2020: The Year In Review (Part One)

This time of year is usually a happy one at ER HQ. Amid all the wrapping and card-opening, the chocolates snaffled from behind advent calendar doors and the frantic round of socialising in the run-up to Christmas Day, I invariably take time to sit down and write my annual awards. Who cooked the finest main course I’ve had all year? What’s the best new restaurant? Who’s really aced their social media this year? It’s a lovely thing to do, to mentally digest all those wonderful meals one more time and to celebrate everything – and there is so much – that Reading does so very well. After all, you don’t have to listen to Chris Tarrant up on stage, battered at the microphone, to be proud of Reading. Thank God.

As with everything else about this mixed-up year, it draws to a close very differently to every other year we’ve lived through. I know lots of people cautiously returned to dining out over the summer, and did so again when we entered Tier 2 with all its arbitrary restrictions, and I’m certain that Reading’s restaurants are eternally grateful for that, but I’ve stayed home and relied on takeaways and deliveries. Apart from a few drinking sessions at the exemplary Nag’s Head at the height of the summer I’ve not really been out and about; it’s hard enough to remember what having a starter in a restaurant feels like, let alone to flip through the mental Rolodex and work out which was the best one of the last twelve months.

And yet it doesn’t feel right to say goodbye to 2020, much as I know we’re all dying to, without putting something up on the blog. So this is partly a round-up, partly a reflection and goodness knows what else, as we prepare to move into an uncertain future. A vaccine is on the way and the orange knobber across the pond is on his way out but, on the flipside, we have no idea how (or how hard) we’ll get clobbered by our delectably chlorinated oven-ready Brexit.

And now we have a second strain, a third wave and, at the time of writing, a dress rehearsal for the New Year as the rest of Europe proves that it’s actually quite easy to close your borders and take back control. They say it’s the hope that kills you, but I can’t imagine anybody dying of that next year. Let’s look at many of the reasons to be cheerful instead: it’s the season for it, don’t you know.

Goodbyes, but fewer than you might think

(Do you like the headings? Neat, aren’t they. A few people have told me I should use this sort of thing more often to break up the interminable text, and who am I to argue: let’s see if they catch on.)

Obviously it’s very sad when restaurants close. That should go without saying, even this year when we’ve all had to become a bit numb to Bad Stuff. It’s especially sad when an independent closes, or a restaurant you like, or a restaurant that seemed to be doing well, but even when it isn’t the end of somebody’s dream, when it’s a faceless chain, it still leaves people – some of them really good at what they do – looking for new jobs. I still think the real damage will be felt next year but for now, we can at least take comfort in the fact that the number of closures this year was far smaller than you might expect.

Most of the casualties have indeed been chains and often it’s been the second branch of a chain where Reading has more than one: the Kings Road Zizzi; the Broad Street Prêt; the St Mary’s Butts Pizza Express. In the latter case it’s a far nicer place than the one in the Oracle, but at least if you have an emotional attachment to the brand you can still get your Pollo ad Astra without leaving town (do consider Papa Gee, though: they’re on Deliveroo and everything).

One restaurant even came back from the dead: I’m not a diehard fan of Carluccio’s but I still felt sad when it closed early in lockdown as a result of the chain collapsing. And even though it isn’t high on my list of places to visit next year I found it heartwarming nonetheless when it reopened in September. I’ve had enough really enjoyable evenings there (including, surreally, my last restaurant meal before the first lockdown) that I wanted to feel like another one was at least possible. And, for now at least, it still is.

A couple of restaurants changed their names while doing the same kind of food in such a way that you couldn’t really be sure whether they had closed at all. So I honestly don’t know whether Persian Palace is to Persia House what Snoop Lion is to Snoop Dogg, or if Spitiko is in any way a different beast to Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus (probably not, though, given that the restaurant’s Facebook page is now called “Ketty’s Spitiko”).

I certainly couldn’t venture an opinion on whether Gulab Indian Kitchen is any different to Miah’s Garden Of Gulab and I definitely couldn’t speculate as to whether it has anything to do with previous attempts by the owner of Garden Of Gulab to get round losing his alcohol licence by making a new license application under a different name. All I will say is that if you’re part of the very niche section of my readership that just can’t get enough of Indian restaurants with the word “Gulab” in their name, 2020 hasn’t been as complete a bin fire for you as it was for the rest of us.

Probably the most high profile independent closure has been announced but won’t happen until next year, when we say goodbye to one of Reading’s longest-running restaurants, Standard Tandoori on Caversham Road. Standard Tandoori, which has been open for forty years, is closing in the spring as the owners want to retire, so those of you addicted to their (locally) famous “super dry fry” will have to look elsewhere for a new favourite dish.

It does make you wonder which old-timer restaurants might not make it to the end of 2021 – could it be the year we say goodbye to the Bina and Rafina Lounge? Part of this, of course, is down to the circle of life in hospitality – for new restaurants to open, existing restaurants have to close, and indeed a new restaurant is already lined up to open in the Standard Tandoori site following refurbishment (more on that later). Speaking of new restaurants…

In with the new

Opening a restaurant is a brave thing to do at the best of times, in the best of years. It takes a long time to start to recoup your initial costs and approach a break even point, and a fair amount of restaurants don’t ever get that far: it’s hard to find a consensus online about the percentage of restaurants that fail in their first year, but even on conservative estimates it’s high enough that hospitality is not a business for the faint-hearted. That makes it all the more surprising that quite a lot of new restaurants have opened in 2020 – again, more than you might expect – with more still in the pipeline.

Some are trying to turn around what could charitably be described as cursed sites – the kind of buildings that seem to be on ley lines guaranteed to ensure the failure of hospitality businesses. Take the old site of the Warwick Arms on the Kings Road, for example. It rebranded as Bali Lounge, and when that closed it reincarnated as a gastropub of sorts called the Biscuit & Barrel. Then, like some hyperactive Doctor Who of the Reading restaurant world, it became Cardamom, the second branch of a mini-chain of Indian restaurants (the other one’s in Pangbourne) before very quickly rebranding again – this time as King’s Kitchen, also an Indian restaurant.

That takes us up to early 2020, but later this year it changed its name yet again, becoming The Aila, a Nepalese restaurant and bar. By the time a vaccine has been rolled out and I am ready to review restaurants again I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it has changed its name again. Possibly twice.

Another new opening in a cursed site is Madoo, an Italian coffee shop which has opened on Duke Street opposite the Oxfam music shop. You may know this site better as the boarded up shop that used to be Project Pizza or, if your memory is longer, the boarded up shop that used to be It’s A Wrap.

But in fairness, the reports I’ve had so far (including from Reading’s resident Sicilian in exile, Salvo Toscano) suggest that Madoo might be a dark horse. The toasted gorgonzola sandwich is meant to be decent, they use scamorza in quite a few of their toasties and they sell some goodies – cake and biscuits – to take away (if they stock any giandiuotti I shall have to pay them a visit sooner rather than later). Let’s hope Madoo manages to make a go of the site – it may benefit, sadly, from the closure of Panino (another long-standing Reading business) on the other side of the road.

One last ill-starred spot is the old Colley’s Supper Rooms site on the Wokingham Road, up by Palmer Park. This was reborn as Bart’s, a steakhouse that left me a little unmoved, before closing and reopening as the salubrious-sounding Smokey’s House, a restaurant described by Get Reading as Cheap and cheerful family grub. Perhaps unsurprisingly given that glowing writeup, Smokey’s House failed to catch fire and now, in its place, we have O Português, a – yes, you’ve guessed – Portuguese restaurant.

This could be a wonderful thing, if it’s done well. I’ve been to Portugal a fair few times and it’s very much the unsung hero of European food, with dishes and wine that can easily match anything in Spain. And it’s some time since Reading had a Portuguese restaurant (Nando’s doesn’t count: it’s South African), the last one being O Beirão up on the Basingstoke Road. O Português must be pretty confident, anyway, as so far they’ve dispensed with a website or even having a menu up outside the restaurant. I had to go on Just Eat to get a look at what was on offer: one section of the menu is entitled “Vegetarian & Children”, which rather gives the wrong impression.

O Português’ menu is, at least, available somewhere online. That’s more than you can say about Raayo, the new cafe which has opened on Friar Street just along from Hickies. They have set up a website, but the nicest thing I can say about it is that it feels a tad underdeveloped. The menu is lacking in the kind of detail especially fussy customers might want – what dishes are available, how much they cost, that kind of thing. And what’s Raayo’s USP? We use fresh ingredients to make our food very tasty and yummy says the website, which will leave all of Reading’s dastardly restaurants and cafés using stale ingredients to make their food rubbish or middling quaking in their boots.

I know this might sound unkind, but it comes from a place of genuine concern. Raayo, like all hospitality businesses, is going to need all the help it can get in a crowded, competitive marketplace to stay alive; in 2020, and especially in 2021, this kind of approach just won’t cut it. I imagine they’ve had some quiet days since they opened – you’d think they would have offered plenty of opportunities to at least get busy on social media.

Also new, also a café and also on Friar Street, albeit at the less attractive end down by German Doner Kebab and the Hope Tap, we have Bru. Instagram announced that they opened their doors for the first time last week, although they haven’t updated their website to reflect that (isn’t it always the way?). Bru serve their own gelato, handmade by them in Leicester, so if that turns out to be good – and especially if it turns out actually to be gelato – that could be a real addition to town. Their menu also offers a “Grinch hot chocolate” which is a really disconcerting shade of green and something called a “wafflepop”, which I assume is like a normal waffle but hundreds of times more twee.

Other cafés have been far more polished. The Collective has opened just opposite the Griffin and is an altogether more well-realised affair: very Caversham and very chic, with a stripped-back, almost Nordic look. The name is about the only Marxist thing about it: part-café, part lifestyle shop and part grocer, it will be interesting to see whether they manage to do more with that concept than their spiritual predecessor, Siblings Home. The Collective has already been featured in Muddy Stilettos, which probably tells you more about it and the market it is aiming at than I possibly could. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll probably like that sort of thing.

One restaurant, although not new per se, has pursued such a different direction that it might as well be a completely new establishment. The Corn Stores, which underwhelmed me last year as an upmarket steak restaurant, made a dramatic switch this year when it hired Liam Sweeney, previously sous chef at Nottingham’s Michelin-starred Alchemilla. The complete revamp involved moving to a compact, regularly-changing tasting menu, a clear statement of intent that owner Rarebreed Dining was shooting for central Reading’s first Michelin star. The decision to start using sourdough bread from RGBread, the bakery run by Geo Café, was another sign of Sweeney’s ambition. Speaking of the Corn Stores…

The idea is you put the headings between the sections

I did wonder what would happen to restaurant reviewing this year. I’ve taken nine months off, and you all have the withdrawal symptoms to prove it, but Reading’s influencers tend to be younger and braver (and, I would guess, with no underlying health conditions). They’re a lean and hungry bunch. But just as the pandemic has made many of us reassess our values, would it change their views about how they reviewed restaurants and which restaurants to review? The early signs were that it might, with at least one local blogger musing about whether it was right to take free food in the middle of a global crisis, or to support chains.

That didn’t last very long, as a number of comped reviews and enthusiastic Instagram posts have cropped up since then. Movie night at the Last Crumb was just too hard to resist it seems (maybe they were showing Weekend At Bernie’s, in which case who can blame them) as was an opportunity to scoff free grub at the new and improved Corn Stores. Oh well. Times are hard and who can begrudge people the chance to cut down on their weekly expenses: won’t somebody think of the influencers?

Anyway, I can’t bring myself to entirely complain about people getting free meals at the Corn Stores, because it introduced Reading, and the world, to possibly the finest restaurant reviewer writing today in English. I am of course speaking of Hugh Fort: I think we all knew he had talent, but none of us could have predicted just what a towering giant he would become in 2020. My friend Sophie told me last week that she decided to eat at the Corn Stores on the night before the start of the second lockdown entirely on the basis of Fort’s masterful review for Berkshire Live.

“I knew that if Hugh Fort didn’t like it, it was probably the place for me.”

“It’s not that he didn’t like it, more that he just didn’t understand it.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what it was.”

Where to begin? There’s so much to enjoy about the review that I doubt I can do it justice. Someone on Twitter described it as “accidental Partridge”, but it’s so authentically him that I suspect Alan Partridge might instead be an accidental Hugh Fort. Fort wrote incredulously about eating Liam Sweeney’s food in a way that suggested even a Harvester might be a tad fancy for him. And it wasn’t just the food, either. Fort doesn’t drink, and he writes about booze as if he doesn’t understand that either. A sniff of his girlfriend’s cocktail “suggested to me it was the sort of thing that you could drink a lot of without realising it was full of potent liquor, which seems to be the point of cocktails.” Has anyone ever seen him and Viz‘s Mr. Logic in the same place?

But it was when talking about the food that Fort really came into his own: his uncle is Great British Menu judge Matthew Fort, but the apple has fallen a long old way from the tree. I loved the way he put mocktails and palate cleanser in inverted commas, as if to say “this is what the kids are calling them, apparently”. Fresh oysters and Reading town centre were apparently “two terms that aren’t exactly associated with each other” – why am I not surprised that Fort had never heard of London Street Brasserie? – but Fort gamely gave them a bash, before “wolfing down” “a couple of tasty potato croquettes”.

The Corn Stores put a picture of that dish up on Instagram a week or so later, patiently explaining that they were in fact pig’s head croquettes, no doubt involving painstaking cooking and assembly. But never mind that, because they clearly didn’t touch the sides for our roving gourmand (perhaps he didn’t even chew). That Fort couldn’t tell the difference between dense shreds of perfectly-cooked pig and, err, mashed potato might be my single favourite thing about him.

The most quoted section was Fort’s baffled encounter with duck liver parfait and brioche. “The idea is you put the parfait on the brioche” he explained, possibly more to himself than the rest of us. I’d like to imagine that an earlier version of the review also contained a paragraph reading “the idea is that you cut the food into smaller pieces using the knife and fork provided, before placing it in your mouth, chewing it with your molars and swallowing in order to allow the process of digestion to take place”. But of course that would mean some editing or proofreading had taken place, and this is Berkshire Live we’re talking about.

And what did Fort make of it? “I quite liked it… I think someone more generally into parfaits would really enjoy it.” “Fine dining anywhere often takes you out of your comfort zone” he added, although Fort’s comfort zone might well begin and end at Gregg’s, or one of those Rustler microwaveable burgers. You know, really fancy shit.

I think it was the Guardian‘s John Crace, or it might have been the Independent‘s Tom Peck, who said that 2020 was the year that satire died. You no longer have to come up with anything yourself, you just have to become a stenographer because the stuff virtually writes itself. So much as I could carry on dissecting Fort’s erudition, I suspect nothing I could say will top the experience of reading it in its entirety.

I’ll leave you to enjoy the rest, including his shock at eating a steak without chips and his girlfriend’s exciting main course, apparently “duck with Aylesbury duck”. That part reminded me of another blinding passage I read in a restaurant review this year, which said “the fish had light and crispy batter which was dusted underneath with Indian spices from the Indian spices. This gave it a subtle spicy flavour, but nothing too spicy”: somebody probably needs to ask Santa for a thesaurus this year.

Some artists create one perfect piece of work and then walk away, knowing they will never top it. I fear Hugh Fort may be such an auteur: I keep looking, but there is no sequel. I’ve read his blistering piece about “the new Hena spice ketchup everybody’s been talking about” (spoiler alert: I don’t know anybody who’s even heard of it) but it’s just not the same.

In it, Fort reviews a curry sauce which, it turns out, you can’t buy in supermarkets in Reading to see if it’s as good as McDonald’s curry sauce which, of course, you can’t buy in supermarkets in Reading. To cut a long story short, Fort thought the one you can’t buy in Home Bargains was slightly nicer but that neither of them was as good as ketchup – and he used the phrase “to be honest” twice, so you know it’s the real deal. Let’s hope 2021 brings more restaurant reviews from Fort: even the fact that the food was free does nothing to tarnish his brilliance.

In with the new (continued)

Sadly we don’t know what Hugh Fort would make of the other new restaurants to open in Reading this year (just imagine, though), and our influencers haven’t bothered with them yet, presumably because they haven’t been offered the chance to do so for nothing.

Quite a few of them, though, are starting to build some good word of mouth reports. A prime example is Banarasi Kitchen, an Indian restaurant trading out of the Spread Eagle pub on Norfolk Road, between the Oxford and Tilehurst Roads. A friend tells me she has gone there pretty regularly this year and has given it rave reviews, and it coincides with the Spread Eagle starting to make a bit of effort on Instagram: I shall be making my way there to check it out at some point in 2021.

Another pub with a chequered relationship with food is the Fisherman’s Cottage, down by the Kennet on the edge of New Town. It’s most famous for having played host to the superb and badly-missed I Love Paella – they left in acrimonious circumstances in summer 2018 and this summer the old management left the pub. It has now reopened under chef and restaurateur Cigdem Muren Atkins, who was born in Turkey and has run hospitality businesses in the Dominican Republic and Bodrum before pitching up at the Fisherman’s Cottage.

It has real potential – the pub can be a lovely spot, especially in summer – but time will tell whether Muren Atkins can keep enough craft beer available to keep the previous clientele happy while working on a food offering to win over diners. Her current menu feels quite generic, with a mixture of curries, stir fries and standard pub fare (yes, burgers). Personally I’d like to see a few more Turkish dishes on the menu – Reading has never quite anywhere that captures how beautiful that cuisine can be, and you need to head to Zigana’s Turkish Kitchen in Didcot for that.

Or it may be that La’De Kitchen, which opened this year in Woodley, will save me from the questionable pleasures of a train trip to Didcot. Although the blurb describes it as a Mediterranean restaurant the menu on their rather glossy website has loads of Turkish dishes on it – borek, pide, guvec and of course a myriad of kebabs. It turns out that this is La’De’s third branch, the slightly incongruous final part of an unlikely threesome: Muswell Hill, Pangbourne, Woodley. I have several readers who have thoroughly enjoyed takeaway from the Pangbourne branch, despite the slightly sharp pricing, so I shall look forward to trying it for myself.

And you don’t need to head out to Woodley to try a plethora of grilled meats: Tasty Greek Souvlaki opened on Market Place in May, in the old Mum Mum site. Again, I’ve heard plenty of good reports of their food (albeit with one or two detractors) with the giros particularly worth trying, by all accounts. I was on the verge of heading there for an al fresco lunch on one of the last warm weekdays of the year – and writing it up for the blog – when we went into a second lockdown, so it just wasn’t meant to be. Hopefully it will still be trading next year when I return to reviewing in earnest.

A new establishment to file under “hmm” is one of the victims, along with HRVY off of Strictly Come Dancing, of the Great Vowel Shortage Of 2020. MNKY Lounge – whose name somehow fails to combine the glamour of Donna Karan New York and the prosaic quality of Alto Lounge – has opened on Erleigh Road where the Fruitbat Bar (and more recently vegan café bar Vego’s) used to ply its trade.

Will this fare any better? I’m not sure. Every time I’ve went past over the summer the tables outside were packed with people drinking but life in Tiers 2, 3 and 4 (let alone the Tier 14 we’ll probably be in by mid-January) may be a different matter. I went on to Just Eat to scout out their menu (their website – yes, it’s another one of those – simply announces that it’s “coming soon”) and I didn’t see anything that looked like it couldn’t have fallen off the back of a Brakes lorry.

Before taking my leave of you, it’s worth reminding you that there are always, always new cafés and restaurants in the pipeline. Nothing ever stands still. So in the New Year we can expect to see Chaiiwala, sometimes apparently described as “the Indian Starbucks” opening on the Wokingham Road just up from I Can’t Believe It’s Not The Garden Of Gulab Gulab Indian Kitchen. Mansoor, my man in the know who introduced me to Cake&Cream and its magic samosas, tells me that Chaiiwala is worth a visit for its karak chai and its chicken kebab rolls: that is recommendation enough for me.

We’ll also see Flavour Of Mauritius opening in the Standard Tandoori’s current location on Caversham Road. Currently a mobile caterer, Flavour Of Mauritius hit the news over the summer when, like a number of other local businesses, they chose to donate free meals to NHS staff, the emergency services and charities helping those in need. I’ve heard positive noises from ER readers who have ordered takeaway from Flavour Of Mauritius in lockdown, so fingers crossed they will revitalise the site and bring something new to Reading’s restaurant scene.

Oh, and Wendy’s is allegedly opening on Friar Street: place your bets on whether we’ll see any enthusiastic Instagram posts about square burgers, the word AD squirrelled away at the very end. And that reminds me that Tortilla has opened on Broad Street, near the Oracle entrance – I should have remembered earlier, but somehow it feels hard to care.

And another Turkish restaurant opened down the Oxford Road in between me starting to write this round-up and hitting the publish button. We also may or may not get a branch of LEON, just like we were meant to get branches of Byron and Busaba a few years ago. If this year has taught you anything, it’s that nothing can be guaranteed to go completely according to plan.

Anyway, that completes the first section of my round-up of 2020. Come back next week for Part Two, when we’ll see if I can sum up how Reading’s restaurants have survived the year without using the word “pivot”. Maybe we can turn it into a drinking game.

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: Mike Clayton-Jones, Double-Barrelled

Originally from Manchester, Mike Clayton-Jones moved to Reading eight years ago. He worked as a logistics consultant, and started homebrewing in his garage as a hobby. When he and his wife Luci got married, they gave guests a bottle of his beer as a favour: it was billed as by “Double-Barrelled Brewery” as a nod to his double-barrelled surname, but the name stuck. Mike and Luci opened their brewery on Stadium Way in 2018, and the following year they won Entrepreneur Of The Year at the Pride Of Reading Awards.

Double-Barrelled has continued to operate throughout lockdown, shifting to online sales while pubs and bars were closed, and has now reopened its taproom and is working on expanding its onsite capacity. Mike and Luci live in Caversham.

What have you missed most in lockdown?
The spontaneity of just going somewhere or meeting up with friends, seeing who’s down the pub et cetera. And social interactions that aren’t on a Zoom call. I don’t want to do another zoom quiz. Ever again. 

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
Reading is small enough that you can get to every part of it quickly and easily and it feels like a community, but it’s big enough that it literally has everything you could need. Need a new car or a fridge? Yep, plenty of options. Want a freshly cooked vegan meal? Yeah, we got that too. Artisanal coffee or authentic and delicious Indian food? No worries. All of these choices and so many more are within five minutes of my house, which suits me.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Aside from my Mum’s cooking (in particular how much she bakes sweet things and desserts but rarely indulges in any of them) I have memories of watching cooking shows on TV as a kid. A firm favourite back in the day was Ready Steady Cook, which became something of a daily or weekly routine (I forget how frequently it was on). The idea of looking at a bag of ingredients and coming up with a recipe on the spot is something I still enjoy doing on a whim and has led to some long-lasting staple meals. 

What is the worst job you’ve done?
One of my first jobs out of uni was at Avis – I was a call handler in their customer complaints department. Unsurprisingly it was a soul destroying six months working on a phone line specifically designed for people to ring up and shout at you. At the end of my first week of training I was left to fend for myself for the first time: literally the first call I took ended with a guy calling me a cunt down the phone. 

What’s your favourite citybreak destination?
Somewhere I could go back to regularly would be Bamberg in Northern Bavaria, not least for the incredible Schlenkerla brewery and their Rauchbier (smoked beer). I love the serving hatch experience of some guy just handing you full pint out of a hole in the wall – no options, just “you want a pint of smoked beer or not?” – and then settling down with your delicious Rauchbier to indulge in a plate of pork knuckle and mashed potatoes, admire the stunning architecture and watch the world go by. 

Aside from your own, which three beers would you pick as your desert island beers?
Lagonda by Marble (on cask, through a sparkler), Table Beer by The Kernel and Schlenkerla’s Rauchbier.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I’ve been incredibly lucky to eat in some amazing places all over the world, but a meal that stands out more than most would have to be when Luci and I were on honeymoon in the Seychelles. We went out on a deep sea fishing trip and caught a couple of yellow fin tuna and then travelled to a small island inhabited only by hundreds of giant tortoises. The skipper of the boat prepared the tuna in a really simple ceviche with some sliced red onions and a little chili pepper. Probably the freshest fish I’ve ever eaten and every element of it was just perfect – the surroundings, the situation and, of course, the food. 

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? 
I’m not aware of overusing many, but within our team I have a reputation for talking about pallets too passionately. 

Where does Double-Barrelled stand on the government’s plan to amend Small Breweries’ Relief, and why is it important?
Well! That’s a question and a half! It’s probably better discussed with a pint in hand, but I’ll do what I can to say how we feel here. 

I’ll start with why it is an important tax relief scheme – the idea behind the rate relief scheme for duty in the first place was to try to lower the barriers of entry to the market to the beer industry, by making it easier for small breweries to compete with large ones with established economies of scale. This promotes greater diversity in beer, innovation and has benefits to the economy for more great beer being made in the U.K. It’s one of the reasons that so many smaller batch breweries exist today, ourselves included. 

The final details of the changes have yet to be specified but the very idea of changes that have been lobbied for by bigger businesses with only commercial reasons for gain is of course incredibly worrying for us. The U.K. currently has one of the highest alcohol duty rates in the world and that has a huge impact on the costs of production, whatever the scale. The idea that a number of breweries – who have happily taken advantage of the lower duty rates to grow to a size where they start to see a tapering of the relief they are eligible for – now want to pull the rug from under the feet of the rest of the industry is galling at best.  

Small breweries have always fought an uphill battle against the big players in the overall industry, and for many years the smaller guys have been in broad agreement about the general “independent v multinational” way of life. But now we constantly face issues where breweries that look independent and “craft” are bought out by the multinationals (Beavertown, Magic Rock, FourPure, Camden etc. etc.). It’s a highly competitive industry, often with dirty business practices from the big players and grossly unfair competition. Changes like these only seem to clarify that the aim is to push the small guys out. 

The argument is that the current set up fails to promote growth, and as a brewery that will be teetering on the edge of the proposed duty threshold very soon, it’s a worrying time. 

I’ve barely scratched the surface on my feelings on this! To summarise, Double-Barrelled opposes the plan to amend Small Brewers Relief. Change is often necessary, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of creativity or of giving new operators to an industry an even bigger obstacle to deal with.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
Snatch. I can pretty much write the script out for it, which is of course absolutely excellent, but combined with the soundtrack it’s just an incredible movie. 

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
It sounds clichéd but take risks, follow dreams, do what you want to do when you want to do it. The time we have is short, and it can end in an instant. Stuck in a job you hate? Change it! There isn’t time to be sitting around waiting for something you might like to appear on the horizon.  

What one restaurant do you wish you could pick up and drop in Reading?
Katz’s Deli in NYC, for the buzz and atmosphere created in that sandwich shop, let alone the standard of the food. There’s often a queue around the block to get in, and the first time you go, it makes you question if it’s really worth the hassle. Trust me, if you’re ever in New York it’s the best place to go for a sandwich if you are a fan of pastrami, brisket or corned beef. 

What is your most unappealing habit? 
I eat too quickly at pretty much every opportunity. It always causes me problems afterwards, but I never, ever learn from it.  

You travelled extensively and did a lot of research (well, drinking) before starting the brewery. Which breweries have been the biggest influence on you?
We drew a lot of inspiration from all over the place when we came back and finally set up Double-Barrelled. We try to create a wide variety of beer styles and try to reflect brewing traditions and heritage where we can, whilst also being experimentative. The taproom aspect was based heavily on the US model of incorporating a permanent space to offer guests to drink our beers on the site they are made, whilst having enough scale to brew more than your average brewpub (which thankfully we have just about managed).

Probably one of the biggest direct breweries that influenced us overall was Big Shed in Australia. They had an awesome community taproom, were winning awards for their beers nationally and the owners were friendly and welcoming and were still, despite growth, heavily involved in the business. Their influence on us was reflected in the naming of our stout “Seven Dollar Saturday” after some the stories they shared with us. What was really special is they came over to the U.K. last year and brewed a beer with us in Reading. That was a proud moment.  

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Scampi Fries! There is no debate here.

Where is your happy place?
When you have been really busy, sometimes I feel like the best place to be is sat on the sofa,with my wife, the cats and a couple of beers. I love the beer industry, but it’s an industry that needs you to work days, nights and weekends. So stopping for a bit is even more appreciated. 

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I have a bum in my chin. Although I can’t remember the last time anyone saw it, so it might not even be there any more. I’m also pretty deaf and wear hearing aids: I’d like to think that’s something most people don’t notice when they meet me.

You put a lot of work into naming your beers. What’s your favourite beer name that didn’t quite make it onto a can?
There’s a long list on my phone of work in progress names. It’s quite a challenge to make sure that the names are inoffensive, unique where possible, interesting, and easy to say over a bar, especially when you are releasing new beer every week. My favourite one that hasn’t been used yet is Horses Are Stuck Up – it was funny at the time, maybe it should be left that way.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Scotch eggs. I love them, even the dirty ones you aren’t supposed to like.

Describe yourself in three words.
Bald, beardy, beerman.  

Q&A: Tevye Markson, Reading Chronicle

Born in Hackney, Tevye Markson went to university in Coventry and The Hague to study history and international relations before embarking on a career in journalism. In between finishing his studies and going back to do a journalism postgraduate diploma, he worked as a press officer and housing advisor for two London councils, including working with the victims of Grenfell. He also gained experience at the Camden New Journal and the Sunday Times. In 2018, having completed his diploma, he joined the Reading Chronicle as Reading’s first BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporter, where he writes about all aspects of local life.

Also a music producer and DJ in his spare time, Tevye lives in East Reading and regularly plays football at Reading University SportsPark (or did, pre-Covid-19).

What have you missed most in lockdown?
Not seeing my girlfriend for more than three months was tough, as was not being able to see most of my friends and family.

How did you find yourself ending up in Reading? What were your first impressions of it?
I finished my journalism qualification a couple of years ago, and I applied for half a dozen jobs but the role as Local Democracy Reporter for Reading really stood out and luckily I got the job. I had previously been to Reading a few times for the festival as a teenager and once on a night out with a mate who is from Maidenhead, so I had only really had small glimpses of it. I guess my first impressions were of how many chain shops there are. It’s like a big shopping centre in the town centre. Part of me was concerned there would only be chains, as I like to try new things, but that hasn’t been the case.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
The one that really stands out as an experience was when I was eleven, travelling with my dad in Sicily. It was our last day and we only had a few hours before we needed to get to the airport. We were looking for one last meal and we’d read about an amazing place where you could get seven courses for less than twenty euros. We were searching all over for this place in the car but couldn’t find it.

I don’t remember how, but we ended up talking to a couple on a motorbike – they knew the place and showed us the way, but the restaurant was closed. But they said they knew another similar place, and took us there. The food was so good. We actually shared a meal, and it was easily enough food: seven courses of delicious seafood and fish dishes for about eighteen Euros with wine (and a Coca-Cola for me). Fantastic.

Where did you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
My first meal out after lockdown was in Paris, where my girlfriend lives. We went to a Vietnamese restaurant called Mémé Viet near her place. We had spring rolls to start, which you wrap in lettuce, stuff with different fresh herbs and dip in a tangy and sweet sauce. After that we each had a beef pho. I was quite limited in my cooking during lockdown, not wanting to visit big supermarkets initially, so I hadn’t eaten any east Asian food and I really fancied pho or ramen.

In a time of hyperlocal websites, blogs and real time social media, what role do you see for more traditional local media outlets?
Traditional news is as important as ever. You may hear about something first on social media, but you’ll still go to a qualified journalist to find out what really happened.

We need paid and qualified journalists spending time producing stories that are factual and legally sound. The work I do as a local democracy reporter is an example of how important local journalism is. I spend a lot of time making sure every decision the council makes is scrutinised as best as I can, making sure the people of Reading know what is going on in a way that is fair and respectful to all sides.

Hyperlocals can be great and I think there is room for both. Blogs often serve a different purpose to a traditional newspaper, focusing more closely on one subject matter (like Edible Reading) or a smaller area (like the Whitley Pump, which closed recently). Profitability and how to monetise news is a big issue, though.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Eating muffins for breakfast at a hotel in New York when I was five. Me and my brothers finished a big bowl of them by ourselves that was supposed to be for everyone. The hotel staff told us off. 

What’s your favourite city break destination?
I’ve been to Berlin three times and it is somewhere I’d like to visit again soon. There is a great variety of food (including amazing kebabs) great clubs and so much to see, and everything is much more affordable than other big cities like London and Paris. Also, German lager is the best kind of lager.

Which writers, living or dead, do you most admire?
I read books quite sporadically. Some of my favourite authors include James Joyce, Albert Camus, George Orwell, George RR Martin, Jon Ronson and Arthur Miller. 

If you could go back in time, where would you go?
I studied history at university, focusing a lot on the Cold War. There are lots of moments that would be interesting to see, like the Cuban missile crisis or a divided Berlin. But if I were to live in this time travel fantasy, I’d like to go back to early 80s Chicago and the birth of house music.

What one restaurant do you wish you could pick up and drop in Reading?
Reading could do with a good ramen place. I like Kanada-Ya in London.

Has your job been made easier or more difficult in lockdown? How have the stories you’ve covered changed?
Coronavirus has made finding stories to write about easier as my role has expanded, although there’s always lots going on in Reading so I’m rarely short of ideas. It’s been difficult communicating, though.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
I mostly don’t watch films more than once, but Hot Fuzz is one film I continue to enjoy every time I watch it. But if I had to watch something over and over again it would probably be The Sopranos or The Wire.

What is your most unappealing habit?
When I enjoy food, I can eat very quickly and stop talking.

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
I’m a big fan of eating just salted crisps and having dips with them. Is a Dorito a crisp? I’d go for Doritos with a hint of lime, or lightly salted Tyrrell’s.

Where is your happy place?
I create music using synths, samples and my voice and my happy place is me listening to a song I’ve just made over and over. Or the same thing when I hear a song or album that feels like it has been made for me. 

I thought your piece about Sykes Capital was one of the best things I’ve read in ages. Was that always the kind of journalism you wanted to do when you started in the profession?
The best things come when you spend a long time on them and that’s what I want to do. I’m very interested in doing as much investigative journalism as possible, digging deep into important issues that might not otherwise get the attention they deserve, and hopefully making a difference to people’s lives in a positive way.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Spicy food – because it doesn’t really agree with me, but I love it.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
The great independent places to eat food, the community feel and that mix of being urban but also so close to nature.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I auditioned for Band Of Brothers when I was about six to play a Dutch kid who has never eaten chocolate before. They didn’t give you any chocolate, so that was pretty tough. I got a second audition but didn’t get the part, and they let me down gently by saying that the kid was supposed to be blonde. A few years later, the same casting director looked my family name up in the Yellow Pages to find me to audition for a film. I got to the final two but lost out to a kid who ended up being one of Ian Beale’s sons on EastEnders.  

Describe yourself in three words.
Caring, passionate and curious.

Q&A: Mohamad Skeik, Bakery House

Mohamad Skeik was born in Tripoli but moved to the U.K. at the age of 21. He got into cooking through entertaining friends, cooking traditional Libyan food, and he joined Bakery House as its manager when it opened in 2015. Over the last 5 years, Bakery House has built up a devoted following for its shawarma, falafel and my personal favourite, the boneless baby chicken. Mohamad now does much of the cooking there (“I love it: my heart was always in the kitchen and I was very hands on”). He lives in Lower Earley with his wife and three small children.

Bakery House has reopened post-lockdown, and also delivers via Deliveroo (at crazily reasonable prices).

What have you missed most in lockdown?
I’ve missed having coffee with close friends and catching up with them. Also travelling, which is one of my favourite things. 

How did you find yourself ending up in Reading? What were your first impressions of it?
Well, I arrived into London from Libya and the very first place I went was Southampton. I only stayed there two nights and I just knew it wasn’t for me. So I packed again and came to Reading, because I already had a few friends living here. I never went anywhere else after that, and I’ve never looked back. I absolutely love Reading, it’s my home. 

My first impression of Reading was that I loved the Riverside! I arrived in winter, and everything looked so nice around with the lights and the snow (which I had hardly ever seen in Libya). I just fell in love with everything about the place from day one. 

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
It was in Istanbul last year, where I had a special feast with my best friend at a restaurant called Medeni (the chef there, Boraq, is very famous). There were several dishes I really loved, but my favourite was the flaming lamb ribs. 

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Every Friday having brunch with my family before the Friday prayer started: my dad had Fridays off.

How would you describe Libyan food to somebody who doesn’t know about it?
Libyan food is heavily influenced by Italian culture (but with an Arabian twist) because Libya was occupied by Italy in the past and that’s created some kind of fusion. So for example we have a dish called rishda which is a dough put through the pasta machine and steamed (sort of like a noodle) and then added to the traditional Libyan sauce which features in most dishes. That sauce involves tons of onions, chickpeas, usually lamb neck and some tomato puree. It’s spicy, rich and meaty and perfect for the carbs to soak up! We also do red couscous (called “couscousi”) with pumpkin, although here in the U.K. we use butternut squash.

What is your most unappealing habit?
Probably not letting go and being worried about things when it comes to work. Micromanaging, basically!

What is the worst job you’ve done?
I worked as a security guard throughout one winter. I had to sit in the car park all night on patrol.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
I love action movies and I never get bored of Denzel Washington films, so probably The Equalizer

What prompted you to move from management back into cooking, and what do you enjoy most about being in the kitchen?
Technically I’m still the manager, but I run the kitchen at the same time because I love it and I’m so passionate about the food we are giving to people. I wanted to make the change because I wanted a more hands-on role. The kitchen gives me a place to really feel at home and relaxed, because I just love what we do. 

What is your most treasured possession?
My old childhood photos – and my wedding ring, which was engraved in Palestine. 

What one restaurant do you wish you could pick up and drop in Reading?
There’s a restaurant me and my family love called Antep Kitchen in Oxford, down the Cowley Road. Either that or Diyarbakir in Green Lanes. Those are two of my absolute favourites and my job and hours make them very difficult to get to!

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Not to judge people based on first impressions. I think everyone has a problem with thinking they know people before they’ve properly given them a chance to show themselves, possibly even just based on the first few minutes. It’s better to wait and see: some people you might think are good turn out not to be, and others who make mistakes or don’t initially impress you can turn out to be the best and most trustworthy later. I’ve definitely changed a lot over the years, partly because of that life lesson!

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
I love ready salted Pringles. They just go with everything.

What’s your favourite dish on the Bakery House menu?
Definitely the chops. They’re so moreish. 

What is your favourite smell? 
Oud, the Arabian perfume. I bought some on my last holiday before lockdown. 

Where is your happy place?
Either being in Istanbul or being in the kitchen. Ideally both combined, like they were last year when I explored some Turkish kitchens!

What’s the most underrated dish you serve at Bakery House?
I would say probably the maqaneq or the batata harra. I think customers don’t expect those smoky flavours, but people who try them love them. 

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
I absolutely love chocolate.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I’m actually Palestinian, even though I was born and raised in Libya (and work in a Lebanese restaurant!)

Describe yourself in three words.
Kind, humble, adventurous.