Corona diaries: Week 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A: Pete Hefferan, Shed

Born at the Royal Berks, Pete Hefferan worked at Reading institution the 3Bs while a member of critically-lauded band Pete and the Pirates, championed by 6 Music, NME and Pitchfork. When the band split up in 2012, Pete began working at Chan Cham (another Reading institution) alongside his partner Lydia Owen. Pete and Lydia started Shed in July 2012 and in the last eight years it has cemented its place as one of Reading’s favourite cafés, legendary for its Tuna Turner sandwich, Saucy Fridays and superb milkshakes. Pete and Lydia married in 2018 and their daughter, Nell, was born on their wedding anniversary the following year.

Pete freely concedes that Lydia is the driving force behind Shed (“I just turn up, chat to people and cook things”): he is, however, better at sweeping up. Shed reopens for takeaway tomorrow, so let’s hope he hasn’t lost his sweeping game in the meantime.

What are you missing most while we’re all in lockdown?
I’d like to see my daughter playing with her grandparents. Failing that, a cold pint in a pub garden, with the staff from Shed.

What’s your favourite thing about Reading?
Palmer Park reminds me of old friends. Giant trees on London Road remind me of being a teenager and walking to Munchees on a Saturday. Sunday daytime darts at the Hop Leaf. I’m getting tearful.

Before starting Shed you were in Pete and the Pirates. What do you miss most and least about those days?
I’m not going to lie, I miss playing to loads of screaming fans! We got some really good crowds. I miss travelling around Europe, specifically Italy and Germany. I don’t miss the smell of the van.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
The first time we went to Paris to play a gig. It was a little café with a venue underneath. Salmon and prawn quiche followed by a beef rissole (I forget the pudding). I still have regular cravings for Clay’s Chicken ’65.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
My friend won some absinthe in a poetry competition. I helped drink the absinthe, then entered the next round of the competition with an improvised poem.

It’s also my proudest moment.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
An actor.

As part of one of Reading’s most famous married couples in hospitality, what’s the secret of your success in living and working together harmoniously?
We respect each other and listen to blah blah blah something boring.

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Cream cheese and jam on a digestive.

Where will you go for your first meal out after lockdown?
The Ship Inn, Trefriw, North Wales.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
Ed Norton, if he could handle the severe weight loss and the prosthetic nose.

What is your most unappealing habit?
I have an accidental angry tone when I talk sometimes. I don’t realise I’m doing it. It gets me in trouble.

You are responsible for some of Reading’s favourite sandwiches. What’s your favourite sandwich?
M&S cheese and onion.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I know it word for word.

Who would win in a fight: Jon from Picnic or Greg from Workhouse?
It depends on the discipline and what weapons were provided. Both would crush me flat in seconds. How much are the tickets though?

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
Walkers prawn cocktail. Bite me.

Where is your happy place?
I’m in a kitchen somewhere. I’m frying an onion, drinking wine and listening to Oh Baby by LCD Soundsystem.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
Chicken flavour Super Noodles with cheese and hot sauce.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Do you know what I mean?”  

Also I say “apes” when I burp sometimes. I’m not proud of it. 

Tell us a joke.
Have you heard about these new corduroy pillows? 

They’re really making headlines.

Describe yourself in three words.
Not sure I can.