Personal story

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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Food Club Chester

I started Food Club Chester with my husband in January. We get no funding and do it all voluntarily from home. We absolutely love it!
We started off by going into the city in the evenings taking hot homemade meals to people sleeping rough. We soon found that other people were providing food- but not hot and on the street. Monday’s weren’t catered for so we stuck to Monday’s. The first time we “Advertised” what we’d be doing by reaching out to grass roots homeless groups to help “spread the word “. We pitched up in a car park just outside the city boundary, (because we knew some rough sleepers are banned from the city) “armed” with hot dinners. No one came.
So, not to be deterred we set out and found people in “their spots”, they were absolutely made-up with the food and we started to get to know people and hear a little about their stories.
We posted on social media and others came forward to join in- some by volunteering to cook a few meals for us to take out and others by cooking and taking food out themselves. We even collaborated with a group of Chester Uni students (doing politics and economics, perhaps aptly) who took homemade hot meals on other evenings that weren’t catered for. We wanted people to take direct action themselves and “run with” the idea of Food Club- A free meal from me to you. No fancy referral process, just free food for anyone who we met on our travels who said they needed it.
People interested in homelessness sourced some ingredients for us and it started to take off. It highlighted a gap in services for some rough sleepers when SWEP was activated as there were always some people who never utilised the provision.
Then covid hit and lockdown changed everything. We had to adapt.
We collaborated with other groups and started to diversify- all food related of course! We now do a combination of things ranging from delivering microwaveable meals made by local restaurants to homeless people in temporary accommodation, cooking hot meals for those who are accommodated with no cooking facilities and running a food bank. Some of the people we met through Food Club told local supermarkets about us and we now get regular donations of food and toiletries from Morrisons. We collaborate with other none-funded community groups to source and share food which we use in a number of ways.
We make food parcels which we take to anyone in need across the city. We also use it for ingredients to cook the meals for the homeless people and we share what we can’t use with other community groups. A happy bi-product has been that we are helping to fight the war in waste by re-purposing food that would otherwise be thrown away.
We calculated that we have provided and delivered food for over 2,600 meals so far.
Running Food Club has honestly kept me going through lockdown, although I wish I lived in a country that didn’t need us!
Doing this has not only given us a good reason to go out, it has enabled us to help people, and most of all has allowed us to meet so many lovely people.

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Personal story

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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Food for Friends

It has always been the highlight of our working year – our team summer lunch buffet before breaking up for the holidays. As a team of teachers working for a local authority Minority Ethnic Achievement Service, we are lucky to have colleagues from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds so the food brought to our pot-luck buffets has without fail been delicious and diverse. Over the years, memorable dishes have included Syrian ful, a luridly purple Ube-Macapuno (yam) cake from the Philippines (incidentally one of the nicest cakes I’ve ever tried) and Polish sorrel soup, zupę szczawiową.
Of course, none of that has been possible this year. We decided instead to start a recipe collection and Food for Friends was born. So far, we’ve had recipes from South Africa, Syria, Italy and Germany. The next step is to start asking for contributions from the children and families we work with, who have been telling us about the traditional recipes they’ve been turning to during lockdown. Food has always played a vital role in bringing people together but until life gets back to normal, I hope that people and communities who may have been feeling even more isolated than usual during the pandemic, will be able to feel listened to and connected, through the sharing of recipes.

Personal story

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.

Diversification of business model Personal story

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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Shielding treats in Wales

Lockdown in Wales has been a great inconvenience but absolutely essential, but some have had a taste of lockdown plus plus because of having a ‘shielding’ letter from the Welsh Government. I had lymphoma two years ago and even though I was discharged from the Haematology clinic in June, I was still included as a high risk person. For two months we did not go out of our front gate, but in June another letter came with some changes, notably being able to go outside to exercise but still keep to the five miles limit. Thank goodness for Sainsbury’s on line shopping, having priority arranged through local authorities, in our case Denbighshire.
I’m hopeless at cooking but I’m a dab hand with the vegetable peeler and can opener. My wife (and our two grown up children for that matter) is an excellent cook. Without her excellent cooking and baking I would not have survived the last three months, or indeed the last 54 years. One extra treat we had was a Welsh Afternoon Tea through the post from Daffodil Foods in Pwllheli. We also revived a habit from the 1980’s, an aperitivo of Martini Bianco with ice and lemon on a sunny afternoon.
When the five mile limit was lifted in Wales, on Monday 6 July, we went to Llandudno for a walk along the prom from the new lifeboat station to near the pier entrance and then had a drive thru KFC in the Junction!
DIR Llanelwy

Virtual meet ups

Virtual Food Tourism

Travelling and exploring cultures through food are two essential activities for me. And since the lockdown has denied me the former, I’ve been revisiting some of my old haunts abroad by way of culinary imagination alone.
So I popped over to my favourite Greek restaurant, La Taverna Klimataria in the Varvakeios Agora, Athens, with this dish of pork knuckle braised in ouzo with cinnamon and bay – served with confit oregano tomatoes. Making it myself helped me understand why they’d opted to do it that way themselves. It’s cheap and cheerful and very rustic – composed of just what they had lying around. The Klimataria is near the central food market, not far from the Parthenon, surrounded by streets lined with aromatic shops that only sell herbs and spices. They have live rebetiko music there, and people form a circle to dance the kalamatianos. It all gets very tactile and emotional, even tearful, at times.

Personal story

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 . 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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Simple pleasures

During the lockdown, I did a bit of weekly shopping for my mother and several other households who were all isolating—no big deal, nothing major. And dropping stuff off on a Saturday morning was an excellent opportunity to have a natter and see how everyone was getting on. It reminded me of playing shop as a kid.
Once or twice, though, I added a little something extra from my own kitchen to their baskets, and this batch of roasted garlic in oil was one such gift. I relish it myself in almost everything from scrambled eggs to cream sauces. Within a few days, I started getting texts from my friends telling me how much they’d enjoyed it and how they’d used it in their own cooking. One inexpensive ingredient had brought us closer together, somehow.