Corona diaries: Intermission

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.

– photo by Adam Harrington

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.

Q&A: Joanna Hu, Kungfu Kitchen

Born in China’s Shandong Province, Joanna Hu did her first degree there before moving to Wales to study a BA there as an exchange student. She then did a Masters at Warwick University, where she met her future husband Steven. She spent ten years working in telecoms and then food, progressing from sales executive to head of sales, but never gave up on the dream of running her own business. At the end of 2018, her family moved to Reading to start their adventure, opening Kungfu Kitchen on Christchurch Green offering authentic regional Chinese food.

Eighteen months later, Kungfu Kitchen is a firm favourite in Reading and many of its dishes – salt and pepper tofu, lamb with cumin, fish fragrant pork and sweet and sour aubergines to name but a few – have attained iconic status. Joanna and Steven have kept Kungfu Kitchen trading during lockdown, delivering across Reading, while homeschooling their two children and carrying out improvements to the restaurant: Steven may be Reading’s most recognised (and most knackered!) delivery man.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
I miss people eating in our restaurant. We have such fun together – they become friends and even family for us. I believe eating in a restaurant is about more than food and service, it’s also a meeting of souls. 

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The people! People in Reading are so much friendlier and I love the community they have made. I can one hundred per cent say that I don’t regret giving everything up to move to Reading. There have been some difficult moments, but overall we feel so appreciated and so lucky to have met so many lovely people. The world is so big and life is not forever, so I feel fortunate to have found this place. We love Reading.  

What’s your earliest memory of food?
I come from the seaside, from Rizhao City (it means sunshine) in Shandong Province, and in Rizhao you eat seafood all the time, even for breakfast. When I was a little kid, we ate huge prawns and crabs, just simply boiled or steamed. The natural flavour is just the best. I wish I could take you all to China and to my hometown to see and feel the real China, Chinese culture and Chinese people. 

What’s the one dish on your menu you feel most passionate about?
Hotpot isn’t on our normal menu, but I always wanted to make it more widely eaten. It’s like a fondue. You have a hot pot full of flavoured broth (several of them, actually, spicy or mild) simmering on the table in front of you and you cook raw ingredients in the pot as you go along – whether that’s thinly sliced meat, tofu, seafood or vegetables. You don’t have it with rice or noodles, you eat with with a dipping sauce with plenty of sesame and garlic.

It’s a great way to eat because the meals go on for a long time, with all of you sitting around the pot talking and eating. It’s such a comfortable, sociable, relaxed experience with friends, family or even colleagues. And having lots of different broths and ingredients means it’s very easy for everybody – carnivores, vegetarians and vegans – to eat together.

How do you relax?
Reading books and journals and watching funny programmes online. But when lockdown finishes, I’ll go back to the leisure centre to join the cycling program: it’s my favourite sport.  

What is your favourite smell?
I love all the smells that come out of our restaurant kitchen every day. I’m very lucky – I get to smell it all the time without putting on weight! 

What made you decide to move to Reading and open a restaurant here?
Let’s start with why I wanted to open a restaurant. When I came to the UK in 2003 to study I found out that what people think of as Chinese food isn’t authentic, and that the China in people’s minds is nothing like the real China and real Chinese culture. So I always had a dream of opening my own authentic Chinese restaurant. I’ve always believed that food and love are the same thing – and then I met Steven, my Mr Right, and an English chef. Is that fate or a coincidence? God knows, but I knew I was the luckiest woman in the world for sure. He takes care of me, looks after me and spoils me.

So why Reading? Being head of sales for twelve years I travelled a lot in the UK and I always had my eye on opportunities to start my own business and places where I could open a restaurant. When I identified a site in Reading, Steven and I sat down and had the big conversation – he believes in me more than I believe in myself – and he said that if I was sure about this one, we should go ahead. So I resigned my job in sales and we took on this site and it was settled. I think working in food was my destiny.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
It was definitely eating fish in a restaurant in my home town. The owner of the restaurant worked on the fishing boats during the day and then cooked it in the evening – a huge, fresh fish cooked simply for a couple of hours. It was just so delicious.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
I had to do a big motivational speech to cheer my team up at work, but the thought of doing it made me so nervous that when the time came, I forgot most of the words. It probably wasn’t as motivational as I’d hoped! 

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
Being honest, although I love Reading I miss the food in Birmingham. They have the most authentic South Asian food: Ladypool Road in particular has many amazing restaurants.

You and Steven make a fantastic team. What’s the secret of your success?
To be fair it helps that we have a really good head chef leading the kitchen! Steven and I manage the rest of it together: he is great at operations and logistics (and paperwork!) I do customer service. We divide the responsibilities between us but also monitor and encourage each other. We had our teething troubles, but I think we’re getting stronger and stronger as a unit. We have the same goal: to provide the most authentic quality Chinese cuisine and the best unique service that we can. And we care about each other, and our customers. We want people to feel at home, like they have family looking after them. Problems are always easier to solve over a really good meal, and strangers are just friends we’re yet to meet.

How did you and Steven meet?
I think I was meant to meet Steven! When I got the offer to do a masters degree at Warwick I told my father I didn’t want any financial support (I’m very proud) and that I would do part time jobs to support myself. Warwick University has one of the biggest conference centres in Europe and they needed hundreds of part-time employees so, along with my Chinese friends, I worked there. 

I usually worked as a PA to management but one day on my lunch break I heard that there was a really handsome chef that all the girls were fighting to work with. I found that hard to believe, but my curiosity got the better of me so I went to have a look. And oh my goodness, he really was that handsome: that’s when I started to believe in love at first sight.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
All our customers, who have found a place for our restaurant in their hearts and given our food a chance.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
It is not a film, it’s a TV series: Friends. I even wanted to name my children after the characters, but Steven vetoed all of them apart from Rachel and then I had two boys. I’ll just have to ask my sons to look for girlfriends called Rachel. 

What is the most important lesson life has taught you? 
Lots of them! There’s no shortcut to success: Rome wasn’t built in a day. You have to focus on quality or your business won’t succeed. You have to find talented people. You can’t always control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond. And don’t ever quit. 

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Surprisingly, I don’t normally eat crisps (although I’ve tried many types). If I had to choose, it would be original Pringles. They’re crisps, right?  

Where is your happy place?
By the seaside, with a fine sandy beach and not many people around. Sitting on the beach reading books, running and playing with my kids, and then cooking the seafood we’ve caught ourselves. That’s the life I long for.

I’ve eaten at Kungfu Kitchen and had the fear of God struck into me by your karaoke machine. What song would you sing at karaoke?
Wow, good question! I actually have a really good singing voice and came third in a singing competition back at university in China. I’ve hardly sung at all since I came to the UK, because my life has completely changed. I arrived in the UK in 2003 the week before Chinese New Year, homesick and eager to explore this new world, but because I felt my English wasn’t good enough I lost confidence in singing English songs and, eventually, Chinese songs too. And now I’m so busy I hardly get time to stop. But to answer your question, the song I like the most is My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion. I’ll sing for all my customers, one day.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
I love seafood, cooked naturally and simply, like it is back in Shandong. Shellfish especially, just boiled or steamed.

Describe yourself in three words.
Kind. Straightforward. Funny. 

Corona diaries: Week 12

I love the film Airplane!, and my favourite of its many running jokes involves Lloyd Bridges’ hapless tower supervisor Steve McCroskey. “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking”, he announces relatively early in the movie as the scale of the challenge before him becomes apparent, before popping a cigarette in his mouth and lighting it.

As the film degenerates, McCroskey also announces that he picked the wrong week to quit drinking and amphetamines, hip flask and pill jar in hand, before culminating in his decision to fall off the glue sniffing wagon. He inhales greedily through one nostril, then the other, before falling backwards, cross-eyed and catatonic. It’s a perfect cinematic moment.

The reason I’ve been thinking about Steve McCroskey is that in the run-up to lockdown I was making a conscious decision to lose weight and lower my alcohol intake and, to paraphrase the great man, it looks like I picked the wrong time to quit comfort eating and boozing. Nearly everyone I know is relying on alcohol to get them through weeks stuck at home, and lockdown presents an almost infinite number of opportunities for what I can only describe as chonkification.

It’s especially difficult for me, as someone who has always used food and drink to fill a no doubt gaping spiritual void. “He’s only truly happy when he’s eating or drinking” my mum told Zoë, shortly after we got together and, sad to say, there is probably some truth in that.

I made the decision to lose weight last winter. I was doing a clearout of my wardrobe, picking things to send to the charity shop, and it involved one of the most depressing processes known to man, where you try clothes on to work out whether they still fit. It made me realise just what a high percentage of my clothes simply sit in drawers, folded and undisturbed, because I don’t want to face the reality that I probably can’t wear them any more.

Zoë’s approach to this, pragmatic and not unkind, wasn’t like any I’d experienced with previous partners. Clothes were divided into categories: “okay, you’d need to lose a stone to fit into that”; “two stone for that one” and “forget it – by the time you fitted into that you’d want to buy something new to celebrate”. I made my decisions, black bags were filled and I decided, this time, to actually do something about it.

My first weigh-in took place, bleary-eyed, on the scales in the bathroom one Friday morning in October. “It’s best to weigh in on a Friday, so you can tear the arse out of it over the weekend and then make up ground the rest of the week” said Zoë, clearly speaking from experience.

Needing spectacles is often a nuisance – when you have your hair cut, for example, and you have no idea how it’s looking until right at the end – but when having weekly weigh-ins I was decidedly glad that I couldn’t see the number on the scales. Zoë made a note of it, and we made a deal that every week she would tell me how much I had gained or lost but not my actual weight. I reckoned that would be too demotivating.

I didn’t have any grand plan for how to lose weight. I just knew that you either exercised more, or ate less, or did a combination of the two. Looking at the amount that I ate in a week, I could see a calorie intake with plenty of opportunities to make cuts. Was having chocolate most nights really a sensible decision? Did I honestly need that second sugar in tea and coffee? Was I drinking that additional latte in Workhouse because I loved it, or because I was bored and I didn’t want to head home?

I’m very much a food lover, but in all honesty the last square of chocolate, inevitably, tastes exactly the same as the first. And when you hoover food down without even really noticing, the way I can sometimes, you could argue that there really isn’t much enjoyment in it, or much point. So I decided to be mindful, and make a note of everything I ate every day, and try to trim some of the excess. I didn’t stop eating out – those restaurant reviews weren’t going to magic themselves into existence – and I didn’t stop going to the pub, but I thought I would see how far that got me.

Between October and lockdown, my weight loss was very much two steps forward, one step back. Some weeks the weigh-in was a cause for celebration, some weeks the celebrations of the previous seven days made for grim readouts. There was the holiday in Paris – that was a setback – and of course Christmas, when nobody loses weight. That was okay, I decided, because weight loss should be a controlled descent, rather than a crash landing. People who lose a lot of weight quickly often look like the air’s been let out of them in a hurry: this would be more like having a slow puncture, I decided.

Even when I was making depressingly little progress, something was changing in my mind. Just as a hangover is the bill biology hands to you at the end of a brilliant evening, weight gain is the consequence of all the fun you had. And when you look at the receipt, if you decide that the payback didn’t feel proportionate, you have to do something differently. Gradually I began to think about calories a little more: did I really want this particular treat? Was it genuinely worth it? A single chocolate HobNob, for instance, has nearly a hundred calories in it. Was it really worth demolishing a third one, or was two enough?

Zoë said that she sometimes used the acronym HALT in situations like this: was she really hungry, or just anxious, lonely or tired? Anxious made a lot of sense – I am usually battling at least one low-level anxiety or another – but, more damning than that, I think I often just do it because I’m bored. Comfort eating is, after all, one of the safer ways to go looking for trouble.

And so to (very moderate) exercise. I also started using the health app on my phone to track how many steps I was taking every day, which essentially measured how often I left the house. I’ve not developed David Sedaris levels of obsession, but on the days when I go for a walk I feel like a failure if I come in under ten thousand steps. Most of the time that involves a stroll up towards the university, round the Harris Garden, back down to Reading Old Cemetery and home, which normally gets me to the magic number: I tell myself that pacing the length of the kitchen doing the drying up does the rest.

People are still everywhere, in greater numbers than I’m comfortable with. This week Zoë and I went for a walk down the Thames from Caversham Bridge, heading in the direction of Mapledurham. It was a warm, close evening, still light at nine o’clock, and the path was thick with people. Just off the path, congregated around a bench, I saw a group of almost a dozen people clustered together, smoking and drinking and chatting. “You’re going to have to stop muttering as you go past these people,” Zoë told me. “There’s no point.”

By the time we went into lockdown, I had lost about half a stone, but I still had to reckon with the other main reason behind my calorie intake: the booze. Zoë had decided to cut down on her drinking last year, and she recommended that I download the app she was using. So I did that back in November, reasoning that I didn’t drink that much anyway and that moderation would be a doddle. How little I knew.

With the app, called DrinkAware, you log every single drink you have and the number of units in each. Often, that involves finding a way to navigate the app, as (appropriately) it contains a limited number of drinks. It definitely doesn’t cover all the weird and wonderful beers and ciders which have taken up residence in my basement.

The app helpfully tots up your units, tells you how many drink-free days you’ve had and whether you’re high risk for that week or month. There is even a functionality where you can get the app to flag hot spots where you tend to do a lot of your drinking. I didn’t enable that, because if I had the app would have ended up contradicting the official health advice from the government by telling me to get the hell out of my house, and fast.

You probably know this already, but I didn’t: the recommended maximum intake is 14 units of alcohol a week. I certainly didn’t know that the average pint of cider – my usual pub drink – uses up 2.6 of them. But that’s okay, I reasoned, because I don’t go to the pub that often and I don’t drink that much when I do. Unfortunately, the data from the app suggested otherwise. I excused November because I’d been on holiday in Paris, and I decided I’d earned a pass for December because it was Christmas. And for January – well, everyone needs cheering up in January, don’t they? But even in February and March, although I was drinking less than I used to, I was still consuming more than you’re meant to.

Getting that under control in lockdown has been one of the most surprising aspects of how the world has changed. For three months now I’ve been drinking comfortably within limits, and it hasn’t felt like privation or donning some kind of Covid hair shirt. If you add the number of units I had in April and May, it’s still fewer than I consumed in the whole of November.

I have a drink when I feel like it – on a hot day after a walk, or because some interesting beers have arrived – but I often stop at the one. I still have a virtual pub session once every few weeks, and that blows most of my allowance for the week, but when I do it’s a special event rather than me chugging through pints, as I would in a real pub, just because they are there.

It makes me realise just how much social interaction revolves around drinking, and how much drinking is driven by being sociable. If someone is going up to the bar to get a round in, you ask for another even if you don’t necessarily need it. If it’s coming up to last orders, you get a gin and tonic in as a finisher even though you’ve already had quite enough. I have a friend who will turn up to the pub, say she’s not stopping, buy her own drinks, have a couple of halves and then shoot off home: I used to find this strange, but now I admire her iron will. She is, unsurprisingly, thin.

I crossed the Rubicon in late April: I had finally lost a stone. At that point, to celebrate, I asked Zoë to tell me exactly how much I weighed (and, by implication, how much I had weighed when I began all this). If I’d known how depressing the number would be, I might not have asked, but it was still good to know how far I had come, even if it showed that I had some way to go. Things being as they are, it was a Rubicon I re-crossed – in both directions – in the weeks ahead, but for the last few weeks my gradual descent has continued.

It’s hard to visualise a whole stone. I find the easiest way is to picture those bags of sugar that I take far longer to work my way through these days. I’ve lost six big bags of sugar – a lot of weight, and yet looking at my body I can’t quite figure out where it has gone. Six bags of sugar has been spirited away, but to my eyes I still look the same. When you weigh more than you want to, you get used to trying to be photographed in certain ways that conceal it: from above, from a distance, not side on. Maybe what’s really happened is that I’m starting to look just a little more like the flattering photographs.

And maybe not. Zoë showed me a picture she had taken of me almost a year ago, on holiday in Bologna, and I can see it: my face is bigger, more rounded, the edges less distinct. Just to twist the knife, Facebook recently threw up a memory with a photograph of me from when I was 19, looking away from the camera, with a jawline I would kill for now (“all prick and ribs, as my mum puts it” said Zoë). But there is progress, even if it’s slower than I might like.

By the time this piece goes live I will have had my dreaded weigh in. On the weeks I’ve lost weight I celebrate, on the weeks I’ve gained I am glum. The weeks when it stays static can go either way: I’m either frustrated or I look at what I’ve eaten and drank and deep down, I know that I’ve dodged a bullet. It seems to be an inexact science, and the result is often one I haven’t predicted.

Either way, tomorrow I will have a takeaway and I have a virtual pub to hop on in the evening. Zoë is already going through the beer in the basement, if not physically then in her mind, working out what we’ll sample next. My DrinkAware app will flash red to tell me that you shouldn’t have ten units in a single sitting, something I already know. But however it turns out, I will properly appreciate every single sip of those drinks. And when I have my hangover the following morning, when biology hands me the bill, I will know that it was really worth it.

Q&A: Phil Carter, Anonymous Coffee

Phil Carter has lived in and around Reading all his life and worked in the hospitality industry for the best part of thirty years. After a twelve year stint at hospitality giant Baxter Storey, he left to pursue his dream of a job in the coffee industry in 2013. He spent four years at Tamp Culture before setting up Anonymous Coffee in 2018 and is now one of the most recognisable faces (and beards!) of Reading’s coffee scene.

During lockdown Anonymous has delivered coffee and coffee-making equipment on a weekly basis – it reopens for takeaway on Chain Street from today.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
People! I miss seeing our customers. I love entertaining – my mum always used to have friends round and entertained a lot, which must be where I get it from. While I love drinking coffee, I really enjoy making it and sharing it with other people more. It’s the whole ceremony and experience.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
When I was really young our neighbour used to bake tiny little individual Hovis loaves and we used to sit on their doorstep eating them fresh out of the oven with little jars of strawberry jam. That and baking cakes with my mum (mainly so I could clean out the mixing bowl!)

What’s the worst job you’ve ever done?
It’s pretty hard to describe, but blasting lime deposits out of the chimney silo in a municipal waste incinerator filtration system. It was hot, sweaty work in a dark, confined, awkward space and it stank to high hell. Luckily I only had to do it once (and we did get to blow stuff up at the end of it!).

When did your love affair with coffee begin, and what triggered it?
In 2002 I had my first real barista training, and first decent coffee. I was working for BaxterStorey at the Oracle campus on Thames Valley Park. We changed coffee suppliers, and the new suppliers gave us proper barista training. The coffee tasted amazing. Shortly after that I tried a Kenyan coffee at Monmouth Coffee in London. It tasted like Ribena, blew my mind and showed just how varied the taste of coffee could be: from that moment on I was hooked.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
There are so many things I love about this town. First and foremost the people – there’s such an eclectic mix of characters and backgrounds. We also have a strong community of independent businesses who support each other and work together which is really cool: from breweries and restaurants to arts and culture, there’s a lot going on in town.

I love the irony of one of Reading’s most high profile cafés being called Anonymous: where did the name come from?
There are several reasons, but first and foremost exactly that, the irony. When I was younger my best friend’s dad had a boat called Anonymous; I just thought it was a really fun play on words. I also want the focus to be on great quality coffee and hospitality, not the ‘brand’ so I wanted the brand to be anonymous. It’s also a nod to all of the people before us in the supply chain such as the farmers, producers, roasters etc. who remain anonymous to most of the people who drink their coffee. It just works for a lot of reasons. Everybody asks ‘why Anonymous?’ so I guess in hindsight it’s been quite a good choice.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
The World’s Fastest Indian. It’s set in the early 60s – Anthony Hopkins plays Burt Munro, a New Zealander who puts everything on the line to take his home-built motor cycle to Bonville to set a world speed record. It’s an intriguing and endearing film. A bit of a contrast, but I also really love Sexy Beast with Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley, among others.

If you had to give up coffee or alcohol, which would it be?
Alcohol.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
That’s a tough one! I think the best meal was at XO in Sydney when I was visiting my sister. There was a several month waiting list, but we somehow managed to blag a table. The food was sublime and we ate to a backdrop of the harbour bridge. The food wasn’t quite as good but the most amazing dining experience I’ve had was in New York: I was lucky enough to eat at Windows On The World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Centre. That was definitely the most memorable dining experience I’ve had.

You must have one of Reading’s most famous beards. Do you ever suffer from beard envy?
I’m not entirely sure that’s true. And yes I do, but I won’t say of whom!

Where will you go for your first meal after lockdown?
Hopefully a BBQ with the rest of my family.

What’s your most treasured possession?
A letter that my mum wrote to me and my sister before we said goodbye. I have part of it tattooed on me.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)? 
You’ll probably lament me here, but I’m a sucker for prawn cocktail – and I was born in Henley – so Tyrrell’s Posh Prawn Cocktail.

Where is your happy place?
As much as I love being around people and coffee machines, nothing is quite as relaxing as flying my kite and lounging around in the sun on a nice quiet beach (which is becoming increasingly difficult to do). I love the sea.

Do you secretly judge people who have sugar in their coffee?
Not at all, but I’ll always encourage them to try it without. Everybody is different and we all taste things differently, that’s human nature. That said, a lot of people only put sugar in their coffee because it needs it – that can be the case with lower quality and more robusta based drinks. We use coffee that has more natural sweetness and balance, so doesn’t necessarily need added sugar. That said, I’m very happy when we can help someone kick the habit.

What’s your most unappealing habit?
Probably talking over people. I don’t mean to, and I try not to, but I’m aware I do it sometimes and hate it when I do: I’m getting better at not doing it, though.

Who would play you in the film of your life? 
I don’t know who would be best suited to the role, but I know who I would like to. It’s a bit of a cliché, but it would have to be De Niro.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food? 
Dirty, slow-cooked, sticky, smoky barbecued meat. I also have a really sweet tooth – I can polish off an entire Victoria sandwich (no cream in the middle!). It’s not a good combination for my waistline.

What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
Something my mum told me – ‘life is for living, we are here for a good time, we are not here for a long time’. Don’t put things off: if you want to do something just do it. It’s better to regret trying and failing than not trying at all.

Describe yourself in three words.
Outgoing, ambitious, considerate. Coffee!

Corona diaries: Week 11

I read an interesting article in the Guardian this week talking about “lockdown habits we’re going to keep”, another of what feels like an almost infinite number of thinkpieces about “the new normal”, or whether anything will ever feel normal again, or whether the old normal was all wrong and will need to change. I know a lot of people reckon that this should prompt a huge rethinking of how society functions – that we should pay key workers what they’re worth, fund our health service properly, have a universal basic income, the list goes on.

Perhaps I’m too pessimistic, but I can’t see it happening. I could have spent my time stuck at home reading Proust, learning a foreign language or making myself a better human in countless different ways, but I haven’t done that either. I’ve eaten breakfast regularly. I’ve done more cooking (not very well, most of the time). I’ve watched a lot of Seinfeld, I’ve managed to finish about three paperbacks and I’ve finally seen The Shining. It doesn’t, I think, even remotely resemble the path to true enlightenment.

I’m not even certain, in truth, whether we’re even in lockdown any more, because I find the stage we’re currently in very strange indeed. Far too many people are still dying, there are still plenty of new coronavirus cases daily, we still can’t see our friends, hug our family or go round anybody else’s house, and yet all the rhetoric is about things slowly going back to – that word again – “normal”. Lots of Reading’s independent restaurants and cafés have reopened or are reopening, shops are reopening, and some kids will soon return to school.

A friend of mine is married to a teacher and she goes back to work next week. She’ll be behind a perspex screen, but if she wants any PPE she’ll have to supply it herself, because apparently it’s not needed. This morning I watched a clip of the Flaming Lips on Colbert, performing Race For The Prize: each member of the band was literally in a bubble, as if they were zorbing, and each audience member was in a bubble too. Nothing normal about that: it felt like the stuff of science fiction, and not necessarily in a good way.

I think, quite aside from the growing disquiet on this side of the world and the other side of the world – wherever you stand on throwing statues into the harbour, or JK Rowling’s latest remarks, or any of the other ways the universe has found to polarise us all – this is one of the reasons why plenty of people have hit a wall this week. The cognitive dissonance between feeling scared, or lonely, or deprived, and things in the world outside our front doors looking, if not exactly “normal”, a little more like they did before is hardly good for the soul.

Someone told me on Twitter today that they’d had to pull over by the side of the road on the way home to “have a little weep” and I couldn’t say I was surprised. It doesn’t help, either, to look at pictures from France or Italy or Spain and see that they are so much further ahead on the road to recovery than we are: real success beats apparent success, hands down, every time.

Anyway, the Guardian‘s list of lockdown habits was surprisingly un-Guardian, with no sourdough starters or podcasts to be seen anywhere. One person had decided to embrace going grey, another had started having communal dinners with the people in her shared house (although she also said “we’ve got to know everyone’s partners”, which suggests that her lockdown hasn’t necessarily been as strict as everyone else’s). There were people starting album clubs, or getting into pot plants, among other miniature life makeovers.

What do I want to keep doing once this surreal chapter in our lives comes to an end? Here’s one: every fortnight, usually on a Friday morning before this piece goes live, I have a FaceTime conversation with my two oldest friends. One is Mike, who began lockdown living a spartan existence in the French alps (I wrote about him in the very first of these diaries) but reached a tipping point a few months ago where his own company got to be a little too much. So he got in his car and drove back home to the UK to spend the rest of lockdown with his parents, who are in their seventies. “It’s my joker” he said, “and I know I can only play it once.”

Much as he loves his family, I imagine he sometimes misses the solitary life: he used to have fully Trappist days – one in every three – where he didn’t look at his phone or the internet for twenty-four hours. I struggle to spend twenty-four minutes away from mine, so I envy his superhuman restraint. But then in our conversations Mike often seems ignorant of huge swathes of popular culture, so I’m not sure he’s paying a huge amount of attention the other two days: we nearly got him to Google “two girls one cup” on one of our most recent conversations.

The third of our merry band is Ivor, who moved to New Zealand a few years back and now lives there happily with his wife and two small children. We talk in the morning UK time, so I am nursing my first coffee of the day while Ivor, sitting in his home office in front of some disturbingly jazzy curtains, is usually knocking back a couple of beers once the kids have gone to bed. It’s safe to say that he can’t believe his luck to be living where he is at a time like now: “we have one Covid case left in the whole of New Zealand” he told us on our last FaceTime call. In total just over twenty people in New Zealand have died.

I’ve known Mike and Ivor for over thirty-five years, and our conversation is a mixture of talking about old times, putting the world to rights, comparing disgusting memes – or rather, sending them to Mike who never seems to see any of them – and just shooting the breeze about everything and nothing. Ivor has been awake all day, Mike has usually just come back from a jog and, if truth be told, I’ve usually not long stumbled out of bed, but as a conversational trio it just works.

It’s truly lovely, and one of the things I love most about life right now, and yet before the virus struck I only really saw Ivor when he came home to visit his parents once a year. I would go down the pub with Mike when he was back in the country visiting his family, but I would never have caught up with him every fortnight. Why not? I find myself thinking now: once this phase is over, I hope I still talk to them both, often.

What else? Doing a weekly shop and planning meals, for a start. This change, imposed by lockdown, has suited my other half perfectly: a meticulous planner, Zoë would much sooner know what we’re eating and when we’re eating it. But now that we do know exactly that, I find myself wishing we’d done it ages ago.

Ditto for stockpiling, which is almost a religion to Zoë (“I couldn’t believe the state of your fridge and cupboard when I first moved in” she likes to say. “You lived like a fucking student.”). She’s inherited a passion for it from her dad, the high priest of stockpiling. If the zombie apocalypse ever strikes he’ll never run out of Head & Shoulders or Cerruti 1881, given that he has a cupboard packed to the rafters with bottles of both. At least he’ll be flake-free and smelling fresh as the marauders drag him from the house.

Zoë’s last trip to the shops before lockdown was to our local corner shop, where she spent over thirty pounds on canned goods: surely the only time anyone has ever blown that much cash there without buying lottery tickets or clear spirits of some description. And I hate giving her an opportunity to say those magic words I told you so, but I can now see the benefits of having a cupboard full of chopped tomatoes, chickpeas, tuna, sardine fillets, coconut milk. I’ll just justify it to myself by saying that we’re planning for a no deal Brexit.

I can’t see myself giving up making proper coffee at home, either; using the Aeropress has become a daily ritual. Just in the way that back when I commuted, my day didn’t properly begin until that first latte had happened, I now don’t feel fully human until I’ve fixed myself a coffee. I start to feel a bit antsy when I am running low on supplies, and my friend Tom has lent me a hand grinder, which means that the next tier of coffee wankerdom is surely within my reach. Weaning myself off milky drinks has been another boon, and I now realise that a black filter with a slug of the good stuff – organic unhomogenised full-fat milk, or Channel Islands if I’m especially lucky – makes the flavours sing in a way that drowning them in dairy never can.

I think the list could go on and on. Going for walks with Zoë, for instance. They largely consist of walking past beautiful houses that won’t ever be mine, but they still mean time spent taking in the world and properly paying attention to it and each other, rather than getting lost looking at a screen. Doing the washing up, which has become a happy, companionable milestone every day, even if we only discovered that by breaking the dishwasher. And that’s before we get on to loungewear: Zoë bought me my first set for my birthday three months ago and it’s been a revelation. Why was I sitting round the house in my jeans when I got home from work for all those years? Search me.

I think now I can see clearly the challenge that lies ahead, in the hall of mirrors of “normal”, “new normal” and “should-no-longer-be-seen-as-normal”. Even if the world doesn’t necessarily learn from its mistakes – and god knows, the odds aren’t great – it would be a crying shame if we lost the very real, invaluable ways in which we live better and are better connected. I for one am going to try and give it a go. I might not succeed, but it’s still infinitely preferable to reading Proust.

* * * * *

If you write about food, and review restaurants, for long enough there are a couple of pitfalls that await you. The first is that you become known to the PRs and get invited (or rather, #invited) to openings, or re-openings, or launches of a delicious new vegetarian tapas menu, or cocktail making classes, or some other beano.

I’ve written about this in the past and I’m not going to go over it again, but I hope that post-Covid this kind of thing comes to an end. If you want to support a restaurant, spend your own money there and review it, and help it to survive by spreading the word. Post-Covid independent restaurants won’t have the resources to do that, and reviewers with a conscience shouldn’t expect them to.

The other, more insidious, risk is that you get too close to the world you’re reviewing and you go native. I think many restaurant blogs have to grapple with that problem, but some of them lurch into full chef-worship mode. I’ve always been uncomfortable with this, because it just feels a little unseemly.

When I read reviews that are full of clanging dropped names, or ones where respect starts to mutate into reverence, I find my mouse pointer inexorably marching to the X in the corner of the screen. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the line is, and I’m well aware that arguably my declared friendships with a couple of Reading’s restaurateurs put me close to it. But, as a rule of thumb, if your phone autocapitalises the C in the word “chef”, you’re probably licking the arse rather than the plate.

That said, it’s difficult not to be impressed by people who work in hospitality and choose to make a life in that profession. In all the interviews I’ve done so far with people in Reading’s food and drink scene during lockdown, one thing that emerges is the total passion they all have for hospitality. Opening a restaurant, or a café, is a lifelong dream for these people, and they make enormous sacrifices to do it.

They give up lucrative jobs, they move across the country, they identify premises and they put absolutely everything into making them a success. They put up with antisocial hours, they lose their weekends, they toil and they worry and they cajole – and none of them has given up even during this awful period. Their sleepless nights haven’t stopped them feeding Reading, and feeding it in style, taking those risks so we can sit at home and eat phenomenally well. And heaven knows, they’re not doing it for the money: even before all this the margins in the restaurant business were far from gigantic.

That’s the story behind Nibsy’s, and Clay’s, and Kungfu Kitchen, and Tutu’s Ethiopian Table and so many more local businesses than I can list. Even looking at the previous sentence, I feel bad for all the ones I’ve left out: Fidget & Bob; Anonymous Coffee; Double-Barrelled; the Grumpy Goat; Geo Café; Vegivores; Namaste Momo. There are plenty more, I know, and I’ll probably be stricken with guilt later on when I realise who I’ve omitted. I’m not sure I’ll ever descend into chef-worship – I certainly hope not – but I do have to say that I am a little in awe of people who run their own businesses in hospitality. I wouldn’t have what it takes to do that, and I daresay a fair few of you wouldn’t either.

One name that isn’t on that list, but which deserves a special mention, is the Lyndhurst. I’ve been excited about eating their food again since they announced that they were coming back, and I bagged a delivery slot for last Saturday night long before placing my order. Theirs is a clever menu, with a good balance between old and new dishes, but an emphasis on dishes that travel well and lend themselves to sharing. It’s ridiculous value, too, with all but one item south of a tenner.

My bag was dropped on my doorstep bang on time and to say I had an emotional reunion with the Lyndhurst’s food might be a bit of an understatement. I had ordered an old favourite, the katsu chicken burger, and it might have been distance lending enchantment but it was even better than I remembered. I’d so missed it: that huge, crunchy fillet of chicken breast (although from the size it might have been ostrich), the fiery katsu sauce, the tangy Asian slaw I remember well.

But more than that, I don’t think I’d realised how much I missed chips. Proper, beautiful, crispy, skin-on chips, not the pasty pastiche I’d had to make do with, taken out of the freezer and cooked on a baking tray. Eating them for the first time in many months truly felt like eating them for the first time ever.

Even better was a new arrival on the menu – pulled pork piled high in soft blue corn tacos. What really impressed me about the Lyndhurst’s food was that it didn’t feel like takeaway food in any way – that and all the minor details that had been given so much thought. So the tacos were also topped with flash pickled pink onions, more glorious slaw and the crowning glory, an ancho chile relish that was smoky, punchy and so savoury that it almost tasted like it was in high definition. And of course, even that wasn’t the final word – a little pot of stupendous guacamole was included, for you to add at the last minute. This cost nine pounds, and was better than any other tacos I’ve tried, full stop.

The attention to detail extended to Zoë’s fish and chips – more of those terrific chips with battered haddock, firm flaky flesh and light batter with almost no grease. But looking closely I could see tiny traces of dill in the batter – a small, imaginative touch that the Lyndhurst had added, without fanfare, because they just wanted to make every dish as good as it possibly could be, even if people didn’t notice. Ironically the previous team behind the Lyndhurst coined the catchphrase “it’s the little things we do”, but the people running the Lyndhurst now really live and breathe it.

Halfway through our dinner I was already mentally deciding what to order this weekend, because it was so good, but because it was so good I’ve already changed my mind several times this week. I’m very happy to have them back.

The following day, I saw a Tweet from Clay’s who had also grabbed takeaway from the Lyndhurst that weekend. “The best dinner I’ve had since lockdown”, it said. And that’s the other brilliant thing about our food scene here – they support each other, they have one another’s backs. At the end of all this, their competitors won’t be one another, they will be all the chains clamouring to grab our business and bribe us with vouchers. I’ve only eaten food from independents since this all began: that too, I think, is a lockdown habit I may well end up keeping.