‘Oh, what a night/Late December back in ’63/Was a very special time for me/As I remember what a night’. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons may famously have been singing about a very good and special time back in 1975 but the words keep coming to me from the perspective of this year’s pandemic: ‘Oh, what a year’. A year ago, none of us could have imagined how 2020 would turn out; even the early rumours about a ‘pandemic’ could give no warning of what was in store for us over the coming months. It’s changed us all in different ways and yet it’s been a shared experience; even in my now fairly long life I’ve never been through something that has affected the entire world in such a big and profound way. However, this isn’t a place for politics, for the pros and cons of vaccines, etc. and all I will say is that I’ve sadly witnessed more division arising from the pandemic than even Brexit (and believe me, here in the UK, people have lost friends and family contact over Brexit, so strong are feelings one way or the other). No this is a blog for celebration. I began it back in 2011 as a response to a coming out of a difficult time in my life and I wanted to celebrate all that was good. So keen was I to always be positive that it took me a while to post my first negative restaurant review, but I eventually saw that embracing the role of an occasional restaurant critic couldn’t be serious unless you were willing to share the disappointing experiences as well as the wonderful ones. I have, however, stuck to never writing a bad review about a small local independent business. This isn’t some kind of hubris that makes me think my views are so important, it just doesn’t seem very nice, and to be honest, I’ve not a lot of interest in writing up bad meals in restaurants; it’s not much fun. I only do it when I’ve had a bad meal/experience at a ‘big name’ place because I get cross about big names being used to pull in the punters but not delivering the goods.
For me, one of the joys of my blog has been that by adopting a very broad canvas – basically anything that connects in some way to food and/or travel – I’ve been able to adapt more easily to finding things to write about. I haven’t been able to travel – well not proper travel – and I’ve not been visiting new restaurants to write reviews, but I have been cooking; I have been taking a closer look at where I live; and I even had a brief attempt at ‘grow your own’ though concluded it’s not really ‘me’. To this slightly adapted writing I had to introduce A New Look because WordPress stopped me using the old classic form of writing posts. This seemed liked an unnecessary crisis amidst a worldwide one at the time as I struggled to find my path through the new set-up but now I’m there, I’m really pleased with the blog’s ‘new look’ and think it’s more modern and sophisticated. My lovely Italian friend Lucia sent me a text saying she loved ‘the new look blog … so stylish and fresh’ and when an Italian thinks you’ve got style right it feels like a great compliment.
My heart goes out to those who have suffered tragedy and hardship this year but I find that many people are able, amidst the challenge and difficulties, to find at least a few positives from the restricted lives we’ve led for the past few months. I see from my own grown-up children and their partners that working from home isn’t the fun that some think it might be: they’ve had to work extraordinarily hard, long hours in difficult conditions, have missed social connection and spend far too much time on Zoom, but they’re all thankful to have jobs that adapt well enough that they can do this. What they have valued is seeing more of their kids, even if it’s meant some tricky management of balancing work and childcare. For me, my work as a freelance book editor has brought a welcome sense of normality because I’ve been doing it for so long, it is my ‘norm’ and I’m set up with a small office in my house and all I need, so I can carry on as I’ve been doing for many years. I think we’ve all grown to appreciate the small pleasures of life more; to change our perspective on things that worry us, let go of some of it and find a better way to deal with the rest. Here’s a look through my year and how I’ve found the positive:
The Last Pre-Covid Outing … Tredwell’s Pre-theatre Menu
One of the things I’ve valued over the past months is remembering my last theatre outing back in February with my son Jonathan to see Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt and eating at one of my favourite restaurants – Tredwells – first. The play was brilliant; the food was fantastic; and it was such a treat to have an evening out with my son. In ‘normal times’ I go to the theatre a lot – once or twice a month – and so there are inevitable disappointments. But everything came together that February night into a very special outing and it’s been immeasurably comforting to look back on it … and to look forward to when we can do it again.
Like everyone else, it seemed, I started ordering food online (which I’d never done before) and baking bread. Bread flour and yeast were impossible to come by for weeks but luckily I could source fresh yeast and Italian flour from my local Italian deli, Corto. While my son and daughter have become master bakers of the most glorious sourdough bread, I’ve stuck with focaccia. I’ve been making focaccia for years. It’s very simple and I found by making it in a rectangle shape and cutting it into portions, I could freeze it and take out a portion a day for lunch, warming a thawed piece quickly in a toaster. The most fun baking I had was once I could ‘bubble’ with my son and family – because I live alone – and I made this olive focaccia with 5-year-old Freddie: Olive Focaccia. It was Freddie’s idea to add the olives. All three of my grandsons (5, 3 and 2) love olives!
Growing Your Own
There wasn’t only a huge growth in home baking but many people started growing their own vegetables because of the difficulty of shopping and getting fresh food in our first Lockdown back in March/April. I’ve always grown my own herbs, and often some tomatoes in the summer, but I’ve never seriously got into growing vegetables. In part my excuse is having just a small London garden; in truth, as my effort back in spring confirmed, I’m just not a natural allotment keeper. However, I gave it a go and it was fun at first but with limited success and increasing disinterest – especially once I could get back into Wholefoods and their great vegetable and fruit section! – I eventually gave it up.
As the months have gone by, nearly everyone I talk to has had ups and downs in mood, missing seeing friends and family, not doing the things we usually do, and I’ve found I’ve often turned to comfort food, from a simple Apple & Blackberry Open Pie, a warming Chicken with Tomatoes, Fennel & Moroccan Spices to soothing soups made in batch and frozen in portions for a quick and comforting lunch.
A Few New Recipes in the Kitchen
On more upbeat days I’ve felt inspired to try new recipes. One of my favourites has been Pasta with Cauliflower, Saffron, Chilli, Pine Nuts & Raisins, which I found in Rick Stein’s Long Weekends book. I’m a great fan of Rick’s TV programmes and his cookbooks. The recipes mainly reflect his travels and they’re reliable and usually straightforward. I eat so much pasta (and risotto) that I think even Italians can’t possibly eat more but when I found this recipe it was excitingly different and tempting and it didn’t disappoint. It was exceptionally delicious.
Rescuing My Sanity in Kew Gardens
When Kew Gardens reopened after the first Lockdown, it was a delight to return. I’m fortunate to have these wonderful and world-famous botanical gardens so close to home (not quite walking distance but almost) and I treasure being able to visit regularly throughout the year. I’ve long been a Friend of Kew Gardens and my annual season ticket allows unlimited entry. Normally, I can just turn up when I fancy going but since all the Covid restrictions have come in, I need to book a slot in advance; I don’t pay extra but it’s to limit the number of people visiting at one time. During the summer I was going at least once a week; since more autumnal weather has arrived, less often, but I’m still likely to book a time to visit when a sunny day is forecast. It’s always easy to find a quiet place to walk; even in ‘normal’ times I choose quiet times – early morning, midweek – to visit as I’m happier doing that than milling with crowds of visitors. This year it’s been wonderful to find quiet areas where one can walk without the worry of coming close to people; not really from worry about myself but one still has to be conscious of others not wanting you to go too close. This is especially true if I have a little grandson with me but in Kew I can let Freddie run off and burn up all that nearly six-year-old energy without worry.
Exploring Close to Home
Before large gardens like Kew and Wisley reopened and we had to stay close to home, I rediscovered how special my own little area of London is, walking just up to the end of my road and into Kneller Gardens and following the River Crane to the nature reserve on an island at a wider stretch of the river. I can do a round trip to the island and back to my house along the river in about an hour. In our normally busy lives and with my enthusiasm for travelling far and wide, it’s easy to forget what’s Right Before Your Eyes!
Dreaming of Travelling
Exploring close to home may be good some of the time, but for the intrepid, enthusiastic traveller, not being able to nurture ourselves with some foreign travel, the excitement of new sounds and discoveries, fabulous markets and foods, immersing ourselves in a completely different landscape and trying out our poor Italian or French in a local cafe has been a loss and I for one have consoled myself with some Virtual Travel and Dreaming of Travelling.
A New Way of Meeting up with Friends
For those of us lucky enough to have gardens, entertaining in the garden became a ‘new norm’ over the summer months when indoor mixing wasn’t allowed. ‘Drinks Became the New ‘Dinner‘ as people invited friends round for ‘drinks’ rather than ‘supper’, especially as towards the autumn the evenings started drawing in and were cooler so you didn’t want to stay out too late. Thankfully the weather stayed warm late into the autumn so this new form of entertaining carried on for some time. Friends came for drinks and canapés and I visited friends for the same in their gardens. I met friends in Kew and other gardens for socially distanced takeaway coffees or sitting at either end of a bench to eat a packed lunch. A more ‘normal’ meal was enjoyed with son and family once we could get together for our Bubble Barbecue and I was grateful not only to spend time with precious family but to enjoy a greater sense of normality for a while. And I had the same sense of comforting normality when I visited my daughter in Worcestershire in the summer.
Thank Goodness for TV …
I watch quite a bit of TV in the best of times. Often reading for hours during the day for my work as a book editor, reading a book in the evening doesn’t have the same attraction as for many others. I’m very keen to focus my eyes further than half a metre or so; to settle back in a comfy sofa and enjoy a bit of easy entertainment. And, let’s be honest, most of us haven’t been doing much in the evening for the past nine months! We haven’t been going to cinemas, theatre, enjoying regular gatherings like book groups, evening classes, meeting friends for a meal … we’ve been, largely, at home. So TV has taken on a more important role along with Netflix, Curzon Home Cinema, etc. My interests though haven’t wavered: I still love food and travel programmes, art and history and a good laugh with programmes like Have I Got New For You. I think the return of The Great British Bake Off was a major highlight for many people. I’ve liked the programme for years; lost a little interest for a while, which was rekindled by the move to Channel 4 and coming of Prue Leith and Noel Fielding. But this year was special indeed, not only for the awesome baking skills displayed, but that all those involved – from judges and presenters to the bakers themselves and all the back crew – went into a ‘bubble’ for weeks to make the series. Well done them and thank you from us!
And so we move towards Christmas and the New Year. May it be a happier and more enjoyable year for you all. Thank you to all my loyal followers – some of you have been with since the beginning – and to my new followers. Amazingly, despite that lack of travel (apart from Malaga in January) and restaurant reviews, I’ve gained a large number of new followers, which has been so encouraging. Seeing I have over 300 views each day makes me so happy and encourages me to carry on. I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and a prosperous, healthy and happy 2021!