About a month before the full extent of the crisis which is now overtaking the whole world was obvious, I began quietly accumulating food-stuffs in my store cupboard. Two of this or three of that instead of just one. So when the catastrophe reached this country, and we went into lockdown within a few days of the first cases of the plague arriving in these shores, I didn’t need to do any panic shopping, just last minute perishables like milk, mushrooms and courgettes.
When the drawbridge went down and we all retreated to our own castles, I felt like a biblical wise virgin – perhaps not – a wise crone perhaps, with the oil in my lamp, ready for the challenge, not of spiritual growth but of living without all the amenities that we take for granted in the western world. We had stocked up on gas for the cooker, and petrol for the generator in case the power went down, filled the car and checked the oil.
The old freezer we’d replaced when a friend bequeathed her up-to-date appliance while re-modelling her kitchen, was still sitting here. No-one else had wanted it. So it came back into service in this emergency and absorbed all the bulky things like bread, and the extras like the butter and grated cheese and pastrami that we weren’t going to be shopping for in the foreseeable future. We felt ready for anything.
I can live off baked beans for a month, my love bravely declared. There’s no need, I kept re-iterating, we’ve got plenty of everything. And now we seem to have so much more time than we did before the Great Retreat, I’ve also had more time to think about food, and how to marshal our resources; and also to read new recipes and ideas.
We seem to be living rather luxuriously, rather than frugally… though that may come. So instead of just putting together my normal macaroni cheese which is a favourite in this house, I found a French recipe which we tried last night.
I left out the tomato puree, which I didn’t fancy, and for lack of a bacon hock, just chopped up and lightly fried some rashers of good bacon. Instead of making a normal cheese sauce, I broke into the packet of mascarpone nestling in the fridge as per the recipe, and beat it into the yolks of two eggs.
I added grated cheese, no Gruyere in the house, just good old Cheddar, leavened with some Gouda with cumin seeds, found at the back of the fridge and grated, which added a layer of je ne sais quoi to the mix. With plenty of black pepper, the bacon, the cooked pasta and all, was tipped into a casserole with a layer of grated parmesan on top, and left with enough time in the oven to warm it up and grill the top till crisp.
Even the pasta wasn’t macaroni. I had several packets of two-minute noodles sitting in the cupboard, having previously used their sachets of chicken stock for flavouring soups. I simply pour boiling water over the noodles, and leave them for a few minutes until they’re soft and ready to drain and use. Combined with all the other ingredients, their humble origin didn’t matter. The whole dish took only as long as separating the eggs, frying the bacon at the same time, and soaking the noodles, before ten minutes or so in the hot oven.
This is my idea of cooking these days – something quick, easy and delicious, using for the most part good ingredients, and not shying away from short cuts. I do a lot of things now, that I inwardly swore when I was young, I’d never do, like using chopped garlic from a jar, buying grated cheese, and even using pre-cooked packets of rice, when I lack the energy to slave over a hot stove. These packets of basmati, long grain and jasmine rice, which are more expensive of course than loose rice, were the despised unwanted items left on supermarket shelves during the Great Shopping Rush, but for me, they are a gift.
They mean a fried rice, or a kedgeree, or a curry in a few minutes instead of the hard labour of thoroughly washing and rinsing, boiling and draining of the real thing. Nearly fifty years ago, I remember watching in Stanley Market in Hongkong, an old Chinese lady, wispy white hair scraped up into a tight bun, wearing clogs and grey sam-fu with black trousers, crouched by a tap on the edge of the pavement, washing and rinsing rice in a battered aluminium pot, over and again.
She poured in the water, swishing it about with her hands, draining it carefully out through her old wrinkled fingers, never losing a single precious grain, and then beginning the whole process over again until the water ran clear into the gutter.I think of her, every time I cook rice, but no longer feel guilty at cutting corners to save my energy, as I used to.
Energy is precious, and so is time; and while plenty of time is the gift of the Great Retreat, energy is not so plentiful. Yet this too is the gift of this unexpected home detention, isolation, withdrawal, lockdown, whatever we call it. Time is our own. We can measure our energy, plan our time, listen to our inner clock, and nurture the needs of our mind and soul as well as our body.
Those of us who are retired, and those who have no duties of care for children, or family who need us, are fortunate. We can still enjoy human contact by phone, the internet, skyping, even blogging. Even those of us who don’t have pets to nurture, and be nourished by, still have the time to enjoy the pleasures of books, music, knitting and other pastimes we often don’t have space for in our busy western lives.
I’ve been painting a new porch and veranda black – posts and roof and steps and lovely curved front, a bit Japanese looking, jutting out into the forest. Bitten by the bug, I then painted the wicker chairs black, and then a white side table which had once been gilt and then white, became black, and a big pot which had once been black, and then white, is also black again!
And so now we have another place from which we can look into the trees, watch the weather, listen to bird song, gaze at the sunset, and see the moon rise. So many people in their homes and apartments, in so many places throughout the world, are cut off from the outside world, and yet by a strange paradox they are now savouring the growth of spring in the northern hemisphere, watching the clouds and the rain, becoming conscious of the sun rising and the moon waning, and connecting more and more with the natural world. So too, are we, in the southern hemisphere, as autumn creeps up on us. For once, in the poet’s words, we all have the time to stand and stare.
Food for Housebound Gourmets
For those who fancy trying my fancy French macaroni cheese, here are the amounts for four people:250 gms crème fraiche, 2 egg yolks, 225 gms macaroni, 115 gms gruyere cheese, and a sprinkling of parmesan
Stir crème fraiche and egg yoks together, add cooked pasta and all the other ingredients, including pepper. Sprinkle parmesan over the mix and bake until hot and the top golden. Enough for four, and we will have it again tomorrow jazzed up with salad etc.
I would use cream instead of creme fraiche next time, as I like a looser cheese sauce… or I’d use my other short cut… cook the pasta and stir in a tin of condensed chicken soup, grated cheese, black pepper and nutmeg, loosen it to taste with cream or milk – and hey presto.
I’m keeping a record of what we’re eating and will be fascinated to see how it works out over the time. So far:
Day one: Coq au vin using chicken legs.
Day two: pork chops, plus leftover risotto from the deep freeze, fried onions for him, kumara/sweet potato for me, and acid free tomatoes cooked in butter and cream a la famous chef, Dr de Pomiane.
Day three: spaghetti Bolognaise for him, egg/avocado/tomato salad for me.
Day four: chopped cooked chicken from deep freeze stirred into a white sauce flavoured with chopped bacon, chopped mushrooms and nutmeg, the sauce made with some meaty stock made from scraping the pork chop pan the other night. (plus cream!)served on rice with green beans.
Day five: baked chicken drumsticks cooked on a bed of chopped onions, with rice, mushrooms and tomatoes for him, kedgeree with hard-boiled egg for me, and enough to store half in the deep freeze..
Day six: macaroni cheese.
Ah, food, glorious food. As someone once said, “The only thing I like better than talking about food is eating it.”
Food for Thought
Over three hundred years ago a prisoner in the Tower of London carved on the wall of his cell during his long imprisonment: ‘It is not adversity that kills, but the impatience with which we bear adversity.”