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.


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