Lockdown has had the whole country discovering hidden talents and suddenly practising hobbies they’d never considered before. From knitting to painting by numbers, learning new languages to Tik Tok videos, the creativity with which people have taken to amuse themselves when deprived of normal activities has been impressive to say the least.
One of the most popular new hobbies that has emerged is cooking. As soon as lockdown was announced, Channel 4 scrapped its timetable and gave Jamie Oliver a daily prime time 5 o clock slot with his show entitled ‘Keep Cooking and Carry on’ – clearly they saw which way the wind was blowing. And indeed, the nation has flocked to the kitchen to entertain themselves, throwing themselves into Mexican nights, getting that perfect risotto and slaving over homemade sushi. And then posting the results onto Instagram, of course.
And it’s not just fancy dishes we’re making – since lockdown, many people have started making the basics from scratch. Maybe it’s the apocalyptic vibe in the air – but an almost survivalist instinct has kicked in, and in a rush to prove our self sufficiency in a world full of uncertainty, we’ve gone back to basics. Bread. In particular, sourdough – the world’s gone mad for the stuff.
I returned home to find that my dad’s sourdough starter has taken pride of place as being the new favourite child. Every night he lovingly feeds it with flour and warm water, proudly watching it bubble away as if it was a newborn. I’ll often catch him vocally admiring the end product as he retrieves it from the oven with a grin I didn’t even see at my graduation. And then he’ll return to the starter, and the whole cycle will repeat. In his own words: ‘you guys don’t need looking after anymore. But my starter needs me.’ He’ll have named the bloody thing next and organised its christening.
And he’s not the only one to have jumped onboard the sourdough (or general bread-making) bandwagon. Yeast and flour have followed toilet paper and pasta in becoming the latest members of the stockpiling club. Flour in particular has become so in demand, that 1.5kg of plain flour is selling for £19 on eBay instead of the normal £1.50 in supermarkets. Some jammy evil geniuses with friends in high places (mills) are making a killing. Unlike so many industries suffering as a result of Corona, the flour industry is thriving like never before.
Fortunately when I returned home, there did seem to be more flour available in the countryside than in North London. The local sourdough shop is heroically delivering flour to all of the newly discovered home bakers, so even in the hardest of times, middle class Saffron Waldeners will not have to go without their sourdough. Thank god.
Homemade pasta is also enjoying an AC (after Corona) boom. Making pasta is time intensive – but is also an extremely nice way to pass an afternoon. There is something very therapeutic about making a well known supermarket product from scratch, especially for something as easy as pasta. A pasta machine does look a little like a torture instrument, which instantly sets alarm bells ringing, but in reality it is a simple process. Mix together flour, eggs and salt, chill in the fridge for half an hour, and then roll out in the pasta machine. I’ve taken to making ravioli, which lends itself nicely to creativity with the filling. My favourite – roasted butternut squash, blitzed with garlic, onion, Parmesan, salt and pepper, and then once cooked in the freshly made pasta, tossed in butter and sage. Perhaps it tasted so good because of all the work that had gone into it, but nevertheless, those little circles of fresh pasta, dripping in butter and filled with creamy squash was a very satisfactory outcome for a Sunday afternoon.
It was an unlikely duo who inspired me to make my first batch of pasta a few weeks ago. In the form of two hairy bikers. I can’t say I’m an avid fan of the hairy bikers, but I caught a few minutes of their Mediterranean adventure and it instantly made me nostalgic for travel, and all the foods that come with it. The colours, ingredients and music, set against the Sicilian backdrop as the bikers meandered around various fishing villages learning staples of Italian cuisine along the way, was another very stark reminder of the strange times we’re in – for the foreseeable, trips like theirs is a thing of the past.
And so for the moment, homemade pasta in the kitchen will have to do. If you’re lucky enough to have a garden during lockdown, you can eat it in the sun with a cold glass of vino – that’s basically the same as being in Italy, right?
As cliche as it sounds, food is memories. Both in terms of bringing back fond memories of countries I’ve visited, and also a powerful reminder of certain people and times. Eating out is one of the activities that I miss most, and for me, replicating some of my favourite dishes from restaurants not only helps ease the monotony of lockdown, but is also a nice reminder of life BC. For example, last summer, my colleagues and I would frequently trot off to Wahaca, order a burrito with extra guacamole, and spend our lunches in the park. Saturdays mornings for me are often spent at overpriced cafes in North London brunching on eggs Benedict. Last weekend the fam and I bought both to Saffron Walden; Mexican night on Saturday, and a basic brunch on Sunday. Here, cooking also fulfilled one of its most basic functions – it’s sociable.
The cooking boom we’re experiencing is multi faceted. Yes, it’s a good way to pass the time and break up the day. Food was more often than not the highlight of my days, even pre Corona. Weekends often revolved around planning what to have for my next meal, so in that sense not much has changed. But now life is so much quieter than before, we have more time than ever to perfect our favourite dishes that we cannot enjoy in restaurants or abroad. And when we do make a dish that reminds us of that holiday 3 years ago, or even that knock out meal we had in the pub last summer, it’s a much needed reminder of normality. Plus, let’s not forget that cooking (especially something like bread) is extremely therapeutic and calming. In all the uncertainty of lockdown life, that’s as good a reason as any to channel your inner Mary Berry.
People’s motives for spending more time in the kitchen will vary. But whatever the reason, one thing is for sure – Masterchef applications look set to soar next year, and I can’t bloody wait.