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Friday Night Family Cook-off

Most members of my family live quite far apart, and during lockdown we were looking for fun online activities. I live in Chester, my parents and my brother live in different parts of France and my auntie and uncle live in Devon. Lockdown was particularly strict for my brother and sister-in-law in Paris, so we were also trying to find something that would cheer them up. We’re all enthusiastic cooks, and at my mum’s suggestion, we decided to hold a Friday night cook-off. It seemed like a bit of an odd idea as we wouldn’t be able to taste each other’s food, but we took turns to choose a theme, posted a photo in our group chat and then ate together online. We initially tried to judge/mark the dishes but quickly forgot the competition element because we were enjoying each other’s company. The theme and the food also provided lots of conversation starters, which was particularly welcome after Zoom-fatigue started to set in. We’ve talked about family traditions, meals we remember, things our grandmother made, places we’ve visited and what we ate, how we make things and if it differs to the way we were taught.
I live alone, and despite being happy in my own company, sharing a meal with my family was a big treat. I’ve made things that I wouldn’t usually have bothered to make just for me, it’s given me joy, a few kitchen dilemmas and as we’d hoped, something to look forward to during lockdown. I shared our dishes on Facebook and several friends started similar events with their own families. Our categories were ‘savoury tart’, ‘curry’, ‘potato-topped pie’, ‘tapas’, ‘local/regional’, ‘offal’, ‘tagine’ and ‘cheese’ In July we decided to stop meeting weekly as people started to have ‘real-life’ plans again, but have decided to meet once a month. Our first monthly meeting was on 1st August and included our first sweet round, ‘dessert’, our next one is in early September and the theme is ‘harvest’.

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Swim for Sausage Sandwich

The biggest treat in lockdown for wild swimmers living by the Thames….swimming a mile up river to the only cafe open outside for a takeaway sausage baguette! Heaven 🙏🏼🌊

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Socially distanced snacks in the garage

As lockdown mutates into something more vague most people are embracing the awkwardness of the socially distanced BBQ or returning to outside eating at Welsh pubs and cafes but for my in-laws who are shielding only distanced meetings with family in the garden are a possibility. When we arrived to visit and sample my mother in law’s home made cakes it was raining so we sat at the entrance to the garage.

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Food during the pandemic

History is never terribly good at capturing emotions, and I think that posterity will probably underplay the mood of fear at the outbreak of the crisis; for many people, I think, the gravity of the situation wasn’t really appreciated until the rather chilling choice of words of the PM on 12 March – ‘many will lose loved ones before their time’. I think many subsequently reverted to comfort food to ‘get them through’ and I remember a conversation with a BBC producer in which he told me of how he’d pretty much reverted to what he called a ‘school dinners’ diet, which I thought was great way of putting it.

I try and keep abreast of international news and listen to a lot of Irish media, which tends to be a little less myopic than some British media output, so I’d changed my behaviour – and therefore my consumption habits – before the cold, clammy fear really struck here. I’m therefore ashamed to honestly record that I felt a small pang of schadenfreude when the UK death toll started to climb – in the sense that I hadn’t been patronising restaurants and pubs (activities which I love) for a good while beforehand.

However, like a lot of people, I’m pretty sure that my consumption patterns changed quite noticeably as a result of lockdown. I found myself buying and eating more, particularly comforts like wine and cheese. I’d heard an Irish expat from China on RTE radio talking about how whiskey had seen him through a nasty bout of the ‘Rona, so I used this as a (pretty flimsy) excuse to indulge in bottles of Jameson whiskey on a weekly basis, which I wouldn’t normally do. I tried to visit the supermarkets late, when there were less people around and no queues and therefore less chance of transmission. I remember driving to the horrid, enormous ASDA in Hunts Cross late one evening and hearing a particularly incoherent and unconvincing government minister being interviewed – it was Helen Whately, I believe – and thinking to myself “they don’t have a fucking clue what they’re doing”. Whilst resisting the temptation to go ‘Mad Max’ in my outlook, I did start to moderate my behaviour so that I avoided smaller food outlets altogether, which is sad because I want good local food businesses to thrive instead of ghastly big impersonal supermarkets. I started visiting big supermarkets which I’d never usually shop in, like ASDA, purely because they allowed more room to keep away from people. I wore the only face covering I have (balaclava) and soon found that shoppers and supermarket staff alike would jump aside as I went striding down the aisles in such forbidding attire. This was good – I no longer wanted to chat or mosey about or dither while food shopping, to ponder over this item of that, have a natter, think about what herbs or spices etc I would need for dishes I would cook that week. No, I wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible. Due to the inept and constantly shifting government info, it felt at times like it was ‘every man for himself’ and I noticed when food shopping others taking this sort of survivalist / efficient / ‘prepper’ (to use American parlance) approach. I abhor the idea of stockpiling or panic buying, so maintained weekly shops, but I noticed a good deal of this – whether evidenced through trolleys piled high or empty shelves.

Due to panic buying and certain shortages and the poor quality / reduced selection of items like meat etc this meant that I pretty much switched to a vegetarian diet for much of lockdown. I find myself eating stuff I wouldn’t normally have consumed, like Quorn, and when unable to get milk I was forced to switch to Soya milk and that kind of thing. I haven’t kept up these consumption habits now lockdown’s eased, but I’m certainly consuming less meat.

Lockdown has even encouraged my partner (a reluctant cook at the best of times) to try her hand in the kitchen, with mixed results, but – I’m happy to report – some notable successes too. I found that at first I resorted to making hearty, uncomplicated, reassuring dishes: spaghetti bolognese; bangers and mash and gravy (albeit veggie sausages); various cheesy pasta concoctions; good old cabbage and bacon; beans on cheese on toast; chilli con carne; curries (sauce from a jar). As lockdown wore on, I devoted more time to cooking and received plenty of culinary inspiration from the founder of this website, who also dramatically appeared one afternoon bearing confit de canard.

Separately, I started a fundraising appeal for friends in Peru who run communal kitchens (comedores populares) and set up a whatsapp group for the residents of my road so as to ensure that the elderly were getting food / having someone check in on them. I soon regretted this, as the whatsapp conversations soon turned from emergency food supplies and everyone confessing how much more alcohol they’d been consuming during lockdown (the more resounding clunk-clunk of the bin collections every Tuesday being a sure sign) to trivial matters, curtain-twitching complaints, and pathetic mini moral panics, prompting me to swiftly leave the group I’d set up. *As far as I’m aware, no little old ladies starved to death on Bundoran Road during lockdown, so I can rest assured that I ‘did my bit’.

With lockdown, my greatest sense of loss was attached to that inimitable liberty of being able to visit a restaurant or pub on a whim. When I grew tired and irritable and bored of home cooking, I started ordering a takeaway once a week. This started with pretty expensive and exotic takeaways – I recall eating a very nice Malaysian takeaway at one stage, an exquisite prawn curry – but quickly descended into pretty unhealthy ‘treats’ such as burgers and chips, and even a doner kebab consumed sober, which is an experience I don’t want to repeat anytime soon.

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Broad Beans and Bruschetta

I’ve always cooked a lot from scratch and food has always played an important role in our day-to-day life so these things haven’t really changed much in lockdown. But I think some little rituals and habits have taken on even more importance, like the mid-afternoon espresso accompanied by something sweet to get me through the working from home mid-afternoon slump or Friday night aperitif, with a negroni and crostini. The other thing I’ve become more aware of is seasonality, and I’ve taken every opportunity to gorge on asparagus, jersey royals and broad beans.
The latter remind me of a holiday in Puglia when we ate raw, just-picked broad beans with some ricotta bought from a local farmer, so fresh that it was still warm when we got it home. It was a memorable lunch. My lockdown version was a simple bruschetta with gorgeously fresh broad beans, creamy ricotta, finished with mint and some sea salt. Quick to prepare, with flavours that sing of summer, it was perfect eaten in the back garden, day-dreaming of a time when we can travel once again.

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West African food tutorials

Missing travel, and missing the usual rich variety of life, attempting to recreate some of the dishes I’ve enjoyed over the years was an obvious way to try to recapture the memories and break the routine. Lockdown gave a chance to break out of the usual sources of inspiration, although I never managed to break out of my basic one-pot style of cookery. For family meals, I felt some of the classic dishes of West Africa might work well. Without claiming even the slightest degree of authenticity, I attempted the ‘maafe’ peanut stew common to many countries in the region. It was a success, and something of a crowd pleaser, so I progressed to chicken yassa (pictured). A basic version, equally unskilled and inauthentic, but my teenage offspring devoured it, so I deemed it another success.

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Global beer tour

The two things I hated most about lockdown were a) lack of mobility and b) lack of pubs. My response was to engage in a kind of global beer tour, reliving happy times from the past. Of many personal ‘happy places’, the happiest of all is probably relaxing outside an Austrian mountain hut, the satisfaction of a long day of Alpine mountaineering behind me, and kicking back with a local ‘helles’ beer, or perhaps a dunkel. So I recreated it in my tiny north facing back garden with this order of German beers from one of the many small suppliers of obscure brews that sprang up to service lockdown requirements. Having worked my way through the lot, I delved into the highly obscure world of the new wave of Dutch ‘Bock’ beers, ordering from a tiny company that was rushed off its feet. Each order brought a surge of joy into the dull routine of lockdown life, lovingly arranged in the cupboard. Dreaming of Alpine peaks, confined to sea-level: these bottles helped a lot.

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More Simple Pleasures

For me, the lockdown was an unmissable opportunity to get food cooking slowly in the background in-between bouts of working on my laptop – especially baking. And, although I have devised and tweaked quite a few of my own recipes, over the years, I’m always on the lookout for the ‘best’ example of something a bit easy and ‘everyday’. I like Nigella’s recipes for that. I found it in ‘My Mother’s Irish Tea Loaf’ recipe on Jan Egan’s website thewatchfulcook.co.uk @TheWatchfulCook . Unlike Bara Brith, its sober Welsh cousin, hers was boozy and a bit more celebratory, while still retaining that homely tannic flavour of the tea.

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Food Memories

When my son was a tiny baby I visited a wonderful inspirational friend who had once been my teacher I was exhausted and frayed at the seams. She cooked me the most delicious fish pie which nurtured me to the corners of my being. During lockdown I’ve made that fish pie and thought of her, in fact I think of her every time I make it. It’s become one of my go to, nurture for the soul, kind of recipes. Recipes are like pieces of your story that build up a picture of who you are, where you have come from and direct you to where you are going. Write them down so you can pass them onto to those you love in your life, the comfort and joy they will bring will know no bounds.

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Food for the Soul

Pizza is not something I have made before at home. Indeed I’m not sure I even like it very much, not the type of pizza we get in a frozen cabinet at the supermarket anyway. But last year I met the most inspirational man who had set up a fabulous pizzeria in Chester market. Stile Napoletano is run by the wonderful Giacomo who hails from Naples. I spent a Saturday morning with him (before lockdown) talking dough, toppings and whether pizza could ever be good for you.
He explained to me that he prepares his dough as least 24 hours in advance and that helps with the digestion. He eats pizza everyday, and certainly looks good on it. He uses the best ingredients he can lay his hands on, fresh and seasonal. With an innate understanding of flavour the wonderful combinations just kept flowing.
So I took inspiration, I looked in my cookbook collection and found a recipe from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and Fizz Carr. The dough was prepared in the morning, 10 minutes of kneading and any frustrations that I had that day were hammered out in the process. By lunch time the dough had risen and the pizzas took less than 10 minutes in the oven. My son said they were better than the ones we had bought in the past, not the ones from Stile I hasten to add. But I was definitely pleased with the result. Time is what lockdown had given me, time and a desire to break the monotony of another sandwich for lunch. To show my son that good food not only costs little, but tastes better the more love and attention you give it. So will I continue to make them post lockdown? I certainly will, maybe not on a Tuesday lunchtime as life gets back to normal. But what joy to take time to learn something new and nourish the soul in the process. I’ll also be checking out what Giacomo and his family have been doing during lockdown as they launch their new restaurant at 49 Watergate Street, Chester. Looking forward to reconnecting with him, as we begin to enjoy eating out together once again. Here’s to reconnecting with our wonderful small independent businesses that make eating out such a joy and to taking home their ethos and allowing it to make our lives richer in the process. Another slice of conviviality anyone?