Corona diaries: Week 3

The dishwasher has broken. It’s the end of days.

It happened on Easter Sunday, a day when things are traditionally meant to come back to life, not kick the bucket. A random accident: my other half and I were in the kitchen when she tried to walk through the space where the dishwasher door was, open. She tripped over it, and the next minute she was on the floor. Like all falls, it simultaneously happened too fast to change anything and in slow motion, all at once. For hours afterwards both of us replayed in our minds how it could have happened differently, unable to process why it hadn’t.

She is fine, thank goodness: a few impressive bruises and a sprain, but nothing so terrible that it required a trip to the Royal Berks: surely the last place anybody would choose to spend time just now. We wrapped a bag of frozen oranges in her old Fitness First towel and pressed it on her knee, watched Dinnerladies on the sofa, drinking beer and eating chocolate to offset the shock. But the dishwasher came off worse. The hinge had buckled and now it no longer closes or opens fully, like a hillbilly’s mouth.

People can be so lovely. When they found out, a number of people came forward to declare dishwasher disasters of their own. Helen, on Twitter, told my other half that she’d done exactly the same thing when she was a teenager (9pm, December 23rd. I was incredibly unpopular that Christmas, she said). A number of people owned up to gashed shins on the corner of dishwasher doors.

A message group I’m in buzzed with anti-dishwasher sentiment. “I’ve not had one since I left home” said Jo. “If I did I wouldn’t see half the weird, wonderful and magical things I see out of my kitchen window”. “We’ve never had one, and when I stay in houses with one I always think washing up is quicker and easier” added Laura. “You still end up washing nice glasses, knives, chopping boards” said Helen. “I’m not sure how much labour they save to be honest.” Another friend, a couple of days later, said “I love doing the dishes. It’s almost like meditation.”

I know this crisis is making us realise how much we miss things we used to take for granted, and seeing the silver linings everywhere, but I just wish the cosmos hadn’t given me yet another learning opportunity when I had quite enough already. Never mind. I try and count my blessings, as so many remain, and I think about how many extra steps I’m racking up flitting between the draining board and the cupboards and drawers.

And washing up is at least a nice, sociable thing to do – one of you washes, the other dries, a bit like cooking together. I just wish that blasted door opened and closed properly so we could at least store the dirty dishes somewhere out of sight. Years ago, when a friend of mine got a dishwasher in his flat for the first time he and his wife called it “the magic cupboard”. I know what he meant, but right now I’d settle for it being an ordinary one.

* * * * *

When I moved into my house, nearly three years ago, it was the first house I’d lived in for the best part of fifteen years. I’d spent fifteen years living in flats – first, down by the river with a little balcony, secondly in the centre of town with big windows looking out on the world and last (and very much least) a dimly lit, very beige post-divorce ground floor apartment. It was quite literally where dreams went to die. When I moved into my house, six months later, I knew it had a little garden but I had no practical experience of what that entailed. There were some tools in the shed – I had a shed now, too, another novelty – and I just assumed all would be well.

My mother and step-father would come over once every few months and we would toil away snipping and lopping, chattering away, keeping everything in check and celebrating afterwards with a cold pint on the bench outside the Retreat and dinner at Bakery House. It felt like the closest to hard (or honest) work I’d got in many, many years. And gradually I started to understand the seasonality of it all, the ebb and flow. It helps now as the bluebells are in flower and the magnolia is blooming, magenta flowers thrust upwards into the blue sky, reaching for the sun. Spring is well and truly here, even if it’s a spring unlike the ones we usually celebrate.

Before I sound like I’m gloating about the garden: I know I’m lucky to have one, but it’s only small. The back bit, where the trees and flowers are, catches the afternoon sun but the patio – the only bit you can sit in – doesn’t: next door’s extension has seen to that. So it only really comes into its own on incredibly hot days, when it provides some welcome shade. Right now, it’s mainly a reminder that one set of neighbours has already begun barbecue season. The main aroma from the other neighbours is the waft of ganja, from the early evening onwards. Before that, confusingly, all you get is the noise and clamour of their kids kicking balls about (“do you play Fortnite?” they asked us through the fence at the weekend: a perfect way to make anybody feel antediluvian).

I am grateful, though. Over Easter, after a long hot walk round the university, we sat out there even though it wasn’t quite warm enough with a cold beer – before 6pm, which always makes you feel like you’re either on holiday or throwing caution to the wind. Normally the first al fresco beer of the year has already happened by Easter – but there’s that word “normal” again, and these aren’t normal times.

Every stroll by the Retreat, the Lyndhurst, even the Fisherman’s Cottage, takes you past benches which ought to have bums on them and tables that ought to have pints on them. The beer festival has been cancelled (an event which, to my other half, is more like Christmas than Christmas itself) and nobody is making their way to the Allied Arms any time soon. I keep wanting to drop by the Dairy for a cold pint of pilsner outside and then realising I can’t, just like I keep going to put a teaspoon in the dishwasher. In the meantime, like most people, I can’t work out whether the Easter heatwave was a curse or a blessing. That means it was probably both.

* * * * *

Since I began writing a diary column, I now have a tiny virtual postbag every week. Usually it’s very kind, but last week I had a lovely email which did point out, ever so nicely, that although my correspondent had similar political views to me she didn’t appreciate me expressing them at length in my blog. She didn’t feel that a food blog was an appropriate place to express them, she said.

I thought this was an interesting point to make. Quite aside from whether you get any say in the content of somebody else’s blog, mine has always been political with a small “p”. That’s because food is inherently political and choices you make – about where to eat and who to eat from – are political choices too. My decision to mainly cover, encourage and celebrate independent restaurants is arguably a political one, after all.

So is my occasional criticism of some political figures, even if more on my Twitter feed than here. I was mortified to discover that one person who attended my readers’ lunches had heard me deliver the same tirade against Tony Page on two separate occasions, practically verbatim each time. In my defence, much drink had been taken the first time around and I might not have remembered all the specifics of that conversation the second time I broached the subject. Still, it’s good to learn that I’m nothing if not predictable.

And that’s before we get on to the shadowy realm of Reading UK, or Reading BID, or Reading CIC or whatever it calls itself at the moment, an organisation with nebulous links to the council run by a man who loves Reading so much he lives in Surrey. The decision to award one of our weekly food markets to Blue Collar and the other to Chow is a political decision with a small p, but those markets are very different – Blue Collar is streets ahead, although I suspect you know that already – and have a different impact on the food culture in town.

Perhaps my correspondent meant that my writing was too party political. Well, she may have a point there, but I don’t know. I’ve always thought the personal was political, and even if it wasn’t before Brexit it definitely became it during all the horrors of last year. And that became cemented this year, with the events we’re living through right now. I’ve become horrified by the number of Facebook friends I have who wanted to clap for Boris, or thought the government was doing its level best.

Our own Prime Minister landed in hospital partly by ignoring his own government’s advice about social distancing and literally boasting about it on television, but if you point that out a bunch of people pop up on Twitter (usually with an eight digit number at the end of their Twitter ID and a blank profile picture) to tell you how treasonous you are. I once said on Twitter that Boris Johnson was visibly balding and trying to conceal it, just like his bosom buddy across the Atlantic: I never heard the end of that either.

I’ve learned that engaging in debate about these things is a huge waste of time. Like watching Central Weekend back in the day there’s plenty of heat but no light, nobody’s opinion is changed and you just waste everybody’s time. The good debates end good-humouredly with you agreeing to differ, the worst inevitably lead to the mute and block buttons.

A friend of mine posted a paean of praise to the government this week on Facebook and I simply commented with a Twitter thread which highlighted the different impact of the virus on the UK and Ireland, because of the differing approaches they had taken. My friend’s son popped up with “yeah, mate, of course, it’s on Twitter so it must be true lol”. I suggested he might learn something if he read it (because I never hold my tongue when I should) and he said “all your mates live on Twitter”.

Well, a stopped clock is right twice a day, I suppose, although his hot streak came to an end when he called me a leftie and exhorted me to “wank off Jeremy Corbyn if you love him so much”. I don’t, and I wouldn’t – that’s a combination of the personal and political which really needs never to happen. If I thought he’d be able to understand without his brain melting I would have explained that I’m equally critical of Corbyn and some of the Momentum loons in Reading, but I’d lost him by then. And that’s where being political gets you, equally unpopular with extremists of every stripe: maybe my correspondent was on to something after all.

I’ve always gone on about spending money to create the kind of Reading you want to live in (every pound is a vote, as a colleague of my other half likes to say), but that will become even more critical when this lockdown is relaxed and restaurants go back to work. Throughout Reading there are people buying from small suppliers, getting their veg boxes, their bread and cheese, beer and cider. A lot will depend on how much of that spirit endures on the other side.

And it will matter. Would you be more devastated to live in a town without a Pizza Express, or a town without Bakery House? Would you rather get beer and cheese from the Grumpy Goat or just pick something up when you’re in Sainsbury’s? These are personal choices but they’re political choices too, and for many businesses trying to survive this year they will be matters of life and death.

* * * * *

Anyway, to finish on something far less controversial, I spent some of the Easter weekend preparing for the summer months by working on what, for me, is the perfect warm weather alcoholic drink. I know this is a packed field – there’s a lot to be said for a crisp G&T, or a pint of lager or cider, so cold that the condensation runs down the outside of the glass. I never turn down a Pimm’s and lemonade, either: it would never be my first choice, but the first one of the year is still a landmark.

But my favourite discovery of the last few years has been the rebujito, an Andulusian cocktail which is sort of what would happen if a mojito and some sangria had a drunken one night stand. It couldn’t be simpler – you mix very dry sherry (ideally fino, although manzanilla will do) with lemonade, ice and plenty of fresh mint. The ideal ratio is one part sherry to two parts lemonade, but it really is as simple as that. And it tastes quite unlike anything else, sort of sweet and salty and fresh all at once. The sherry gives that savoury, yeasty note slightly reminiscent of Marmite, but it’s tempered by the lemonade and the mint and the whole thing is far more than the sum of its parts.

I tried a couple over the weekend, of differing strengths, and I found that it seemed impossible to mix a bad one, an opinion I held even more strongly after a couple of rebujitos. And better still, from personal experience, the lemonade and the sherry don’t need to be expensive or fancy: just assemble with whatever you can get your hands on, mix, imbibe and relax. Sheer perfection. Roughly this time last year I was halfway between two trips to Andalusia – Malaga last March, Granada last April – and even though I don’t know when I’ll get out there next, I’m looking forward to having a taste of Andalusia in my own back garden, sunshine or no.

One thought on “Corona diaries: Week 3

  1. Janet M

    That rebujito does sound like a good summer drink – not too much lemonade and lots of fresh mint. Definitely one for future warm spells (and when I fancy a change from my usual G&T).
    Nice post – good to get an idea of what life is like for Mr ER away from the foodie scene.

    I sort of understand the dishwasher/no dishwasher debate. Before we had one my husband always said it would be a shame not to do the washing up together as he found it such a companionable thing to do; it made him think maybe we shouldn’t get one when our kitchen was refitted. I’d had a few more years of washing up under my belt than him so we got one anyway – I hope we still have our companionable experiences, but our dishwasher is the most magical thing in our kitchen.

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