The plans for my boyfriend Will's birthday, in early April, had been vaguely mulled over; a sign of how flippantly we took everyday comings and goings for granted in the Age Before Corona. Would we take in the Hockney exhibition, followed by a cocktail at the National Portrait Gallery's rooftop bar? Or keep it local with an amble to local-Italian-turned-hot-spot Maremma, perhaps stopping for a glass of fizz at that nice new bar that had opened up beside my yoga studio?

Downward dogs, choosing between an Aperol Spritz or espresso martini, galleries and expeditions beyond the front door that didn't require military-style strategy - we had no idea how good we had it, did we?

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But with the coronavirus outbreak and UK lockdown, those plans - like many of us facing anniversaries or special occasions in confinement - swiftly shrunk to what we could arrange within our four walls. That's not a complaint; we're lucky in that living in one of London's worst-affected boroughs, Lambeth, we're still healthy, as to date are our families elsewhere in the UK.

So there's no plea for the world's smallest violin; we have everything we need. But a birthday's a birthday, and a side effect of constant confinement is a slow slide into stir crazy; how could we do something that shook the same-sameness of the days up?

The meal at our favourite Italian was off, but as we're both Italophiles I wanted to try and evoke a touch of that Dolce Vita spirit from a Brixton one-bed. Tough order, clearly, especially since our local deli Guzzl - where the more fanciful components in our kitchen cupboards would normally come from - had closed.

But independent shops have come into their own during this crisis as people seek alternatives to thousand-strong online supermarket queues - and after contacting the store, its owner Andrew tracked down their jars of glistening black truffle. He kindly collected it, before jumping on his bike to whisk it to me free of charge - adhering to the two-metre drop off rules, of course.

That was the pre-birthday black truffle linguine taken care of, and the benefit of striking up a relationship with the owner of a store I'd long frequented without making the effort to chat to the staff working there. Hopefully we'll remember these lessons of community when lockdown life ends.

The Hockney exhibition was off, clearly, his LA blues and verdant Yorkshire greens on hold for another time, but necessity being the mother of invention, a host of galleries and artists have moved their offering into the virtual world.

Fashion house Loewe has started a series of studio tours and classes with crafting creatives at set times on the brand's Instagram account, but for our timings we plumped for Canadian contemporary artist Trate's tour of his new exhibition, a series of surreal, dreamlike portraits.

Over a birthday bacon sandwich and Bucks Fizz, we downloaded a link to tour the gallery space on my Macbook as the artist arranged a video call to talk through his work. Culture checklist ticked without leaving the house? I'm in.


Next up, after a slew of Zoom chats with family and friends (live opening of presents sent in advance to watch that real-time reaction), the next birthday surprise was a sojourn to the exotic environs of the kitchen for a hollandaise-making class courtesy of the famous Leiths Cookery School.

The process is exacting and extensive. If you're seeking distraction from the Doomsday news cycles this is an engrossing undertaking, and after downloading the app we get cracking through the videos and an 88-point list.

There are three variations of this "mother sauce" we learn; our attempt seems to sit somewhere between them, a buttery bastard love child. But with asparagus, it's a passable attempt, although perhaps not enough to stand up to Prue Leith's be-spectacled inspection in the Bake Off tent.

Then it was on to a visit to one of our favourite spots, The Big Cat Sanctuary in Kent. This conservation project looks after a selection of endangered cats - the initiative being a passion of ours - and in this time of closure the centre's income source has been cut off, leaving it woefully underfunded.

In response, it has started a series of live online visits to individual enclosures each week, via Facebook. We log on and are talked through a pack of lionesses going about their business, only this time with the benefit of being allowed to bring a bottle.

The main attraction was obviously the birthday dinner. Will's something of a foodie, whereas I'd happily make the same vegetarian curry night after night (a plea not to have another one "inflicted" upon him had been issued. Rude). So for the evening festivities, I wheeled out the big guns; gourmet delivery service One Fine Dine.


The brand had been in the business of supplying meticulous, Michelin-restaurant quality meals to private jets, and with the Covid-19 lockdown, pivoted to supplying households across the London area.

You might not be able to go out for a meal, but you can still get creative in the kitchen. Photo / 123rf
You might not be able to go out for a meal, but you can still get creative in the kitchen. Photo / 123rf

The delivery arrives with a pleasing degree of hilarious fanfare; the seasonings and sauces for my beetroot starter come in their own individual vials and containers; likewise, Will's fillet of beef main course had more components than an Ikea flatpack. Unpacking it all is part of the fun.

The supplied menus are duly set up on the table, and the dishes come with six pages of instructions and online YouTube tutorials on their plating arrangements. It turns out that the artful smears and sprinkles you see on Masterchef require the dexterity of an Impressionist painter.

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But that only adds to the jollity of the experience; my spiced coconut and lentils looks like a Constable in the picture, but my efforts veer into experimental Picasso territory. The food is, no matter the visuals, absolutely delicious, and the tiramisu dessert the best I've eaten outside of Italy.

We dress up, too; how long has it been since you put on your best cologne? I wear some trousers I had earmarked for a planned trip to Florence in June, now cancelled. It's not espressos by the Arno River, but it's a contented couple of hours in our small patch of garden.

It might not be the day we had planned - none of them are for most of us at the moment - but it's certainly one we'll remember. And never will we take an evening cocktail at our nearby rooftop bar for granted again.

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