While breakfast and lunch may struggle to find a place in the daily round, snacks continue their march to gastro-domination. When it comes to a quick bite, the British have the rest of Europe beaten into a cocked hat. We spend more on them and eat more of them - almost more than the rest of Europe put together, in fact. In 2004 we ate £12.3bn worth of snacks. That's four times more than out nearest competitors, Sweden and the Netherands. This reflects very badly on our eating habits. We have become a nation of grazers, food-surfers, stuffing ourselves with fatty, salty, sugary, highly processed stuff - I can't bring myself to call it food - at the first hint of a pang of want, often before the first hint of a pang. Breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner have been sacrificed to the tidal wave of seductively packaged, irresistibly marketed, ubiquitously available snack.
It is easy to wail at the usurpation of traditional, decent, orderly eating opportunities, but the truth is the snack has been part of our daily eating round for a very long time. As Colin Spencer pointed out on lunch (see page 54), as the time between breakfast and dinner widened from a gap to a chasm, it became necessary to fill it with the odd nibble to stop sugar levels from dropping to panic levels. Eventually, those nibbles - or snacks, from the Middle Dutch "snacken", meaning to snap - became codified into lunch but, by then, the concept of the snack had become imprinted into the nation's tribal memory.
We had a penchant for a snack at halfway between breakfast and lunch - elevenses. And a snack midway between lunch and dinner - tea. And a snack midway between dinner and breakfast - a midnight snack. And then there were all sorts of other titbits - biscuits, cakes, nibbles, delights - to keep us going in case our spirits flagged. "I don't know if my grandfather was unusual, or whether it was a date when people took snacks," wrote Noel Streatfield of her Edwardian grandfather, before going on to list the port and ginger biscuits he consumed at 11am, the bowl kept full of crystallised violets and angelica, and the "very sweet biscuits at odd hours".
The defining quality of the snack, it seems to me, is its immediacy. A snack is a one-off, a single dish, quick and easy to prepare, quicker and easier to eat. It is absolutely a means of refuelling. That does not mean that it should be rubbish or not give pleasure. Indeed, the very evanescent nature of the snack lends itself to a certain kind of delight, like a nocturne or a study in music. It has a specific purpose, whether it is Lord Sandwich's great monument - two slices of bread with something in between - which kept him going at the gaming tables, or tiffin, the light lunchtime snack that was the padding of the British Raj, or stuffed salmon rolls "for a motoring excursion in winter" (Lady Jekyll again).
So there is no need to desert the gastronomic high ground when it comes to snacking, to reach for the nearest gaudy packet to satisfy that craving. Just turn to Fergus Henderson's culinary medicine.
I find the cup of tea you haven't got time to finish is always the most delicious. I am not sure I'm quite cut out for the leisurely taking of tea - to my mind it's hard to improve on a dark chocolate digestive as a gastronomic companion to a cuppa - but let us look at those moments in the day when a snack is called for ...
If you've rushed breakfast, what could be a finer mid-morning treat than a brace of kippers washed down with a cup of tea? Well, possibly a brace of kippers with a glass of Black Velvet. Guinness and champagne - ah!
1 brace of kippers per person
A knob or two of butter
Place the fish skin-side down on an oven tray or grill pan, and pop under a preheated grill (or in a hot oven), and cook until heated through. Serve topped with a knob of butter, lemon and lots of good bread and butter.
Moving on in the day, we come to elevenses. Nothing beats a slice or two of seed cake recently out of the oven. Instead of a cup of tea, may I suggest you try a glass of madeira with the cake - I'm not sure if I know of a more symbiotic relationship. Let me know if you do.
260g soft unsalted butter
260g caster sugar
1 pinch caraway seeds
5 eggs, beaten
320g self-raising flour, sieved
150ml full-fat milk
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Line a 16cm long, 10cm wide cake tin with butter and baking parchment.
First cream the butter, sugar and caraways seeds - you can do this either in a mixer with the beater attachment or with a wooden spoon and a bowl - until they are white and fluffy, then add the eggs little by little to avoid curdling. Now add the flour and mix until everything is incorporated. Finally, pour in the milk and mix again to incorporate.
Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin and bake for 45 minutes, until golden brown and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.
We are racing through the day and you haven't yet opened your tea caddy. There is hope - afternoon tea - but let me put this thought to you first: you've had a good lunch and, I'm hoping, you're looking forward to a good supper, so the last thing you want is a pile of tea cakes. What you want is something to aid digestion and to freshen you up. I have got just the thing, a Dr Henderson, taught to me by my wise father. Serves one.
1 part crème de menthe
2 part Fernet Branca
Pour everything into a glass (or even cocktail shaker), stir and drink. Without fail, this sorts out the after-effects of lunch and prepares you properly for dinner.
A dish for any time of day. It's steadying washed down with a cup of tea, but a glass or two of red burgundy would be splendid. Serves two.
6 lamb's kidneys, membrane and suet removed, slit in half lengthways
3 tbsp plain flour
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp dry English mustard
Sea salt and pepper
A big knob of butter
A healthy splash of chicken stock
2 pieces toast (white or brown, but white seems to sup the juices better)
Using a knife or scissors, nip out the white, fatty gristle from the kidneys. In a bowl, mix together the flour, cayenne pepper, mustard, salt and pepper.
Get a frying pan very hot, throw in a knob of butter and, as this melts, roll the kidneys in the spiced flour, then shake them in a sieve to remove any excess. Place the kidneys in the sizzling pan, cook for two minutes per side, add a hearty splash of Worcestershire sauce and the stock, and let all the ingredients get to know each other. Remove the kidneys to the waiting toast, let the sauce reduce and emulsify (take care that it doesn't disappear) and pour over the kidneys and toast. Eat at once.
Sardines on toast
You've had a proper dinner, but sometimes you might feel peckish before heading for bed. I once worked in a kitchen with a splendid chap called Charles Campbell, who always made himself sardines on toast at the end of the night. This he took to bed with him and ate in the dark, which he insisted was an essential part of the experience. It's also the perfect moment for a bedtime cuppa ... except we are eating in the dark, so the likelihood of third-degree burns from spilled tea is high. A much safer companion would be a dram of malt whisky, with which, hopefully, the only singe you will feel will be internal. Sorry, we somehow got through the day without so much as a sip of tea passing our lips.
Good brown bread
1 tin good-quality sardines in oil
Toast and butter the bread, squidge the sardines on to the toast with a fork, squeeze over the lemon and devour.
· Fergus Henderson is chef-patron of St John, 26 St John Street, London EC1, and St John Bread & Wine, 94-96 Commercial Street, London E1 (both at 020-7251 0848).