Corona diaries: Week 1

I’ve always stayed away from Deliveroo, partly because I like restaurants – not just the food, but the experience, the welcome, the people-watching and the spectacle. But also, I’ve always distrusted their model. The dishes are usually more expensive than they would be if you dined in, they take a significant cut from the restaurant and your food arrives some time after it was cooked, often lukewarm and sometimes a bit crumpled from transit (I ordered a Franco Manca pizza on Deliveroo once: it was one of the most forlorn things I’ve ever seen). The customer pays more for worse food, the restaurants make less, the riders are hardly handsomely rewarded for thankless work: the only winner seems to be Deliveroo.

Nonetheless I placed an order this week, because Bakery House announced on Twitter that they were about to close their doors until we reach what everyone is calling “the other side”. They’ve soldiered on doing delivery and takeaway ever since this crisis began, offering discounts to NHS workers, plugging away and trying to make the best of it. The response when they made their announcement was the best of Twitter: dozens of people coming out of the woodwork to say how much they loved Bakery House’s food, how keen they were to eat there again once all of this passes. And Bakery House said something which got me, as they say, in the feels: Please don’t forget us.

I’ve been in lockdown for over a fortnight, now, and I think I’m beginning to understand that fight against forgetting. At the moment I can still remember what it’s like to meet friends in the pub, go for a coffee and sit in the Workhouse courtyard with it, to eat in restaurants or go for a walk without having to cross the road every few minutes to keep people that magical two metres away. I can remember what hugs from friends feel like. But we’re all taking part in a behavioural experiment which has never been tried before, and it will change us – and the world – in ways we can’t even begin to imagine yet. What will we have forgotten in four weeks’ time? In eight? In twelve?

And I can see so many restaurants wondering if they will be able to come back, and whether customers will still be there for them if and when they do. Clay’s, for instance, Tweeted recently that they “Woke up from a nightmare that everyone learned to cook and no one came after we opened again”: it sums it up neatly. I hope we all remember how lucky we were before all this started, and that we find ways to help the people and the businesses we love when everybody emerges from this bizarre hibernation.

My Deliveroo rider managed to get lost, and I could tell from the app that he was round the corner trying (unsuccessfully, thank goodness) to give my food to somebody else. But it didn’t matter – who would get cross with a Deliveroo rider at a time like this? – and my boneless baby chicken, freed from the foil container, was every bit as beautiful as I remembered. Tender meat, not-quite-charred skin, a separate dish with their superb golden rice and a well-dressed salad which retained its bite and crunch despite the bicycle ride from London Street.

I guess people write because they want to capture a moment, or because they want to remember. I’m glad I have this recent memory of Bakery House to hold on to. I won’t forget them. I doubt any of their other customers will, either.

* * * * *

In the same Tweet, Clay’s said that the landlord of their house had sent them a message telling them not to worry about the rent until this crisis was over. You really do see the best and the worst of people, which brings us to Sykes Capital, the owners of The Village, the artist formerly known as Kings Walk. There was a story in the Financial Times about commercial landlords threatening their tenants with legal action for unpaid rent, which included Sykes Capital and their tenants Pho and Escape Hunt. It always amazes me how landlords would sooner force out a tenant and get no return on their property than reach some kind of accommodation, let alone to do it when there’s a global pandemic and they are completely unable to trade.

I remember when Sykes gave an interview to Alt Reading in 2016, saying that he aimed to establish Atlantis Village as “the home of fine dining in Reading”. He planned to open a French restaurant there called Baroque, and said he hoped it could be the first restaurant in Reading to get a Michelin star. Four years on, Baroque never materialised, La Courbe, Mix and Dolce Vita closed and now instead of articles in local websites it’s a mention in the Financial Times. Oh well. Maybe the businesses which have been impacted can apply to Sykes’ charitable foundation which provides “support when no other charities or organisations can”. Charity begins at home, after all.

* * * * *

I’m not the best cook in the world, not by a long chalk. I do the cooking in my house, and I have a few recipes that never fail, but otherwise I’ve always relied on a mixture of eating out (why do you think I write a restaurant blog?) and ready meals. I always planned to expand my repertoire one day but I wouldn’t have chosen to do it in these circumstances, especially when access to ingredients can make every day like a particularly crappy episode of Ready, Steady, Cook.

Having been given a whole cauliflower and not wanting it to go to waste, I did a bit of research and decided to make a curry this week. I had all the stuff I needed in my cupboard and decided it was worth using a tin of chopped tomatoes to make it instead of doing the sensible thing and flogging said tin on eBay. A cursory Google suggested a recipe from the Guardian, one of “Angela Hartnett’s midweek suppers”. Two and a half hours later, having spent what felt like a lifetime chopping, grinding spices and using every pan in the house, I sat down to a sort of flavourless mulch with pasty albino triffids bobbing in it as if they were desperate to be rescued. Midweek supper my arse: Angela Hartnett obviously chops faster than me, has bigger pans and a fiercer hob, or alternatively I might just be pants at cooking. I know what my money’s on.

We slogged through it (“at least it’s good for you” said my other half) and half an hour later I began inhaling a packet of cookies. The next day I derived great satisfaction from slowly, lovingly spooning the remainder into the bin: it was far more enjoyable than either cooking it or eating it had been.

By contrast, during lockdown Clay’s has been putting a recipe on Instagram every day. A couple of days ago I made their simplest: a mixture of tinned tuna, diced peppers and onions, smoked paprika, salt, olive oil and lemon juice. What emerged, magically, was a little day trip to the Mediterranean – perfect to be lobbed onto a slice of toast and drizzled with another glug of extra virgin olive oil. Perhaps I just need to pick my culinary gurus more carefully.

* * * * *

There’s a weird back to the future feeling about life in lockdown. It takes me back almost thirty years, to a time when I was at university, technology hadn’t really got much further than the Sony Discman and we made the best of the limited options we had. Going for long walks with music in your headphones was something I used to do back then, and now I’ve embraced it again, albeit constantly looking around me to avoid people and giving hard stares to the offenders who act as if they don’t care whether they catch the virus, or give it to me. My walk generally heads out past Eldon Square and up Alexandra Road towards the university campus, past beautiful houses which are so near and yet so far, the tantalising width of a winning lottery ticket away from me.

Another throwback is the lengthy phone conversation. This week I called an old friend of mine – not a video call where I’m constantly looking for the angle that halves my number of chins, but a good old-fashioned voice call. On my phone, wearing my headphones rather than getting tangled up in the corkscrew cord of the landline, but still a memory of how things were in simpler times. It might catch on. “I’ve never been so in demand” said my friend. “All my friends with jobs and social lives suddenly have loads of time on their hands.” I know this situation is far harder for some people than others, and I know I’m relatively lucky, but in other ways it’s a proper leveller.

A couple of days ago I spoke to my oldest friend Mike, who is holed up in his studio flat in the French Alps. Normally he spends the winter there skiing and then in the summer he runs coach tours across Europe. That work won’t happen now and like some game of musical chairs, he is stuck where he was when the music stopped. He showed me the view out of his window, of pristine slopes begging to be skiied on, except that nobody is allowed to now. The lockdown is more stringent in France, and you have to carry a permit with you saying when you left the house. You’re allowed an hour for walking (“I always put the time as 20 minutes later” he told me, “the police don’t check.”)

Otherwise the monastic experience seems to suit Mike – he says he’s looking forward to having some time to reflect. He gave up drinking before Christmas, and even this crisis hasn’t shaken his resolve. I congratulated him, while simultaneously thinking of all the bounty from Siren Craft, Double-Barrelled, West Berkshire and Pang Valley in the fridge, the kitchen and the basement. I tell myself it’s little and often, and I mostly believe it.

On the call we agree to revive another tradition of days gone by, the mix tape. He follows me on Apple Music, and we agree to put together twenty songs for each other by the end of the week. He gets his done with the kind of brutal efficiency only teetotallers can manage, and the next morning I can see it there waiting to be discovered.

I listen to it while pottering round the kitchen, making myself a coffee with my new Aeropress. I’ve had it a week or so and I think I’ve got the hang of it – I’ve even, in truth, become the kind of coffee wanker who weighs his coffee with scales. I like the mindful, almost meditative process of making coffee, and Mike’s playlist is the perfect accompaniment (my favourite track on it, so far, is Get Out Of Town by Caetano Veloso: Mike has always loved a bit of Latin American music). I spend a happy couple of hours putting together a playlist in return, and wondering if anybody else I know would like one. Maybe I’ll start sending postcards next.

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