Food, friendship and the comfort of strangers

Shopping for food shortly after the Italian lockdown was introduced

Exactly three months ago today I was travelling to the UK for work and to see my two grown up daughters and grandson Rex. A few weeks earlier I’d returned from a work trip to The Philippines which I’d combined with an opportunity to learn about some of the delicious but entirely unfamiliar dishes of the region including sinigang na hipon and the inimitable halo-halo. News of COVID-19 was starting to spread and here in Italy deaths were spiralling out of control. Yet somehow, even at that point, the idea that the virus would – or could – disrupt life as we knew it seemed so unlikely that most of us were simply carrying on as we always had.

But then everything changed.

Within hours of arriving in the UK the Italian government introduced the first ‘lockdown’ in Europe and I frantically tried to find a flight home before it was too late. I was fortunate. Just two days later I arrived back in Piedmont and hunkered down to see what would happen next…

The rest, as they say, is history. We are now all so familiar with the consequences of living with COVID-19 that many of the things that seemed inconceivable back in March very quickly became accepted as being part of how life is. I will never forget joining my first queue at my local supermarket around the time that stories of empty food aisles and fights over toilet paper were hitting the headlines in the UK. We never had these problems in Italy where the shelves of my local supermarket continued to heave with freshly prepared salads and cold dishes, fresh fish, fruit and vegetables and as much pasta as you could eat. But the requirement to fill in a form before leaving the house, the wearing of masks and gloves, the queues of people not talking to each other…all of these made the weekly shop a very different kind of experience.

Of course this is a highly privileged version of the experience of living with COVID-19. For millions of people around the world, life has been anything but normal…death, the loss of livelihoods, poverty, marginalisation, racism…all of these were features of life before the arrival of the virus but have been exacerbated and amplified for very many. The pandemic has acted as an X-ray, exposing the deep and structural inequalities of the world in which we live, inequalities which are often unrecognized, ignored, or denied in current political discourse. In many of the countries in which I work (or did until recently) there have been stories of migrants no longer able to do the jobs for which they left their families, of being forced from their homes, excluded from government support and even blamed for the spread of the virus itself. In the UK, key workers in hospitals and care homes – many of them migrants or from migrant backgrounds – have been applauded by the same government and media that has, for decades, stigmatised migrants and accused them of taking jobs from others somehow more deserving.

But for everyone, regardless of their status and privilege, these have been strange times.

The social and emotional consequences of isolation and separation from those we love – as well as though with whom with we work and play – should not be underestimated even for those who are relatively protected from the economic fallout of COVID-19. Loneliness – already a major issue in contemporary Western societies – is now experienced by groups for whom it was not previously been a problem, compounded by anxiety and mass panic and the hitherto infrequent experience of spending time alone or in the company of very few. As noted elsewhere:

“Humankind has always known what to do next, with their lives generally following a regular trail. But this sudden cataclysmic turn of events have brought them face to face with a dire reckoning – how to live with oneself. It is indeed a frightening realization when a whole generation or two knows how to deal with a nuclear fallout but are at their wit’s end on how to spend time with oneself”

For all of us the uncertainties of the future combined with a realisation that our plans, hopes and dreams must be put on hold or cancelled altogether has been profoundly unsettling. And in this context it has often been food and cooking that has provided comfort.

During the lockdown more of my friends and family have talked about the importance of food and cooking than ever before. People have shared recipes from around world, sent me photos of cakes and breads and delicious vegetable stews, taught their children how to prepare simple dishes and expressed childlike delight at the pleasure of trying out ingredients buried at the back of their cupboards for years.

I’m almost certain that part of this is related to time.

In life before lockdown there was a sense that people were too busy to cook – or at least that there were so many other options and expectations that they chose not to make it a priority in their lives. Cooking is not inherently time-consuming but it takes time…time to think about what you want to make, the ingredients you will need, the methods you will use. And when you’ve invested time in thinking about food you almost always make time to eat it as it should be eaten. No more walking down the street snacking or sitting at your desk mindlessly consuming your lunch.

Our relationship with food has changed during lockdown and mostly, it seems, for the better.

For me the lockdown has also provided the gift of time. Whilst I’ve always made time to cook, in the absence of the relentless international travel that my job demands I’ve now also had time to walk in the beautiful countryside where I live, foraging fresh ingredients to make fritti di acacia, wild garlic pesto and elderflower cordial. I’ve found time to turn the neglected garden at the back of my house into a vegetable garden with raised beds of tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, onions, garlic, celery, beans, peas, broccoli, cauliflower and numerous varieties of zucchini, squash and pumpkin (beware the autumnal glut!) And I’ve taken online cooking courses with Cinczia in Florence and Tania in Beirut learning how to make ravioli and tiramisu, hummus, tabbouleh and baba ganouj, watching with pleasure as friends and family try the recipes and share tales of their success.

Right now the lockdown is starting to lift here in Italy and I’ve been able to travel for the first time since early March. Over the weekend I found myself sitting among groves of lemons, figs and grapes eating fresh seafood whilst listening to the waves crashing against the cliffs of Cinque Terra. COVID-19 has been so awful for so many but it has given many of us a new appreciation of what matters in life…the value of food, friendship and the comfort of strangers.

I, for one, hope to hold onto these things as we hurtle, seemingly inevitably, back towards ‘normal life’.

The gastronomic pleasures of Cinque Terra, Italy

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