These are extraordinary times. With Scotland in lockdown and restaurants and pubs shut, The Courier restaurant reviewer Murray Chalmers looks at how the Tayside hospitality industry quickly adapted in the first of his new series of columns.
This is a column about food and life. The two go together after all.
It was going to be a column about cookery books and the joy of roast chicken and, in a way, it still is.
However, sitting writing this whilst looking out over the majestic Tay shimmering in the spring sunshine, it’s hard to believe that the world has shifted on its axis. Much of what we took for granted even a week ago is now either unavailable to us or in a state of such flux that it would be fair to say we’re all operating on a daily level of barely controlled hysteria coupled with disbelief at what is unfolding.
This seismic change has reminded us acutely of our basic needs – food, water and shelter. Toilet paper, macaroni and paracetamol have, for some, become part of this essential cycle of life while hand sanitiser is harder to find than Class A drugs, and probably more expensive.
But what happens when we and our families are under threat? We’re currently finding this out, but already much of it sure isn’t pretty. T. S. Eliot said this is the way the world ends – not with a bang but with a whimper – but surely not even landmark modernist poets would think we’d be reduced to scrapping over the last pack of toilet roll in the shops, like it was the last nut on the tree of life.
How a community rallied
This is a particular story of a community which is suffering greatly, but also a community that is rallying round. When UK Government advice has at times seemed tentative, confusing and even potentially destructive, it has been left to us all to find and spread the glue that keeps our society together.
Much of this has related to food. Where to get it. Who stocks particular items? What to do with it when we get the raw ingredients home? How to avoid waste?
At first it seemed a bit unreal. Before watching the news became a dystopian horror-show unfolding before our eyes, the idea of being at home for a short period might even have seemed a good one – a chill out from our busy lives, a chance not only to take stock but to make stock. Now that being at home is both enforced and protracted we need to re-evaluate what’s actually important in our lives but also we first of all need to eat. Every single day.
The past few weeks in Tayside have really brought home how important a role has been played by two women who have long been key players in the region’s food scene.
Gillian Veal (Parlour Café, Dundee) and Mary-Jane Duncan (Kitschnbake, Newport on Tay) will be known to many in this part of the world.
Their respective cafes are institutions and both women are legends who have presided over many a fun-packed lunchtime. I’ve laughed and cried with both after they welcomed me into their lives with genuine benevolence and altruism.
Both women run families and also run businesses which depend not just on regulars but on showing kindness to strangers.
As such they have built and taken responsibility for families much larger than their own; how they have responded to this crisis has been exemplary and has proved to be a galvanising force of positivity in a time of bleakness.
I spoke to both women at the end of a week which saw all cafes, bars and restaurants close. Both showed great stoicism, not least because Mary-Jane is facing some serious health issues of her own right now. They, and many like them, have been beacons of positivity throughout what seems like an interminable dark night.
At a time when the hospitality industry is being battered, providing food via takeout or delivery is an action that has become both a social service and, in some ways, an act of defiance. But to carry on in the face of little immediate support in a constantly-changing environment has meant we’ve all had to think between the stirrup and the ground, not least those trying to run a small business.
Social media has been key to sharing information, with businesses reacting daily and sometimes hourly; every day Gillian and Mary-Jane posted updates about their own business and have also helped spread information about many others. There is a lot going on out there and much of it shows remarkable innovation and resourcefulness from people currently trying to get up off their knees before being hit again.
For example, last week I ordered an excellent box of fresh fruit and veg from the renowned Les Turriff, who already supply many of our favourite local eateries. While this company continue to supply many retail outlets and restaurants doing takeaway they are now quickly adapting to help regular households receive a box of their produce.
This is a win/win for me as a consumer and for them as a supplier; I want a box of fresh veg but don’t want to go into a supermarket while Turriff’s might find a new and expanded household market. Check their newly launched website www.lesturriff.com for further details on home delivery.
Restaurant delivery services
Many local restaurants, including The Tayberry, have started an innovative take-away service and are looking at safer ways of delivery which minimise contact. The menus look attractive and are keenly priced. The Courier’s Menu Restaurant of the Year, Kinneuchar Inn, are also working on a new ideas on getting their food and wine to locals and these will be announced on their website and Instagram page soon. (www.kinneucharinn.com).
Many places have also started selling gift cards for future bookings, often with financial incentives. You could buy a restaurant booking for the autumn, knowing you are helping the restaurant survive right now, keeping the staff in a job, their suppliers in business – and also you’re psychologically buying into a future for all of us. One day this nightmare will be over and our normal lives will resume, and we will need all these places and people to be there for us. Other bold initiatives include home delivery of goods including essentials like bread and milk from Kerr’s Dairy, cheese from the excellent Cheesery, baked goods from the Newport Bakery, food boxes from the Little Green Larder, fresh fish from C Lyons in Arbroath, staples and specialist items from Clementine in Broughty Ferry and so much more.
For Mother’s Day, Mary-Jane Duncan delivered more than 150 afternoon teas, some arriving with flowers from local Fife florist Amy Annand.
Bruach in Broughty Ferry are offering free school meals, an incredible gesture and one to be applauded.
These people are true local heroes.
Meanwhile the indefatigable Gillian Veal is already posting great recipes on Facebook (The Parlour Café) and they are really worth seeking out; her recipes are nutritious, inventive, delicious and economical. She will soon launch a service where you order food from her midweek for a weekend treat. Mary-Jane Duncan is currently posting recipes for baked goods on the Kitschnbake Facebook page and, again, she is well worth following.
With both these indomitable women as part of your online network you need never panic about what to cook from store-cupboard staples.
These are remarkable times we’re living in. We’re all scared and we’re all confused. But the response of the vast community of hospitality providers has been so heartening; as they battle for their own survival many of them are also helping us battle for ours.
There is a sense of community emerging that surely stands us in good stead when we get through this. It makes sense. Just as the kitchen is the heart of the home so is food at the heart of our lives – yet at a time when we most feel like being together many of us are having to be apart. It’s tough. But throughout all the pain, bewilderment and unrest it’s so heartening to see our communities work together.
Gillian spoke about making soup for people who need to eat but haven’t got the resources. Mary-Jane spoke about how food banks are suffering right now.
In the days just before she would eventually make the decision to close the cafe I asked her why and how she and her friends and allies carried on and her answer was this:
“It’s absolutely about people and the community. It has to be. I worked to keep the staff safe, health-wise and hopefully financially, but we also have responsibilities to the customers who have come to us every day from day one.
“As a business we have to be able to provide them with what they need. And if it’s not what we are already offering, for whatever reason, then why can’t we respond and make what we provide wider?
“Plans for the near future, in the face of the lockdown, now include doing cakes and brownies which can possibly be sent by post, and boxed-up afternoon teas for collection or delivery.”
In this ever-evolving social landscape she, like many others in the industry, is determined to stay a step ahead and to keep reaching out to people in any form she can.
Is this force of nature actually sleeping at night right now?
“I’m tired. But if I can manage to find joy in the fact that the sun is shining, that I’m safe from cancer yet at the same time I’ve got a business that is in jeopardy through a situation I can’t control, then I think we can all find something that can bring us some joy – even now.”
Before deciding to close the café in the traditional sense, Mary-Jane had written two simple words as boldly as possible on the board that would normally display specials of the day – but now sits in an empty space.
Those words are BE KIND.