Corona diaries: Week 9

It’s been a tough week. I know I shouldn’t watch the news, but I do, and I get angry. I know I should put down my phone and read a book, or watch one of the dozens of films in my list on Netflix or Prime – something I’ve not seen before, to stretch me, or something I know well, to comfort me. But I don’t; instead I go online, to get my inevitable dose of outrage and despair.

You know all this already, but here it is: we currently have one of the worst death rates in the world, and a government which is both so inept and so callous that you could easily spend a long time wondering if the euthanasia is accidental or deliberate. They didn’t lock down quickly enough, they didn’t lock down strictly enough, they stopped testing and tracing cases, they filled stadia and racecourses when the rest of Europe was closing its doors and they told us that it was safe.

They also said that they were following the science and then, even though the science didn’t change, they mysteriously changed course. And the lies! So many lies. They lied about how many people they had tested, they lied about how many people had died. They lied about how much protective equipment people in the NHS were given. They released people who might well have had the virus into care homes, like some postmodern take on Deathrace 2000. Tens of thousands of vulnerable people died alone, with nobody by their bedsides, almost nobody at their funerals. A schoolfriend of mine died, albeit not of the virus, and I watched some of the webcast of his funeral. One of the only things more tragic than a funeral is a funeral with only ten people at it.

And, of course, there’s the news from the bank holiday weekend. The creepy man pulling the strings, who is always described as if he’s Rasputin but in reality is essentially Gollum in a gilet, broke all the rules he put in place, the rules we’ve all been keeping for an eternity. He had to leave work and go home, because his wife had the coronavirus. But then he went back to his workplace, because she magically didn’t.

Then – and by this stage I wasn’t sure who did or didn’t have the virus – the two of them got in a car with their four year old child, who they were seemingly trying to protect and infect at the same time, and drove for four hours on a single tank of petrol without anybody needing the toilet. All to recuperate at the cottage on a family member’s estate: well, we’ve all been there.

That’s before we get on to the sixty-mile round trip to a noted beauty spot either to get exercise or to test his eyesight, depending which of those two lies you find more convincing. It happened to be his wife’s birthday.

When accused of doing all this, he lied about it. When caught, he lied some more. Long, detailed, fiddly lies. The plan, of course, is to make it so boring and so involved that you get tired, you just say “oh, whatever”, and that’s the plan because the plan works. It worked on Brexit: it worked on people I know. “Oh, whatever” they said. “We just need to get on with it and move on.” We’re always moving on, it seems. Backwards.

I know people in Australia, New Zealand and Spain enjoying their freedom slowly beginning to return. I talk to a schoolfriend in New Zealand every few weeks – he feels sorry for us, stuck here, governed by these charlatans. I see photos and Facebook statuses and Tweets of people I know living some kind of normal life elsewhere, while all of us have been sitting at home for twenty-three hours a day watching all hell break loose outside. When it happened in Italy, it was apocalyptic. Here, where things are even worse, it’s just the way it is.

So I go online, but Twitter is simultaneously a group hug for everybody who is watching what’s going on in this country with a mounting sense of horror and unease, and an echo chamber amplifying a primal scream until it drowns out everything else. Or at least it is as long as you follow the “right” people: there are plenty of bots, bigots and useful idiots out there complaining about our biased media, or telling us to stop being so negative.

But even if the people in my echo chamber are in the right, does that make it the right stuff to read? Is it good for the soul? Because heaven knows, it’s boring, being angry all the time. Boring and exhausting. Sometimes I look back at my own Twitter feed, all that indignation and those Retweets of other people, incandescent with rage but far more articulate than me, and I think I’m not sure I would follow me on here. But what happens if you stop being angry? You get resigned, and then everything is lost. This stuff is so important that I don’t know whether I’ll ever be ready to move on to bargaining or acceptance. It’s a puzzler.

If all this doesn’t make you angry, you’ll have to let me know how you manage that. Or maybe I need to take whatever it is you’re taking. Drop some round: I’ll give you some of my stockpile of blue Toblerone in return. I had some Tramadol, but I gave it away to a friend with toothache. It felt like the right thing to do, and we’re all about following our instincts now.

* * * * *

How are your dreams, lately? I keep having the oddest dreams. Or rather I seem to be remembering my dreams more at the moment, because I recall reading somewhere that we always dream but we don’t always remember them.

At the start of the week, I had the most wonderful dream. I was spending the afternoon wandering round Oxford – a dream Oxford that bore no resemblance to the real place, but which I still knew was Oxford – when I realised that I hadn’t made a restaurant reservation. So I hastily made a list of places that would be worth a speculative phone call, to see if they could fit me in at 6 o’clock, the early bird special before taking the train home. It was a slim chance, but worth a try: if you don’t ask, after all, you don’t get.

It’s odd, the elaborate worlds your brain cooks up for your entertainment when you are asleep. There I was wandering round an imaginary city, one I apparently knew well, running through a mental list of imaginary restaurants (which I apparently also knew well). None of it really existed. Of all the things to dream about.

There’s always that point, usually in scary or uncomfortable dreams, the why-have-I-gone-to-work-with-no-trousers-on dreams, when you realise: Ah! It’s a dream. And that’s normally when you can wake up. I reached that point as I was weighing up the relative merits of all these restaurants I had never visited, and that should have been the point where the dream ended.

But for some reason it didn’t, and although I have no memory of picking a restaurant, or phoning it, or walking to it there was a jump cut and there I was, sitting at a big, square, pale wood table, a window seat looking back into a lovely, neutral room. I had a large glass of deep red wine in front of me and I was looking at a handwritten menu, the sort some places do when they have a different menu every day. Pretty soon the room would be buzzing, and speaking as someone who hasn’t been in a buzzing room for eleven weeks I couldn’t wait.

The starters included fritto misto, and I remembered one of the many reasons why restaurants are so special, that they cook things you simply could or would never prepare at home. And I could picture it in front of me already in my mind’s eye – the prawns, the squid, the mussels, all in that golden, light, almost translucent batter. I could imagine squeezing the lemon over it, the aroma, the crunch of that first bite. It would have been perfect with a beer or a crisp white wine. Why did I have a glass of red wine in front of me? It didn’t make sense, I thought, I wouldn’t have ordered that. And then I remembered: of course it doesn’t make sense. It’s a dream, silly! And that’s when I woke up.

The following night I woke up partway through a dream about being on holiday – in Granada, although again it didn’t look like the Granada I visit most years. But even so I absolutely knew that was where I was, and I was already starting to mentally bullet point all the places I had to go – cafés for my first al fresco coffee in a long time, bars for wine, or cold cañas of Alhambra, or for huge places of cheese and charcuterie. And again, of course, just as that itinerary was coming together, the cord snapped and I was yanked back into the present. It was May 2020, it had been May 2020 for about five years, I was in my house and that’s the way it was going to stay for quite some time.

I wonder what purpose these dreams serve. Is my psyche trying to tell me something I already knew – that I really miss eating out and going on holiday – or is it trying to comfort me with visions of the things I miss? Is it just my subconscious, wrestling with withdrawal symptoms on a warm spring night? Or are they just mental doodlings that don’t signify anything at all?

I reached a point where I was quite excited to see what was playing in the cinema of my mind every night, to see where I was transported to next, but the following night my dream was one of those horrendous ones that involves a bereavement. Now I would quite happily have unmemorable dreams, for a couple of weeks at least. I should have known, really. We live in scary times: what on earth made me think my dreams would be non-stop fun and frolic? If I want harmless escapism, maybe I should copy my friend Laura and re-watch Dawson’s Creek.

Of course, it might not be a result of the times we live in. I’m taking medication for tension headaches, and my mother – who takes the same tablets – told me once that they give her dreams, usually unhappy or unsettling ones. Ironically, she takes the pills to help her sleep, although she says the dreams are a price worth paying. The only other effect the tablets had on me, when I first started taking them, were that for the first few hours of every morning I felt like I was behind glass, or deep under water. You’re somehow sealed off from things, like a stereotypical Fifties housewife on Valium.

It’s not an unpleasant sensation, actually, and nicely anaesthetic: maybe I should stop taking them so I can re-start and experience it all over again. On the other hand, when I was prescribed some medication for anxiety during a particularly dark period a few years back, the doctor told me I would have strange dreams, and I did. The worst one involved being stuck in the seat next to my ex-wife in a crowded rail replacement bus for five hours (in the interests of balance, I’m sure she would describe that as a nightmare). Still, that’s another thing to add to the list of lockdown silver linings: however bad the dreams may get, at least none of us has to take a rail replacement right now.

* * * * *

I have been reviewing restaurants for the best part of seven years and I thought I’d heard pretty much everything by now, but this week a story in the local news introduced me to a brand new term.

It came up in a piece in the Reading Chronicle by (the always excellent) Tevye Markson about a disagreement between Mexican chain Tortilla and Reading Smiles, the fancy dentist a couple of doors down from Sainsburys on Broad Street. The dentist had complained about the prospect of Tortilla being granted a licence when they opened their restaurant, saying it would damage their reputation and increase the security issues at the site.

That’s as maybe – perhaps some people like to celebrate being given a clean bill of health or a scale and polish by grabbing a frozen margarita, who knows – but the best bit of the story was the dental practice’s claim that the smell of food from Tortilla would “penetrate the building” and put patients off visiting the practice.

That made more sense to me. The last thing you want, I imagine, as you’re having your molars checked is to get a whiff of refried beans. I can identify with that: it’s uncomfortably reminiscent of the time I was having a pampering massage in the basement of John Lewis, eyes closed, tuning in to the whale music when the masseuse leaned forward and belched into my face (I’m pretty sure she’d had a Scotch egg for lunch, too).

Anyway, the planning consultant representing Tortilla had a killer response to this argument. There was no risk of food smells getting in to the dental practice, he said, because no “primary cooking” took place onsite. What a wonderfully euphemistic way of putting it. He meant that all the work is done in a central kitchen and everything turns up at Tortilla ready and waiting to be heated up, I assume, which essentially means that you’d be sitting there eating a slightly more fancy ready meal.

That said, many chain restaurants do this. The reason Côte has been able to start offering “Côte at home” in lockdown is because they also prepare food in a central kitchen, so effectively you’re paying to heat up their food at home instead of someone heating it up in the restaurant.

But what marks this out from, say, the new offering from Clay’s is the transparency: when you ate in at Clay’s you knew everything was made from scratch, and that means that if they cook it, vacuum pack it and drop it to your house you feel lucky to get to warm it up at home, rather than deceived or taken for a ride.

When Tortilla finally opens, assuming it still will, will you particularly fancy going there, knowing that they’re not doing any “primary cooking”? I suspect not, especially knowing that you could go to Mission Burrito instead. The impression is that Tortilla’s “secondary cooking” is second class, or just plain old number two.

I do think, though, that this terminology could catch on. On weekends when I just can’t face dusting and hoovering I’ll just claim that no primary housework has taken place, as I invert the reeds in my (many) room diffusers, or put the recycling in the bin outside. Some days this week it’s not that I haven’t caught up with any of my friends, it’s just that I didn’t take part in any primary conversations. And I think you can be virtually certain this week that, as any week, there’s absolutely no primary journalism happening at Berkshire Live.

Anyway, in happier news the Lyndhurst announced this week that it was reopening Thursday to Sunday for takeaways. The menu they published was full of old favourites and new options – including their legendary chilli nachos, curried chickpea nachos (a dish premiered at my readers’ lunch back in March), pulled pork tacos and jackfruit tacos. Who needs Tortilla when you can get beautiful food from the Lyndhurst? They even make their own tortilla chips, for crying out loud: it’s proper, delicious, primary food.


Q&A: Kevin Farrell, Vegivores

Kevin Farrell moved to England from Belfast in 2010 to further his career in commercial banking. In 2017 he established Vegivores, at the time Reading’s only fully vegan street food and catering company, with regular appearances at Blue Collar and various other events. This helped build a strong and loyal following, and Vegivores opened its first bricks and mortar location in St Martin’s Precinct in Caversham in October 2019. Kevin lives in Caversham with his wife, Emma.

Vegivores has continued to trade during lockdown and has a popular delivery arm with online ordering. Later this week, they will officially announce that they will also open weekend daytimes for brunch, coffee and cake takeaways.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
From a work perspective, I miss having our whole team together. We assembled a great bunch and we have a lot of fun at work so it’s strangely quiet at times now. 

From a personal perspective I miss having some sort of social outlet. I didn’t have a lot of free time from work pre-lockdown and if I did it was always for a specific event or concert. Now, like many people I guess, I find myself with a bit more free time and nowhere to go. I can’t complain though: in honesty I’m appreciating the slower pace of life a bit and there are definitely things I’ll try to maintain when lockdown ends.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
I’ve lived in Reading for over eight years now and in Caversham for five of those, and I like that I am still constantly discovering things and places that I knew nothing about. I also like the fact that outsiders think the town is dominated by chains but people who live here know that we have a thriving independent (and therefore unique) sector across retail and hospitality, and an amazing sense of community that sits behind that.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
This isn’t a pleasant story but, regardless of veganism, I’ve been allergic to all forms of poultry for my entire life (weird, I know). One of my earliest memories is being about three years old and ending up rolling around choking on the kitchen floor after being given a chicken leg by my parents. They were obviously oblivious to the cause at the time and a few similarly traumatic occurrences happened before it got worked out!

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I’ve had a few spells of living in Spain and I’m obsessed with all things Spanish so a lot of our downtime is spent there. It’s impossible to pinpoint a specific plate of food, because they eat so well, but nights spent bar hopping in San Sebastián grabbing a couple of pintxos in each place have been some of the best food experiences I’ve ever had.

What were the biggest challenges in going from a street food stall to permanent premises?
Getting to the point where we could actually open the doors was really tough. The process of getting the keys to the property following acceptance of our offer was incredibly drawn out (it took about 10 months in total and another 3 months of fit out), so trying to keep the existing business going and growing whilst dealing with lawyers, builders, licensing and suppliers and recruit a team meant there was seldom a dull moment! The biggest challenge when we opened, I think, was being able to deliver a much more varied menu from a space that isn’t that much bigger: over time we managed to streamline some processes to make that work.

What is your most unappealing habit?
This might make me sound like a toddler, but I’m a notoriously messy eater. I don’t know how it happens but I seem to manage to spill at least a part of almost everything I eat or drink. It’s incredibly frustrating and a source of constant amusement to my friends.

Who are your biggest influences in the world of food?
My earliest memories of being completely engrossed in something food-related are from watching Keith Floyd on TV. I think I was more mesmerised by him and his swagger than the food he was cooking, and even today I’ll never flick past one of his programmes. Watching him gave me a great awareness of how food varied from country to country and definitely led to me taking an interest in the wider world of cooking. 

In more modern times my biggest influence has to be Sarah (the other half of Vegivores’ management team). She quite literally never stops thinking or talking about food and how it can be done better, and it’s impossible not to be motivated by her passion.

What is your favourite smell?
Probably a strange one, but without a doubt it’s stale beer. When I was about 15 I got a job in a local pub and it sparked my whole interest in hospitality. I had so many good times there over many years and every time I walk past a pub in the morning when the cleaners are doing their bit I can smell the revelry of the night before and it instantly takes me back.

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
The strong likelihood is that it will be Quattro. It’s a ten minute walk from home, they have a decent vegan menu, their food is always good, it’s always busy with a nice atmosphere and the staff are always lovely. Hopefully it’s a Saturday and I can make it down to the Double Barrelled tap room for a couple of hours in the afternoon beforehand. That would be a pretty perfect day in my book.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
‘Why?!’ (apparently), and ‘Delicious!’

It feels, as an outsider, that the world of plant-based eating has made exponential progress in the last five years. Would you agree, and what changes would you most like to see in the next five?  
I’d definitely agree. From supermarkets to restaurants, the plant-based offering has exploded and it’s because the public has created such a demand. The government has been telling us relentlessly that the response to this pandemic has been led by science. Independent science has been telling us for quite a while now that plant based eating is optimal when it comes to health, so my hope is that the government allows itself to be led by science in other areas and makes plant based food the norm in schools and hospitals where the consumers are those most in need of the right nutrition.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
When young and naive I once inadvertently told a job interviewer that his boss (who I knew socially) had told me a monkey could do his job. It caused a full-on mutiny amongst the staff and needless to say I didn’t get the job. Not my finest moment!

What one film can you watch over and over again?
To be my usual cool self I would say Goodfellas – and I’d mean it – but my wife would tell you that the true answer to that question is Jurassic Park!

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
As far as I’m concerned you can’t beat a simple salted crisp, the thicker the better. Real, Tyrrell’s and Kettle are probably the pick of the bunch in the UK.

What’s your biggest bugbear about people’s attitudes to vegetarianism and veganism?
Probably a reluctance to try something because of a preconceived idea that it won’t be as good. Our customers are an adventurous bunch, so I’m lucky in that respect. Amongst the wider population though, if you sit two identical products next to each other and label one of them as vegan it’s likely to elicit a reaction in people. That’s part of the reason why we downplay the vegan element of our business, because in our eyes ultimately it’s all just food and anyone can enjoy it.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
An obscure one but Eamonn Owens is ginger, Irish, and the same age as me so he’d have to be in with a decent shout.

Where is your happy place?
A golf course on a summer evening or on a boat, any boat.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Cold pizza the morning after the night before. Delicious!

Tell us something people might not know about you.
Some very questionable music that I made quite a long time ago is still on iTunes now.

Describe yourself in three words.
Happy, excited, exhausted!

Corona diaries: Week 8

Remember when this used to be a food blog? Ah, the good old days, when I reviewed these things called “restaurants” where you sat down at a nice table in an attractive room, talented people cooked delicious meals for you and pleasant people brought them over. There were also ones where you sat at a wobbly table with a crap view, somebody microwaved something and it was slammed down in front of you with a scowl, but the convenient rosy glow of nostalgia means I’ve largely forgotten those.

Now I find myself wondering if I’d prefer a meal in, say, a Bella Italia to another night in cooking on my own. On balance, probably not, but ask me in four weeks and you might get a different answer. At this stage I’d probably enter into a Faustian pact for a Pizza Express, and that’s before we start talking about Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Planning twenty-one meals a week, with a takeaway classing as time off for good behaviour, hasn’t come naturally to me. I’ve never resented talented home chefs more than I do now: Instagram is full of things people have just “knocked up” which induce industrial quantities of envy, whether it’s dead flesh perfected on a barbecue, pizzas casually thrown together in the kitchen or (this one especially hurt) home-made fried chicken. I follow one chap who runs a group of Spanish restaurants in Wales, and last week he cooked octopus. Octopus! I couldn’t decide whether to hit “like” or unfollow.

I’ve barely expanded my culinary repertoire in the last nine weeks. At first, I blamed this on not being able to get hold of everything I needed. Then I managed to find recipes that did consist of stuff I had in the cupboards, and I had to accept that I’m just not that good a cook. I can chop an onion quicker nowadays, and I have the little nicks on my hands to prove it, and I can use my potato peeler without injuring myself (although, for a long time, I had a cut on my little finger that suggested otherwise) but that might be as far as I’ve come.

That said, I read an article last week about how easy it was to make your own hash browns, and how much better they were than shop-bought ones. I found a recipe on the BBC website, and one lunchtime Zoë and I decided to give it a go. It really was simple: all you had to do was peel and grate two medium-sized potatoes and half an onion, wring the mixture out in a clean tea towel to get all of the moisture out, mix it with a beaten egg and plenty of salt, form it into little patties and fry them in very hot oil for two to three minutes on each side.

It really was as simple as the recipe said it was. Admittedly, grating the onion was a bit like watching the opening sequence of Up distilled into a couple of minutes, and I thought the milky potato juice – there’s a combination of words I hope I never use again – would never stop dripping into the sink, but at the end of it we had beautiful, golden, crispy-crunchy hash browns which I snaffled with dark, meaty soy-cooked mushrooms and a fried Beechwood Farm egg. There was enough of the mixture left to have a bagel the next day with a fried duck egg and a single, bigger hash brown, more like a rosti, in it, the whole thing liberally doused in HP sauce with its fruity tang.

I put a picture on my Instagram stories – instantly becoming the kind of person I deplored a few paragraphs ago – and two days later someone sent me his own footage of some equally attractive hash browns sizzling away in a pan. And it wasn’t just them: my friend Mikey messaged me last Friday about the hash browns. “I’ll make some for brunch tomorrow and send you a picture” he said, and he was as good as his word. His are pictured below: they look even nicer than mine did.

So there you have it: finally, just for one week, this old dog learned a new culinary trick. Even if I don’t emerge from lockdown thinner, better-read or with a greater appreciation of what really matters, I can make hash browns, and I know that my efforts improved at least two people’s weekends. You can’t ask for more than that, even if I now have a tea towel which will reek of onions until some point in 2021. It could be worse, I suppose. It could smell of TCP: that stuff never shifts.

* * * * *

I was saddened by the news last week that the Whitley Pump, the local website covering Katesgrove, Whitley and beyond, announced its closure. Their final publication was on the 12th of May, and they said that the website would stay up “for a couple of months”. It’s such a pity: founded five years ago, the Pump has always taken an idiosyncratic approach to local news and events, covering everything from local history and the Reading dialect to restaurant reviews, theatre criticism, the intricacies of Reading Borough Council and slightly random features like “Where in the ward is this?” or, even more poetically, “Spot the stinkpipe” (it’s not a euphemism).

What the Whitley Pump did so beautifully, and what the best local writing manages, is to mythologise the area that it covers. Zoomed in, local figures can seem like giants or heroes, small businesses can become institutions. The Pump made Katesgrove feel like a blessed island in the middle of Reading, from its culinary outpost at Pau Brasil to the open space of Waterloo Meadows (it’s striking that it’s Katesgrove – diverse, scruffy, vital Katesgrove – that had this kind of coverage rather than, say, genteel Caversham).

Some of this was down to Matt Farrall, who wrote for the Pump until his untimely death in 2018. Reading Matt’s writing was a bit like taking a walk with a very good friend, not being able to get a word in edgeways and not minding in the slightest. He wrote personal reminiscences about being unemployed in the Eighties, he wrote restaurant reviews that were part review, part shaggy dog story, he interviewed local businesses. He even, one memorable evening three years ago, interviewed me. Many people make noise about supporting local businesses without doing an awful lot, but Matt lived by example: he was the first person to write about Fidget & Bob, and a constant champion of Blue Collar.

Originally that paragraph was full of hyperlinks. I included them with a real degree of sadness, knowing that in a few months’ time they may have stopped working. But they were worth clicking on – Farrall was one of those wonderful writers where you’d happily read him on almost any subject. It’s a skill, in these times of lockdown, that I especially envy.

I wish that he was still with us so I could read what he makes of these strange times. He’d have struggled in a world where he couldn’t frequent pubs, but he would have written about some epic walks: he used to lead a weekly walk from his office at lunchtimes. Some of the people who went were colleagues, some were people he knew and some were just waifs and strays he’d picked up along the way. When you really love somewhere the way Matt loved Reading, you can’t help but be an unpaid tour guide.

I have to declare a personal interest, because over the last couple of years my other half has written the occasional article for the Whitley Pump. She covered South Street’s Craft Theory, before we met, and the following year she wrote an article in the Pump about Reading Buses, and its ex-CEO Martijn Gilbert, which was part paean of praise and part pure, unadulterated love letter. Fortunately Martijn then relocated to the north-east, so my place in her affections is hopefully safe for now.

More recently, to my delight, she reviewed a play at Progress Theatre for the Whitley Pump and had to endure me telling friends that I was going out with the Whitley Pump’s new theatre correspondent. The lockdown, and the closure of the Pump, has put the kibosh on that.

The tributes poured in to the Whitley Pump online for the way it covered the town in general and Katesgrove in particular, including warm words from many of Reading’s councillors. One of the themes was that, in these times with no local paper worth speaking of and two local websites obsessed with lists and clickbait, the Pump was doing real journalism: a true part of the community, covering local issues and holding people to account.

I agree with that. It’s sad that the Whitley Pump, entirely staffed by volunteers, did such a good job of it while the Reading Chronicle, for example, is reduced to publishing an article about Reading’s best pubs which is entirely regurgitated from Facebook (“Mind-bogglingly shit” was one reader’s succinct response).

The wider question is why Reading, with so much going on, is unable to sustain a number of local websites. First there was Alt Reading, which had a good run until being wound up (it then came back as a half-hearted listings website which limped on until summer 2018). Then there was Rdg Now, so long ago that most people probably don’t remember it. Explore Reading has largely been mothballed for the best part of a year, and now the Whitley Pump has called it a day.

When Reading eventually comes out of lockdown its independent restaurants, cafés, theatres, bands, producers and shops are going to need help like never before: I really hope somebody fills that vacuum when the time comes. The problem, as we know by now, is that nobody is prepared to pay for content: everybody wants the good stuff, but only if it’s free.

There was an interesting postscript to the Whitley Pump saga in the form of a lengthy Facebook comment from Adam Harrington, one of the three co-founders of the site. In it, he described the closure of the site as an “unnecessary act of pure vandalism” and alleged that he’d been forced out by the other two founders after they censored him for what they saw as an overly political approach to some of Reading’s councillors. He added that they were closing the website against his wishes, even though he wanted to continue running it (at the time of writing, the Whitley Pump is yet to respond to those allegations).

Custody battles over websites are always tricky, and nobody knows the whole story, but – whoever is to blame – it’s a shame that we’re losing another local website at a time when they play such a vital role. I hope that if they can’t come to some agreement then, at the very least, another website rises from the ashes of the Whitley Pump (the Whitley Phoenix, perhaps?). I for one would gladly contribute.

* * * * *

When we entered lockdown, two extraordinarily long months ago, all of Reading’s restaurants were faced with an unenviable choice: move to takeaway and delivery, or close completely. Furlough your staff or (in some PR disaster cases) lay them off, only to rehire and furlough them later. That said, everybody handled it slightly differently. Most chains closed completely, some indies – like Bakery House, for instance – moved to takeaway, only to then decide to take a break. Others, like Namaste Momo, did likewise, only to make a comeback further down the line. Some restaurants partnered with Deliveroo, some with Just Eat and some – like Vegivores, Valpy Street or Thai Table – built their own online ordering capability.

Some cafes closed, some (like Tamp and Anonymous) started delivering coffee and kit instead. Geo Café, always ploughing its own idiosyncratic furrow, went into a metaphorical phone box and came out with its metaphorical underpants outside its metaphorical trousers as an all-singing, all-dancing produce store, bakery and veg box delivery scheme.

There were almost as many approaches as there were restaurants, and it’s got difficult to keep up: someone asked me this week to recommend a takeaway in the town centre and I had to rack my brains for several minutes, trying to remember who did what. And the situation still changes every week as, rightly or wrongly, we start to emerge from lockdown: Honest Burger and Nando’s are on Deliveroo now, C.U.P. open for takeaway today, and the likes of Prêt won’t be far behind.

I can only think of one restaurant that said that it was going to take its time and have a good old think, and that was Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen. They retreated to a cottage in the countryside, put up recipes to tide people over (and yet more of those envy-inducing photos on Instagram: thanks for that) and said they’d let everybody know when they had something to announce. The people of Reading held their collective breath, and they waited. And then they waited some more.

When Clay’s announced their plans in my interview a couple of weeks ago it was the closest thing to an exclusive that I’ve ever published. Instead of going down the takeaway route, Clay’s was going to sell cooked, vacuum-packed dishes that could be reheated at home, with a shelf life of ten days. The response on social media was immediate and palpable: even people who never read my blog (and probably felt dirty clicking on the link) were talking about it. Last week Clay’s announced that they were launching, and the clamour began. The orders crashed the website, and they sold out in six hours.

Last week Twitter began to buzz with picture of Clay’s food, looking incongruous on people’s hobs or away from that distinctive crockery, but looking pretty gorgeous all the same. Possibly more so, in fact: there’s always been something about the burnt orange of Clay’s walls, lovely though it is, that doesn’t work in photographs, gives the food a slightly unreal glow. But no, here it was in the wild, in people’s dining rooms and on their patios, bathed in sunlight, looking truly delicious.

“You know that feeling when everyone gets Glastonbury tickets and you forgot? Yeah, that” said Nick on Twitter – and the only way that sounded ridiculous was that eating Clay’s food is obviously infinitely preferable to going to Glastonbury. Even so, I completely knew what he meant.

The response online told you something else, too: again, people felt like they were being reunited with a friend. Not just in terms of the food – nearly everything on Clay’s delivery menu is new, and hasn’t been served at the restaurant – but because people saw familiar faces at their door, dropping off those beautiful yellow and orange paper bags, full of promise. One person admitted on Twitter to feeling emotional, receiving her delivery: I completely knew what she meant, too.

I got a delivery on Saturday, and as always I have to preface talking about the food by admitting that I would consider Nandana and Sharat to be friends (as explained here), so by all means take everything I’m about to say with a pinch of salt, but what they’ve done really is very clever indeed.

Clay’s is selling something that isn’t a takeaway, and isn’t really a ready meal either: it’s restaurant-quality food that will last in your fridge for over a week and takes less than ten minutes to heat up on the hob. One of the things that distinguishes Clay’s food at their special events is how much “cheffier” it is – more processes, more preparation and plating, more attention paid to how a dish looks. But one of the advantages of the food they are delivering is that none of that matters in the slightest: the taste is everything, and the taste is magnificent.

I particularly enjoyed the hara bhara kebab, vegetable patties almost like Indian croquettes, heated up in the oven and eaten with a sweet, rich tamarind chutney that made HP sauce taste like the vinegar Zoë always claims it is. I loved the wild boar curry, a rich, dry curry full of tender meat with a complex, sharp but gradual heat (I described it as a classic in the making on Twitter and, as if by magic, they took it off the menu: sorry about jinxing it).

But the real surprises were the things I expected to be unmoved by. Having had vacuum-packed rice (panic bought back in the days when supermarket shelves were largely a rice-free zone) I didn’t have great expectations of Clay’s rice. I should have trusted them – refreshed in a saucepan with a few tablespoons of water it retained all the spice and delicacy I’d have expected from the restaurant. The roti were even more of a revelation – flipped in a hot pan for thirty seconds each side they came out absolutely spot on (the packaging described the mixed roti as “John’s bread basket”, a tribute to John Luther, the restaurant’s first ever customer).

Earlier this week, I tackled other dishes in my delivery and they were just as good. Chilli paneer (pictured below) was beautiful with plenty of firmness and a marvellous, skilful kick.

The mains were completely different from the dishes I’d had in my previous meal – keema lamb with peas was packed with coconut and the lamb wasn’t so much minced as finely diced, with beautiful texture and not even an iota of bounce. Telangana chicken, one of the dishes I’d really fancied when I saw the menu online, was a fine, almost fruity dish with a generous amount of chicken thigh. It didn’t have the fire of some of the other dishes, but also felt to me – and this is more of a compliment than it may sound – like a high-end reimagining of the Vesta curries of my childhood.

I think Clay’s may really be on to something with this model. It does away with many of the frustrations of takeaway – feeling like you’re always accepting a compromise on restaurant food and taking the risk that by the time it’s at your door it’s just a little bit past its best. Selling food you can have on standby in the fridge for over a week is a genius idea, and the delivery radius Clay’s currently serves means that people who would have struggled to get takeaway from Clay’s will be able to try the food. Once they move to nationwide delivery I have several friends who will be sitting at their computers, fingers poised to push the button.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what lies ahead for cafés and restaurants, partly because of Clay’s and its brave decision to try something out of step with Reading’s other restaurants. Restaurants are going to need to think beyond lockdown to an uncertain time where the lockdown has been relaxed but social distancing is still in place. It remains to be seen whether the government will continue to extend grants and rent relief, and it’s not clear whether cafés and restaurants can survive on takeaway alone.

Even in the future, if we get a vaccine, there’s a risk that people’s spending habits will have changed so drastically – and for so long – that there won’t be a “normal” to go back to. And there are other variables – how will the market look when some of the players, as they inevitably will, drop out of it? The Casual Dining Group, which operates Las Iguanas and Bella Italia among others, filed to appoint administrators this week, and the closure of Reading’s Debenhams puts The Real Greek and Franco Manca at risk. And what about landlords: will they be willing to show latitude, or will they all behave like lovely cuddly John Sykes?

The restaurants and cafés that survive this will need to be both ingenious and lucky. You can already see signs of businesses trying something different, whether that’s Geo Café with its trikes and its brand new van, Clay’s with its home deliveries or Nibsy’s with its home doughnut kits. We’ve seen that ingenuity in lockdown, but they will need to show even more of it in the phase that lies ahead. We really are lucky to have so many impressive businesses doing so much.

But also, most importantly, they’ll need our support. For some businesses, like Fidget & Bob or Geo Café, they are very much part of the community where they’re based. But, as Fidget & Bob’s Shu said in her interview this week, restaurants simply can’t afford not to have a social media presence any more. Community is more than physical these days. Your front door is online now, even if people aren’t leaving their houses, and you can still talk to people wandering past it, gawping in your window and trying to decide whether to go in. If you don’t, they’ll go elsewhere.

But let’s leave the last word to Clay’s this week. They put up a beautiful Twitter thread last weekend after they completed their deliveries. It takes a village to raise a child, they said: Clay’s was their child and Reading, they’d learned, was that village. “Reading is a town that owns and protects you”, they concluded. Isn’t that beautiful? We did that – all of us – and we did it all from our sofas: I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so proud to live here.

Q&A: Shuet Han Tsui, Fidget & Bob

Despite having no direct experience of running a food business, at the end of 2017 Shuet Han Tsui made the now-or-never decision to take over a café site on Kennet Island with her business partner Breege Brennan, and Fidget & Bob was born. Prior to that she had worked in engineering manufacturing and start-up finance. Two and a half years later, Fidget & Bob is still standing: given their aching feet, that’s a lot more than can be said for its owners. Pictured below is the mighty Henry, Fidget & Bob’s instantly recognisable mascot who is famous for his regular appearances on social media.

Fidget & Bob continues to trade during lockdown, selling food and coffee to take away along with bread, fruit and veg, local beer and other provisions.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
The 11 day break we had scheduled for Easter.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Congee, often described as a rice porridge. Chicken congee is my go to comfort food.

You spend six days a week working in very close proximity to Breege. How do you avoid falling out, and what advice do you have for people currently spending more time than usual with their loved ones?
Carve out a little oasis of calm and personal space to ‘be alone’. Don’t be afraid to be voice what is bothering you or if the other person has pissed you off (it happens). Hear it out. Exercise your right to reply, but then move on quickly. Don’t brood.

We both take a lead on different things. While we are in the loop with everything going on, we crack on with our own jobs. Major decisions are discussed and fleshed out, but it isn’t possible to have joint decisions or consensus on everything. If we can’t agree, sometimes we have to defer to the other and hope for the best. If I’m proven right all along, it is desirable not to gloat (for too long). 

You famously won’t tell people where the name Fidget & Bob came from. What’s the funniest guess you’ve heard?
Oddly, people always focus on nouns. That interests me: the words might be verbs. We joke that it’s like the secret of Coca-Cola – but it’s really not. And now, it’s become this thing – so we daren’t say, as it’s almost, well… boring. One lovely American customer seemed determined to find the answer, and each time she visited, gave us a different explanation, one of which was naughty.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
This is clearly impossible to answer, so I’ll say that the ‘meal’ I always want to eat is Cantonese dim sum. Alas, this is no longer available in Reading. If I don’t fancy it, then all is lost. The last good dim sum meal I had was in a restaurant called Banquet in Colchester.

What is your most unappealing habit?
When I lose my temper I go deathly quiet, with a big dose of FO-vibes.

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
The Lyndhurst because I love good pub restaurants. I have wanted to go since it re-opened under new management, but getting there is tricky because of the hours we work. With the dark COVID-19 cloud looming over the hospitality industry, there is no time to waste. Places we’ve been meaning to go to literally may not open again.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
Kung Fu Panda.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
Something I’ve always appreciated, but even more so in the last few weeks: the indie scene. We support each other and help where we can. There is no sense that we are ‘competitors’. Ultimately, we understand how hard it is to run a business. We all benefit from a strong indie scene.

How do you relax?
Vodka tonic (ratio 4:1), TV, messing on the laptop, packet of crisps. All at the same time.

Fidget & Bob is so good at social media: what are your top three social media tips?
1. Your presence should be authentic and consistent. Don’t just log on because you ‘want’ something.

2. Results are mostly intangible and seemingly elusive, but definite.

3. People are a lot less interested in what you do than who you are. The content should perform one of two basic functions. It should either inform e.g. we have new beer, or it should give people a glimpse into the personality of the business.

And now for the rant: in 2020, it is not an optional extra to have a social media presence. It is – by far – our most effective way to stay in touch with existing customers and reach out to new ones. We have far more non-Kennet Island customers than we ever expected and that is overwhelmingly due to social media. It costs zero money. It takes a bit of time of maintain. To say you ‘don’t have time to do social media’ is like saying you don’t have time to talk to customers that walk in the door. 

What one film can you watch over and over again?
Elf. For the scene where he throws himself on the Christmas tree alone.

What is your superpower?
Excel. As in spreadsheets, not as in I excel at anything.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
M&S own brand honey roast Wiltshire ham crisps.

Where is your happy place?
Pottering around in the kitchen with the radio or a podcast on.

What is top of your bucket list?
Volunteer/work at a panda reserve. It is impossible not to love pandas.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Letting go is a lot easier than holding onto shit.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Pork pies. All pies.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I can tell you how to escape a car rapidly sinking in the river. I managed it unscathed. The car not so much.

Describe yourself in three words.
Calm. Analytical. Intolerant-of-twats.

Corona diaries: Week 7

Back in September 2018, when the coronavirus was just the stuff of alarmist dystopian feature films, I held only my third readers’ lunch at the Lyndhurst. A number of people who came to that lunch, although now regulars at the readers’ events, had never been to one before. Some have never returned since: I still wonder what became of the chap who showed us all videos of him taking part in competitive skydiving events.

Even so, by chance, the Venn diagram of people who read my blog threw up interesting results and overlaps. One of the lunch guests worked at the same school as another of the guests and sung in a choir with her colleague’s wife, also at the lunch. She had no idea that that couple would be there and yet there they were at the same table, Amazon’s people-who-bought-this-also-liked-this algorithm in human form.

Another person I met for the first time at that lunch was Helen. Helen had moved to Reading not that long ago, and was in the process of joining things and trying stuff out, dipping her toe in different scenes to try and find her place. She had volunteered at the Reading Fringe Festival, made her way to the cultural mecca of South Street and that day in September, taking her life in her hands, decided to come to a readers’ event on her own.

Lunch turned into afternoon drinks and then effortlessly segued – as those events often do – into evening drinks. When we all eventually parted company (in my case, for a shameful drunken wander to KFC) I remember hoping it wouldn’t be the last time Helen came along: her whip-smart dry humour and willingness to throw herself into spending a day eating and drinking with total strangers had made sure of that.

The following month, Zoë and I went to see The Mountaintop, pretty much on a whim, at Reading Rep. I didn’t love it as much as the reviews did – it was a little heavy-handed for me – but the play isn’t what I remember about that evening. On the way in to the auditorium to take our seats, we saw a familiar face. It was Helen: she said hello and we sat with her, having a drink together in the interval.

We were off to the Retreat afterwards to meet up with some of Zoë’s friends, so we asked her – would she like to come? Zoë’s friend Tom would be there – Tom, the epitome of quirky, woke, millennial man, a fascinating chap who had never read about a Kickstarter he didn’t like – and somewhere in the back of my mind I had an inkling that they might hit it off. She joined us, showing that same game spirit I’d so admired at our previous meeting, and the two of them ended up locked in conversation for much of the evening.

Some time the next month, Helen and Tom managed to find a slot in their schedules and went to dinner together at Clay’s (where else?). They had the table for two near the back, by the stairs; Helen, many months later, was emphatic that this most definitely wasn’t a date. It was just two single people, who seemed to find each other interesting, having a perfectly platonic evening of dinner and drinks. Even so, they spent most of the night talking: they were the last customers to leave.

The month after that was December, and when I did the seating plan for the final readers’ lunch of the year at Clay’s I made sure to sit Tom and Helen together. Maybe I was being a matchmaker, maybe I’m a hopeless romantic. It’s more likely, in truth, that I was just being a meddling stirrer. We all poured into the Retreat afterwards to carry on drinking: although Yuletide was still a couple of weeks away, people in the pub were already in their Christmas jumpers, and the tree was up.

Even after the numbers thinned out slightly our group was camped out at one of the big tables in the front room, chatting away until it was closing time. Before that event Tom and Helen weren’t a couple but somehow, after that event they were. Zoë and I spent New Years Eve that year in the Retreat with them, and the following year, gradually, they spent more and more time together.

“It’ll never last” said Helen, fatalistically, and yet somehow it did. There were holidays, to Holland (to attend, of all things, an international redhead festival, although Google calls it a “ginger weekender”) and Marrakech, and the following December at the Christmas readers’ lunch – again at Clay’s – Nandana brought them out a glass of bubbly each right at the start, as an anniversary present. One of my very favourite restaurants honouring two of my favourite people, at a time when everybody is celebrating: it was almost too perfect.

“Nandana always sits us at the same table, the one we sat at for our first date.” said Tom.

“It wasn’t a date.” said Helen, as she always did, but she was smiling all the same.

On New Year’s Eve Tom, Helen, Zoë and I spent New Year’s Eve at Geo Café, drinking an inadvisable amount of wine and eating a lot of khachapuri. I remember thinking how curious it is, that you meet plenty of people and you can never tell which ones will blossom into friendship and which ones fall, so to speak, on stony ground. I never let the two of them forget that I take at least some credit for their relationship, although I’m also writing about them here with a little trepidation: I don’t want Edible Reading to develop its own equivalent of the curse of Hello! magazine.

That evening at Geo Café was, like a lot of modern life, one coincidence hanging off another, and another, and another. If I hadn’t gone for dinner one January night at the Turks Head, over three years ago, deep in the frosty hinterland of my divorce I would never have become friends with Keti and Zezva. That’s how I found myself, many years later, at Geo Café celebrating the end of a very different year with her and her family. It was such a lovely evening, wearing paper hats and eating ajika chicken, breaking out the port after midnight as Anders, Geo Café’s baker, started playing folk songs on his fiddle. If I hadn’t met Zoë I would never have met Tom, and he wouldn’t have been there too. If Helen hadn’t taken the plunge and come to a readers’ lunch she wouldn’t have met any of us.

Lockdown has forced many couples to make choices they might ideally have postponed. I know of one couple who split up just as lockdown begun, a month into a tenancy agreement, and another couple who are forced to live apart in Reading and London, not quite at the right time to make such significant decisions.

I know people making do with housemates they wouldn’t necessarily choose as cellmates (“I just really miss having a hug, ideally I’d have five hugs a day” said one of Zoë’s friends, living with a housemate who is one rung up from total stranger). I know people chatting away to their matches on Tinder, not sure if or when they will ever meet. All those seeds of relationships are out there, some of them fated never to blossom. And that’s before we get to the doubtless many couples who should have split up before lockdown and now have no option but to sit it out. It makes me grateful to be locked down at this point in my life, in the right place, with the right person.

Even so, this situation would put pressure on the happiest of couples. We aren’t designed to spend quite this much time together, without going to work or having other things to do and people to see. I consider myself very lucky that patience, forbearance and the occasional long solo walk or time spent sealed away on headphones has got Zoë and I through things so far, even if the first couple of weeks were jarring as we adjusted, found our rhythm and our space. Even now, the occasional day comes along when one of us is gripped by what my former in-laws used to refer to as the “can’t help its”, and you wish you could just step out of the day, as if it was a room, come back in and start over. And I say that knowing that we’re some of the lucky ones.

I wondered what Tom and Helen would do about lockdown, but the answer has become apparent as time has gone on: every few weeks Zoë and I have a FaceTime with them and they are always at Helen’s place, where the fridge is full of beers Tom has ordered to be delivered there. Siren, West Berks, the Grumpy Goat and Double-Barrelled have all visited Helen’s place recently, along with Tom’s current passion, a brewery called Dutch Bargain that they discovered on holiday. It specialises in suggestively named beers like “Strawberry Suckfest”, “Cherry Cotton Candy Glitter Extravaganza” and “Seaman’s Surprise”: in my defence, I’ve only made one of those up.

I was on FaceTime with Tom and Helen, along with other friends, a couple of times last weekend, both conversations that started out as “just a few beers” and went on until long past midnight. It was Beer Festival weekend, and when you can’t go to the festival a long chat with good friends and an excellent supply of beers in the fridge is very much the next best thing. But even so, I found I wasn’t missing the festival anywhere near as much as I feared I might.

“He won’t mind me putting it this way” said Helen, “but having Tom around has been really lovely. It’s nowhere near as annoying as I thought it could be.”

Charming, you might say. But she also accidentally admitted that their first meal at Clay’s had been a date after all, something none of us will now ever let her forget. But the funniest thing is this: Helen so nearly didn’t meet Tom that evening in the Retreat. She was in two minds, she said, about whether to go to the theatre after a hard day at work. She had to force herself to leave the house to go to the theatre on her own, still looking for her place in things, and if she hadn’t all of our lives might have been completely different. There are so many forks in the road: they can seem insignificant at the time, but a lot can depend on them.

Life really is full of surprises in general and surprising connections in particular, and I think that might be one of the nicest and most welcome things about it. I for one am glad of all the connections I’ve made through writing this blog, all the friends I wouldn’t otherwise have met and the community I wouldn’t otherwise be part of. I don’t know if you make your own luck, but you definitely make your own community. When you think about it that way, the isolation we’re currently going through doesn’t feel so much like isolation after all.