Every year, the coming of Christmas is heralded earlier and earlier. In 2016, the window display at Selfridges on Oxford Street, for example, was unveiled just over a week before Halloween, making it the earliest festive window dressing in the world. Likewise, the chorus of whingers complaining about it gets earlier each year, too. Personally, I love them. (The displays, that is, not the whingers.)
Winter is such a tough season to get through. The nights are long, the days are short and the weather sucks. I normally succumb to full-blown Seasonal Adjustment Disorder meltdown by mid-November, so anything to lift the spirits and bring cheer is welcome in my book. Christmas definitely fits the bill. And as someone preoccupied with food, the pinnacle of the season is the roast served on 25 December.
But in the UK, that's pretty much all we've got. We don't do feasts and festivals like the Italians or Spanish. There's an excuse for a piss-up and a belt-busting bunfight at every turn in the Mediterranean. In Italy, there are more than 20 saints' feast days, as well as Epiphany, Carnevale, Women's Day, La Sensa (aka Venice's marriage to the sea), May Day, Rome's birthday, the Wedding of the Trees and Assumption Day. There's even a feast to celebrate a frog race — the palio della rana. In Britain, we have Christmas dinner. And Pancake Day. That's it.
One of the reasons we are so rubbish at feasts is that, traditionally, we're miserable Protestants. We don't possess the Latin exuberance that goes hand-in-hand with Catholicism, communion, carousing and merrymaking. We Brits are much more likely to put on a hair shirt and eat Twiglets than put on a funny hat and roast a pig.
In fact, apart from the turkey thing in December and the batter thing in February, we don't really do feasts. Even at Easter, when most of Europe and South America celebrates big time, we eat chocolate eggs and hot cross buns. (Incidentally, it has always struck me as somewhat odd that we commemorate the rebirth of Jesus Christ with a toasted bun depicting a Roman method of torture and execution. Curious.)
The notable exception is the liquid feast that occurs on 31 December. Yes, New Year's Eve, a celebration with the principal culinary constituents of four Harvey Wallbangers, three pints of lager, a flagon of wine, two large brandies and a bottle of Champagne around midnight. Each.
I stopped trying to keep up on Hogmanay years ago and now tend to hit the sack before Big Ben bongs, but I do enjoy a little celebration on New Year's Day. The best thing for this, I find, is a glass of fizz and the traditional Italian preparation of lentils. They are supposed to bring good luck and money for the 12 months ahead. So, this year, my advice is to take it easy the night before, and reinstate 1 January (the feast of Capodanno in Italy) as the day we partaaay. With lentils. On toast. And an egg. Happy New Year!
Lentil and leek bruschetta with soft- fried egg
• 50g butter
•2 large leeks, trimmed, washed and very thinly sliced
• 200ml red wine
• 300g dried lentils
• 500ml hot water
• Red wine vinegar
• Extra virgin olive oil
•4 very large, free-range eggs
•4 good, thick slices of sourdough bread
• Flaky sea salt
• Ground black pepper
1 | In a large frying pan, melt the butter over a medium heat and sauté the leeks until soft and translucent (about 4mins). Add a few pinches of salt. Increase the heat a little, add the wine and simmer for about 8mins until most of it has bubbled away.
2 | Add the lentils to the pan and coat them thoroughly with the leeks and reduced wine. Pour in the hot water, cover, reduce the heat to low/medium, and allow to simmer for about 15–20mins until the water is absorbed. Take off the heat, add a splash of vinegar, a good glug of olive oil, stir lightly, cover again and set aside.
3 | Heat a couple of glugs of olive oil in separate large, clean, non-stick frying pans over a medium heat. Carefully crack the eggs into the pans and fry until the whites are firm but the yolks are still shiny and runny. You may need to do this in batches.
4 Toast the four slices of sourdough before placing on four separate plates. Divide the lentil mix equally onto each slice, and gently transfer the eggs from the pan to sit on top of the mounds of lentils. Finish with a pinch of salt and a twist of black pepper.
Russell Norman is the founder of Polpo and Spuntino.