In matters of lunch, I am not a sunny individual. I try to be. When these, the summer months, roll around I imagine myself to be one of those heat-kissed, carefree types in a loose white linen shirt, doing sensitive things with nature’s seasonal bounty. I desperately want to be the man who dreams of halving the pertest of cherry tomatoes, then showering them with the petals of purple chive flowers. Add glugs of peppery olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, a crunch of sea salt, then push the plate into the middle of the table while whispering: “When the ingredients are this good you just need to let them shine, don’t you?”
I want to be the man who pairs curls of charred squid with fronds of balsamic-slicked rocket; who places ice cubes into bowls of brilliant red gazpacho with a self-satisfied sigh; who does interesting things with berries and a dollop of creme fraiche. I want to be this man but I am not. My heart and, more importantly, my stomach aren’t in it. I must acknowledge my true nature. I am a winter cook currently forced to endure the summer months.
My first Saturday job was as a butcher’s boy, forever smelling of the bleach I used to wipe down the walls. One weekend in the middle of a heatwave, the shop fell empty. “They’re all at home eating mangy salads,” said Ken, the head butcher, eyeing the unmolested doorway, while sucking noisily on a fag. A profound truth was revealed to me that day. Hot days are the enemy of good eating. I know that in the summer months I am meant to swoon at the thought of vivacious salads. I dream instead of pies.
I like to imagine that this is all some profound genetic inheritance; that, buried deep in the Ashkenazi Jewish genome, is the Mittel European coding that encourages the storing of calories against the bitter cold of the winter months, and the consumption to facilitate that. It would be the same coding which graces me with thighs for which the words “monumental” and “girth” were invented. I may no longer be living in Slutsk or Slonim, one of those Belarussian stetls with a name that sounds like a condiment made with soured cream, but my body still craves chicken fat and carbs. It cries out for the thumping flavours of the deepest of stews, made from the cheapest of cuts.
I like to imagine this whole genetic thing because it is much easier than acknowledging a tendency to plain old greed. Or is it just good taste? We are meant to be utterly delighted by the vivid, saturated colours of summer; to celebrate the blousy edible charms of the warmest months. And sure, it looks great and some of it tastes great. But is it as much of a crowd pleaser as what’s on offer in winter? In the cold months there is a place for suet crusts and for dumplings. There is a place for potatoes both roasted and mashed, for pies and puddings and crumbles and for custard, the proper thick kind. Any season which sneers at custard has to be a bad idea.
And there’s something else. While the hot summer months mitigate the good things, the cold winter months do not exclude the feeble pleasure of summeriness. If you want a tomato and chive salad alongside your steak and kidney suet pudding in December you can have it. Knock yourself out. That doesn’t work the other way round, does it? No, it doesn’t. I rest my case. The problem is, the strength of my argument doesn’t change the fact that it is still July. And I am hungry.