand in smokey kitchens all day long, the tea ladies whose legs ache and the waiters at breakfast in The Bear Hotel who are up at dawn laying the crackling white tablecloths for another day’s excellent service.

Visit Woodstock and see how delicious life can be.

And now, fans of food everywhere, here is my poem to the simplest and the best.

Egg

I love a boiled egg, me,
For breakfast, lunch or tea.
It nourishes the appetite
The deeply yellow and the white,
The crunch of shell beneath my spoon
Reminds me of the sailing moon –
I love a boiled egg, me,
For tea.

The miracle of egg! See!
For breakfast, lunch or tea.
The perfect oval in my hand
Still warm. Its feathers soft as wand
The scent of straw beneath my feet
The clucking of my hens who greet
Me. Will I find their fresh surprise?
You bet! There is no finer prize.

I love a boiled egg, me,
For breakfast, lunch or tea.
A slivering of crunchy toast
With butter – that I love the most –
A shivering of seaweed salt
A cup of tea that tastes like malt:
The perfect meal. Hens, I beg –
Give me this day thy perfect egg.