Derek Guthrie unpacks a tawdry year of life in boxes, and looks forward to it not happening again
Can you remember where you were when normal life shuddered to a halt? Come on, it was only a year ago, box sets don’t completely erase your memory. I was at lunch upstairs in Soho’s French House – oysters, John Dory, cheese and Madeleines – followed by several hours discussion in the downstairs pub about “this new virus thing” which might possibly close a couple of places for a few weeks. Golly, food in a restaurant and drinks at a bar. Get me.
when everything closed down all we had was clapping, and friends abroad posting oversaturated snaps of chips and maître d’s in tavernas with sea views
The twelve months since then have melded into one long bumpy assault course, with the imposition of a compulsory dress code marked “comfortable”. Breezy sorties to now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t restaurants tempered by masks, empty chairs, and hand sanitisers came and went. As did bars with more space than customers. Then the daily news at tea time for that sobering, unavoidable death toll. A year of dreadful totems for an unwanted new life.
And when everything closed down all we had was clapping, and friends abroad posting oversaturated snaps of chips and maître d’s in tavernas with sea views. Until they were all closed down too. Home cooking became entertainment. Making jam the new jam. The delivery man, laden with boxes, brought everything: food, wine, books, a vacuum cleaner, and socks. Who buys socks in a box?
Goodbye pandemic and good riddance. We have vaccines, some kind of road map, and spring. English asparagus has arrived! The outside diners in Manhattan no longer need mittens; bookings for the return of the London summer are being taken.
In advance, I’ve now had my first proper, legal (I think, but now doubt whispers in my ear – who knows anymore!?), business lunch in Mayfair. It came in a box and, unusually, required the carrying of a very large carving knife in a backpack from my home. On public transport. If you’re of an even slightly nervous disposition I wouldn’t recommend it.
There’s still an air of 28 Days Later about W1, so the liveried footman from Claridge’s sporting white gloves, (yes, Deliveroo and UberEats – white gloves) only took two minutes to sprint to our commandeered office boardroom with a ‘Dine at Home’ box. His cargo of Beef Wellington had rested by the time he arrived so it was put straight on the table, which we’d set in a neat little faux restaurant tableaux. Side boxes of crunchy green beans and heritage carrots, plus dauphinoise potatoes, were still hot. As was the English Mustard, in its own weeny boxette. It was all so near the mark, save for the pile of empty boxes sitting with us. (The meat carved beautifully, FYI.)
We had wine too. I was pleased to see that under the “essential shops” ruling, Mayfair’s wine hypermarket, Hedonism, was open for a roaring trade in some of the world’s most expensive bottles. There’s a whole wall of every available vintage of Chateau d’Yquem, the liquid gold from Sauternes, that lights up when you walk towards it, and a cellar that frequently houses dusty old vintages at five figure sums. All in bottles. Not a box in sight. Yay.
It’s been a year, if you’re lucky, of domestic tedium
We ate, we talked, we drank (mostly water, as it happens), but after packing up the cartons, we emerged blinking into a late afternoon sun giving off our own postprandial glow. It was rush hour: I counted eleven people in Berkeley Square. The tube home was almost empty, reducing that glow somewhat.
It’s been a year, if you’re lucky, of domestic tedium. My cooking, a close and dear friend once pointed out, suffers from the fact that I’m “not as good a cook” as I think I am which has, frustratingly, proved to be not all that wide of the mark. I can passably knock up most things and since I rarely do takeaways, I persist.
But the boxes have been piling up. I get cheese in a box every month, a sporadic wine delivery of bottles in a box, and a variety of pre-prepped dishes in boxes for finishing off in the oven.
Alastair Little, the former Soho chef now recreating his restaurant success in Sydney, is in charge of a home delivery service inspired by his former deli in Notting Hill, Tavola. These dishes are proof positive that I should stop cooking, now. I used to think I just didn’t use enough salt. Nonsense. The route to Al’s South Indian king prawn curry (from his wife’s family recipe) is nothing to do with salt. It’s sourcing, cooking, care and attention to spicing and coconut and waxy potatoes and mustard seeds and a zingy citrus zest and curry leaves and expertise. His Pollo Alla Cacciatora, from a more familiar Italian repertoire, appears to have a list of red sauce ingredients straight out of Central Casting but sings an Aria rather than Arrivederci Roma with added cheese. And how can his roasted vegetables in a box, taste better than my roasted vegetables not in a box? No idea, but they do. It’s restaurant quality food. In a box.
Meanwhile, back in Mayfair, a second “office lunch” – not, for obvious reasons, in any of the dozens of places we’d normally walk to. Delfino’s Italian in Mount Street has been there forever (1957 is “forever”). I order pizza: plain, 12-inch thin-based, which comes straight out the oven and into a takeaway box. I like pizza but I don’t care about it. I can’t remember the last time I had one. But this has been a transformative year. It’s magnificent. Out-of-sight James Brown ‘I Feel Good’ magnificent. A margherita with cheese, tomato, and basil. Holy mozzarella, this week’s top lunch is pizza.
It’s the year I never want to see again. Maybe next year we’ll be thinking outside the, er, box. C