Book review: Inside the Nudge Unit by David Halpern

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This originally appeared in the Culture section of The Sunday Times

On November 25, 2010, six months into government, David Cameron assembled a large group of journalists and commentators in the Treasury for a speech on national happiness. Flanking the prime minister was John Helliwell, a Canadian economist who has previously exhorted policy makers to sing, claiming a scientific justification, If You’re Happy and You Know it, Clap Your Hands at the start of meetings. David Halpern, the author of this intriguing book on a “quiet revolution” working through British politics, reveals that he stopped Helliwell from asking Cameron to croon just hours before the speech. “I apologise to posterity for this YouTube sensation that never was,” he writes.

Halpern is the director of Cameron’s elite Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) — also known as the Nudge Unit — which has brought an understanding of psychology to policy-making, communication with the electorate and, it turns out, the government’s ability to increase our contentment. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge (2009) outlined the theory: Halpern details its application in British politics.

Nudging, which recognises that humans are nowhere near as rational as traditional economic models have assumed, appears to have been a success of modern government. Few predicted this. As Halpern, a former Cambridge psychologist and sociologist, says: “It was a high-risk programme: a small team; a new idea [and] a crazy challenge”: to deliver at least a tenfold return within two years. Expecting or willing it to fail were “parliament; the 70,000 civil servants around Whitehall; 450,000 civil servants across the UK, 5m public servants; and of course the media and public”. Worse, one of its key supporters was Steve Hilton, Cameron’s controversial “blue-sky guru” and a man with enemies in cabinet and the civil service.

However, Halpern claims that nudging has, among other things, led to tens of millions of pounds in tax being collected that would have otherwise remained unpaid. The secret was for HMRC to change the wording of its letters so that recipients were told most people in their area had already paid. This affected what Halpern calls the “social” aspect of our subconscious, which means that, generally, we aim to follow our neighbours. He claims that the rewording led to a 16% increase in payment, at negligible cost.

Interestingly, people with the largest 1% of unpaid tax bills (those owing at least £30,000 a year) were most likely to pay after reading: “Not paying tax means we all lose out on vital public services like the NHS, roads and schools.” Realising that their contribution could pay for a teacher or nurse’s salary seems to have jolted the rich into getting out their chequebooks.

Nudging’s other successes include: 100,000 additional organ donors signing up to the national register each year; 20% more people considering changing energy provider, increasing the efficiency of the privatised market; a doubling in the number of army applicants; and more than 5m British workers saving for a pension. The key has often been to “remove friction”: it turns out that people will have their homes insulated if it comes with loft-clearance, irrespective of cost. Subsidies and tax-break proved insufficient: the hassle mattered more than the money.

Nudging, it seems, is here to stay. The BIT employs many more people than it did five years ago, and a sceptical public and press have been largely convinced. But as a century of economics-based policy-making is reconsidered, a new question surfaces. Where else are we and our leaders getting human nature wrong?

Feature: the ‘sharing economy’

Introducing Squid to Greg the shelf-builder

Introducing Squid to Greg the shelf-builder

This feature originally appeared in the Sunday Times

Squid, who has a queer name for a dog, arrives at my flat with his South African owner and a strained expression, then urinates with visible relief on the photographer’s bag.

I’ve booked him through a website with the twee name BorrowMyDoggy, whose staff, as pressingly enthusiastic as the noisiest handbag chihuahuas, sign off their emails with “Best woofs”.

You may know about the service: thousands of people have joined it. If you like dogs but circumstances make it difficult for you to own one, this can assuage you. And if you have a dog but are going on holiday or need a regular babysitter for it, the system makes it easier.

In west London, where I live, “doggy daycare” is a tenner a day or more. Dog owners pay £45 a year to sign up to lend out Squids: even the borrowers are billed £10 annually.

Businesses such as this are surfacing constantly; so many that it hardly seems surprising you can use the internet to get a dog delivered to play with.

This strange new experiment, glibly named the “sharing economy” (it has a younger and flashier sibling, the “concierge economy”), is exploding the ways in which people formerly interacted with each other.

We are beyond supermarket wall-cards and newspaper small ads; Gumtree and Craigslist appear ancient.

The editor asked me to spend a week living through my phone, using it to organise as much of my life as possible. It turned to be an effortless delight, of course: ease is the triumph of this new world. But doing it in a relatively focused way also highlighted a couple of intriguing things about our society.

Greg the Dubliner arrives a few minutes after Squid. He’s a sculptor, really, he tells me, working in “digital 3D media”, but like many artists before him he gets by as an artisan.

He is here to put up some shelves: I booked him on TaskRabbit, a website that claims to make people “live smarter” by “outsourcing household errands and skilled tasks to trusted people in your community”. Greg charges £20 an hour plus expenses. When he arrives I congratulate him on his 97% approval rating.

“You start with 100%,” he mopes. “I kick myself for one bad job.”

I offer coffee, lemonade — or there’s beer? His Irish eyes flash, then narrow: “Is this going in your piece?”


“Er, lemonade is fine.”

People use TaskRabbit for almost anything; to find someone to wash their dishes, dispatch people to queue for an iPhone for them and (on one occasion) to scuba dive for lost keys in a lake.

The company whacks 20% onto whatever the customer is paying — a typically ferocious mark-up. But this is where all serious money seems to go nowadays: to a tiny number of men running websites in California. Buy something from one of Amazon’s UK “fulfilment centres” (aka warehouses)? Travel via taxi on British roads in an Uber car? Your transactions are with companies in the tax-friendly regimes of Luxembourg and Holland.

Travis Kalanick, Uber’s widely disliked and “bro-tastic” boss, built that company to a $40bn (£27bn) valuation in six aggressive years.

As someone recently wrote in a much-shared piece on a technology website: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.”

It is a phenomenon; in American cities and, if the rumours are correct, in British ones soon, people are turning themselves into part-time taxi drivers by joining, via an app, a company called Lyft. You can rent out your parking space on JustPark and your home itself on Airbnb, find a cleaner on Homejoy and hire a drill or carpet-cleaning machine using Zilok.

Personal shopper apps are huge in the States; if you’re too lazy to buy your own soya milk, someone will bring it to your apartment for a couple of dollars without you even getting off the couch.

My godmother has broken her arm and is finding it hard to do things around the house. I download an app called Laundrapp, thumb in my card details and someone pulls up at her address that evening and collects a load of laundry. This is returned, beautifully pressed and folded, before 6pm the next day. (Cost: a punchy £25.50 for some sheets and a towel, plus £2.50 for one pillow case.)

The doorbell goes. Yesterday I gave a company called Enclothed my measurements online, clicked on photographs of men in various states of dress that I liked the look of and sat back plutocratically.

The delivery box contains a linen jacket, jeans, some chinos, shoes, shirts and a jumper, all from good-quality labels. They fit well, on the whole, and I would wear most of them.

You don’t have to keep any of the items; the company charges the shop price for what you want to hold on to and comes to collect the rejects. Many men don’t enjoy shopping for clothes; if I were richer I would use Enclothed a lot.

An enclosed letter from “your personal stylist” (no name) reads: “The longer we work together . . . the better each box will get.” This is true of almost everything in this new society where algorithms know us best.

The sharing and concierge economies appear different but are essentially the same. The internet — and smartphones in particular — has made it cheaper and more efficient to connect customers with goods and services.

Although one thing, technology, has made this possible, another has made it inevitable. Many people in western societies are no better off than they were before the 2008 crash.

Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary, said last week the average Briton is earning £1,600 less than they were five years ago. An army of debt-laden graduates is struggling to find work. This new economy is probably keeping many of them off the dole.

I spoke to an Uber driver about the company. “At first it was great,” he said. “Good customers, lots of jobs. But last summer Uber suddenly dropped our prices by 15%.” He has no sickness pay, he added, and little stability.

Clutching his brackets, Greg says: “This is perfect for me. I can work when I want, turn it off when I want. I don’t have a boss; I can say no to anything. But it’s all a sideline for me — I’d feel differently if it was my career.”

What did I learn from this experiment? That technology has made it easier for any two humans to establish that they can trust each other and that this has made us more efficient.

Also, that the internet will continue to satisfy our yearning for instant gratification in almost every area. (Amazon does one-hour delivery on some goods in New York; and for those who want them there are probably apps for prostitutes and drugs.)

Most of all, though, I learnt that any worries about the position of workers within this matrix can be temporarily forgotten as you load your sturdy new shelves and stroke your borrowed dachshund.

This feature originally appeared in the Sunday Times

Interview: Kate Phillips

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Originally published in the Sunday Times

Fame has just come to Kate Phillips — but for the wrong reason. Last week the television personality, Tudor pundit and codpiece-obsessed historian Lucy Worsley was reported to have sniffed that Phillips was “too pretty” to play Jane Seymour in the BBC’s expensively brooding production of Hilary Mantel’s novel, Wolf Hall.

Contemporary portraits of Plain Jane show a prim twentysomething with eyes inches apart, a ski-jump nose and a forehead like an ostrich egg. Phillips, it is fair to say, is spared the same challenges.

She really is beautiful, I think, as she orders a pot of Earl Grey at Aqua Shard, a restaurant on the 31st floor of the London skyscraper. She is waifish, with almost fairy-like, floaty movements, a wide, gawky grin and hair styled in a Gatsbyish marcel wave. She is wearing skinny jeans and a fluffy turtleneck that, she tells me, “my boyfriend picked up from a market in Shoreditch. But most of my clothes are from Asos.”

They met at drama school from which, incredibly, the 25-year-old Phillips graduated only last summer. Straight from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama — alumni include Orlando Bloom and Daniel Craig — to standing opposite Mark Rylance, who is being lauded for his Mandelsonian performance as Thomas Cromwell.

Almost immediately after starting her career, and inadvertently boosted by the too-beautiful-to-play-an-ugly-girl controversy, Phillips is now in huge demand. This week, she will fly to Lithuania to begin filming the BBC’s next vast costume fest, War and Peace.

Your old thesp chums must hate you, I say. “It would be naive to think that none of them felt any envy,” she replies carefully.

This is her first national newspaper interview; she appears to have had zero media training and is all the more genuine and likeable for it.

Phillips is clearly miffed about Worsley’s intervention: it seemed nit-picking and, in an odd, inverted way, unkind.

“All that ‘too pretty’ stuff,” she says, “there’s nothing I can do about it. [Worsley] came to the cathedral where we were filming and made the observation. You’re trying to perform as well as you can in a role and it’s difficult when someone makes those comments.” She pauses, hesitating, then says with a sharp laugh: “I’m trying to think what Claire Foy would say now.”

Foy plays a spunky Anne Boleyn and is “the most extraordinary woman . . . the best person . . . totally authentic, fun, relaxed”. She has become a “mentor” to Phillips, “although she would be mortified if she heard me say that”.

Phillips really is a proto-luvvie. “I was so elated by auditioning for Jane,” she says, “I was brought to tears by the experience.” Everyone she works with is “amazing” or “a genius” or “incredibly supportive” or “warm and joyful” — but acting is a craft of hissing bitchiness plastered with fake smiles and frigid air-kisses. Phillips is smart enough to know not to slag anyone off in public.

If you watched the first episode of Wolf Hall on Wednesday, you might have missed her. She appeared briefly in the final 10 minutes or so along with Damian Lewis as a non-fat Henry VIII. We will see more of her in the coming weeks.

“I was only on for five seconds,” says Phillips, “but it was nail-biting. My brother told me I went red.” They live in Hackney, east London, where he is a tutor and writer; their eldest brother works for a telecoms company.

Appropriately enough, Phillips spent her first nine years in Esher, Surrey, near Hampton Court and the Cardinal Wolseley pub. Her parents divorced when she was six and she was raised by her mother and stepfather, who worked in the wine trade. They moved a lot: Nottingham, Bristol, London.

“I found it hard —always the new girl. Some people are good at making friends immediately. I wasn’t.”

Would it be a stretch to say that was why you became an actor, I ask. “No: I genuinely think it was the reason. It wasn’t cool to push to be in plays when no one knew who you were,
but I felt that I belonged when I was part of that community. I’ve always found it difficult to articulate myself — when I’ve got a script, I’m happy. I feel like I don’t really know who I am at any one time.”

Lots of actors are like that, I say.

“Lots of people are,” she says. They don’t really know themselves.

“I never had a boyfriend at school,” she continues. “Oh God, I can’t tell you this. The first time I was kissed was during a school production of Romeo and Juliet. In front of my drama teacher. I was 16. The boy from the boys’ school kissed me and” — she does an ironic fist pump — “I thought, yeah! I’m a woman now.”

It must be at once thrilling and terrifying to have success, money and fame so close. Amid the fizzing enthusiasm and starstruck humility, I sense in Phillips a great sigh of relief.

I met a man who hasn’t showered in 12 years

Excessive cleanliness may reduce people’s ability to fight off allergies (Camila Massu)

Excessive cleanliness may reduce people’s ability to fight off allergies (Camila Massu)

A feature for News Review

David Whitlock, a donnish, Einstein-haired chemical engineer, hasn’t showered for 12 years. “I may be crazy,” he tells me, “but I’m not stupid.” Instead, Whitlock spritzes himself daily in millions of bacteria, called AOB (ammonia-oxidising bacteria), that normally live in the soil, rivers, lakes and the sea. As a result, he claims, his skin is smoother and probably healthier. (An occasional wipe with a sponge serves to “wash away grime”.)

Whitlock, and his colleagues at AOBiome, a startup based near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are optimistic that AOB might represent the next “blockbuster” breakthrough in medical treatment that they hope to pioneer.

Twelve years ago, Whitlock says, he was staying on a farm,“dating this woman, trying to impress her, and she asked me why her horse rolled in the dirt in March. I said it might be to get rid of insects, but she told me it was too early in the year for that.”

He had a hunch that horses would not have developed the behaviour without sound evolutionary reasons.

“Eventually, I figured out that it was to get the right kind of bacteria on their skin so their sweat wouldn’t putrefy over the summer.”

David Whitlock

David Whitlock

If it worked on one mammal, why not on us? Human sweat breaks down into ammonia. AOB can “feed on” or oxidise this ammonia, but detergents in shampoo and other cleaning products will kill them far faster than they can replicate. Whitlock tested himself for AOB and found none on his body.

“A lifestyle of bathing every morning and doing the various things normal people do had wiped them out,” he says.

“I tried not bathing for a while, but still none showed up.” So he visited an organic farm and took soil samples from the pigsty, cowshed and chicken coop. He cultured the AOB from the samples, made sure there were no dangerous or pathogenic bacteria among them, then “took a final shower, rinsed myself thoroughly and started applying the bacteria”.

What did his friends and family make of this? “I was living alone at the time.”

Julia Scott, a New York Times writer, recently visited Whitlock and his colleagues — some of whom have severely reduced the number of times they wash and use shampoo and deodorant — at AOBiome. “I got close enough to shake their hands, engage in casual conversation and note that they in no way conveyed a sense of being ‘unclean’ in either the visual or olfactory sense,” she wrote.

Whitlock continues to wash his hands with simple soap for food preparation and after using the lavatory.

In a recent pilot study, people who spritzed themselves in AOB for several weeks reported positive results. Scott used the product for a month and said her skin “became softer and smoother . . . and my complexion, prone to hormone- related breakouts, was clear”.

James Heywood, director of AOBiome, believes the bacteria “increase health resilience” in humans. The company now plans to study conditions that AOB may help, including eczema and skin allergies. Heywood claims the bacteria have healed wounds in diabetic mice quicker than usual.

We live in an era that places an extraordinary and historically untypical emphasis on physical cleanliness. The so-called hygiene hypothesis states that a lack of childhood exposure to infectious agents, parasites and “good” micro-organisms — including those that live in the gut and on the skin — has helped to cause a spike in allergies and auto-immune diseases today.

One study found that the rate of eczema among Swedish children in cities is about 12%, but 7.6% among those on farms (who probably come into contact with soil, and AOB, more often). Among American Amish children, who use no chemicals or technology, eczema rates are as low as 1%.

“We live in abnormal environments,” says Heywood.

“We’ve disconnected ourselves from physical work and the biodiversity we evolved in as hunter-gatherers. In some ways, it’s a wonder we’re not sicker. The next class of blockbuster drugs will fundamentally restore resilience and balance to human health.”

Years of antibiotics did nothing for my teenage acne; only a lengthy course of the aggressive drug Roaccutane had some effect.

How strange it would be if the cure, all the while, was lying right under my feet.

Our son’s dead. I won’t trust a GP again

Mandy and Andrew Payne say doctors did not examine baby James properly (Francesco Guidicini)

Mandy and Andrew Payne say doctors did not examine baby James properly (Francesco Guidicini)

A couple who battled in vain to save their baby when he turned blue tell Oliver Thring how three doctors failed to diagnose him

Andrew Payne came home from work one afternoon in November 2012 expecting nothing more than his usual cup of coffee. He opened the front door to find his wife Mandy attempting to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to their six-week-old baby, James. The infant’s lips and fingers had turned blue and blood was pouring from his nose.

“It was like something from The Vampire Diaries because Mandy’s face was covered in his blood,” says Andrew, 39. “It was just the worst possible moment you could have in your life.”

Mandy, who today is herself seriously ill in hospital, had taken James to three doctors near the family home in Hadleigh, Essex, over the previous nine days, but one by one they told her there was nothing seriously wrong with her baby. The second visit followed an out-of-hours phone call. As revealed in today’s Sunday Times, recent figures on NHS weekend care show 20% higher death rates on Saturdays and Sundays. “We’ve since found out that some doctors and out-of-hours GPs use different computer systems. To me, that’s just poor,” says Andrew.

Several days before Andrew came home to that appalling scene, James had developed what Mandy, 33, calls a “barking cough that you wouldn’t wish on an adult … He was wheezing, throwing up his milk and sleeping a lot. And he got really fat in his face but nowhere else. I could feel from his back that he was congested.”

On November 12, she took James to see the family GP, Dr Maciej Bobnis, who said James had a mild cough and a runny nose. “He said it was just a noro [norovirus] infection and was at the age for it,” says Andrew. “And we thought fine, trust the doctors.”

Six days later, James’s symptoms had not improved. Mandy rang NHS Direct and said James had a barking cough, then took the baby to a second doctor, Hewa Dharmarathna, after an out-of-hours phone call. He has claimed Mandy did not tell him that James had a wheezing cough. She denies this.

On the morning of the 21st, more than a week after Mandy had first taken James to see a doctor, she drove her son to her local Kent Elms surgery in Eastwood. Dr Balavinayak Mohankumar examined James and later said he could not remember whether he had removed the infant’s clothes or exposed the chest for examination.

“Something in the back of my mind told me he hadn’t done a proper check,” says Mandy. “But I trusted him because he was a doctor. To me, it was like they were all frightened to touch James. There are so many stupid cases of sexual assault, people saying, ‘You touched my baby and shouldn’t have done.’”

Andrew agrees: “Doctors worry that if they examine a naked child they’ll get done.”

Continue reading at The Sunday Times (£)

It’s not the end just yet, old girl

Tom Hardy with a mother and calf in Botswana; the actor tracked the poaching trade across southern Africa for a two-part ITV show (ITV)

Tom Hardy with a mother and calf in Botswana; the actor tracked the poaching trade across southern Africa for a two-part ITV show (ITV)

The heart-throb actor Tom Hardy is on a mission to save elephants and rhinos from poaching. They have never been in such danger

Tom Hardy makes a good living out of playing villains and hardmen in Hollywood movies. But, he says, “the thought of being eaten by a lion for dinner in the middle of the night while taking a piss has a certain anxiety”. Hardy recently toured four southern African countries and filmed a two-part documentary, to be shown this week, about the poaching crisis stalking the continent.

The trip had its dangers. “The week before I went out,” he says, “what was left of one lad [after a lion attack] was put in a cooler box and sent home to his mum.” In South African townships, if you are accompanied by a camera crew with expensive equipment, “the atmosphere changes when the sun goes down. The odd machete-wielding glue-sniffer tends to raise the blood level.”

But Hardy is serious about the problem. After successful efforts to limit poaching in the 1990s, a slaughter that began in 2008 has become an epidemic, feeding a surging Asian demand, especially from Vietnam and China. Many people in those countries believe powdered rhino horn can treat almost any ailment, including cancer and impotence. In reality it is simply keratin, with “the medicinal value of a bag of toenails”, as Hardy puts it. A kilogram of powdered horn was worth $4,700 in 1993. Today it costs $65,000.

“I don’t criticise those beliefs or point the finger,” says Hardy. “In some of these Asian countries people dig 20ft just to find some root crop to survive. But we need to demystify these products and negate demand to ensure the survival of these species.” Five million elephants roamed Africa in 1930, with what George Orwell called their “preoccupied grandmotherly air”. The ivory trade was banned in 1989 but the black market is now thriving; fewer than 500,000 elephants remain in the continent today. Every 15 minutes poachers shoot another one dead: 36,000 African elephants, nearly 8% of the population, were illegally slaughtered last year. Senegal is thought to have only one elephant left. The animals have existed for 50m years but, on some projections, they will be extinct in the wild by the time Prince George finishes primary school. The rhino’s situation is even more desperate. One species went extinct in 2011; three of the remaining five are critically endangered. In 2004, 10 rhino were poached in South Africa. Last year 668 were killed, and 553 had been slaughtered by August 7 this year. The numbers will top 1,000 by Christmas. So Hardy’s documentary could not be more timely. A hunky, laddish blend of David Attenborough and Ross Kemp, the actor is speaking to me from a film set in Prague. “The more I found out about poaching, the more I realised how little I knew,” he says. “It was like pulling the wool from a sweater. Poaching is not just a case of opportunistic hungry citizens trying to feed their families. It’s an insidious symptom of organised crime syndicates connected at the highest levels.” Continue reading at The Sunday Times (£)

Rob Alderson: Let the weather do its worst: I’ve moved my farm indoors

Rob Alderson: ‘I’ve never known conditions like these at lambing time’

Rob Alderson: ‘I’ve never known conditions like these at lambing time’

After losing lambs to the snow, the farmer decided to take extreme measures

Silence of the lambs

I’ve been farming here in Shropshire since I left school in 1976 and shepherding for 29 years. But I’ve never known conditions like the ones we had on Friday night the week before last. All of a sudden it was bitterly cold, the east winds started cutting across the fields and the snow, rain and sleet were hammering down.

It went on until Monday night: it was simply the worst weather you could have at lambing time. We lamb in March because the days are a bit longer and we want to catch the better weather. You can expect a bit of wintry weather, but it’s very unusual for the conditions to last as long as they have.

It was horrible. In extreme conditions, livestock farmers who farm their sheep out are at the mercy of the elements. When it’s dark and snowing hard, there’s nothing you can do. You have a sleepless night and it’s only the next day that you can look for your animals. On Saturday we found we’d lost three lambs to the cold and on Sunday we found that another two, from a different group, had died. These were strong, healthy lambs that had been born a week earlier. They wanted to survive. They shouldn’t have died.

Digging for life

Sheep will find hollows in the fields or take shelter by a wall or tree, but if they lie down to protect themselves from the weather, the snow will cover them and they’ll suffocate. I remember my father telling me he had dug his sheep out of the snow in 1947 — another bad year — the way I’ve seen other farmers do this year.

You have to “rod down”, taking out a pole the morning after a bad snowfall, looking around for a small hole where — if you’re lucky — the breath of the sheep has melted the snow and digging down to find the sheep. You hope it will still be alive.

Lambs don’t have any oil or lanolin at the base of their wool, so they’re susceptible to the cold, especially when it’s wet. They can get hypothermia in the cold weather, or even hypoglycaemia. This is when a lamb misses a feed, burns all its energy and goes into a spiral that quickly ends in death.

So my partner and I decided to move almost all our lambs and ewes inside. I’m lucky that I have the space to house them all, but it was a real struggle: we had to split up pens to make room and use areas we normally wouldn’t use for lambing, such as cattle sheds, stables and poultry sheds — anything we could find. Since the ewes were still lambing we were full to bursting point and overcrowding can lead to other problems, such as the lambs picking up infections from the close air.

But they were so happy to be there. Within an hour of one group coming in you could see how relieved they were to be out of those horrible cold conditions. Some of them were lying on top of their mothers, where it’s a little bit warmer and softer for them.

Continue reading at The Sunday Times (£)

Guest post: The Importance Of Christmas Foods

This is a guest post, supported by M&S

The Christmas holiday is just around the corner, and that means it’s time to start preparing for the festivities. This includes a number of different things, from buying gifts, to setting up decorations, and implementing any other holiday traditions you and your family may have. Among these preparations, another aspect of the holiday season that you need to be thinking about is perhaps one of the most enjoyable: food and drink. Over the holidays, people tend to relax a bit with regard to diet, and take the opportunity to enjoy some special foods, drinks and treats. And in order to make this aspect of the holiday season truly special for you and the people around you, it is worth taking some time to consider holiday foods in advance. Here are a few suggestions to help get you thinking.

Christmas Hampers

If you have never looked into purchasing M&S Christmas Hampers before, this year might be a great time to start. Not only can these hampers make tremendous gifts, they can also be fantastic simply to have around your home during the holidays. Different hampers come with different contents, ranging from various foods and drinks, to treats, and even recipes and ingredients. A food or treat option like this is very convenient and unique for your home during the Christmas season, and allows everyone to enjoy some fun foods that aren’t always around.

Fine Wines

It can also be nice to have at least a small selection of nice drinks around for late evenings spent with family and friends, or holiday dinners. Some people prefer unique Christmas cocktails, and there are certainly plenty of these to go around. But, particularly for large holiday meals, it can also be very nice to have a selection of nice wines around. If you are used to buying relatively inexpensive wine to have around the house, even a few slightly more expensive wines might provide you with new, festive tastes and quality. This is a great, affordable luxury for the holidays.

Christmas Treats

Finally, there’s the most important aspect of holiday food to consider: Christmas treats. Often depending on family tradition, different people cherish different treats during the holidays. But, whether it’s homemade gingerbread cookies, a special eggnog recipe, or a selection of candies or pastries, Christmas treats do a lot to bring together the atmosphere of the holiday season. Be sure to have your recipes prepared, and your store bought treats ordered in advance, so that you can be sure you aren’t without these crucial elements come Christmas!

Sponsored advertorial: Sacla UK

This is a sponsored advertorial provided by Sacla UK

Post-Party Food

As any party animal knows, the breakfast after a big night is essential to ensure the next
day isn’t a complete write-off. If your big night out has drained your cash reserves, having
an easy and inventive breakfast recipe to hand will help you avoid the hangover without
forking out and, as an added bonus, without having to leave the house. With the great range of products waiting to be found at, you’ll be all set to create your own cheap and cheerful alternative to a café fry-up, with a touch of Italian class to set you up in style for the day ahead.

Inspiration for an Effortless Morning Meal

Shakshuka, the delicious Middle Eastern dish of eggs, tomato and spices, is the perfect
antidote to morning after blues and the inevitable sore head. It’s simple to prepare, uses
ingredients that you’re likely to have lying around in your cupboard and fridge, and can easily be adapted or expanded to cater to your equally party-worn friends.

To begin, sauté onions and peppers in oil, before adding a heady medley of coriander,
thyme, parsley and bay leaves. When the smell has got your mouth watering, throw in the
chopped tomatoes and season with salt and pepper.

If you’re feeling up to an extra spicy kick, you might want to sprinkle in some cayenne
pepper at this point in the process. Simmer for around 15 minutes, adding water at regular
intervals to maintain the consistency of pasta sauce. Then make two wells in the mixture
by separating it with a spoon, and break two eggs into the spaces. Cook gently for 10 more minutes, if you can wait that long!

Finally, to give your breakfast a twist of rich flavour unique to Italian recipes, top the whole
thing off with a scrumptious squirt of basil pesto from the new Sacla’ squeezy bottle. Serve
immediately with a generous wedge of thick, crusty white bread. Try it for yourself and let
cultures collide and the taste sensation begin.

Beyond Breakfast

Sacla’ products form a delicious accompaniment to meals at any time of day or night. You
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Aperol and Campari

Negroni cocktails: Campari, sweet vermouth and gin. Photograph: Brian Leatart/Getty Images

Aperol seems everywhere all of a sudden, and its cousin Campari is also enjoying a new popularity. Frank’s Campari Bar opened in 2009: a seasonal, cash-only cafe on the roof of a car park in Peckham, south London. Its food isn’t great, and it caters mainly for hipsters with dubious facial hair, but it sold / sells cheap Campari cocktails with a nice view.

The first Polpo restaurant now has a Campari bar downstairs, and the Aperol bar at its Covent Garden outpost launched a couple of weeks ago. I went home to Edinburgh last weekend, and discovered George Street (one of the main shopping drags) to be currently given over to a vast tent heftily promoting Aperol spritzes at around four quid a pop. These red Italian drinks are enjoying a new moment of fame.

None of this remotely matters, of course, but I’m still intrigued as to why they should suddenly have become so popular. It may be simply that they’ve been rediscovered by another generation – they went out of fashion, and like many things they came back – although I expect the marketing departments of Gruppo Campari, which owns both the drinks, may have something to do with it.

Whatever: they’re both delicious. Two brothers named Barberi launched Aperol in 1919. The bitter concoction, which is flavoured with rhubarb, sour orange, gentian and something called cinchona, was originally targeted at “active men”, although since the 1930s it’s been seen as something of a girly drink. Aperol is only 11% ABV to Campari’s 25%: many Italians, particularly in the north, rather rigidly segregate the drinks between sexes. The Aperol spritz emerged in the 1950s: a slug of Aperol, a slosh of prosecco and a top-up of soda water. The “cocktail” is only 8%, and a perfect way to begin an evening if you don’t want to get plastered.

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