The true magic of a meal shared with friends is at its most potent at lunch, writes Fergus Henderson, rather than dinner when the puff has gone out of the day.
The nights have drawn in and winter, the season of the dinner party is upon us. But why? I see the point of a party-party, the drink and conversation flowing with abandon. What I don't understand is a dinner party. I think that in life people can be divided into two camps: those who favour dinner and those who have a serious lunch habit. I am firmly in the latter category. Let me tell you why and help you break the shackles of dinner.
Lunch is a wonderful thing, unlike supper which acts as a full stop to the day. What sort of basis for a party is that - where you eat your supper and then fall full into bed? Lunch, on the other hand, brims with potential. I'm sure there's a correlation between how good your lunch has been and the potential of your afternoon. But dinner? This spells disaster: I sometimes feel there is a finite amount of talking one can do in a day. As the evening looms so your appetite wanes - or at least mine does - especially if you've lunched well. (Unfortunately lunch and dinner don't get on as well as you might hope.) There are few moments that reach such culinary appropriateness as eating cheese on toast in bed while watching Game of Thrones. Now there's a way to spend your dinner time.
Do not think I am against meals with friends; indeed I can scarcely muster an appetite when I'm alone. This is where we run into trouble: when someone joins me they expect to do lunch not just to have lunch, so those who are after a demi-lunch tend to give me a wide berth around midday. (What happened to innocent until proven guilty?) This means that those who do join me have expectations that must be met: before you know it the lunch is being done properly, the afternoon fulfils its potential and suddenly you are in no mood for dinner.
There are other things that can whip up the appetite, too. With the first apéritif of the day an amazing chemical reaction starts, putting you in a much better condition to attack your food. But the biggest boost to the appetite in the daytime, I find, is people disapproving of the hearty lunch. I was on a train in Wales a few years ago heading to Abergavenny for lunch at the legend that was The Walnut Tree (then under Franco Taruschio, who ran a sublime kitchen; it is still a magnificent place, now overseen by the splendid Shaun Hill). A woman I knew slightly sat down opposite me and revealed she was off to spend a week on a yoga retreat, fasting and concentrating on the breath between her mouth and nose. This news did wonders for my appetite. But whoever disapproves of a hearty dinner?
Lunch has great powers of putting things right. If you are having trouble with something, after lunch the problem has gone; for example, it can free up writer's block, bad news always seems much better after lunch and even if you're diagnosed with a terrible disease, lunch can put it into perspective (and here I speak with authority). Lunch has a pivotal nature - it's a bit like a hook on which to hang your day. A day without lunch lacks structure. A day without dinner is merely an early bedtime. And no bad thing, at that.
But if you must have a dinner party, let me give you a tip: however done-in you are by the day's rigours, the healing powers of lasagne will rally the troops for dinner. I don't quite understand how it works but the magic in layers of pasta, béchamel and ragù is not to be underestimated. And have you noticed that when you cook lasagne you always find you have twice as many to feed that night? The culinary jungle drums start to play; they're not audible to the normal ear, but their message is clear nonetheless.