'Sunday lunch is a sacred thing'

After the stresses of the week, says acclaimed chef Jean-Christophe Novelli, it is essential to make time for eating, talking and laughing with family. By Jonathan Thompson
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The Independent Online

Jean-Christophe Novelli, the acclaimed Michelin-starred chef, has become the latest high-profile figure publicly to back The Independent on Sunday's Sunday Lunch Campaign.

An ardent fan of the traditional family meal, Mr Novelli, 45, described the Sunday lunch as "sacred" and said it was a travesty that fewer and fewer Britons were bothering with the centuries-old tradition.

Mr Novelli, a Frenchman who has lived in Britain for 24 years, said that he considered Sunday lunch the most important meal of the week - and an invaluable time to catch up with close family and friends.

"I can work eight hours a day, six days a week, but on Sundays there is no excuse," he said. "It is something that is sacred."

Mr Novelli threw his weight behind our campaign to revive the institution in a modern Britain where just 29 per cent of families eat together more than once a week. Even then, more than three-quarters of those admit they spend that time watching television rather than interacting with each other.

"I'm a great believer that Sunday is a time when you can socialise and get closer to your family - it is the most traditional day of the week," Mr Novelli said. "I absolutely support your campaign. I don't know how people get on without the celebration of Sunday lunch. It is very important."

Mr Novelli makes a point of meeting up with family members and friends every Sunday, to enjoy a leisurely meal together and dissect the week. Regular guests at his 14th-century Hertfordshire farmhouse for the occasion include his daughter Christina, 19, and cousin Vincent, as well as a number of close friends.

"Everyone assists with the process," said Mr Novelli. "My cousin usually carves the meat, someone else makes the gravy and so on. It's practically the only opportunity we get to spend quality time together; the only time we can exchange proper words - even if it's an argument.

"It is an obligation. You're not just there to eat the lunch but also to spend time with each other. Otherwise you go for weeks and months without seeing people, and that's not fair. It is also the only time when people can digest their food properly; during the week, everything is done so fast."

Mr Novelli admitted that he was a particular fan of the humble Yorkshire pudding. "When I was married, my ex-wife and her mother showed me how to make Yorkshire puddings, and I love them," he said. "Often, on a Sunday, it almost seems that the height they rise reflects the week and whether it was good or not. I can't understand why Yorkshire puddings are not a favourite thing in France, because it's a very similar mixture to pancakes."

Mr Novelli, voted one of the top 25 chefs in the world, has won a string of Michelin stars over the years and enjoyed a successful TV career. He starred in ITV1's Hell's Kitchen last year and presents Food Uncut on the digital channel UKTV Food. He will feature on our screens again this month in endurance documentary show Alive - filmed by Channel Five in the sub-zero temperatures of the Andes mountains.

The popular chef, who was voted the world's sexiest cook by The New York Times, divides his remaining time between his cookery school, the Novelli Academy, and a new gastro-pub venture, the White Horse, in Harpenden, Hertfordshire.

Mr Novelli joins a growing list of celebrity chefs who have backed our campaign since its launch a month ago. They include Michel Roux, Antony Worrall Thompson, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and BBC2's latest culinary stars, the Hairy Bikers - who have this week provided an exclusive recipe for IoS readers.

The campaign, which is supported by experts from Childline, Relate and leading hospitals, has also attracted an impressive response from you - with a bulging postbag and scores of emails received in support.

As recently as a generation ago, British families sat together for a meal nearly every day, but today a quarter of us don't even have a dining table. Only 12 per cent of people now say that they cook meals from scratch, down from 39 per cent just 10 years ago. Today, families spend an average of just 19 minutes preparing meals. A decade ago, this was over a third longer.

It is a situation that Mr Novelli says is a sad indictment of modern life - and one that can only weaken family ties.

"If there are things I remember about my parents, it is the time we shared dining together," he said. "Having meals like this, you are creating a personal memory album, and it is very precious.

"When I was young, I helped my mother cook the Sunday lunch, and we all had to sit around the table and eat. My brother was playing semi-professional football at the time, so he was eating his own bowl of pasta - but he still had to sit at the table with the rest of us to have it. The Sunday lunch is a great tradition, and it would be sacrilege to lose it."

What's the secret of getting the family round the table for sunday lunch? Each month we will publish a selection of your letters, with a mouth-watering prize for the best one. Write to: Sunday Lunch Campaign, the Independent on Sunday, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, or send us an email (subject: sunday lunch) to: sundayletters@independent.co.uk

THE RECIPE

TV presenters the Hairy Bikers - David Myers and Simon King - provide this week's recipe for Irish stew from their book to be published next month.

King says: "This stew is brilliant because it's simple and it doesn't take long. It's all about the seasoning and getting the best flavours out of the ingredients. I serve it to my three sons with hot bread, so they can scoop all the juices off their plates - it saves washing up.

Myers says: "The Irish stew is great because you can assemble everything as a family, put it all in a big pot fon a low heat, and then go out and do something together. It tastes great if you put in parsnips or rosemary, and my top tip is adding a handful of barley and a can of Guinness."

Irish stew (SERVES 4)

Traditionally, Irish stew is a white stew of lamb, potatoes and very little else. Here's our take on it. Thick neck chops from the butcher would be best, as would some good liquid lamb stock (no, not cubes) if you haven't got your own. And to get the best possible flavours, use the best seasonings you can find - it will be worth it.

INGREDIENTS:

a good glug of oil

a big knob of butter

4 medium onions, peeled and cut into various sizes

3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

6 large potatoes, peeled and cut into various sizes

8 lamb chops

565ml lamb stock

parsley (optional)

PREPARATION:

In a large pan, heat the oil and butter. Sweat off the onions and garlic, slowly teasing the flavours out - 15 minutes or so over a low heat should do it. Add the potatoes and cover them in the creamy juice of the onions and garlic. Add lots of freshly ground black pepper and 3 pinches of salt. Leave the potatoes and onions in the pan for a further 15 minutes over a very low heat, making sure you don't burn them. If you are worried they may burn, add a little bit of stock.

Now attend to the lamb: trim the fat off the chops and place in a frying pan over a low heat. Let the fat render down, then add salt and pepper. Remove from the frying pan what remains of the solid fatty bits, then add your chops. Once brown, remove and place them in the pan with the onions and potatoes.

Add some of the stock to the frying pan to get all the nice, savoury, jammy bits off the bottom, then add to your chops, onions and potatoes. Pour the remainder of the stock into the pan, to just below the level of your ingredients. Put the lid on and leave for one hour over a low heat. Should your heart desire, add some parsley 10 minutes before the stew is ready. Remove it from the heat and leave for about 10 minutes to rest. Taste and adjust seasoning.

How simple is that?

Recipe from 'The Hairy Bikers' Cookbook' by Dave Myers and Simon King, published on 6 April by Penguin/Michael Joseph. 'The Hairy Bikers' will return to BBC2 in the spring

YOU SAY

We have a family roast almost every Sunday. The children prefer this to any other home-cooked meal and to eating out. I cook the meat, potatoes and vegetables while my wife makes the batter pudding mix. The children sometimes help with the peeling. There's lots of talking and fun; we wouldn't miss it for the world.

GARY MERRYWEATHER, Buckhurst Hill, London

All inner-city areas have a vast array of ethnic shops: Afro-Caribbean, African, Turkish, Polish and Asian. All the food is fresh, especially fruit, veg and herbs. I serve red tandoori chicken, raita (ie yogurt, mint and cucumber), pakoras, samosas and aubergines in lentil batter. We eat and there's talking and some laughing, yet there's also those moments of silence, of just enjoying well-cooked food.

PHIL TEAR, By Email

I adore the tradition of a roast on Sundays, but families no longer all work in the same area and are split by divorce/separation. More people are living alone and in one-parent families. Two or three times a year we manage Sunday lunch.

HAZEL WOOD, by email

Shops are open on Sundays, so there is no excuse to say there was no food in the fridge and the local supermarket was closed. Life is very stressful these days, and until we take action by making Sunday lunch a special day for the family, we will mourn the loss of the quantity and the quality of time we enjoy with our kin. Sunday lunch should be a special day.

CAROLINE McMORROW, Shepherds Bush, London

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