Discover more from Episodes of My Pub Life
Nag's Head & Biryanish. Reading? Yes, Reading!
Why it's worth travelling out of our comfort zones for good food and pints
Disclaimer: this newsletter often mentions beer and pubs. You do not have to read this if your life has been affected by substance abuse. This post also references the current Middle East crisis.
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“I can’t bear the smell of cigars, can you?” said Lady Partridge. “Lionel hates it too,” murmured Rachel. As did Nick, to whom the dry lavatorial stench of cigars signified the inexplicable confidence of other men’s tastes and habits, and their readiness to impose them on their fellows.” ― Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty
“But it’s Reading!” I was talking to a group of South-East London pub-goers about some recent pints and takeaway Indian food with one listener almost outraged that I ventured into this Berkshire town for this experience.
When I probed him as to why he was so sniffy about it, the conversation took a turn for the worse when he inferred it was a backwater, maybe even a shithole. These kinds of prejudiced views I find troubling, especially as my book has a mission statement to get us out of our comfort zones and visit diverse places. Are people not getting that I want everyone to head to the likes of Southall and Smethwick?
It’s also wholly revealing of my area and the type of person (white, boomer) who owns a house (worth a lot, bought for not a lot) and sees where they live as far superior to areas that have yet to gentrify. And it’s such a shame because the trip I’m going to recommend to you today offers the best beers and desi food imaginable.
And I’m not going to romanticism Reading, today you get the unexpurgated outing. Today I hope Reading becomes fully realised.
The Palestinian flag was being unfurled by three Uber Eats drivers. The town centre shoppers didn’t seem to mind as if this was an oddity rather than what could be seen as a political provocation - Hamas had just staged a series of coordinated attacks on Israel and this was just before the retaliations targeting civilians had occurred.
Reading’s indifference showed it was a town of two worlds, almost as divided as strips of land in the Middle East. The consumers and those who facilitate the consumption. When was the last time you spared a thought for your food delivery driver? Where had he come from? Could he afford to save and open up his own business like the desis in my book?
I walk past them. I’d just been to the Alehouse and I was heading to the Nag’s Head. The Alehouse has a lot to celebrate, a focus on dark beers and a community market pub appeal but what I wanted was “a festival in a pub” to take my mind off how divided we were - the partitions, in my case India, stay with us like inherited pain. It’s also the binary part. The “but it’s Reading?” part.
The section of my mind that makes me want to empathise but shuts out the hard questions takes hold of me - I just don’t like flags and any nationalism scares me, even though I can see that’s a very privileged perspective to hold. There’s no comfortable position. There’s definitely not a solution. I walk. I feel useless.
A former Irish bar, the Nag’s Head is a destination that’s possibly easier to sell than Reading itself (even though the Elizabeth Line now makes the trip from London speedy). It’s the mesh of tradition and modernity - 12 cask ales “a festival in a pub”, more kegs in a traditional, comforting setting. The publican and his staff are hugely attentive - rightly proud of what they’ve achieved. Offering recommendations, knowing the breweries well and aware that we like to be steered not prodded to the right pint.
I have Oregon Trail by Elusive on cask. I feel like the day has started again. Some say this is the finest iteration of a “British” West Coast IPA, and I have to agree. A once US-based expert on these types of beers says that it’s not as bitter tasting as the ones he has experience of but whatever the case I feel like we don’t need to go stateside to gain “authenticity” especially as having this beer on cask gives it extra body, comfort and hygge. The more I get used to the bitterness, the more I notice other flavour profiles - stone fruit, zest, perhaps even lychee.
The Nag’s Head is like Oregon Trail. Get used to the environment, and you start to notice the niceties. The bus service to the football ground, the differing ages all loving cask and the egalitarianism of its humble welcome - this can be sorely lacking where I live. But it’s Reading!
When I leave it’s early evening and it’s dark outside. I want some food for the train back but having a sandwich would be the worst pairing imaginable - the only combination now is spice and heat. A short walk away is Biryanish.
The coffee shop-style, fast-food outlet is busy and it’s only desis who are buying the food. I order chicken tandoori, dal and rice. This is the staple for me when I’m post-pub. I never waxed lyrical in my book about rice because I don’t like the bloating effect it has when drinking. I prefer the spice with my beer but post-pub works too as any Brit knows well.
But, of course, rice is one of the most important parts of my desi culture, especially growing up. The big orange plastic bin under the stairs, always full of basmati. (Always basmati) The plastic cup used to measure it into saucepans. The washing - seeing the water turn from clear to snow white with every sweep of my mum’s hand. The pin pricks of steam shooting through the grains creating a dappled moon-like surface.
I’m on the train. The smells fill the carriage. The twenty something opposite me says “mate, where did you get that?” I smile. The chicken is hot. The dahl is perfectly spiced. The rice is delicate on the mouth.
Where did I get it? Reading, of course.
For those who want to hear about the book in person, there’s a great Q&A event coming up next week (November 9) in Bermondsey, south London. Tickets here include food from the Gladstone Arms!