As I lunched on a packet of ready-buttered Soreen malt loaf, bought from a deserted WHSmith at London City Airport, I was visited again by gentle, yet nevertheless saddening end-of-the-world vibes. Not that Soreen doesn’t make a fine emergency snack: I could hurl that dark, squidgy goodness down my gullet by the yard.
The fact is that, in normal times, finding food on the go is never difficult. Airports are especially adept at removing money from my wallet, catering to my whims and lulling me into that hazy sweet spot when mealtimes are irrelevant and it seems perfectly normal to be slurping Wagamama ramen and drinking sake at 7am. Because why not? It must be dinner time somewhere.
But on this particular day at City Airport, almost everyone involved with the country’s food industry was furloughed, on very reduced hours or had been let go in the latest round of downsizings. Travelling around Britain for work during the pandemic, I’m reminded constantly of how curious and muted a land is without restaurants, bars and cafes.
Love or loathe the likes of Pret, Costa Coffee and Yo! Sushi, but their neon lights would glow as I walked along high streets, through shopping malls or to my aeroplane, signifying that human life was here and that everyday life was functioning. Lights on in a distant Pret have saved my sad soul on more than one occasion, as I’ve fallen through the door and taken the last pea and mint soup. I now often wonder if normal will ever happen again.
Perhaps not if the only people permitted to travel are individuals such as myself, who are providing “vital services”. I know, stop laughing. My family has been in light hysteria about this for weeks now. It’s almost as if they do not take seriously the notion that filming television shows for the Christmas schedule is akin to, say, performing open heart surgery or tending to the Large Hadron Collider. Yet it appears I am a vital service, so sleep easy, Britain.
I set off to Belfast with paperwork permitting me to spend meaningful time with both John Humphrys and Joe Pasquale (yes, really), while still lacking the go-ahead to visit my own father in a care home. In normal times, of a Saturday in Belfast, I’d head to Ox, Coppi or The Muddler’s Club for dinner, taking full advantage of this beautiful, burgeoning city, which, over the past decade, has grown into a prosperous, joyous place with a thriving food scene and a youthful population.
Instead, I pocketed two boxes of Graze’s chilli and lime cashews in case my Belfast hotel was legally unable to serve me dinner. On the Saturday I arrived, the Northern Irish hospitality industry was awaiting guidance to see if they could reopen in six days’ time, as had been tentatively planned. As it happened, almost the whole of the following week ticked by with landlords and restaurateurs begging for clarity as to whether they should stock pantries, fill cellars and put staff back on rota, with no word coming until, on Thursday, they were told no. It’s a similar tale wherever I go.
At Belfast’s Grand Central Hotel, it turned out that a chef was allowed to be on site, and he made me a wonderful sweet potato curry with rice and a vegan chocolate brownie. It felt like love on a tray.
“May I have a glass of red wine, too?” I asked when I placed my order.
“No alcohol is being served in the hotel,” I was reminded, very sweetly.
“But, but… I am alone, in my room,” I mewled. “What can I possibly get up to?”
But rules are rules, and I duly respected them. The following day, like a naughty child, I took matters into my own hands and bought my own supply from a WineFlair, an old-school offie I found down a side street, which had a glorious, tin can, spilled vodka and crisp packets smell. It took me right back to the 1980s, when, being the talleest of my teen friends, I’d be despatched to buy Cinzano Bianco wearing Panstik and high heels.
Now here I was, many, many years later, the restaurant critic for the Guardian, buzzing on WineFlair’s bell to be let in to buy what ended up being a warm bottle of Blossom Hill merlot. I grabbed a bag of Frazzles and a double Snickers to add to my emergency suitcase larder, too, because what I’ve learned while travelling about Britain is not to assume there will be food everywhere, and to buy willy-nilly whenever you need it.
As I tried to leave WineFlair, I realised the manager had locked the doors while I was perusing. “Stops folk robbin’,” he explained deadpan. Sometimes, as an extremely vital key worker, I just don’t get the respect.