It’s been a funny six months of writing this blog, and when I started doing interviews with notable local people I wasn’t sure whether the idea had legs or if people would enjoy them. I’m very lucky that most of the people I’ve approached wanted to take part – even if some of them needed asking more than once – and I like to think that every week we’ve learned something new. But twenty interviews, twenty sets of twenty questions, feels like enough for now, so it’s a good place to stop.
I may do another set in the future, but it’s hard to see what the future looks like right now. I’m not yet out and about eating in restaurants, so there are no reviews, the diary features have run their course and it’s the right time to press pause on the interviews. So you may not see much more on this blog, for the time being at least. Don’t worry, I imagine I’ll be back at some point: past form dictates that, if nothing else. It could be worse – I could be starting a podcast, and nobody needs that.
Anyway, there’s time for one final interview before I take my leave of you, this one with a slight difference. I approached all twenty of my interview subjects and asked if they had a question for me to answer in return. Fortunately, all of them obliged, so this last Q&A is made up of questions from the brilliant, diverse and passionate people I’ve interviewed over the last five months. I hope you enjoy it.
What’s the best street food dish you’ve ever tried? (Glen Dinning, Blue Collar)
Despite many great contenders from Reading (Georgian Feast’s chicken wrap, the crispy squid chap that used to cook at Blue Collar, anything from Puree or Peru Sabor) and all the street food I’ve eaten abroad, my favourite was from a van on Brick Lane one weekend. A brioche crammed to bursting with confit duck, crispy duck skin, Barkham blue and truffle honey: I still think about it often.
What’s the one thing you own that you should probably get rid of but can’t? (Naomi Lowe, Nibsy’s)
Sad to say, my old wedding ring. I still have it – I never histrionically tossed it across the room or threw it in a lake – and it’s such a beautiful object that I can’t bear to throw it out or even melt it down and turn it into something else. It’s somehow not the object’s fault that the relationship failed. I keep it in a mug on the mantelpiece (along with my other half’s ex-wedding ring, appropriately enough). The mug has a big numeral 1 on it – for marriage number one, I suppose.
Who was your most influential teacher at school and why? (Ian Caren, Launchpad)
My chemistry teacher was the drummer in nautically themed 70s band Sailor (they’re not that famous, but they were kept off the number one spot by Bohemian Rhapsody): in slow lessons he’d wheel in the TV and video trolley and play clips of him and his band on Cheggers Plays Pop. We prayed for slow lessons. That’s my main memory of him – that and him having an emotional moment on the magical day when Margaret Thatcher resigned.
But my very favourite teacher at school was the man who gamely struggled with teaching me English for five years, from GCSE through to A Level. I think he probably despaired of my reading habits ever evolving past science fiction and swords and sorcery dross, but under his patient tutelage I enjoyed some of the classics and left school with a lifelong love of Philip Larkin. He is now, unexpectedly, a dear friend of mine, many years later: we meet up regularly, make inroads into a couple of bottles of wine and natter away about everything and nothing.
When it comes to your blog or your critiquing technique or your love for restaurants, what’s the one question you’d love to answer but have never been asked? (Nandana Syamala, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen)
“We’d like to pay you to write restaurant reviews. When can you start?”
By default, people talk about wine pairings with food. Have you got any more unusual food and drink pairings that you think go well together? (Dr Quaff, Quaffable Reading)
I’ve got more into beer over the last couple of years and eating a slow-cooked carbonnade in Ghent with a glass of the same dark, malty Westmalle Dubbel they cooked the beef in was a special experience. But the best one is Dr Pepper with any kind of fried breakfast, but only when you’re absolutely hanging out of your arse.
With regard to a vibrant food scene, which UK town or small city do you think Reading should emulate and aspire to? (Shuet Han Tsui, Fidget & Bob).
If you hadn’t specified size, I’d have said Bristol and the QI klaxon would have gone off. Of course everyone wants their food scene to be like Bristol’s: it goes without saying. But since you phrased it more carefully, I’ll go for Oxford (which, believe it or not, is smaller than Reading).
I’d love it if Caversham had a fraction of the delicatessens, restaurants, bars and pubs of North Oxford, of Jericho or Summertown. It would be great if the Oxford Road was more like the Cowley Road, with anywhere near as many diverse places to eat and drink. Imagine if we had our own Pierre Victoire or Pompette, Arbequina or the Magdalen Arms. And I wish we had even a fraction of a covered market like Oxford’s – think what the Trader’s Arcade could have been if most of it wasn’t converted to pubs way back when (or the Bristol & West Arcade, if it hadn’t mouldered away derelict) and if we had the kind of space Oxford has in Gloucester Green for an outdoor food market, instead of the tiny space occupied by Blue Collar.
You can only eat potatoes in one form (chips/mash/crisps etc) for the rest of your life. What’s it going to be and why? (Kevin Farrell, Vegivores)
This is an evil question. Chips, on balance, beating roast potatoes into second place by a fraction of a nose. There has to be crunch, fluff and contrast and only those two can provide all that. I’ll miss hash browns, though.
How does ‘on duty’ ER differ from normal ER? Do they have a disguise? Are they more fun, hyper aware? (Pete Hefferan, Shed)
They’re even better looking (this answer, by the way, was brought to you by “on duty” ER).
Do you eat food that’s past its expiration date if it still smells and looks fine? (Tutu Melaku, Tutu’s Ethiopian Table)
Generally, yes, although I’m anal enough about meal planning that it doesn’t happen all that often. In most cases there’s a big margin in those dates. If your milk tastes okay it’s absolutely fine to drink. If you cut the edges off your cheese the rest is perfectly edible. And if veg aren’t mushy and limp they are probably good to eat.
If you opened a restaurant what would it be? (Phil Carter, Anonymous Coffee)
I daydream about having a little joint that just does really good bread, cheese and charcuterie and a handful of small plates of an evening. A small selection of good, affordable wine and some beautiful Belgian beers by the bottle, with some old jazz on in the background. The closest I’ve come to a place like that in this country was a fantastic place in Bristol called Bar Buvette, sadly now closed.
What food have you never eaten but would really like to try? (Joanna Hu, Kungfu Kitchen)
Having never been to the US, I would love to try proper authentic Southern fried chicken, in the American South. I’m not sure I want to try it enough, mind you, to actually go there.
As a food blogger with a big local social media profile what’s the best and worst experience you’ve had on social media? (Rachel Eden, councillor and Deputy Mayor)
The best was definitely being slagged off by Alok Sharma on Twitter. The landslide of public support I received was really heartwarming – it’s the closest thing I can imagine to hearing what everybody would say at your funeral while still being alive (I know that “more popular than Alok Sharma” isn’t the highest bar in the world, but I’ll take it).
You get anaesthetised to the bad experiences. People are so angry now that someone takes exception to pretty much anything you might say, like “why are the roads around the Forbury still closed?” (“how dare you disrespect the victims of that awful attack”), “restaurants should take action to prevent no shows” (“what about bars: all businesses matter”), the list goes drearily on. It’s no surprise by now that Reading has its own answer to Arthur Fleck, or that these people never seem to get bored. A friend of mine says I should take satisfaction from the fact that I live rent free in their heads: maybe so, but I do wish they’d redecorate, or even just put the Hoover round from time to time.
What food makes you think of home? Or perhaps, what food would you eat if you were feeling homesick? (Steph Weller, producer)
One thing I’ve always thought about having divorced parents is that you can never go home again: your childhood room isn’t there for you to stay in when things get tough, or when you visit. The closest I’ve come to homesick food is that for several years I didn’t speak to my mother and when we reconciled she cooked me the dish I remember most fondly from my childhood – her superb pie with long-braised steak cooked in plenty of glorious dark booze, surrounded by proper short-crust pastry, no casserole with a hat or flaky lid nonsense going on. That always makes me think of home, and of coming home after too long away.
From all your foodie trips, where would you recommend someone went for a weekend full of affordable but unforgettable food and forever memories? (Louize Clarke, Curious Lounge)
My head says Bologna because the food is amazing, the gelato is magnificent, there’s wonderful beer and coffee and wine and it’s easy to get to. But my heart says Granada – because tapas culture is one of my favourite things, you used the word “affordable” which Granada very much is, it has the Alhambra which is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and, perversely, it’s not so easy to get to. The best things sometimes make you work that little bit harder.
How would you define British food culture – if you think we even have one? (Dan Hearn, Loddon Brewery)
This is one of the two hardest questions in this interview. Our food culture feels to me like everything and nothing – that we adapt and make do and mend and that it’s a hotchpotch of everybody who has settled here and made this country their home. I love that, but it’s also one of the things that makes me fear for this country and the direction we are headed in, because we are sticking a big two fingers up to all of that.
Food culture in this country feels to me like what’s going on in Reading, but on a much larger scale. There are plenty of good things out there, pockets of creativity and fusion, places in London and Bristol (and Cardiff, and Glasgow) where a distinct identity is emerging. But if you don’t know where to look, as with Reading, you could be forgiven for thinking that we are largely chains and meal deals, soggy sandwiches and the same brands everywhere you look.
I was lucky enough to go on a fair few holidays last year, all in mainland Europe, and I think the U.K. is a long way off having a distinct food culture in the way that Spain, Italy, or France do. Food is still not ingrained in the way of life here the way it is elsewhere; there are still too many people grabbing something crap to eat at their desks rather than enjoying a proper lunch, for instance. It isn’t woven into rituals as it is on the continent. It also worries me that supermarkets feel like they have a grip on U.K. life (and spend) in a way not emulated abroad. I’m always amazed that the U.K. has so few bakeries, and European countries so many.
I still think that, as a nation, we seem set on Americanising our culture – food and otherwise – rather than exploring similarities with our European neighbours or (and this would be even better) making something distinctive of our own. The solution for this is the same thing I always rant on about when it comes to Reading – be the change you want to see and spend your money in the right way. But with everything that lies ahead, I see as much fear as opportunity.
Is any film or a particular scene in a film that makes you feel the stomach rumbling, the mouth dribbling and an irresistible craving for food? (Salvo Toscano, photographer)
I’ve thought hard about this and I’ve struggled – food doesn’t tend to feature in the films I’ve loved. I watched Rick Stein bimbling around France earlier in the year – you know, before he was cancelled – and that made me feel envy and hunger pretty much non-stop, but in fiction it’s harder to find an answer. I did really enjoy Chef, where Jon Favreau loses his job because of a run-in with a restaurant reviewer – an event almost as implausible as him managing to have it off with both Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara in the same film – so let’s say that.
You’re the go-to person for restaurant tips, but when it comes to drinking in Reading, where’s your favourite watering hole, and what are you most looking forward to ordering when you finally go back? (Adam Wells, drinks writer)
Tricky. I love the Retreat very much, but as I’ve got more and more into beer I find their very cask-led range a bit limiting. It’s still my favourite place to soak up the atmosphere, but on balance I think the Nag’s Head is perhaps Reading’s most complete pub. I know Adam would judge me for saying I’m looking forward to a pint of Stowford Press (just as I judged him for raving about AA Gill), but as it happens I went to the Nag’s for my first post-lockdown drinks and the first thing I went for was a beautiful half of Double-Barrelled’s new The Blackcurrant One.
With so many people who write about food out there what makes your writing stand out (in your opinion) and also what got you into writing reviews in the first place? (Mohamad Skeik, Bakery House)
I started because nobody was doing it, the local paper was toilet and I figured that if I didn’t do it nobody else would. But really, I think it’s for other people to say how (and whether) your writing stands out; there are quite enough restaurant bloggers out there who adore the smell of their own farts, figuratively speaking, without me adding to that. Really, if you think I’m bad you should read these guys. I suppose what I’d say is that I’m the only person who has reviewed Reading restaurants consistently for any length of time – seven years so far – and that probably counts for something, as does the fact that I always think about whether a paying customer will like it rather than spend time sucking up to the chef.
If you were the leader of Reading Borough Council, what would you do to improve the town and help Reading’s indie businesses to thrive? You get three policies. Who would be your deputy and why? (Tevye Markson, Reading Chronicle)
This is a deft way of showing that I’m good at whinging about local government but not necessarily big on solutions (thanks a bunch, Tevye). I have sympathy with the council in some respects, because for instance they don’t have the latitude to set business rates which would enable them to give independent businesses a more level playing field (it doesn’t help that they did that ridiculous stealth tax on A-boards a while back: that still rankles with many independent businesses). And I know they can’t do much about some of Reading’s more reprehensible landlords.
Anyway, being more positive: I would put more of an emphasis on street food, because that seems like an especially Covid-resistant plan for the months ahead. I’d like to see more street food pitches available than the measly two on Broad Street, more opportunities for credible street food events – not the nacky ones we often see on Broad Street.
I’d also like to see the Friday market taken off the hapless Chow and given to Blue Collar, although between writing this piece and it going up on the blog Reading UK has announced this is happening from September (call me Nostradamus). About time too: anything that encourages entrepreneurs and gives us a more fertile food scene is more likely to stimulate spend, encourage people to stay in town and potentially lead to more traders making the jump into permanent premises.
I’d also like to see a bit more positive intent in the planning process. The example I always think about is the Greek souvlaki restaurant which was going to open on Castle Street, run by a couple who used to work at Dolce Vita. This was a good, credible proposal which would have added to improvements at that end of town, building on the arrival of Brewdog. The council turned it down for reasons best known to themselves, and now it’s yet another hair salon.
I think this council has taken an aversion to public drinking too far, and that ultra-caution sometimes leads to a knee-jerk no when it comes to new hospitality businesses. See also: the bizarre decision not to allow a shipping container development by the side of the Broad Street Mall – one of the less salubrious parts of town – because it would be serving alcohol. Sometimes I think the decisions about Reading’s nightlife are made by particular councillors who haven’t left the house in years.
Finally, I’d like to see Reading Council commit to local businesses by outsourcing, wherever possible, to local companies – whether that’s catering, window cleaning or anything else. We should keep council tax money in the local economy whenever we can, and foster some civic pride. Just imagine what the Pantry could have been like if that contract had been given to one of our local cafés rather than bunged to some nebulous head chef nobody had ever heard of, and if it had properly celebrated our budding food culture rather than paid lip service by choosing a faux-nostalgic name.
Obviously I can’t pick Glen Dinning as my deputy, given that I’ve already given him the plum job of sorting out the Friday market, so I’d be sorely tempted to go for Louize Clarke, a woman who is as critical of the council as I am, and is absolutely fizzing with ideas. Maybe between us, while we’re at it, we could understand who “Reading UK” actually are and what the point of them is (it’s a pipe dream, I know).
What’s your favourite condiment? (Mike Clayton-Jones, Double-Barrelled)
This is a bit harsh. I allowed Mike to pick three beers, but he’s reducing me to a single condiment, making me choose between all the salt and spices and sauces out there. I was tempted just go for salt – it makes everything better – but this question feels like it wants a more specific answer. So, much as it pains me to exclude brown sauce, soy sauce, mango chutney, mayonnaise and many other ways of lifting even the most basic of foods, my absolute favourite is a really well-made Béarnaise sauce. Beautifully cooked chips, dunked in Béarnaise, is a pleasure so intense that you could almost forget that there’s usually also steak on the plate.