The Hunter-Gatherer at Large
Posted: 1st September 2020
In two weeks it will be six months. In that time I have cooked a proper meal every single night bar four (well, three and a half): on one night I joined two friends for fish and chips at the Seashell in Lisson Grove, on another occasion we all ate in a friend’s garden; on a third my daughter cooked dinner, and lastly my son did his chicken (I did the rest). And it is not as if the period preceding was very different. I have had very few nights off since mid-February, when I went to Provence (and I cooked there too). It’s not just the rigmarole of nightly cooking: I haven’t caught a plane or taken a train. The most I have done is to venture out on buses, albeit fewer than a dozen times. I have been largely confined to my corner of north-central London, bound in by the railway lines that issue from Euston and St Pancras; and I suspect I am acutely bored and about to go mad.
And it is not as if the meals I have cooked have been enjoyed by anyone other than our very modest family circle. Once or twice I have passed plates out into the front garden where my daughter entertains her many friends before she goes off with them to a pub or the Heath. Otherwise I try to vary what we eat and drink as well as I can. It is not always easy, given that X won’t eat this, and Y doesn’t like that. It’s a dog’s life.
Recently I was all alone for ten days when my wife and son went to the country. I still had to cook mind you, but only for myself. Eating by myself is naturally less complicated, but I cook a proper meal and sit down at the dinner table to consume it. The only difference is that I have a book ensconced on my left, to entertain me and stop me bolting my food. I recall one evening’s offering was well nigh perfection: an artichoke (£1 from the local Italian deli) with Moroccan olive oil and aceto balsamico (it is hard to eat an artichoke quickly), then two little lamb chops (£2.50 from Miguel the Spanish butcher in Camden Town) with a tomato à la provençale – cut in two and coated with garlic and breadcrumbs – and some polenta made good and runny with milk and butter. I drank half a bottle of Lidl’s best rioja 2015 Cepa Lebrel Reserva (a real bargain at £5.49). The only drawback to the choke was that I made little progress with Casanova’s memoires. I was worried about getting oil on the pages of the book. I then slunk upstairs and watched a film.
Twice recently I have been out for coffee with friends. In one instance I went all the way to Covent Garden, to Paul in Garrick Street, noting on the way the sad hulk of the Garrick Club all still and boarded up. At Paul the lavs had been cordoned off too for the duration of the virus. Someone should warn you not to imbibe too many diuretics like coffee or tea, but they don’t. At my most adventurous I even went out for lunch up the road with a good friend, although to my shame I failed to support the government’s buy-a-sandwich-and-save-the-nation scheme but almost certainly prevented myself from catching Covid or worse by eating commercial mayonnaise or battery chicken.
We went, as we often do, to the Bull & Last in the Highgate Road. You may still be able to get a pint at the Bull & Last, but it is much more of a restaurant than a gastropub. It has been through hell and back: it closed for months and months for refurbishment and emerged from its shroud only to lock up for the lockdown. Now it has reopened at last with fewer tables and two-and-a-half hour eating shifts but it has lost a little something on the way. The meal was impressively presented: a smorgasbord of salmon with horseradish cream under a little salad on some rye bread was as pretty as a picture. The salmon had been marinated in beetroot and had an eye-catching colour. I had a tender steak sandwich in two hunks of baguette and finally some mirabelles with good panna cotta stirred with a fig leaf or branch, much as I used to do to make my cheese. It wasn’t home cooking, and I was grateful for that. We had a gin each and a bottle of Languedocian Carignan with our meal, it wasn’t cheap (median price for wine must be £40), the meal wasn’t cheap (£100 – and only I really ate anything), but it was real food. The sole thing that rankled was the cold, charm-free service.
The Bull & Last is half-way between home and Swain’s Lane. When Covid struck back in March, the Earl of Listowel’s development was nearing completion. It had been controversial: the old one-storey structures on the north side had been ripped down and posh flats created overhead. Latterly the project was passed on to Noble House Properties. On the other hand the idea behind the redevelopment was to maintain the vocation of the street as a place where any form of food might be bought. Gone to another stage of history are all the old stagers: Martin the Butcher, Marseille Claude and Micky the Greengrocers, Soapy Sam the Wine Merchant, Covington Flowers, the dog-eared Café Mozart and the rest; now there is a new crew with the inevitable nod to the chains in the form of Gail’s the extortionate bakers, and FAM the good (but overpriced) Turkish greengrocer from Fortess Road. New to the scene are Bourne’s the fishmonger, Swain’s Lane Butchers, Citro’s Italian restaurant and the Wine Cellar, which looked like a wine shop at first, but on closer inspection is more like a wine bar – with separate on-the-spot and take-away prices.
I found time to make a tour of inspection during my period of solitude. I was particularly interested in the meat and fish elements in the new shopping street. I tried Bourne’s first, and settled on a piece of skate to cook ‘au beurre noir’. The chunk weighed about 600 grams but it was only slightly too big for one, given that skate is largely bone. The fishmonger offered to cut off a scant half, but I am glad I took the lot. It came to over £10, which is a lot for skate, but still I enjoyed it.
The butcher had lashings of fancy beef including American Prime. I suppose we must look that way now. There was a ‘Denver steak’ from the forequarters that was ravishing with its marbling but which cost all of £40 a kilo! The butcher pressed a great many things on me but in the end I settled for a bit of sirloin, which was good, but still twice the price I’d normally pay from my usual butcher. I am not sure I’m quite mad enough to pay that price again, but it made a change.