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I used to think it was fashionable to eat late. Curfew changed that | Food

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The 10pm curfew has been a terrible thing for the restaurant business. The shortfall in income that comes from not being able to turn a table towards the end of the evening is tricky, if not impossible, to make up, and it’s a miserable, slightly stressful business, having to urge customers to hurry and clear their plates once the clock strikes 9.30pm. But for me, at least, there’s something weirdly freeing about it. Basically, the early bird special has at last been socially sanctioned, and as a result I have reverted to type. Last week, I twice ate out at 6.30pm, and with two of my chicest girlfriends – at whose suggestion, quite brilliantly, this unfeasibly early hour was in the first place.

Growing up, we always ate our dinner, which we called our tea, at around 5.15pm in the week, and at six at the latest at the weekend – and to be frank, I liked it (not that I knew any different). For one thing, I was always hungry by then. Lying on my bed, dreaming of the day when a man in a black polo neck would whisk me off for supper (and other things) at the unimaginably late hour of 8pm, the rumblings in my stomach would usually begin at 4pm. For another, it meant you had time afterwards to flick through Smash Hits, to talk endlessly on the telephone (yes, it was in the hall) to your best friend, or even to go out. In the summer, it was very heaven. Tea, then a walk. Meeting a boy at the pub. Sitting in the park with your pals and a bottle.

Then I left home, and came south. Everyone ate later, and so did I. As the decades passed, in fact, I became increasingly militant about it. Eight o’clock was early. Nine o’clock was reasonable, especially if aperitifs were involved (“substantial nibbles”, as someone described their rightful accompaniments to me, comically, the other day). Once I had enough cash to go to the theatre or even (ye gods) the opera, I thought nothing of eating at 10.30 or later – to the point where I was slightly amazed if the person I was with said: “It’s so late, I think I’ll have something light. Fish, perhaps.” I ate exactly as I would have done three hours earlier, which is to say: with intense greed, pudding the only casualty.

When the curfew came in, I was sniffy. I would eat at 7.30, but no later. This, however, lasted all of five minutes. Freed, if only temporarily, from my cast-iron conviction that true sophistication lies in never eating before eight – metaphorically speaking, I own the black polo neck now – I have embraced 6.30pm like an old friend. Not only are restaurant staff so pleasingly delighted to see you at this hour; my long-standing fear of uninhabited dining rooms – “Will there be other people?” my brother and I anxiously used to ask our parents, en route to some inevitably tumbleweed-strewn restaurant – is safely in abeyance, given that everyone must eat earlier now.

I’m also starting to think that I might be a better – or, at any rate, more cogent – companion in the early evening; my gossip comes with an extra slice of lemon just lately. I relish the feeling of playing hooky (I usually work until 7pm) and, yes, though I can’t honestly claim to be drinking less, it’s possible that I do sleep better, even if saying so does make me sound about 100.

But there’s something else at play here, too: an ease. If I trained myself over many years for gastronomic lateness, in the manner of an athlete visiting a gym, now I’m letting myself go again. It’s oddly relaxing, even if I do worry that I’ll lose muscle tone (ie the ability to scoff steak and chips at midnight). It may even be empowering. Walking home after dinner at nine the other night, I was followed by a man who kept muttering over and over that he wanted to rob me. Once, I might have gone into the nearest shop; certainly, I would have been too full, or too weary, to run. Not this time, though. Casting him a pitying look, I broke casually into a sprint. I was home before I knew it, Newsnight and a mint tea still some little way in the future.


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UK cities plan Covid-safe festivities as Christmas markets are cancelled | Travel

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As if we didn’t have enough reasons to hate Covid-19, now it’s threatening – Grinch-style – to steal Christmas, too. Growing numbers of cities are cancelling their Christmas markets. One of the most recent cities to abandon its plans is Manchester. Its Christmas spokesperson, councillor Pat Karney, told the Manchester Evening News last week that the markets had “not met our commercial and public health tests”.

In December 2019, VisitEngland’s Christmas tourism survey showed more than 14 million Britons planned overnight trips during last year’s festive season and a third of those surveyed said they would be visiting a Christmas market. VisitEngland estimates these trips boosted the economy by nearly £3bn and predicts a 49% decline in domestic tourism spending overall this year. That’s before adding in the revenue loss to restaurants from not hosting larger groups and Christmas parties. A Welcome to Yorkshire poll found that 20% of hospitality businesses are cancelling planned activities and a third are scaling back.

York’s annual St Nicholas Fair was cancelled last week when the city moved to the more-restricted tier 2 alert level.

Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park is not happening this year either, although other London-based festivals may still go ahead. UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls points out that London has already “taken a hit due to the dip in inbound tourism and with people increasingly working from home”, describing the city’s move into tier 2 as “catastrophic”.

Christmas fair and market in Edinburgh.



Pre 2020 … Christmas fair and market in Edinburgh. Photograph: Tom Bonaventure/Getty Images

Belfast, Edinburgh, Bristol, Bath, Aberdeen, Winchester and Oxford are some of the other cities to have cancelled Christmas fairs and markets. Lincoln Christmas market, the UK’s oldest, has been cancelled for the first time since 1982; the Christkindelmarkt won’t be turning central Leeds into a winter village and Birmingham’s Frankfurt-style market, which attracts more than 5 million visitors some years, was called off in September. Padstow’s harbourside Christmas festival and Stratford-upon-Avon’s Victorian Christmas fayre are similarly rescheduled for 2021.

Local authorities and businesses are searching for creative alternatives, with many promising smaller events and opportunities to support traders. Some restaurants are offering Christmas-in-a-box deliveries for virtual office parties; Birmingham Stage Company is touring a drive-in panto; Edinburgh’s market announced it was going digital; and Bath will be offering online shopping direct from the craftspeople who would normally be selling in wooden chalets.

Sheffield’s markets are still (currently) hoping to open on 12 November with a new Alpine-style bar – as well as more space between stalls. Also from 12 November, Cardiff’s market is still, for now, on (but dependent on restrictions post its “firebreak lockdown”). Likewise, Swansea confirmed its market will open on 27 November, but this was prior to new lockdown restrictions. Exeter and Plymouth are planning to go ahead, too, relying on wider paths and naturally large open layouts.

The market situation in Glasgow is still to be decided, though thecity’s Christmas lights switch on is cancelled – as it is almost everywhere – though decorative lights will still be a feature of seasonal cityscapes. Manchester is putting up additional lighting throughout the city centre. Market-less Cheltenham plans to have its new lights twinkling day and night with harps and gold-coated holly hanging from lamp-posts.

Events that have largely escaped the gloom are annual light shows at stately homes and gardens. Several grand houses, such as Castle Howard, Blenheim Palace and Waddesdon Manor, are gearing up for (pre-bookable) festive splendour. Chatsworth is opening rooms and galleries that are usually shut over the winter. English Heritage has replaced big events at flagship properties with smaller seasonal activities, but plenty of National Trust properties, including Belton House in Lincolnshire and Stourhead in Wiltshire, are selling timed-entry tickets for illuminated trails through parks and gardens.

Some venues have just joined the sound-and-light party this Christmas. Kingston Lacy in Dorset and Gibside in Gateshead have new after-dark fire and fantasy trails that enhance natural features of their parkland. And the gardens at RHS Hyde Hall near Chelmsford are installing a Glow trail for the first time this winter. So there is a ray of light at the end of the fairy-lit tunnel for those seeking a festive fix.


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‘Being on the ocean is who they are’: how sailing bonds my partner’s family | Living The Life Artois

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Going on holiday with your new boyfriend’s family for the first time is always going to be a big deal. For me, it was a baptism of fire, but also a bit of a dream. It was 2012 and Tim invited me to come sailing for two weeks in the Greek Ionian Sea with his parents, Michael and Anna, and sister Lucy.

Boats had not really been part of my childhood growing up in Canada so to me it all seemed incredibly exotic. I imagined sipping cocktails and eating chilled cubes of cantaloupe on plush sun loungers while cruising around tropical islands, dolphins frolicking around us. The reality was rather more humble, but no less exciting.

Michael Fitzsimons, Sarah LaBreque, Tim Fitzsimons



What that trip opened my eyes to, aside from my dislike of pumping toilets and newfound appreciation for the raw power of the ocean, was that for the Fitzsimonses, being on the ocean was not just something they did for fun, it was who they were. It was threaded through three generations on both sides of the family, from the Atlantic convoys of the second world war to murky Merseyside rivers, blustery Welsh coastlines and the warm waters of the Mediterranean. And it was something that particularly bonded Tim and his dad Michael together.

For Michael, it all started in the late 1960s. “Everything was right to put you off sailing for life,” he says, remembering the day he went out for the first time, age 13, with his dad, Desmond, on their new, wee sailboat. It was a spring day and the Mirror dinghy, the hugely popular small craft that opened up sailing for the masses, was beneath their feet.

“We hadn’t a clue what we were doing. We had one lesson from the guy who sold us the boat. We went out on the River Alt, which is a very small, muddy little river just to the north of Liverpool and it was howling a gale. My dad bought the boat and we carried on for more.”

After an adolescence spent messing around on the Mirror, and later with a son and daughter of his own, anything water-related was soon part of the family’s holidays and leisure time. “I used to go on the back of the windsurfer in West Kirby [in the Wirral], with my wetsuit on,” says my partner, Tim, Michael’s son. “My dad was probably the only windsurfer on the lake with a little child hanging on the back for dear life!” Tim has clearly inherited his dad’s love of the open water, and his fascination with the power of nature. “There’s also an element of excitement,” says Tim, “because something invariably goes wrong.”

Looking through a photo album



Pouring glasses of Stella Artois



Father and son share memories



Don’t I know it. It’s not a family holiday unless someone ends up with blood running down their ear (usually Michael) or clinging on to the back of the boat, 30 knot winds and 2-metre-high waves whisking away their recently digested breakfast (usually me). In the early noughties the Fitzsimonses decided to give sailing in fairer climes a go. They chartered a boat in Greece that was part of a flotilla – novice families out for a bit of semi-supervised adventure. By now a dab hand at sailing dinghies, how different could it be to sail a 40ft yacht? It wasn’t until all the sails were up, high winds carrying them swiftly into the sunset, which incidentally was the wrong direction, that wife Anna spoke up. “You need to take some of the sails down, I can’t handle this boat,” she remembers saying as she struggled at the helm.

And the reply was, famously, she says: “we don’t know how”.

“There was also day two when Dad tried to dodge a wave and ended up head-butting the glass cover that stops the spray coming over, and went sort of semi-conscious,” says Tim. Ah, a relaxing Fitzsimons holiday.

Fast forward a couple more years and Anna and Michael now share a yacht called Resolute with about a dozen other families, where I joined them that first time. Each party gets an allotted few weeks a year on the boat, which at the moment is moored near Athens. They would, that is, if lockdown hadn’t come along.

So instead of Greece it was off to north Wales, once the country opened up for visitors, for a slightly cooler summer jaunt. Two days of glorious sun and four days of torrential rain later, and Michael’s questioning whether it’s worth it to keep the latest addition to the family, the pretty Cracker, a 17ft Cornish Crabber in a fetching shade of mint. The trouble is getting it from its resting place inland, down the narrow lanes of Anglesey, to the beach. Inevitably a four-person operation – one to drive the car towing the boat, two to walk slowly beside calling out instructions, and another to race ahead to warn any oncoming horses, beachgoing families or tractors of our descent. Stress-free? Perhaps not. Memorable? Always.

Tim and Michael



During the past few months, when life has become as predictable as a pack of cards tossed up into the wind, we’ve learned that spending time together can ground us in uncertain times. That’s the true value of family time together. This summer in Wales, and even the process of writing this piece, for us, has crystalised the value of appreciating and nurturing our bond.

It’s joyful to see a family united by a common passion, especially one as healthy and life-affirming as sailing. It’s no wonder both Tim and Lucy are lovers of the water, as their grandfather on their mother’s side was also a seaman. As a master mariner in the Merchant Navy, his career took him from the industrial ports of the UK to the convoys of the Atlantic during the second world war.

And although the whole family shares a love of sailing, for Tim and Michael the pull of the water is perhaps stronger, supporting their father-son bond. At the very least, it means I can sunbathe while they fiddle with ropes and anchors.

Tim and I have a daughter now, and Lucy has a son. They’re still really little but they’ve already spent countless hours at the beach, making sand castles and letting the waves wash over their tiny toes. Maybe they will come to love the water, and the whistle of the wind, but maybe they won’t. We’ll see where the tide takes them.

Take the time to savour the special moments with your loved ones with a chalice of Stella Artois

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Please drink Stella Artois responsibly. For the facts, visit drinkaware.co.uk


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Nigel Slater’s recipe for mushrooms, chickpeas, tahini | Food

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The recipe

Set the oven at 200C/gas mark 6. Remove the thick stalks from 2 very large (or 4 medium) field mushrooms, then put the mushrooms gill side up on a baking tray. Score the inside of each mushroom with a kitchen knife in a lattice pattern. Pour a generous tbsp of olive oil into each.

Crush 2 large, peeled cloves of garlic to a paste, then pound in 4 tbsp of olive oil, 2 tsp of ground sumac, the juice of half a small lemon and a little salt. Drain a 400g tin of chickpeas then mash half into the garlic paste to a thick, coarse purée. Stir in 2 tbsp of tahini paste, a tbsp of thyme leaves and 2 tsp of sesame seeds.

Fill the mushrooms with the chickpea paste then cover each with the reserved whole chickpeas. Finally trickle a little olive oil over each one and scatter with a further 2 tsp of sesame seeds. Bake for 30 minutes. Serves with a crisp salad or perhaps rice. Enough for 2.

The trick

The perfect mushrooms for this are the very large, deeply cupped field or portobello variety. Use smaller ones if that is what you have and adjust the cooking time slightly. Scoring the mushrooms deeply with a sharp knife will allow the olive oil to penetrate deep into the flesh of the mushroom.

The twist

The chickpea and tahini stuffing can be used to fill peppers instead. Halve, deseed and roast a couple of red peppers then fill them as you would have done with the mushrooms. I also like this purée spread thickly on toast, the chickpeas scattered on top.

Follow Nigel on Twitter @NigelSlater



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