Q&A: Edible Reading, restaurant blogger

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 Clark, 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.

Q&A: Adam Wells, drinks writer

Adam Wells writes about wine from nine to five, then goes home and writes about whisky and cider for an increasingly large gaggle of magazines, both printed and online. You can find most of his scribblings about drinks on Twitter, where he started out as The Whisky Pilgrim but now goes by the handle @Drinkscribbler. When not writing about alcohol he’s often to be found falling over on one of Reading’s amateur stages. He is the careful owner of one spittoon, and shares his West Reading home with several hundred bottles and one geophysicist.

What have you missed most in lockdown?
Probably the ability to just go somewhere. To just walk out of the door. Doesn’t matter what it’s to do or who it’s to see. Just the fundamental, liberating act of leaving the house for a non-essential purpose.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The independent scene, especially restaurants, but specifically the way that the people in Reading who know and care about these places gather around them so tightly and champion them so fiercely. It’s something I see a lot on your Twitter and at your lunches and I think it stems from the sneers that occasionally float this way from people who don’t know Reading, who think it’s just grey and bland and a place that’s on the way to other places. There’s such a depth of pride in the independents that are here. They’re not taken for granted, and I think that’s special. If I’m allowed a least favourite thing, glass not being collected with recycling is a runaway winner.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
It was very recent, in San Sebastián. Part of their “txotx” season, when the new ciders are tasted from barrel – every cider house does it and the menu’s the same at each place. Chorizo in cider and honey, salt cod omelette, cod loin with peppers and onions, t-bone steak (half a cow, really). The food was incredible – perfect – but the occasion and the theatre of it was what lifted it to my top spot.

You write about wine professionally, you then started blogging about whisky and now you write a lot about cider, and are working on a book. If you could only drink wine, whisky or cider for the rest of your life which would it be?
Wine. It isn’t a substitute for cider or whisky, but as a whole category wine scratches more itches in more ways than the others do.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Primary school dinners, aged about four. They were cartoonishly horrid – they defied exaggeration. The memories are all the more vivid for a vicious bully of a teacher among whose many dictatorial pleasures was not letting children get up until plates were clean. I don’t think she cared much about allergies or real, deeply-held hatreds of certain food. I remember classmates being properly, bawlingly upset, sat by these plates of utter filth for an hour a few times a week, occasionally being sick, this teacher snapping and scolding and shouting the whole way through. I think parents thought she was some wonderful, characterful old battleaxe, but she was a Trunchbull, and every kid in the class loathed her. It was an early insight into absolute power, and it put me off certain foods for life.

What is the worst job you’ve done?
Packing envelopes. It was only for two days, but I felt every second.

From your pictures on Twitter your drinks collection frequently puts most pubs to shame, but what’s your favourite Reading boozer?
The Nag’s Head. I think there’s a lot of room for their ciders to improve but I still think they do more things right than any other pub in Reading from an interesting booze point of view. They’re also my local these days, which often sways affection. If I lived the other side of town the Weather Station or the Retreat could easily be my number one.

Where will you go for your first meal out after all this?
Sapana Home. It’s our in-town staple, especially when we’ve not planned anywhere specific beforehand.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
David Mitchell’s probably a bit too old. Is there a younger equivalent?

Which writers, living or dead, do you most admire?
Shakespeare (clichéd, I know) and Martin McDonagh for plays. Terry Pratchett and Harper Lee for novels. A.A. Gill for non-fiction, although I’d put an asterisk next to “admire” in that instance, as I know you wouldn’t approve.

What is your favourite smell?
Really good, mature claret. Doubly so if someone else is paying.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I’m not sure, although I daresay my readers could give you dozens. It’s a bit niche and pretentious, but I feel I write and say “caveat” a lot. Probably precisely because it’s a bit niche and pretentious. It’s also a cheap get-out, a bit don’t-blame-me. It’s quite a cowardly word, I suppose, especially for a reviewer.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
Just one? Alright, In Bruges then.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Salt and vinegar crisps – the Co-Op’s in particular. I resent sharing 150 gram bags, and mistrust people who take more than one sitting to see them off.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
My closest friends. There’d be no conversation otherwise; I’m appalling at talking to people I don’t know, and I can’t imagine the embarrassment of meeting all of my heroes at once and stammering awkwardly through a meal. I bumped into David Mitchell in the street once and literally ran away. I wouldn’t make it through the aperitif if there were four or five of them. In any case, if we’re talking dream dinner parties I’m more interested in the food and drink than the guest list.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Nothing and nobody lasts forever. You can’t reclaim lost time. Use it properly.

Tell us a joke.
Two cats are swimming the English channel. One’s called “One-two-three”, the other is called “Un-deux-trois”. Which won? One-two-three. Because Un-deux-troix cat sank.

It only really works aloud.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
See my answer above, but it absolutely bears repetition.

Where is your happy place?
The Great Glen. I’d say the highlands generally, but that’s far too broad. I used to live in Inverness and getting out into the hills around Loch Ness was how I spent most of my free time. The Isle of Arran would be a close second. Our family holiday go-to, growing up.

Describe yourself in three words.
Worrier. Overthinker. Writer. 

Q&A: Salvo Toscano, photographer

Originally from Sicily, Salvo Toscano moved to the UK in 1994 “just for a couple of years.” After some time in Bristol and a couple of other places, he ended up in Reading in 2001 and been here ever since. Having spent time working in IT and telecoms and a spell as a stay at home dad, he is now a photographer who has worked alongside Jelly and regularly exhibits at the Whiteknights Studio Trail. He lives in the university area with his wife and daughter.

What have you missed most in lockdown? 
Aside from the impact on photography of course? Not being able to hop on a train to London to enjoy a nice exhibition and not being able to sit in a café for some people watching.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading? 
People who, on a variety of fronts, endeavour to provide alternative and interesting ways to live and experience life in Reading, making it a more engaging place than just another dull clone town.There are many challenges and, to a certain extent, what feels like resistance, but I feel one of the learnings from the lockdown will have to be that we look at different ways of experiencing urban life. The focus on what constitutes and contributes to a better quality of life will have to be adjusted.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
My grandmother in the country house frying arancini on a summer evening… and me eating them.

When did you discover a passion for photography, and what triggered it?
As a little kid I wanted to use my dad’s shiny camera but I was not allowed, so I made do with a little plastic toy one. Later on I got a proper one as a present. This was in the pre-internet days, so help and information was pretty limited. You had to rely on hints and tips from friends and the occasional magazine; lots of experimenting, trial and error, keeping an eye on not wasting film frames and saving money for supplies and lab costs. Not to mention people wondering what the heck I was taking photos of (this carries on to these days, albeit to a lesser extent!). In my adult years, bored with just the technical aspects, I started spending more time researching bodies of work and learning more about photography as a creative and expressive tool.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
A recent best must be at Les Apothicaires, an excellent small restaurant in Lyon. It was a superb combination of service, food, wine, atmosphere and people. For me a great meal more than just food and many different elements have to click: the whole atmosphere plays an important role. I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy many great meals, be it a Georgian feast in somebody’s home in Tbilisi or in some randomly found izakaya in Tokyo. But all of them have that same thing in common: the combination of a great convivial atmosphere and good food.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? 
The cast of Lost In Translation.

Do you think the proliferation of cameraphones, and social media, has made people better or worse photographers? 
Probably neither. We see more great photos and more bad photos: we are exposed to a flood of images everyday and arguably we have become desensitised. Also, social media’s pressure and need for instant gratification has resulted in an abundance of the same kind of images and “looks” (see for example Insta Repeat). Cameraphones are ubiquitous, convenient. They do the job. They are tools and we will use them badly or well. Ultimately, “better” and “worse” are relative concepts. Photographically speaking, there was lot of tosh well before the advent of smartphones: it was just less visible.

Where will you go for your first meal out after all this?
I’ll be lacking in originality here but it has to be Clay’s! (Nandana, if you’re reading this, can I book a table now please?)

What, to your mind, distinguishes a snapshot from a photograph?
Nothing, in my opinion: a snapshot is a photograph. I understand that many of us tend to see the snapshot as a rushed, low quality, often vernacular image. Probably many are, but there’s nothing wrong with that. However, I can also look at a “snapshot” as an immediate, visceral response to an emotion, a visual language or aesthetic that can be as or more expressive than a “proper” photograph”.

A photograph, if you mean a technically good, well composed and constructed image can be immensely boring if, in my eyes, it doesn’t draw me in. Or it can be beautifully made and so expressive that I feel completely captivated. We can play with semantics, but they’re both good and valid, people enjoy making either, they serve a purpose and it is a matter of context how you want to see or use them.

What one film can you watch over and over again? 
Spirited Away.

What is your favourite smell? 
Fig trees, possibly with the smell of the sea thrown in.

Who would play you in the film of your life? 
Andy Garcia.

If you could only shoot in colour or black and white for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why? 
Colour, even though I have used – and still use – black and white for a lot of my personal work. I’ve been shooting in colour more during the past years and I enjoy the challenge of seeing things differently. If necessary I can always convert into monochrome: is that cheating?

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Tyrrell’s sea salt and black pepper.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
To have good people around you.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I can make a very tasty caponata (a Sicilian dish made with aubergines).

Where is your happy place?
With my people and out shooting, although not necessarily together.

Which photographers, living or dead, do you most admire? 
It can be a very long list! It’s also a changeable one, as it reflects my thinking and mood through certain phases and moments. To put a few known names here: Todd Hido; Luigi Ghirri; Daidō Moriyama; Alec Soth; Rania Matar; Rinko Kawauchi; William Eggleston; Suda Issei; Koudelka; Stephen Shore; Letizia Battaglia; Nobuyoshi Araki; Paolo Roversi; Irving Penn; Robert Adams; Diane Arbus; Sally Mann and Nan Goldin. There are many more whose work I love, who inspire me and grace my Instagram feed.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Granita gelsi con panna e brioche – mulberry granita with whipped cream and brioche – as breakfast when in Sicily.

Describe yourself in three words.
Obsessive, introvert, liberal elite.

Q&A: Louize Clarke, The Curious Lounge

Louize Clarke was made in Reading in 1972 and has lived here most of her life. She wasn’t a huge fan of the education system, so left college as soon as she could to start work. She’s been hanging around in the tech and digital space for the last 25 years and loves to juggle many things. Her big passion, however, is for talent and working with diverse groups who could be plugging the digital skills gap. She runs The Curious Lounge with her long-suffering husband Matt and owns a 21 year old tree surgeon called Jack, a Sproodle called Bernard, Bear or Whirly (depending on her mood at the time) and a very grumpy cat.   

The Curious Lounge has been running digital events throughout lockdown, but re-opened on 6th July after being physically shut for 12 weeks. They have just launched an adopt a plant campaign.

What have you missed most in lockdown?
A bath, because we’ve had over 70 giant plants living with us in lockdown! Don’t worry, we do have a shower.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The indie businesses in Reading: they are unbelievably hardworking and incredibly passionate about what they do. It’s been lovely to see them all supporting each other in lockdown, despite the obvious challenges thrown at them.

For the uninitiated, how would you sum up what The Curious Lounge is and what it does?
We are a bit of an eclectic mix: we have a co-working area with coffee shop run by Anonymous Coffee, a business lounge with meeting/training rooms and we are a digital and business skills hub. We’ve been described as “the secret love child of a coffee shop and a co-working space” – a place to listen, learn and meet.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Liver and bacon. I grew up in a culinary challenged house, which is why you won’t find me whipping up anything in the kitchen.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
For me a meal is about more than just the food. It’s also about the company and the setting, so it would have to be slow-cooked lamb at a beach bar in Menorca, watching the sun go down.

You’ve been very vocal on social media about being a business let down by the government during this crisis. What do you think needs to be done?
Sorry about that – ranting on social media is my speciality! I understand that these are unprecedented times, but I’ve found it really hard to watch the government help some and not others. I’d like to see a level playing field in terms of rates support and grants to give everyone the same fighting chance in the challenging times ahead.

What is your most unappealing habit?
Starting a conversation in my head and then thinking that the person I am talking to joined at the start of the conversation rather than the middle.

Where will you go for your first meal out after all this?
This required no thought at all: Fidget & Bob for a full English breakfast.

What’s your superpower?
I’m often described as a whirlwind of energy, so probably juggling multiple things at once.

What’s your favourite city break destination?
Madrid. I love the food and warmth of the people, and I can while away hours in El Retiro Park just watching life. I am lucky that we know locals who have been kind enough to share their secrets, so we’ve avoided the tourist side.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
I had to ask my long-suffering husband this one – apparently Eva Green or Tilda Swinton, because both ladies are slightly bonkers.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
Love Actually. I’ve even done the London tour and I made my son sit on “that bench” when he was about eight. I also share a similar vocabulary to Bill Nighy’s character.

Do you think, post-Covid, that the traditional office is dead – and is that good or bad news for spaces like The Curious Lounge?
I don’t know if the traditional office is dead but I think they will be used in different ways. I think it will be good for us in the long run – there are definitely more conversations around working closer to home and doing less commuting into London. In addition, the novelty of working from home is clearly starting to wear off for many.

What one restaurant do you wish you could pick up and drop in Reading?
An indie tapas restaurant, one that serves little plates of Spanish warmth washed down with a decent red served at a long bar where you can chat to other people. There’s one in Soho called Pix Pintxos where I’ve spent far too long enjoying their dishes and a copa de tinto.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Tyrrell’s Sea Salted.

Where is your happy place?
Bigbury on Sea. There’s a fantastic circular walk with a dog friendly pub in the middle and the waves are great for body boarding. I can’t wait to be back there again.

You must get asked to spell your first name a lot: is the Z a blessing or a curse?
The Z is a blessing: people can always find me. I’ll let you into a secret – it’s not officially spelled with a Z. I swapped it when I was 12, because my mum wouldn’t let me change my name.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Fish finger sandwiches with vinegar and tomato ketchup. There is always a pack in the freezer.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I’m most comfortable hiding at the back. I’d rather be the drummer keeping the rhythm: I’m not really a fan of being at the front.

Describe yourself in three words.
Kind, unforgiving, mischievous.

Q&A: Steph Weller, producer, Reading Fringe

Steph Weller is an independent theatre and festival producer. She has been involved with many of the Reading arts scene’s most high-profile recent events, including the Reading Fringe Festival, the Reading on Thames festival, Magical Reading and productions by Rabble Theatre and Reading Rep. She nurtures the development of new theatre, and last year she spent 12 months as one of the Old Vic 12, developing new musical Black Power Desk. She also creates work as Working Birthday with writer/performer Natasha Sutton Williams (responsible for, among other things, Freud The Musical, also performed at Reading Fringe). Steph lives in New Town with her partner.

The Reading Fringe has gone digital as a result of Covid-19, having received public funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England. It will host a wide range of events from 17th to 26th July.

What have you missed most in lockdown?
Spontaneity – being able to go for a rambling stroll and pop into a pub as the mood strikes. Meeting a friend for coffee. Deciding to sack off cooking and treating myself to a meal out. All these things are privileges, and I value them more than ever.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
There’s a fierce spirit of “just do it” – our independent scene is a great example of that. People just getting out there and doing it. And the town is richer for it. I so, so hope our independent scene survives this current crisis. 

I also have to quote my eloquent mate who says: “I kind of like that Reading’s gems aren’t flashy or obvious. As a town it makes you work at discovering its charm, in the form of the river and canal-side walks (which are seriously under-advertised), the indie food offerings, the creative arts etc. Reading is like the moody emo kid at secondary school – you need to invest time and effort in understanding it, but your effort is well rewarded and you’ll reap the benefits of the relationship for years.” 

That about nails it, I reckon.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
I’ve a dreadful memory for these kinds of things. I do remember being on holiday with my parents in Greece when I was very, very young. My dad had gone on a fishing trip and when he returned he was offered a delicacy: a freshly cracked-open sea urchin (I presume it was a delicacy – they might have just been taking the piss). It was scooped out onto a hunk of bread and looked, to my eyes, like a big gloopy veiny ball of snot. To my dad’s credit, he ate it. Despite the fact I didn’t even taste it, it was such a visceral sight that I remember it far better than anything I actually ate.

How do you think Reading’s cultural scene has changed since you first arrived here?
When I moved here in 2000 to take a job at the uni, I didn’t really expect to find much of anything in the way of culture: much like most people, I had a very narrow, not terribly positive (or accurate) view of Reading. But I quickly became aware of the strength of the visual arts and the craft scene. Back then, jelly still had a presence along the Oracle riverside with the Jelly Leg’d Chicken art gallery, and I thought it was so cool that there was this proper arty, independent gallery right in the centre of the town. 

But at heart I’m a theatre girl and, although I loved watching theatre at the likes of South Street, I wanted to get my hands dirty, so I started hunting out opportunities to get involved in and make theatre. So I came across Progress Theatre, where I spent many happy (and busy!) years, and which I credit with giving me a load of the skills I’ve needed in my professional career.

I think what’s changed is that now it just feels like there is more of everything – we have a thriving professional theatre scene creating exciting new work and providing opportunities for performers and other creatives. And of course we have more festivals than ever, covering a wide range of interests – as well as the Fringe (still a relative newcomer compared to some!), you have music at Are You Listening?, Readipop and Down at the Abbey (to name a few). And then there’s the Dance Reading Festival, the Children’s Festival, the Earth Living Festival, Waterfest, East Reading Festival, Here Comes the Sun – and more! AND that’s not including all the great food and drink festivals that tantalise us each year.

If you’d asked me five or six years ago if I thought I’d be able to sustain a professional producing career from Reading, I would have said absolutely not, I’d have to move to a Big City. But I’ve been freelance since 2014 and all my income now comes from the theatre and events industries, which is testament to the opportunities that exist (of course, I know that now is not a great time to have a career in those industries – but hey, let’s stay positive!)

What was your most embarrassing moment?
Ummm, I wet myself at Brownie camp when I was a kid. I was too scared to go into the outdoor toilets, cos they were full (and I mean full) of spiders. So what’s a girl to do..?

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Oh now – I’d say it was my first Michelin experience, back in 2011. It was at 21212 in Edinburgh, and I’d booked it as a surprise for my boyfriend at the time (I’m so nice). Everything about it was perfect: it wasn’t too frou, it was welcoming and cosy, the staff were warm and attentive, and of course the food was so delicious and so surprising. I know this is what you’d expect from any decent restaurant, but it was my first time in a Michelin one, and I was a little apprehensive as to what to expect! 

I loved it so much that I emailed them afterwards for a copy of the menu (I knew I’d forget what I had otherwise) and to remind me of the blue cheese I had, as it’s the only blue cheese I’ve ever enjoyed (Bleu d’Auvergne, if you’re asking). It also introduced me to the delights of truffle honey and to Tokaji. Both of which are found in loads of places now, but back then, to a Croydon girl, they seemed the height of decadence. It also means I’m now one of those poncy wankers who orders a dessert wine when everyone else thinks they’ve finished drinking.

The Reading Gaol project: important development for the town or costly white elephant?
I think if we could get our hands on it – and we could fund it – it would be an absolute boon. There are some brilliant creative, ambitious minds in this town and I genuinely believe that in the right hands that site could be an absolute asset in terms of cultural impact and engagement, creative industries employment, and tourism. It’s big and it’s ambitious – but Reading is totally up to the challenge.

Where will you go for your first meal out?
I was going to say how I’m chomping at the bit to get back to Namaste Momo – I credit Kamal with introducing me to food with spice and warmth that I can actually eat. But I see he’s back delivering again, hooray (serves me right for not being on Twitter much!) But in all honesty I hope that my first meal out of lockdown will be at a friend’s house – I so, so miss the simple pleasure of enjoying (someone else’s!) home-cooked grub followed by a good ol’ natter on the sofa afterwards.

What is your most unappealing habit?
Apparently I have a bad habit of going full Andrex puppy with the bog roll – not sure how I manage it, but it often just… unravels after a visit.    

The Reading Fringe Festival receives hundreds of applications every year. What’s the most weird and wonderful one you’ve seen?
I’d use the term eclectic, rather than weird! One of the roles of the Fringe – of art and culture in general I guess – is to challenge perception and encourage people to experience things they might not have had the opportunity to experience before, or have shied away from because, well, they might think it’s “weird” or not for them. 

A great example of this was a couple of years back – we were hosting the fantastic ice musician Terje Isungset from Norway. Terje creates his own instruments from blocks of ice that have been carved from icebergs, and then plays them. When you tell people about it, well, people think the whole concept sounds if not weird, then a little, umm, unusual. And when you tell them you’re hosting it at the height of summer, well, they then start to think you’re crazy. Fortunately loads of people took a punt on the weirdness, and the concert was a magical experience – ethereal, atmospheric and moving. And that’s what the Fringe is about: embrace the weird and you may discover something wonderful! 

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Oooooh – Sandi Toksvig (my hero), Mary Anning (dinosaurs!), Michaela Coel (hilarious and outrageously talented), Hollie McNish (what a way with words), Sam Neill (he’d bring the wine), and my mum. She’d have a riot.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Anything prawn cocktail flavoured: and although I love the flavour of Skips, I prefer the crunch of the McCoys Sizzling King Prawn.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
Gross Pointe Blank! It’s effortless – performances, writing, direction – just an absolute joy.

What are you proudest of in your professional career to date?
I’d say last year, getting to spend a year with the Old Vic developing a new musical about the history of the British Black Power movement – we shared an hour of material back in December, and watching (and feeling) the audience respond to it was fantastic. I really miss the electric energy that comes from watching live performance in a room with other people.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
It’d have to be that Reading-born girl with the killer eyebrows – Kate Winslet!

What is your favourite smell?
That cool, fresh smell you get when you’re on the water, particularly on a river. A mix of the water, a breeze and the smell of trees and plants along the riverside. Love it. As an aside, I have a friend whose favourite smell is fish food flakes, which so boggles my mind I feel the need to tell everyone.

Tell us something people might not know about you. 
I finally passed my driving test in 2018 at the grand old age of *ahem* – so you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Where is your happy place?
Right now it’s walking along the Kennet and Thames to Sonning. It’s keeping me sane at the moment! But in general it’s nowhere specific: so long as I’m with someone who’s making me laugh – proper, belly-aching guffaws – I’m happy.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
I can’t resist a meat pie or a scotch egg. If I could buy shares in the Caversham Butcher I would – and those shares would be in scotch eggs.

Describe yourself in three words.
Optimistic; over-eager; daft.