Dr Quaff, the author behind the Quaffable Reading blog, has lived in Reading for over twenty years. His pub review blog was conceived as a group effort over too many pints of beer one night, but none of his friends has ever done much more than spell check, fact check and offer unconstructive criticism. That suits him fine, as he quite likes writing and now doesn’t want them to muscle in. He lives with his wife and children in Caversham.
What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
It’s a cliché, but going to the pub. I can work from home, I can get good restaurant food to take away, and I’ve got a fridge full of beer. I’m going to miss some great holidays, but I probably travel too much anyway. For me, what I really miss is meeting friends down the pub, and having a good chat. It’s good for your mental health to socialise and to unburden with people who you aren’t locked in a house with.
George Orwell famously wrote about the perfect pub in his essay The Moon Under Water. What characteristics, for you, define the perfect boozer?
I used to occasionally meet people in the Moon Under Water in Leicester Square – one of the earlier Wetherspoons. And that is the exact opposite of my ideal pub. You need to have space to sit down and relax. Stand at a gig, sit at a pub. Music should be loud enough to fill gaps in conversation, but quiet enough for you to be able to hear everyone. And ideally that music should have nothing earlier than The Queen Is Dead by the Smiths, and nothing later than AM by Arctic Monkeys.
And the beer should be fresh. In general I don’t mind which beer. There are so many different beers, and almost all of them are lovely if fresh and well kept. KeyKeg (beer served in a collapsing plastic bag type barrel where it never mixes with air, instead of a traditional steel barrel) does a great job of keeping beer fresh for a month or more, and I don’t understand why more smaller pubs don’t embrace it. Lastly, you need a friendly atmosphere where people are comfortable talking, perhaps even with people they don’t know. Good pubs are more about people than booze – that means a good landlord, good staff, and customers who enjoy being there.
What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The location. You could not pick a better spot in the whole country to put a town. There are green rolling hills literally just minutes away. The Thames and the Kennet flowing through the middle give us an amazing backdrop that we don’t make enough of. The journey to central London is faster than from many London suburbs. And coming from Scotland, I really appreciate the little microclimate that we get here. Reading seems to be ideally situated for warm, dry weather – we’re warmer than Devon and Cornwall for example and have 10% fewer rainy days than London.
What is your most treasured possession?
Do dogs count? If not, it’s my Fender Thinline Telecaster. I play the guitar (not very well), and this guitar is such a joy to play – lovely and light, with a really rich sound. I’ve got a few guitars, but this is the one I always go back to.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I was lucky enough to go to the Fat Duck once. The food was stunning, but the playfulness of it all was what really made it – cooking bacon and egg ice cream in a dry-ice frying pan at your table, for example. The most memorable part for me was the first course, which was a meringue cooked in liquid nitrogen, dusted in green tea. It just exploded in your mouth, leaving you with a mouth full of flavour, the meringue somehow gone before you could even bite down on it.
What is your most unappealing habit?
I’m a grammar pedant. If you use the wrong “there” or “to”, get an apostrophe wrong, or use “less” instead of “fewer”, I will judge you. I try to resist commenting on people’s mistakes on Twitter, but rest assured I notice and am internally keeping a list of who’s going to be first against the wall when the revolution comes.
What’s your earliest memory of food?
When I was about three, my parents had a dinner party. While they were distracted by guests, I went to the fridge and ate the entire block of Danish Blue that they had planned for desert. Danish Blue was a fancy cheese in those days. I don’t think it was a popular move.
What is the worst job you’ve done?
I did a summer job once at GEC Alstom. It was just at the time of an economic downturn, and they had no work for my department. They wouldn’t let us read or anything like that to fill the time though, so I spent about 75% of my time gazing into thin air but looking potentially busy in case the boss came in. It wasn’t much better out of work either. There weren’t many rooms to rent in the area at short notice, and I accidentally moved in with a couple of bank robbers. I only realised when the police raided our house one morning.
If I allowed you three desert island beers, what would they be?
Top of the list has to be just about anything from Siren Craft. They are the best brewery in the UK at the moment, and we’re lucky to have them on our doorstep. I really enjoy their “Suspended in…” series, where they make a new hazy IPA with a different hop combination every few weeks. It’s just arrived in cans, and I’d take that to any desert island.
Given that this is a fantasy list, my second beer would be the Mango APA from Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen. It’s an absolutely perfect accompaniment to a good curry, and I was gutted when the brewery, Home 2.0 Craft Beer, went out of business. So on my fantasy desert island, they are magically back in business, and air drop barrels to me every week.
Lastly, I think I’d have to go for a cider. A couple of years ago, local professional drinks writer Adam Wells gave me a much needed lecture on cider. To be called cider in the UK, a drink only needs to be 35% apples. The rest can be water, sweeteners, artificial flavourings and so on. And the bottled ciders I was drinking, generally over ice, don’t say how much apple they use, which is a bit of a giveaway that it’s most likely not that high. Adam persuaded me to try some Dunkertons Organic Black Fox Cider, and it was a revelation. So much flavour in there that was missing from the “heavy on the advertising, low on the apples” cousins that are found in every pub. So I’d take that Black Fox Cider with me too.
Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
Clay’s. I don’t even have to think for a second about that one. My two favourite restaurants are Clay’s and Kung Fu Kitchen. Thankfully Kung Fu Kitchen is doing takeaway during the lockdown, but I’m really missing Clay’s. I can place my order now without looking at the menu – Kodi Chips, babycorn pepper fry, and chicken biryani. Nowhere else does food anything like it, and I can’t wait to go back. Even if there is no mango beer.
What was your most embarrassing moment?
I saw a tweet the other day that said something like When parents say “Go to your room and think about what you’ve done,” it’s really good practice for what you do every night as an adult. Like most adults I all too often lie in bed and think of embarrassing things I did decades ago, and if I could change one thing in life it would be that my brain didn’t waste cycles on doing that. I can remember more about peeing my pants at the age of five than I can about my own wedding day. I never lie in bed and think about an amazing holiday or fantastic achievement, but can lie awake all night going over some inconsequential act I wish I’d done slightly differently. It’s the worst thing about being an adult, and the sooner someone invents a memory wipe like in Men In Black, the better.
What one film can you watch over and over again?
This is really hard. I’m a massive movie fan. Pre-lockdown we typically went to Showcase at least once a month, and I’ve got a big projector at home where we watch multiple movies every weekend. But I’ve also got a short attention span, and a film can go from being the best to completely tedious if I watch it too often. As a semi-educational project, I helped the kids write some software to track what we watch to avoid the frequent arguments about “but we just watched that one two weeks ago”. It hasn’t worked – we forget to enter the movie and still have the arguments. When Jeff Bezos reads this, my plea to him is to release an API to make our watch history available so that we can automate it.
But I dodged the previous question, so I guess I’ll have to pin my colours to the mast on this one. Casablanca. It’s got such a well written script, and the lack of special effects make it timeless. I could watch it far more often than our database tells me we have watched X-Men: Days of Future Past.
What is your favourite smell?
I love the smell of the sea. I’ve spent a lot of time diving off the south coast of England. A great weekend for me was driving to a slipway at 6am to catch the slack tide, dive a World War 2 wreck, and be back on dry land in time for a bacon sandwich for breakfast. That would be followed by a trip to the local dive shop to fill our tanks before doing the same again in the afternoon and then heading to the pub all evening to tell tall tales about what had happened. The smell of the sea reminds me of those days, and if you pair that with the smell of fish and chips, I’m in heaven.
Which of your reviews has been the most controversial, and why?
It’s probably The Bugle. I went there with professional reviewer’s assistant Zoë, and we had the most bizarre evening. We got dragged in to conversation with some people who are actually in need of Alcoholics Anonymous intervention. They were very nice to us in the way that people are only as long as you are agreeing with them and promising to keep drinking with them. I actually wrote a review that really pulled the punches to avoid being to unkind to those people, who clearly have a genuine problem. I got attacked on Twitter afterwards though by one individual who felt that I was unfair in my description, and also that I was too rude about the punters in there. He’s deleted the tweet now, but he said something along the lines that if I ever spoke about him the way I spoke about the people in that pub, he’d do me over.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
This is a tricky one, because if I had my fantasy list of Richard Feynman, Kurt Cobain, Douglas Adams and John Cleese, I’d be the boring one by comparison, and how would I impress Hannah Fry, J K Rowling and Nigella Lawson who’d be there too.
I’d love to spend an evening chatting with Tony Blair – I think he’s one of the most effective thinkers of our time. By effective, I mean he actually got good things done. And to all the people who are shouting “but Iraq!” at the screen, Iraq was a political mistake, and our media ensured it was concluded badly. But I don’t think it was a moral mistake – Saddam Hussein was committing genocide against his own people, and it was the right thing to stop the persecution and slaughter of a huge group of people.
I’m also a massive fan of the economist Tim Harford. His More Or Less podcast is always top of my listening list, and I think he would be the perfect person in a discussion to keep it honest and interesting. So my perfect dinner party is me, Tony and Tim down the pub with some packets of pork scratchings, putting the world to rights.
What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Pipers chorizo crisps. Immensely salty and spicy at the same time. They are easy to get these days, but in the past I could only get them at Reading Beer Festival, and I would leave the tent with my glass and four big packs of crisps each evening. Often one of them would get eaten on the way home, and the others would rarely last until the next weekend.
Where is your happy place?
Sitting on a balcony overlooking a beach, with a gin and tonic, some olives and a book. I only do that on holiday, and it says “I had nothing stressful to do today, and there’s no to-do list waiting for me”. That feeling of no obligations is the most relaxing part.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Whenever my wife is out for the evening, I’ll make myself a Chinese chicken curry. I have a stock of Chinese curry sauce from Tesco that only I’m allowed to eat, and if there’s no chicken in the house, I’ll happily eat it on its own. I get a bit antsy if she isn’t out for a long time and I have to just eat healthy food with her. Fingers crossed that that’ll be my biggest hardship of the lockdown.
Tell us something people might not know about you.
I have four Twitter feeds and three blogs. They don’t follow each other, and the topics are all completely different, so you’ll almost certainly never find them.
Describe yourself in three words.
Geeky and proud.
2 thoughts on “Q&A: Dr Quaff, Quaffable Reading”
Well written by you, well answered by him!!! Entertaining and informative too.
And the sun is still shining! Thank you so much.
Best wishes, Patricia
Patricia Williams Out Loud http://www.outloud.org.uk 07803 838200
You’re welcome, Patricia! I knew Dr Q would give good copy, I’ve been looking forward to publishing this one.