Lockdown 3.0. My plan, before this exciting new iteration was announced, was to write about Francis Bacon’s cooking: I’ve been reading a new biography of the artist, and on every other page is a description of the wondrous meals he would produce for friends, seemingly out of nowhere (oysters, fish, cheese, grapes). But all that will have to wait. We must be practical. I’ve had a good look around the place in which we find ourselves, and I’m pretty sure that this is it: the Slough of Despond. It is, I think we can all agree, a grim spot: not quite the bog of Bunyan’s imagining, but nevertheless somewhat dark and dank – and strangely depopulated, too, when you consider how many of us now loiter here, quietly catastrophising. On the plus side, though, it comes with a small kitchen. Will this help to see us through? Perhaps. We can only try.
I’m thinking about the first time. What worked then? A lot of people got into baking. I didn’t, really, mainly because my neighbour, Julia, is a fantastic baker, and she would regularly deliver heavenly, just-warm offerings to our doorstep. But I did begin making stuff in bigger batches – curries and stews, mostly – and having bought some foil takeaway boxes, I would sometimes deliver to a friend who was shielding, a meals-on-wheels service that may have given me more pleasure than him. I hesitate to offer a recipe here, but I will say that 500g of shin beef is not expensive and you can stretch it gorgeously, if you’re careful. Brown it, and slowly soften your sofrito, then stick both in a heavy pot with a couple of bay leaves, a sprig of rosemary, and some good tinned tomatoes. Cover with a mixture of stock and red wine. Cook in the oven on a low heat for at least five hours. Remove the meat, and shred. Blend the tomato sauce until smooth, and reunite it with the beef. Serve with fettuccine and lots of parmesan.
What else? We didn’t have any takeaways last time around, and I was nervous of ordering supper from restaurants, fearing either a lot of palaver or cold food. However, 3.0 is a much sterner proposition, and in the last week I’ve begun investigating. I’ve already tried a certain pasta delivery company (the lasagne was rubbish and a rip-off, but the crab ravioli was delicious), and I’m about to road test Arrosto, a new delivery idea from the Quality Chop House and chef Nick Bramham that’s vaguely inspired – get me! – by the roticcerie of Naples (though having obsessively studied its menu, I notice that you can also order a “homage” to a very famous Californian restaurant, in the form of a “Zuni Cafe” roast chicken and bread salad).
But you will have your own mainstays, treats and culinary distractions. What I really want to say – because it’s what I really feel – is that food matters more than ever in these times. Here is warmth, goodness and punctuation. Though I think it’s absolutely fine, sometimes, to eat a slice of toast for supper – we all of us have our picky bread-and-cheese nights, when we can only just about make our way from chair to fridge – it’s worth doing a little better if you can: for yourself, and for anyone sharing your captivity (even if you feel, occasionally, like you might want to stick a fork in their eye).
If it’s science that is going to lead us out of the pandemic, it’s also going to get us through it. The latest neuroscience tells us that rituals and small celebrations really do soothe us, easing the bells in our heads that toll, over and over: The End is Nigh. Light a candle, fold a napkin, pour wine into a glass. Even before the food is on the table, you’ll start to feel better: a convivial, hopeful, outward-looking person rather than a grunting, Lycra-wearing troglodyte who hasn’t been further than the park in six months. Oh, and one other thing. There’s no shame in fish fingers, supermarket chicken kiev and frozen Yorkshire puddings. There is no shame in anything, if you ask me. In the right light, on the right plate, at the right moment, such things are more delicious than ever: quite literally, life savers.