A short intermission this week, partly because doing twelve weeks of these diaries in a row is quite enough to put you all through and partly because I’m superstitious and this would be week thirteen. I once had a city break in Helsinki where I stayed in a converted prison and they put me in Room 13. It was a really lovely room – well, cell – but even so I asked if they could move me: sadly it wasn’t possible. My lovely night’s sleep – and my Facebook friends’ jokes about me being careful not to drop the soap in the shower – did nothing to fix the superstition.
I couldn’t leave you with nothing to read this week, so instead you get a blast from the past – a reprint of the interview I did with Matt Farrall from the Whitley Pump, back in 2017 when I was just starting restaurant reviews again after a post-divorce sabbatical. It was a lovely chat in The Turks, over a beautiful meal cooked by Caucasian Spice Box (as they were known back then). At times it felt more like a rambling conversation than an interview, but amid all of Matt’s brilliant anecdotes and ruminations – I wasn’t entirely sure who was interviewing who at one point – he asked plenty of interesting questions. Some of the questions were supplied by Matt’s friend Donna, who at the time I only knew from Twitter.
Three years on, everything has changed. I have spent the best part of three happy years reviewing restaurants, until the pandemic closed them all. Keti and Zezva left the Turks that summer, and have finally found a permanent home at Geo Café where, for my money, they bake the town’s finest bread. Donna has become a regular guest at my readers’ lunches and if you’re on the same table as Donna and her partner Nige you are guaranteed a brilliant, entertaining time.
Matt sadly died two years ago, but leaves behind a body of brilliant work at the Whitley Pump. And the Whitley Pump itself has announced its closure, as I covered in my diary a while ago. Since the survival of all of the writing on the Whitley Pump is by no means guaranteed, this seemed to be a good moment to rescue this piece. Normal service will resume next week – and I have a belting interview for you next Tuesday – but in the meantime I hope you enjoy this.
For the past four years or so, Edible Reading has been the fearless Keyser Söze of Reading’s food scene, the anonymous blogger and local food chronicler of our times. I not only managed to track ER down to the great Katesgrove boozer The Turks for an 80s-Smash-Hits-style interview, but I also managed to eat an incredible, table-creaking five course Georgian meal from former in-residence food sensation Caucasian Spice Box just before they left the pub for pastures new.
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well” said Virginia Woolf and, good lord, we had five courses of glory that night. I would recommend you try their food at the Blue Collar street food market on a Wednesday or wherever they set up in future: it doesn’t taste like anything I have eaten before. The meatballs alone are a work of spicy, meaty, dense joy, served with sauce divine and made with love and national pride.
All I can say about ER’s appearance without giving anything away, is that prison tattoos along with bleached permed hair, dark dreadlocked eyebrows and a tank top with tartan Lycra strides have never been so beautifully arrayed. I swore an oath over a picture of Robin Friday and a lardy cake that I would never ever breathe a word of their identity.
What do you think of food photos?
Well, I do it, so I can hardly complain. But I probably wouldn’t if I wasn’t reviewing meals.
Can you cook?
No! I can cook about three dishes. I’ve never understood this idea that restaurant reviewers must also be cooks: just because you love music doesn’t mean you can play the guitar.
What would be your death row meal?
Do I get three courses? I’d start with sashimi. I love Japanese food and it’s very light, so it leaves room for the rest. Shamefully, I’d have really good, perfectly crispy southern fried chicken – like KFC used to be before it got grubby. And I’d skip dessert and go for a cheeseboard.
How do you attract a waiter’s attention?
Like everyone else: I meerkat up from my menu hoping that they spot me, and generally they do. I do have a bad habit of sitting with my back to the room and so delegating that job to someone else.
What’s your best wrong food?
I love pork scratchings, but they’re a bit middle class now. For all-time wrong, it has to be a Fray Bentos. It’s the soggy underpastry.
Favourite bar snacks?
The range in the Allied is about right, I think. Bacon and Scampi Fries, peanuts, flamin’ hot Monster Munch. All the food groups.
How many fridge magnets do you own?
I do not own a single fridge magnet.
Where did you learn to write so well?
At school I guess! But I think writing is like other forms of exercise: the more you do it, the better you get.
Have you tried lardy cake?
Yes, as a child. But it’s not my bag as I just don’t like dried fruit.
Do you have any no-go desserts?
Apart from not liking dried fruit I’m not a big fan of hot desserts, all that school dinners stuff. I often wonder if a dessert’s really going to be more fun than going home and having a bar of chocolate.
Name some pretentious foods.
I don’t think there are pretentious foods, just pretentious people. It would be easy to knock foams and veloutés and serving food on slates, but I don’t like clichés. If food is good, it’s good.
What about the rise of street food?
I’ve been critical of street food on Twitter because it never feels that much cheaper than food in restaurants even though they’ve cut out a lot of overheads. But that said, Blue Collar does some great stuff, and it feels like they have the balance about right.
Has Reading’s food improved?
Unquestionably it’s improved. On the one hand, we have a proliferation of good independent restaurants (and cafés and producers) who are starting to work together to build a food culture. We’re also seeing some of the smaller, more interesting chains come here – driven, I expect, by Crossrail.
Do you ever feel guilty about relating the bad food experiences?
I’d feel guiltier if I pulled my punches about a restaurant and readers went there and had a crap meal. I always try to be kind and constructive with small independent places unless they’re really exploitative. It’s different with chains: they can take it, and they should know better.
Do you like music in restaurants?
Not especially. You should be with someone where you don’t notice the music.
Are you a generous tipper?
Yes, and I can’t stand people who aren’t.
Do you split the bill equally?
I’d prefer not to eat with people who don’t share the bill equally (unless someone isn’t drinking). It’s like the rounds system in pubs: sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind, but it balances out in the long run.
Where are you from?
Bristol. I moved here when I was eight and, apart from university, I’ve pretty much been here ever since. It’s never been better than it is now.
Where was your first ever review?
Pepe Sale, one of my favourite restaurants. The first places I went to were places people might well know, so they could see if they agreed with me.
I think your ratings list is a massive achievement; is it a labour of love?
I prefer to see it as a body of work.
Where would you go for sustenance if it’s too late for an evening meal?
King’s Grill every time! It’s open until 2am, it’s spotlessly clean, the staff are amazing and it does brilliant chicken kebabs.
What food and other writers do you admire?
I don’t like restaurant reviewers who make it all about themselves. The broadsheet reviewers are more entertaining than informative, but they’re just not my bag. Outside food, I admire Barbara Pym, Anne Tyler, Phillip Larkin and Tove Jansson (who wrote the Moomin books but also wrote beautiful books for adults). I’d give my eye teeth to write like David Sedaris.
Are you happy to be anonymous and unrecognised or would it be nice to get an award or two?
I’ve never given a shit about awards. But I do love that fact that every week someone on Twitter says they’ve eaten at a place I recommended and loved it: that feels like winning the lottery. I’m just glad I’ve done my bit to make Reading a nicer place to live and eat in.
Can average food be OK in a great setting and vice versa?
Absolutely it can. An okay meal can be elevated by great service and atmosphere. A good meal is the result of a complicated blend of factors. I have eaten technically brilliant foods in soulless rooms served by chilly people and thought that I’d rather have been at Caucasian Spice or Bakery House. And if you don’t believe me, think about meals on holiday. They’re often brilliant, even when the food is nothing special.
Have you ever had a quasi-religious feeling of ecstasy from a great dish?
Many times. I think if you love food it’s often because you’ve had an experience like that as a child – frequently abroad – and you’re chasing that dragon for the rest of your life. Counterintuitively, when I really love a dish I shake my head.
Custard, ice cream or cream?
Ice cream every time. I don’t like custard: I don’t trust liquid with a skin.
Do you eat a messy burger with your hands or use cutlery?
I’m not afraid to eat burgers with cutlery. Whatever works, basically. I know some people judge this, but burgers nowadays are so enormous that you have to unhook your jaw to eat them, so what are you supposed to do?
Why are you compelled to write?
I love writing, I love writing about food and I hoped people would enjoy it. I think all needs to have an audience in mind – if not, you may as well keep a diary. It’s not for posterity though: if I wanted to write something timeless it wouldn’t be a review of an Italian restaurant.
What’s your favourite biscuit?
I’m going through a phase of liking a milk chocolate Hob Nob but my all time favourite is Choco Leibniz: it’s basically a Rich Tea having sex with a giant slab of chocolate.
Do you have other interests other than food?
Same as everyone I guess – I like going to the pub and I have a great group of friends who I love dearly. I enjoy travel and am a keen but very amateur photographer.
I have re-discovered lovely loose leaf tea. Where should I go?
Definitely C.U.P. They do the best loose leaf tea in Reading without exception.
What is your madeleine moment; that strong memory brought on by food?
It is a personal story, but I didn’t speak to my mother for several years and when we reconciled she went through a phase of cooking me all my childhood favourites. So for me it’s her stew and dumplings and, perhaps most of all, her steak and mushroom pie.
And where do you go for breakfast in Reading?
Reading’s a bit poor for breakfast, but I do like Côte‘s French breakfast with crumbly sweet boudin noir and, to my surprise, Bluegrass which also does very nice baked eggs. Still haven’t found a decent omelette, mind you. Maybe I need to head to Rafina.
The honesty, wit and precision of the reviews, along with the dissection of evidence and an obvious love of our town, are distinctive traits of ER’s writing.
“In a time of a universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act” can be applied to personal lives, food or any other important cultural or political issue in my view. Edible Reading are a veritable catcher in the rye bread; they are like Orwell’s apocryphal rough men in the night, protecting us against the bad and the mediocre, exposing the complacent established behemoths and extolling the virtuous, without fear or favour.
It is heartening to know they shall not cease this culinary fight, nor shall their knife and fork sleep in their hands. They are doing it for us, with scant regard to their bank balance and waistline, bless them and praise them whoever they are.