As Valentine’s Day approaches, Murray reveals his culinary plans for the day, starting with breakfast in a box…
“If music be the food of love, play on” must surely have been exploited by card companies as a classic greetings message, centuries after Shakespeare conceived his best life hacks – and this from a time before his sister even made her chart debut in a Smiths song.
But little did little Willie know that his words would become one of my secrets to surviving Valentine’s Day in the middle of a pandemic in 2021, the year of living so dangerously that merely leaving your house to buy a fudge doughnut might qualify as an act of sedition.
At a time when many of us won’t be close enough to our sweethearts to spot signs of illicit fun going on behind our back – that guilty look betraying a forbidden second weekly shopping trip to M&S, the rattling of too many empty wine bottles at the bins or the delivery of another tipsy online purchase forgotten from the night before – we must learn to take and sometimes hide our pleasure where we find it.
On February 14 this becomes a crucial test of sanity when those who say they hate the day and “DON’T WANT A CARD OK!!” are invariably to be found lying prostrate under the letterbox hoping the postman always rings at least once.
Every jangle can bring hope on this day of national engorgement, but what could possibly live up to this idealised notion of true love when it’s all compressed into 24 hours of emotional bush tucker trials?
As the day progresses, blind faith and delusion lead eternal optimists and drunks to believe that the Royal Mail still deliver at midnight – but thankfully they’re so blitzed by then they could be propositioned by Ann Widdecombe or Jacob Rees-Mogg and still think they’d won the lottery.
This year, with so many of us locked down by ourselves, music, food and WhatsApp might be the closest we get to conventional romance on the big day. As such we have to make an effort to celebrate loudly and proudly – we’re here and we have beer! – if only by looking in the mirror and slurring that we’re beautiful.
It’s worth looking up the unexpurgated quote from Woody Allen about self-adoration but, to misquote him for the sake of propriety (a word not often used alongside his name now), he once reminded us not to discount self-care because at least it’s romance with someone you love.
Much as I would love to be in a restaurant at any time this year, the fact is most places on Valentine’s night really are exercises in competitive sports rather than fine dining.
February 14 sees a bizarre new norm in that people who never go to a restaurant with their beloved at any other time of the year suddenly all need to eat outside of their own kitchens that same time. It’s all very odd.
This is obviously great news for restauranteurs but often less so for the customer. I know this seems hopelessly curmudgeonly but I would never eat out on Valentine’s night unless it was with an old friend and we knew the owners or the chef, thus making it just another fun dinner.
But real fun is often in short supply on Valentine’s night and really, tonight, you’re going to feel out of place whatever you do.
Firstly, there’s the food which is normally someone’s idea of sexy but not mine. All the cliches come out and anything that can dribble or ooze or – hell on top of hell – be molten and shareable is liberally dished out.
Wine runs like water except with a cyclonic mark-up, with the sole intention of making you feel that you’re worth it, whatever it actually is.
The overbooked space is by now brimming with a tension that might be intoxicating were it purely sexual but really this is more about the pressure of keeping it together long enough to get out that door without shame and be deemed worthy of a goodnight kiss in the taxi.
The arrival of some new takeaway menus online prompted me to actually plan this solo Valentine’s Day around what I want – disregarding the fact that what I really want is my paramour to suddenly appear with a bottle of Louis Roederer Champagne, a twitch of the nostrils befitting Elizabeth Montgomery in Bewitched and some reassurance that we’re all going to be OK.
Breakfast in a box
So, just as at Christmas when I decided to break all the rules and have a nut roast and no bird, Valentine’s Day this year will be my self-centred celebration of the fact that I’m alive and hopefully soon to get vaccinated – which right now seems more exciting than any romantic tryst ever could be.
My ideal 2021 Valentine’s Day will begin with a new revelation to me – breakfast in a box. This particular box of delight (£25) comes from Kinneuchar Inn and is so perfect that when I tried it first it literally gave me a reason to get up on some particularly challenging mornings when both spirit and flesh were weak.
I don’t really trust people who skip breakfast because to me that’s like saying you’ll just pass on a glass of Champagne or a Yum Yum. I mean – why would you? Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day, or at least the morning part; boiled eggs and soldiers generally mean the world is OK for the next hour or so.
Some people don’t understand this. When we were renovating our house in France we lazily employed a local builder just because he could speak the same language as us. There the similarities ended and not just because he was a Jehovah’s Witness and we weren’t. I still remember the day I asked him where he would recommend for breakfast in the local area.
Looking at me like I’d just asked him to join me in a game of naked Twister, this dyed-in-the-wool Yorkshireman, now transplanted like an unwitting seedling to SW France, said: “Do people really have breakfast out?
“I’ve honestly never heard of that. WHY would you want to do that?” It was like the winds of change had swept in over the Pyrenees or been brought over on the ferry from Dover; to him the very idea of breakfast seemed positively degenerate.
There’s nothing degenerate about Kinneuchar’s breakfast box although I guess eating it made me feel slightly decadent because it was all so beautifully conceived and presented.
First, I think the sourdough is the best bread I’ve had locally – and there’s obviously some other good bakers around here. The Seville orange marmalade is just a perfectly balanced distillation of the sun in a jar.
The smoked saddleback bacon and the Middle White sausages were bursting with flavour and fat; apparently the Japanese have erected a statue to the rare breed of pig that is the Yorkshire Middle White and now I’m campaigning for one in Wormit.
The six Arlington white organic eggs were a revelation.
I don’t think I have ever seen eggs with shells that white and with yolks that golden. When I worked in Kensington in London our local Italian deli used to import eggs from Italy once a week and I would often bring them home to Fife at the weekend, nestling them in my hand luggage on the flight.
These Arlington Whites were even better, gloriously stamped the most beautiful blue against their porcelain shells.
The Kinneuchar breakfast box is finished with some excellent butter and home-made brown sauce showing a subtlety and balance emblematic of everything presented here. All you need add is some good coffee.
Lunch and dinner on Valentine’s Day will be ordered from the River Cafe in London, a nationwide service they’ve just launched. This will be a real treat because I’ve had some of my favourite ever meals at the River Cafe.
The River Cafe’s online shop is exquisite and within hours of it launching I’d spent a lot of money on a great selection of carefully sourced products including some unpasteurised Ragusano cheese from Sicily (£12.50), Volpaia red wine vinegar from Chianti (£12) and the River Cafe’s classic anchovy and rosemary sauce (£10) which I will eat with some fish bought from David Lowrie.
My next River Cafe order will be some of their cooked dishes – perhaps their osso bucco (£36) which I often make myself from their first cook book.
For Valentine’s dessert I will make the amazing Crack Pie from New York’s Momofuku Milk Bar, a sugar and butter confection as addictive as its name implies.
For accompanying loved-up reading I recommend The Seducer’s Cookbook, a vintage guide to the lost art of seduction by Mimi Sheraton and, should your humour be more black than basic, How To Poison Your Spouse the Natural Way – A Kiwi Guide To Safer Food. You will never cook kidney beans so innocently again…
Kinneuchar at Home: kinneucharinn.com
River Café Shop: rivercafe.co.uk
The Seducer’s Cookbook by Mimi Sheraton: out of print but used copies online from around £7.
How to Poison your Spouse the Natural Way by Jay D Mann Ph.D: out of print, perhaps wisely so.