I'm very pleased (and more than a little baffled) to announce that I have a monthly food column in my local paper, the Reading Post. It's called RG1 EAT and is mainly going to centre around eating out and restaurants. I like to think those are subjects I know a little bit about, as an enthusiastic amateur anyway.
Don't worry, it isn't going to talk about cooking as that's a subject I know precious little about. In fact, I know people think that if you like eating out you must also enjoy cooking but I've never bought into that myself - after all, I love music but I have no desire whatsoever to pick up a guitar. I think I'll leave it to people who know what they're up to; those who can, do, those who can't make dinner reservations.
I'm not sure whether it's going to appear online (if it does, I promise I'll post a link) but in case it doesn't, here's the text of my first column which was published last Wednesday. I don't know how much interest it will have for people who don't live in Reading, or don't like restaurants, but I suppose we'll see. Let me know in the comments. I'm thinking of writing about food a bit more in the weeks ahead (a week on holiday in Paris will do that to you) so let me have your thoughts on that too.
When I tell people I’m from Reading they say one of two things. The uninitiated say “Oh, the festival” – as if my hometown only exists for five days every year. I can’t blame them; it’s a view shared by much of the country and most of the media (they obviously don’t know about the brass band concerts in the Forbury).
The more initiated say is “Reading’s very good for shops, isn’t it?” I always want to reply by saying: I suppose, if you view shops like stickers in a Panini album and your idea of a good town is one that has all the same shops as everybody else, only more of them. In that case, Reading’s brilliant. We have four branches of Burger King. We have three branches of Boots. We have four Starbucks. Nobody can deny that we have more shops than nearly anywhere else. Go Reading! (I don’t, though. You get funny looks.)
The thing I want to tell them and never do is this: “Reading’s okay for shops, but it’s magnificent for lunch.” I should, because I believe it; it’s a terrific place to have lunch, and there’s much more to it than grabbing a toasted sandwich at Caffé Nero.
Take Picnic, one of my favourite places in Reading. Their lunchtime salad’s one of the best things you can buy for under a fiver. It’s a plate of dressed leaves, couscous and fun stuff: tiny mushrooms; olives; capers; peppers; the occasional surprise flake of salt. But that’s not all, because Picnic understands that salad’s only enjoyable if you put something tasty on top of it which only pretends to be healthy - something, fundamentally, which is not salad.
Depending when you go, you might get Parma ham, creamy mozzarella and soft sweet wedges of peach, or you might be treated to roast chicken – miles from the dubious cubes in supermarket salads - with lashings of pesto. If it’s warm enough you can sit outside with your lunch and watch the world go by, on their way to all those shops everybody says are so fantastic. It’s perfect.
Don’t fancy a salad? The alternatives are endless. You could go to the Mission and have their carnitas tacos – soft tortillas full of slow-cooked shredded pork, lettuce, sour cream and red chipotle salsa which are indecently delicious and miles away from anything you could whip up at home with a tired kit from Old El Paso.
If you fancy going upmarket, head down the riverside to LSQ2 and try their cracking set lunch. I’ve had chicken liver parfait, top notch Thai fishcakes, moules marinière and one of the tastiest burgers in Reading (not all at once) – and it’s a tenner for two courses. God knows how they turn a profit, but I’m not complaining.
If you feel more adventurous, head to China Palace for dim sum. They leave the menu on the table, you tick what you want and hand it to the waiter. It’s like food bingo, and appropriately enough the menu is a gamble too; you have to wade through the tripe and chicken feet (not literally) but if you choose well – the roast pork buns and Japanese octopus, for instance – it’s lunch unlike anything else you’ll find in town.
The best thing, though, is that the list keeps growing. I need to try Pau Brasil and the sushi place by the Hexagon, and I hear Chan Cham’s not bad. So next time someone mentions Reading, I’ll tell them it’s great for lunch. Now I just need to find somewhere that does a decent breakfast.