Restaurants are closed, many never to be seen again. Chefs, front of house and kitchen staff are losing their jobs en masse. The incredible rise of the food scene over the last decade in the UK, particularly London, has been abruptly halted in its tracks. Will it ever recover?
I’ve only been able to host one supper club in 2020. I’ve pondered creating something similar to the food boxes I did for the NHS last March and April. Many restaurants have pivoted to take-away and others to meal kits. I tried a few and they were infinitely better than supermarket cook-chill meals which are often overly sweet, under-spiced and bland.
I’ve always been a bit snooty about meal kits. ‘Why don’t people just learn to cook?’ I sniffed. Fast-forward to months of cooking for myself alone during the pandemic. I love to cook but there comes a point when you are sick of your own food.
A meal kit is fresher than a takeaway. Some of the ingredients are part-cooked; some are raw. The food hasn’t stewed in a large vat for days waiting to be dished out into plastic.
Many of these companies opt for recyclable or reusable packaging to avoid creating waste. And with kits, you can add a new skill and recipe to your repertoire. It makes adventurous cooking look easy.
Who buys meal kits? I can imagine busy working mums who get home at six would find them a godsend. All the benefits of a home-cooked meal, all the ingredients portioned out and packaged, and easy instructions. Within 10 to 20 minutes you have dinner on the table.
They vary in price, but are competitive with takeaways. When compared to shopping and cooking from scratch, if you lack time rather than money, they are a good alternative. If the average family of four (two adults/two children) spend £100 a week on food then buying say, Hello Fresh meals for five dinners a week, would cost you £67.99.
There are also high end options: Boris Johnson and his fiancee Carrie have been ordering from Daylesford Farm. The River Cafe are doing gourmet ‘box sets’- three course meals with sides from £140 for four people.
Here is a list of some of the meal kits I’ve tried and loved. All of the meals were vegetarian and for two people.
Contents: 2 meals. Black bean, halloumi tacos with chipotle mayonnaise and lettuce.
Aubergine and courgette linguini with walnuts.
Ease of preparation: Clear step by step instructions. The recipe at the side could be in bigger clearer type.
Packaging: 75% recyclable except for the small plastic sauce packets of chipotle, tomato paste, mayonnaise.
Flavours: really delicious, seasoned and well thought out. You would need your own (olive) oil, salt and pepper.
Quantity: enough for four people each meal.
Price: £30 for two meals. I got a 50% discount by searching online for a discount code. Good value for money.
Contents: a Christmas dinner meal kit. Wild mushroom pie; pumpkin and goat’s cheese pithivier; parsnips and carrots; roast potatoes; balsamic glaze brussel sprouts; red cabbage; creamed leeks; cranberry sauce; mashed swede with parmesan crust; Christmas pudding, brandy butter and coffee.
Packaging: 75% recyclable except for film lids and some plastic boxes.
Quantity: The portion sizes were generous, feeding five or more.
Flavours: The seasoning was spot on, and there were a few ideas that I would imitate.
Ease of preparation: Some containers were for oven cooking, others for the micro-wave, some on the stove top. I put the oven stuff in together. The timings worked well. Everything was clearly explained.
Price: From £15.75 a head plus £6.99 shipping
At home brunch kits from the well-known London restaurant chain, delivered on Fridays.
Contents: a brunch kit with all the ingredients for baked eggs, chickpea ragu, yoghurt, parsley, sourdough bread, muffin mix, cold-pressed ginger, orange and carrot juice and gourmet coffee.
Ease of prep: You add your own eggs and milk.
Flavours: everything tasted really fresh and well spiced. I particularly liked the juice and coffee. Really delicious, very much a treat.
Quantity: the meal for two easily served three people. I saved the loaf of sourdough bread for another meal.
Packaging: around 50% recyclable except for the plastic pots (although they made be recyclable in some boroughs)
This Brighton based outfit work with several different restaurants, devising ways in which to make their in-house restaurant meals, easily cookable at home.
Contents: Vegan Laksa kit : Laksamania’s Vegan Melaka Curry broth, rice vermicelli noodles, bean sprouts, tofu puff and mock prawns, sliced chillies, fried onions and salad. I also tried Goemen ramen.
Ease of Prep: instructions: heat up the broth, blanch the noodles and beansprouts, add toppings and garnishes. Easy to perform and an introduction to how to make your own Asian food.
Flavours: the laksa curry broth was particularly delicious. The ramen was nice but we all preferred the laksa.
Quantity: enough for two people.
Packaging: most of the packets were plastic but the box was recyclable.
Price: For London, from £10 a head plus £5 delivery Minimum spend £30
This Cambridge-based restaurant are sending out ‘flatpacks’ of their French ‘pizza’ from the Alsace region.
Contents: 4 thin bases; creme fraiche, mozzarella cheese; mushrooms, onion; pesto sauce. A very tasty and quick skinny pizza.
Ease of prep: Instructions were simple, only the oven was needed.
Quantity: enough for four people as a light meal.
Packaging: mostly recyclable, with a couple of plastic pots.
Contents: Black truffle tortelloni with truffle butter. Ricotta stuffed heart-shaped pasta with a jar of tomato sauce.
Ease of Prep: Probably the easiest as was no different to buying from the supermarket. The pasta is boiled in salty water and the sauce tipped over. For the heart-shaped pasta, I differed from the instructions by baking it as there was plenty of sauce to hydrate the pasta.
Quantity: each pasta meal serves one person as a main, two as a starter. A generous amount of sauce.
Flavours: the quality was higher than supermarket fresh pasta which often tastes of rehydrated cardboard. The heart-shaped pasta was unusual.
Packaging: not recyclable except for the glass jar.
Price: From £5 per person + £5 delivery for orders under £30. Discovery boxes with five pasta dishes from £30.
Contents: three little pots of spice or sauce per ‘meal’. You have to buy all the other ingredients yourself. Not terribly useful during lockdown.
Ease of Prep: not good. The meal I cooked, a Goan cauliflower and chickpea curry, consisted of two little pots of sauce and one little pot of spice. They claim a meal should take 20 minutes to cook. I’d say double that.
Quantity: as I said, three tiny teeny pots of sauce/spice. Not enough quantity.
Flavours: very disappointing, under spiced, under salted. It felt like the spice should have been tempered (fried in oil) at the beginning rather than, as per instructions, putting it in at the end. The result was the curry tasted powdery and inauthentic.
Packaging: plastic. Not eco.
Price: lots of offers from £3 for your first box. After that you have four ‘meals’ for £9.99 a month. So cheap but in my opinion, not really worth it. It doesn’t teach you how to cook and you must provide all the ingredients yourself.
Delivery supper club:
I’ve also tried a local ‘delivery supper club’ SycamoreSmyth.com by Haringey-based chef Clare Heal. Her first dinner is on the 26th February. You receive a four course menu with instructions, with the options of adding a cheese course by The Fromage Cat and wine by Emile Wines.
I met Clare when as a journalist she did a piece on one of my first supper clubs. Explaining her change of profession, she says:
” I took voluntary redundancy in 2014 and got a retraining allowance which part-paid for a year’s training at Leith’s cookery school. I graduated in 2016 and did ‘stages’ at restaurants like Bocca di Lupo. I’ve started this delivery supper club because to be honest I’m lazy and don’t want to work Saturday nights. But it’s also the perfect solution for lockdown.”
One of the courses was fresh tortelloni filled with dolcelatte and pumpkin; clearly her fresh pasta skills benefited from working at Bocca di Lupo. The portions were generous and the instructions were clear, giving tips on how to plate up. It’s also a way of learning how to construct a dish.
All containers are biodegradable: each component is in a tiny plastic tub and the main ingredient of each dish is in a paper box. The ingredients themselves were hyper seasonal and from good suppliers such as Natoora.The downside is that you don’t get that special supper club atmosphere of mixing with other people.
Contents: Winter Pinks Radicchio Salad: roasted beets, blood orange, orange and Vermouth vinegar dressing, toasted hazelnuts. Pumpkin and dolcelatte tortelloni:browned lemon butter, parmesan, crispy sage leaves. Braised beef shin or four mushroom ragu: slow cooked with red wine, seville orange zest and fennel, gremolata crumb, potato and celeriac dauphinoise, braised kale. Vanilla Pannacotta: rhubard roasted with blood orange, hazelnut tuile.
Price: £35 for one, £65 for two, cheeseboard £12 and wines £29
Another resourceful solution to the closure of the events industry is remote tastings. Samples of the product are sent to each participant who is led by an expert in analysing the tastes. I’ve done this with cheese, wine and chocolate.
Host: Serena G. She sends a range of wine from sparkling, to white, rose, red and dessert. Each event has a theme. Her next will feature female wine makers for International Women’s Day. For the tasting I attended, she had vacuum-pressured samples into small bottles, posted the day before, so that the wine did not oxidise. However she can only do this for a minimum of 10 households due to cost. For larger households, she uses full sized bottles.
Atmosphere: increasingly jolly as the tasting wore on. The other attendees felt like old friends by the end despite being merely a pixellated image on my laptop. The wine provoked nostalgic yearnings of wine trips abroad, laughter and anecdotes aplenty, just like a real dinner party.
Price: From £36 a head for full sized bottles.
The next one 26th March at 7pm, book at: https://tinyurl.com/4zxhdn6q
Host: Francis Gimblett of Gimblett Cheese and the cheesemaker of the month.
Samples: Every month you are sent a British cheese pack by an artisanal cheesemaker. This month the cheesemaker is Martin Gott of Cumbria who makes St James Cheese from ewe’s milk. The pack includes access to the interactive show, 60g portions of each of two featured cheeses, tasting card, drink instructions, recipe instructions, packaging and next day tracked postage
Atmosphere: you have an opportunity to meet and question the cheesemaker and discuss the product with others. Often the participants are from the food world or the press which means the questions are interesting. I’m interested in the politics of food so I got a chance to ask Martin Gott what support he’d received from the government during the pandemic. Very little it turned out. It’s very concerning that two or three artisanal British cheesemakers are closing down every week. This is all part of the Campaign for British Artisan Cheese.
Price: £9.50 per cheese pack
You can also buy a cheese and wine tasting game from Gimblett, costing £57.60 to share with others.
Host: Jennifer Earle, founder of Chocolate tours (I’ve been on one of her tours, it was full of history, sweet treats and visited parts of London I never knew existed, a fantastic gift).
Samples: hour-long tasting themes every month with special guests. The next is with Martha Collison on Mother’s Day, March 14th. I took part in the filled chocolate tasting. You are given six exquisitely hand-made artisanal chocolates from different makers, tasting wheel/notes and a recipe.
These options offer a change to the dreary routine of lockdown.
I have a new found respect for meal kits. They usually cost the equivalent to a takeaway and provide deconstructed advice for how to add to your own meal repertoire. It’s an educational experience as well as good food cooked by someone else for a change.
The delivery supper club was delicious and certainly a wonderful alternative to a night out in a restaurant. Every aspect is curated. It’s perfect for someone who wants a special meal for an occasion.
The zoom tastings were great fun, a chance to socialise and educational.
It’d be interesting to see which, if any, of these innovations continue to be popular once the pandemic is over. In the meantime, I’m full of admiration for the ongoing creativity of the UK hospitality industry.