January is the worst time to skimp on good food and drink


Started the diet and abstinence yet?

It’s a weird feature of the contemporary calendar that so many Brits greet the bleakest month of the year by giving up the things that make it bearable — pleasurable, even: drink, starchy carbs, stews, hot chocolate and fortified wines. I blame the whole New Year, New You thing: the resolutions to be a better person somehow end up translating into diets.

But could there be a worse time than January to do Dry January? Or Veganuary? Imagine the pure hell of doing both in this weather. Nature is calling us to the fireside — or the contemporary equivalent — for something solid and warming, not a cauliflower steak and an unconvincing gin substitute. What the weather isn’t doing is telling us to embrace a plant-based diet without even the uplift of a hot whisky.

Remember, there are still two days of Christmas to go. And in the traditional calendar, it was followed by a slow wind-down to Candlemas on February 2. Folks, abstinence is for Lent. Instead, let me give you…Long Christmas. It lasts for the whole of January and it just feels right.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about our relationship with the weather this holiday. Christmas was in Ireland where I was without central heating for the duration…just a fire. And I have never managed my neighbour’s knack of lighting a fire with just some delicately twisted newspaper and kindling wood — my only chance is to load the edifice with firelighters, which is sort of cheating.

We had one radiator, which my daughter pounced on for her room. It all brought back my childhood, when I was cold most of the time in winter, at least, away from the fire in the sitting room. Upstairs, you woke up to a chilly room and, as one friend observed, you didn’t dilly-dally putting on your clothes. I remember asking the late Irish novelist Josephine Hart what was her greatest luxury. “A heated towel rail,” she said unhesitatingly. “For any Irish person who grew up in an unheated house, there’s nothing like it.”

I’m in Kosovo for the New Year in a heated flat but because of an erratic electricity supply there are power cuts in the evening two or three times a week. Let me tell you, when you have people for dinner and the power goes just as you put on the roast potatoes, you take the whole thing personally. In theory, it’s terrifically romantic having dinner by candlelight; in practice, trying to finish off a turkey with just a gas hob is hell.

All of a sudden I feel a keen affinity with earlier generations…of course, they had dinner early in Jane Austen’s time — anything between 3.30pm and 5pm. Just you try cooking without daylight if you don’t have electricity.

No one is quite sure why there’s an electricity problem but everyone is agreed that the government should have seen this coming, and planned accordingly. One friend observed that ministers faced a choice between putting up prices for power, which would have been terrifically unpopular, or cutting off the electricity every few days, and went for the easier option.

This, from a UK perspective, may seem like someone else’s problem, but if we are busy closing down coal-fired stations so as to rely on wind and wave powered energy, then power cuts may be one of the consequences for us, too. My advice is to get in a supply of candles now before there’s a run on them.


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