Sunday 26 April 2020 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Sunday. 26/4/2020

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Sunday


Open to question

For the past two weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time – almost too much – in the company of medical professionals. Some are old-school surgeons, others new-school doctors who specialise in viruses and lungs, and many more are nurses and technicians, trainees and orderlies. Late last Wednesday I enjoyed a sunny evening with a friend who’s a surgeon at one of Switzerland’s bigger teaching hospitals. Over a perfect bottle of local rosé (did you know that the canton of Zürich has its own vineyards?) he posed a curious question. “You know this two-metre distancing rule?” he said. “No one really knows where this came from. It’s become the foundation policy of many health ministries – there’s a lot of shared research between countries – but it’s hard to pinpoint the thinking about two metres and if this really makes much sense.”

As he refilled my glass we appropriately moved to the topic of restaurants and bars, and what the coming months might look like. Before long we concluded that it was going to be hard for governments to back-pedal on the two-metre policy after so many weeks of driving home the message. We decided that this was the reason why we’ve yet to see a government come forward with a workable policy for restaurateurs and barkeepers.

Tomorrow, Switzerland will kick-start a large part of its service sector when hairdressers, beauty parlours and physios reopen for business (more on this in tomorrow’s Monocle Minute); in two weeks the entire retail sector will be back in business. Bern, in line with Vienna and Berlin, has so far chosen to kick its country’s gastronomy sector into the grass for the time being as opening restaurants will throw much of the distance thinking out of the window. Restaurant owners see no value in opening establishments that will need to be at least 60 per cent empty as everyone knows that it’s not much fun sitting in a deserted pizzeria or brasserie – no matter how attentive the service or tasty the bites. The same holds true for airlines and rail companies: two metres is not going to work on an Airbus A320 and requiring all occupants to wear masks isn’t going to solve the problem either.

Since the start of the outbreak in Europe, many academics and economists (as well as many millions of disillusioned citizens) have been raising the rather complicated question about what society would accept in terms of death toll versus a functioning economy/society. Did it make sense for Norway to totally shut down the way it did? Or should it have pursued the debatable Swedish model? Would it have been better to pursue a policy of protecting only the most vulnerable and live with the fact that even though others outside the “zone” might die, it would nevertheless be seen as politically and morally palatable?

I left the sunny garden bench considering these questions and one word that’s becoming more than a little overused: resilience. Ministerial speeches, news packages and corporate communications all like to employ the word to highlight how society has pulled through “these extraordinary times” – but have we? Is it correct to say that every country has demonstrated resilience? If a depleted healthcare system has failed to cope – no matter how hard its doctors and nurses have worked – is that resilience? There’s a lot of talk about everyone pulling together and doing their bit. But if that’s really the case, then why have so many countries flown in tens of thousands of seasonal farm workers from Eastern Europe (talk about undermining your stay-at-home policies), while many more of their own citizens, who could easily have been mobilised to pick and pack fruit and vegetables, have been sitting at home while furloughed?

We are suffering at the hands of myriad entrenched systems that have spent too much time and money attempting to remove risk and chance from daily life, while also creating a climate in which it’s perfectly acceptable to fly in workers from around the world to do essential tasks (logistics, nursing, fruit-picking). All the while, billions of euros are wasted making everyone else think that they need a BA or MBA to get by in life. Such measures don’t make for a resilient society.


Biting remark

In the first instalment of a semi-regular item, we define a word that the world should know a little more about.

I’ve been called a lot of things but thankfully never yet a Wadenbeisser (writes Josh Fehnert). This excellently illustrative German idiom cropped up recently during a report on Germany’s public service broadcaster, ARD, in which the country’s tenacious federal minister for health, Jens Spahn, was described in a uniquely amusing manner to English ears.

So what does it mean? Wadenbeisser literally translates as “calf biter”. Charming. “It’s calf, as in a leg,” clarifies Monocle’s affairs editor Chris Cermak, a native German speaker. “It doesn’t just mean aggressive but is about challenging someone who’s clearly bigger or better than you and annoying them in the process – hence attacking their calves.” Well, that’s as clear as it will ever be, I suppose. As health ministers across the world tiptoe between delivering cold, hard health directives and the less principled world of politics, a Wadenbeisser could be just what the doctor ordered. Judging by Germany’s success in containing the pandemic, a little calf-biting goes a long way.


Piste dividend

Although an architect by training, Gerold Schneider was born into a family of hoteliers and, together with his wife Katia, runs the vaunted Hotel Almhof Schneider as well as a design practice in Lech, Austria (writes Nic Monisse). Here he tells us about an Italian film director to watch out for and which aspects of his dress sense are inherited.

Where do we find you this weekend?
At the Allmeinde Commongrounds in Lech, which is the small cultural place that we founded 20 years ago. It hosts exhibitions and we move over here when our hotel closes for the summer. During the winter season there are no weekends for us: we work for 120 days in a row with no days off. We ski for an hour in the morning and then work 16-hour days.

How are you handling all this extra time at home?
The lockdown is similar to what we always experience at this time of year. As soon as the guests leave, the staff leave. There’s no butcher or baker in Lech and only one supermarket stays open. We don’t have any more time than we did before either: my wife Katia and I work as architects, so when the season finishes we work on design and conceptual projects. We always go from the hotel to a building site.

What’s it like running a hotel at the moment?
It’s really harsh. If you’re only open four months a year and you’re locked down by the authorities for one of those months you lose a quarter of your turnover, which is not funny. Fortunately, last season was really great and this season would have been fantastic until we were closed down in March. So we’re lucky, in a way.

What’s your ideal start to a Sunday? Gentle start or a jolt?
We have a huge window with a three-metre bed in front of it that faces the mountains. We’ll read the newspapers and have a coffee to keep in touch with what’s happening around the world.

Soundtrack of choice?
Normally we’ll listen to classical music. Both of our children are home now – one was studying in Milan and the other was at school in England – which means that we have to decide who’s going to be the DJ.

News or not?
Yes. The New York Times, The Atlantic and some of the Austrian papers.

Walk the dog or downward dog?
A workout in the morning, which we call skiing. It keeps us alive and sane.

Larder essentials that you can’t do without?
Lentils, chickpeas, good oil, tuna, tomatoes, pasta. We never run out of anything because we’ve got the hotel in our backyard. When we were in quarantine – we’re not any more – we were always able to order food. There was never a problem getting fresh produce, so we were lucky.

Sunday culture essential?
I’m really enjoying the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino. His films include Youth and La Grande Bellezza as well as two TV series, The Young Pope and The New Pope. Some people hate him and some people like him; he’s kind of a new, reborn Fellini doing really amazing stuff.

A glass of something you’d recommend?
There’s a cellar at the hotel with about 25,000 bottles that we can pick from. So we can stick to our favourites or pick a different bottle every day, which is what I’m trying to do now.

Dinner venue you can’t wait to get back to?
There are many. There’s a small restaurant in Milazzo, Sicily, called Al Bagatto, run by Chiara Surdo. It’s super simple, there’s nothing fancy about it. Surdo should feature on [TV show] Chef’s Table but she’s too modest to do that. Her approach is so down to earth and there’s nothing you would want to change.

Sunday evening beauty or betterment routine?
There’s no ritual for Sunday evenings during the season. In the off-season we’ll have a late lunch that just continues into the evening, which is very pleasant. We’ll maybe have a siesta.

Do you usually lay out your look for Monday? What would you wear?
My grandfather and great grandfather used to wear three-piece suits. That’s what I wear today but it has nothing to do with tradition. I just feel comfortable.


Smoky salsa fish tacos

Our London-based food stylist and kitchen whizz has this cultivated comfort food wrapped up nicely and topped with a smoky tomato salsa and red-onion pickles.


For the red-onion pickles:
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
100ml white wine vinegar
50ml water
½ tsp sea salt
1 tbsp sugar

For the tomato salsa:
3 medium tomatoes
1 red chilli
1 small onion, finely chopped
juice of 1 lime
¼ tsp sea salt
Large pinch of black pepper

200g haddock or any other firm white fish fillet (prawns work too) cut into small finger-sized chunks
10g plain flour
1 medium egg, whisked
40g breadcrumbs, Japanese panko are best
4 tbsps sunflower oil

To assemble tacos:
8 to 10 flour or corn tortillas; ideally small, about 15cm in diameter
1 head of gem lettuce, finely sliced
10g coriander, roughly chopped
1 avocado, sliced into slim wedges
Lime, cut into wedges
Sour cream or mayonnaise
Hot sauce


To make the onion pickles:

  1. Slice the red onion and pack in a small glass jar.
  2. Heat the rest of the pickle ingredients in a small pan, bring to a simmer and cook until sugar and salt dissolve. Pour warm liquid into the jar and set aside for 30 minutes.

To make the tomato salsa:

  1. Heat griddle pan over high heat until it is smoking. Add tomatoes and chilli, and grill until lightly charred. Turn over to grill on the other side.
  2. Turn off heat and remove the tomatoes and the chilli. When they are cool enough to handle, chop them finely, no need to remove the seeds from the chilli.
  3. Mix together with the rest of the ingredients in a bowl.

Make sure all the toppings, condiments and pickles are ready before starting the fish prep.

For the fish:

  1. Heat oven to 100C.
  2. Season the chunks with salt and pepper. Place the flour, egg and breadcrumbs in separate, individual plates. Dust the fish pieces in flour, then dip into the egg and finally coat with breadcrumbs.
  3. Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat, fry the fish until golden in colour.
  4. Remove from the pan and keep in the warm oven.

For the tortillas:

  1. Set a frying pan over medium heat, warm the tortilla, until it puffs up slightly, about 1-2 minutes on each side.
  2. Bring the fish and tortillas to the table and build your tacos to your taste with sour cream or mayonnaise as you please.


Tipping point

Following the 2008 financial crisis, banker Caspar Ruetz decided to grow a different business (writes Carlo Silberschmidt). Ruetz founded an asparagus firm importing from Baden-Württemberg to deliver to restaurants in Zürich. Temporary closures in the Swiss city have presented a new challenge this spring but the businessman quickly found a way to make up for the loss.

After Ruetz set up a market stand next to Monocle’s Zürich HQ before Easter, the demand for his asparagus was so high that it led to several police visits following concerns about the queues. Customers rigorously maintained the two-metre distance. The timely intervention of a nearby hairdresser offered even more queuing room across private property and led to a peaceful agreement to the “Spargelstreit” (asparagus-argument). “Spargel-Caspar”, as Ruetz became known, sold 2.5 tonnes of German asparagus – at up to CHF24 (€23) per kilo – in the week leading up to Easter and sold out again last week. Luckily, more is en route this weekend. Local appetite for fresh Spargel (asparagus) clearly hasn’t waned, nor have the queues on Dufourstrasse.


Tots and pans

You’ve made a sourdough loaf, some banana bread and even tried your hand at fresh pasta (writes Chiara Rimella). So what will be the next dish in your culinary repertoire during lockdown? Something for the children perhaps? For the latest edition of its fêted Italian cookbook series The Silver Spoon, publisher Phaidon is releasing an updated version of the title that’s dedicated to toddlers. This instalment encourages parents to create toothsome dinners, including pizza and creamy carbonara, and contains plenty of charmingly illustrated recipes that you might insist your children share with you.


The Foreign Correspondents’ Club

Friday nights in Hong Kong often start (and end) at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club (writes James Chambers). It’s a convenient place to meet, the drinks are cheap and the curries justify their own page on the menu. After a few beers at the bar while talking politics with other journalists, our thoughts usually turn to an Indian meal at a table reserved for about eight people – others on different deadlines will invariably join us. I was first inducted into this tradition when I arrived in Hong Kong in 2014. Members’ clubs didn’t appeal to me but as I was new in town I tagged along to the club with those journalists who could invite guests. Some have since left the city so now, after six years in Hong Kong, I am the one with the membership who is relied upon to buy drinks and settle the bill.

The benefit of this enforced generosity is that I can force my lifestyle choices onto everyone else: there will always be a fish and a vegetarian option in the middle of the table for everyone to tuck into. These communal dining habits, picked up while in Asia, are a far cry from the family-style dinners of my childhood in Wales, when each of us ate what was placed down in front of us in a set order. Plated food might be back on the menu for now but I can’t wait to get my friends back together at the FCC to share a curry and chew the fat about China. We have plenty to talk about and it’s bound to get spicy.

James’s order:
Fish goa
Spinach and dal makhani
Chicken tikka masala
Pilau rice
Garlic naan
Gweilo beer


Container strategies

Hand-thrown and handsome or tidy terracotta? Hole in the bottom or the bigger the better? I’m pondering potting options, of course (writes Josh Fehnert). I asked Peter Milne, co-founder of The Nunhead Gardener in southeast London, for a few rules of thumb when sizing up the seemliest vessel. “For all plants, indoors and outdoors, drainage is key,” he says. “No plants like sitting in water.” To avoid this, put a layer of gravel or some broken crockery under the soil and make sure that the pot has a drainage hole and a saucer underneath it all to catch the excess run-off. “Today we generally recommended that people keep their plants in the plastic pots that they arrive in and place them in a decorative pot rather than planting into them directly,” says Milne.

Terracotta is the standard but there’s no obvious benefit of the material (though glazed might keep more moisture and unglazed might lose a little). As long as they’re well drained, your plants will thrive and the material shouldn’t affect growth, so you can be a little free and easy with your decisions. “I did buy some citrus trees for myself and I spoke to the grower and she said to keep them in the plastic pots,” says Milne. “I kind of ignored the instruction and put them in something a bit nicer.” If the pros can play it fast and loose with the rules then there’s hope for the lowliest of home gardeners. Enjoy your Sunday.


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