Does abstinence make the heart grow fonder, wonders Roger Ratcliffe

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How’s Dry January going? Or Veganuary? If you have renounced alcohol or animal foods (or both together if you are a serious glutton for punishment), and withdrawal symptoms are conjuring up fantasies of a big balloon glass swirling with gin and tonic in a veritable Arctic ice floe, or you can visualise a hot bacon butty oozing tomato ketchup onto the plate, take some strength from my experience. The worst bit is over.

For moderate drinkers, temporarily giving up booze is easy for the first week, then gets progressively harder because of social pressures. “Fancy a pint?” was a text I really began to dread, because the conviviality of good conversation and beer in a pub that has a roaring fire on a cold January night is pretty hard to resist. And sitting there with an alcohol-free drink that tastes like widdle is not my idea of a good time.

At home, the red wine substitute of choice became pomegranate juice. And here’s the irony – by the end of January I had actually begun to find it addictive. So much so that after I resumed quaffing reds like merlot and shiraz it still took a few months to completely wean myself off the stuff.

For those having difficulty avoiding meat as they pursue Veganuary, the expression “cold turkey” may be a tad tasteless but that sort of sums up my first few weeks a couple of years back. The abrupt end to my dependency on animals for food was fine to begin with. In fact, it was quite a surprise to find that some of my favourite comfort foods were totally vegan – dishes like Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians), otherwise known as black beans and rice, and penne all’arrabbiata (pasta with a chilli tomato sauce).

But by the end of the first week I found it increasingly hard to go round a supermarket. I’m not claiming that my heart began to pound and I got abdominal cramps and dilated pupils at the sight of the butcher’s counter, or became delirious when in close proximity to tinned tuna as though it contained some particularly high-voltage crystal meth. They just reminded me that other staple comfort foods, although just an arm-stretch away, were well and truly off the menu.

This persisted for most of the next fortnight, and the whiff of a Leeds fish and chip shop did me no favours. For a few days it became a real struggle to eat a jacket potato without butter and grated cheese, or satisfy my craving for a pastie lightly sprinkled with vinegar with a vegan replacement. And then it happened. The imitation cheeses and spreads, and the meat substitutes began to taste like the real thing when they were well enough herbed or spiced, although perhaps it was a case of my tastebuds having a short memory.

So here’s my takeaway from Veganuary and Dry January. After a month of self-denial the body finally says: “Okay mate, pour me some more of that pomegranate juice and let’s have another kale, black bean and avocado burrito bowl.” The brain, on the other hand, counters: “Look, you are spending the weekend at your sister’s and there’s no way you can turn your nose up at her lamb hotpot. She’ll never speak to you again.”

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