july 20. We always knew that this would be the hard stretch.
When everything was shut and no-one was going anywhere, there was little sense of frustrated opportunity. But now shops and restaurants are beginning to open, and the young and fit are getting out of the house. Lockdown becomes daily less amusing.
So we consider food. One discovery of this event has been the interplay of pleasure and spontaneity. The best meals you cook for yourself are those for which you conceive an appetite one morning, go out and buy the ingredients and cook them in the evening. When you are confined to an intermittent home delivery, each night you are faced with a vague intention conceived a week earlier when the order was compiled. All invention is lost, except in so far as there have to be unexpected workarounds because some essential ingredient has been left off the list.
Out in the country there is a trade between clean air, fine views, quiet roads on the one hand, and an absolute absence of takeaway services on the other. But then we read, in a restaurant column in one of the weeklies, that proper restaurants are delivering proper meals irrespective of distance and at a reasonable price. One of these is the chain of six up-market bistros run by Gary Usher in Manchester and Liverpool. Usher has gained a reputation not only for the quality of his meals but for his approach to the business, launching ventures in unfashionable areas using crowdfunding and adopting an ethical approach to employing his staff.
So, as if in a restaurant, we read the online menu and order the following meal: Starter: Burrata with charred spring onion dressing, fennel and chilli crisps; Main: Confit duck leg, red cabbage, mango and macadamia salad, tarragon bbq sauce; Braised featherblade of beef, truffle creamed potato, glazed carrot, red wine sauce; Desert: Yorkshire parkin, salted butterscotch sauce and clotted cream; dark chocolate and seal salted fudge.
Looks promising. An insulated, chilled box arrives exactly on time containing a host of labelled polythene bags.
Then the problem. The food has been half-prepared. There is not much that can go completely wrong. On the other hand, this is absolutely not a Marks and Spenser microwave job. Everything has to be separately reheated in different ways for different times, or unpacked and reassembled. If you have a basic kitchen competence, each activity is not so difficult. But, like a real restaurant, there is the question of timing. When you go out for a meal, the company usually makes a point of ordering different items from the menu, to compare and contrast, to enjoy your own choices and everyone else’s. In this game, such behaviour is a fundamental mistake. Like the professional chef I find myself having to prepare two multi-layered dishes for completion at exactly the same time, whilst my wife is busy with two other sections of the menu. At one point I am boiling bags on the stove, roasting in the oven, and grilling a duck leg, whilst at the same time preparing a salad and heating a sauce. All to a deadline. I have always regarded the new verb ‘to plate’ as an affectation used only by wannabe tv chefs, but on this occasion when I got to the last line in each of the extensive instruction sheets, plate is what I did.
And of course, when the meal was finished, no-one came to clear the dishes, or deal with the pots and pans and a small mountain of discarded food bags. We have a rule in my household, as in most, that we wash up before the day ends. Not this time.
It was an event (with candles and a good bottle of wine). Not to be missed. Or repeated, at least for a while.