It’s become a regular occurrence to find myself complaining about the state of lunches on a work day.
It wasn’t so much the case that there was no variety available as the quality – and cost. Pret a Manger might have been decent (apart from an obsession with rocket), but it was costly.
The in-house ‘deli bar’ was poor and my own occasional efforts were variable, revealing a distinct lack of creativity on the packed lunch front.
Two things may have changed all that.
One of those has been the move to the new offices, with the company running the catering facilities determined that it should be their flagship contract.
Breakfast is considerably better. Lunch is better too – they have a proper kitchen now to start with.
But the other factor was the arrival of a slender tome from my friend George, which was in direct response to the most recent complaints in these columns.
The book in question is The Packed Lunch, a collection of recipes from Australian Women’s Weekly.
It’s a bit of a revelation – not just because there are some good recipes in there, but also because it offers some very good general tips.
For instance, in many cases, it’s best not to dress a salad the night before: carry the dressing to work in a different container and only decant it when you’re about to eat.
Now why hadn’t I thought of that before? It’s obvious when I consider a few of my previous attempts to prepare something for myself and have made exactly that mistake. You can end up with leaves, for instance, that are simply a mess and utterly unappetising after sitting for hours in a dressing.
As it happened, the first recipe that I tried could be dressed as soon as it was ready to go in the box.
Simply cook some lentils gently in a little water, then drain and cool. The recipe called for this to be added to “canned” beetroot. Now I assume that this is an Australian thing, because I’ve never seen such over here, but unlike the reviewer on Amazon, I didn’t get all negative, but simply halved some baby pickled beets (which I love) instead, and then dressed, as per instructions, with a little Balsamico.
When I sat down to eat, I added some soft cheese that’d I’d diced and then packed into a separate, small container. And very nice it was too, without requiring any great effort.
The following day, I took in two quarters of a frittata that I’d made with a wide array of ingredients – the idea of the frittata came from the book (I wouldn't have thought of it as a packed lunch item), the ingredients from the combination of my imagination, fridge and cupboard.
Again, a success – and the remainder kept well enough to be enjoyed for the following day.
On day four (the last at work before the Easter break), I ate in the deli. Much better than I had expected.
But on Monday evening, the eve of our first day back after the break, I’d sliced red onion, roasted red pepper and celery. And this time, I took the dressing to the office in a little jar, together with another little pot of diced goat’s cheese.
The salad was another of mine ideas, based on what I had in. The dressing was straight from the book: a teaspoon of tomato pesto, a teaspoon of white wine vinegar and two teaspoons of olive oil, shaken but not stirred.
And again, this was very good. The salad kept well and still had loads of crunch; the cheese hadn’t been discoloured by sitting with everything else overnight and the dressing was a success.
Today, it was another frittata – softened onion and three different cheeses this time.
But something else is making a difference too.
In the past, I’d invariably sit at my desk, working while eating breakfast and lunch. Cloud Nine was great as a bar, for drinking and socialising, but it wasn’t somewhere that I ever wanted to sit down in to eat.
The new canteen, with tables and chairs extending into the atrium, is a pleasure to spend time in.
So I’ve been taking my food down there to eat. It’s an enormous lifestyle change – and a very positive one.
I’m currently trying to do some research on ‘the French paradox’ – the question of why the French can consume such amounts of fatty foods (including such delights as cheese and butter and paté and foie gras) without the heart disease that would be considered over here as an inevitable consequence of such a diet. The French also do not have the same levels of obesity – in spite of their incredibly rich diet, that's high in fat and so many of the things that we have demonised.
One of the things that I’m already coming across repeatedly is that the French don’t sit in front of the TV for dinner or at their office desk for lunch.
They pay attention to their food and take their time to eat it – it helps, of course, that it's usually worth paying attention to.
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have even shown that French people in a McDonalds take longer over a meal there than Americans in the same restaurant.
Now clearly this is not the sum total of what causes ‘the French paradox’, but it is quite revealing.
At present, sitting down properly to eat my lunch in pleasant surroundings instead of at a desk, I don’t rush – and yes, I have actually been appreciating what I’m eating. Sometimes there’s even company and conversation.
Even setting aside the question of whether it’s good for my health, it’s so much more pleasant.
And a big thank you to George for the book.
• The French paradox (2004 article).