In Isolation with Mikaella Clements

Location: Berlin, Germany


In the green cube, I do the dishes and pick at leftovers. Summer is unfurling easily, so most of the time the light is already fresh and gold, and now and then I get the grey mornings that are my favourites, everything cool and still around me. My flat doesn’t have a balcony or a useable garden but it does have big glass windows, and when the leaves come back it feels like living in a giant treehouse, lindens tapping against the panes, squirrels pausing on their branches to glare inside.

The first week of lockdown I found myself waking earlier and earlier: first eight, then seven, then six. I am usually a late sleeper and on weekdays I’d drag myself out of bed just in time to sling myself into clothes and aim for the train station. Now I have the luck to work from home, and my mornings are newly long. In them I call my sisters, read my book, wash the dishes.

In between I pick at the covered pan, the mouthfuls of whatever we ate last night, richer and saltier and deeper in their own existence than when they were first served up. Lemon potatoes gone cold, still flaky with salt; hits of Sichuan noodles, spice sharp and smoky at once; a guilty scrape of pasta and onions and cheese from the bottom of the pan. I like mouthfuls of past meals on their way to the fridge; breakfast in handfuls, or the cancelled shallot pasta sauce (won’t someone think of the shallots!) on toast with feta and parsley.

The giant mug of tea, of course, although this lockdown has been a startling, semi-obscene insight into how much milk we go through: we are drowning in milk. Thinking about checking Twitter and reading my book instead. I’m reading about heresies in late antiquity, about Augustine’s bleak faith lashing out like a whip as Rome crumbles. I won’t leave this room all day.


When Onj and I got married in January, my aunt gave us a copy of Fuchsia Dunlop’s cookbook The Food of Sichuan. Over the past month I have used it obsessively and lovingly, making a trip every fortnight or so to the Chinese supermarket on our corner where I can stock up on new pantry staples: fermented black beans, Sichuan peppers, Shaoxing cooking wine.

The best bit is the hit of red every time I open our cupboard: dried chillies spilling towards me, thick sedimented jars of chilli paste. It’s a pleasure to cook with handfuls of heat, spooning them on, mouth burning. Onj doesn’t like her food so spicy and so I make a gentler version, tell her, remember, your bowl is the one on the right.

“If you forget, just remember that I’m right for you,” I tell her grandly, and she makes a disgusting gesture at me.


When I get back from the market, Onj is on the phone to her mum, leaning over the kitchen counter, drinking coffee from the little East German cups we picked up at a flea market in another summer, when there were still flea markets. My mother-in-law watches over Facetime from Hastings as I unpack ciabatta bread, the Pflaumen-Streuselkuchen that makes a very indulgent weekend breakfast, and wrapped in another bag, eyes bulging against the plastic, two gleaming sea bream, which the Germans call Dorade.

“He cleaned them for me,” I say, as we slip them out onto the counter and take an immediate, admiring step back. “He cut them open and pulled out their guts.”

“That’s what he’s meant to do,” Onj’s mum says.

“We love the fish man,” Onj explains. “We find everything he does very impressive.”

As a child, I did not like fish very much; neither did my wife, and though I grew out of this fairly indifferently, she did not. I would eat fish if it was served to me, but I never sought it out, and Onj was much more actively opposed. She didn’t like the idea of it, or the weird flexing texture of it, a muscle that gave, like going at someone’s bicep with unexpectedly sharp teeth. For five years, without paying much attention, we steered clear. Then, on holiday in Sicily, we started eating fish, mostly for the aesthetic.

“Fuck,” Onj said ruefully, over a catch of the day served with lemons and shredded lettuce and red onions, because it was really fucking good.

Landlocked in Berlin, without much discussion of motivations or considerations, we started buying our own fish. We only buy from the market fish man, whom we trust implicitly and over-order as a result. First Onj cooked cod following a Bengali recipe from her aunties, staining her fingers turmeric yellow for days, the fish flaky and melting and somehow sweet. Then sumac and za’atar roasted monkfish, with a fattoush salad that we remade every day for a week. Then our Dorade: Onj fries it with garlic and cherry tomatoes bursting around it. When the lid is lifted after fifteen minutes, we crowd round gasping desperate, grateful lungfuls. It smells like the sea.

By Mikaella Clements