‘Corona cooking keeps us fed, but home is the nourishment emigrants long for most’

The Irish professor of law cooking up a storm in her ‘quarantine kitchen’ in Birmingham

 

I tell the time by meals now. Like many people, I have stopped wearing a watch. There seemed very little point in observing how slowly time was passing or wondering where the day had gone. While I am working my diary pops up with reminders when it’s time for another online meeting. Otherwise, our stomachs are our timepieces and mealtimes my main occupation.

Food is such a metronome for my lockdown life

Every week I pick out fresh food to be delivered through Neighbourfood, which links consumers with farms and independent producers here in Birmingham. Having made my picks I play around with what to do with them, developing a “quarantine kitchen” menu that is approved, printed and pinned up, but then swapped around, scribbled on or abandoned as the mood takes me and the limits of my cooking skills get exposed.

Days are distinguished by what’s for breakfast. On weekdays it’s porridge, but at the weekend we branch out. I have finally managed to learn how to poach an egg, so for the last few Sundays they have been partnered with just-picked asparagus from a local farm. The asparagus lies on a (borderline chef-y) ‘swirl’ of tangy labneh made by a Yorkshire cheese company started by Syrian refugees who couldn’t find the kind of haloumi they wanted, and now make exceptional labneh and ricotta as well.

Professor Fiona de Londras with the Barnacle geese in Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham earlier this year
Professor Fiona de Londras with the Barnacle geese in Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham earlier this year

The baker in the house (not me…) has learned how to make bagels. Covered in fennel seeds and a little cream cheese, they were breakfast on Easter Sunday as my wife and I sat to eat our first “feast” meal in our own home. For every other feast as long as we’ve been married, we have been home, in Ireland, with our families.

I have started to buy things I’ve never used before in order to try to build a meal - or even a few meals - around them. The results have been mixed. Jerusalem artichokes were matched with black pudding and leeks in a concoction that was delicious on the plate, but less so in the gut (if you’ve never eaten Jerusalem artichokes before, starting with a dinner made almost exclusively of these hard-to-digest tubers is unwise…).

Moselry shoals: fish stew and basmati rice
Moseley shoals: fish stew and basmati rice

My plan to make beetroot curry was sabotaged by a beetroot that did not stand up well to being stored outside the fridge. Some things have worked, though. A few weeks ago I got my hands on a muslin and made some paneer. Matched with chard and onions, it made the perfect lunch. Just today I took a walk to a local deli and picked up a jar of preserved lemons that should keep me occupied with recipe research for a week or two.

I can’t help wondering what it is about researching, preparing, cooking, photographing and eating this food that makes it such a metronome for my lockdown life.

Cooking is intuition. Food is predictable

Like others, we were in the habit of eating out quite often - certainly more often than I think we realised - and it’s no mean feat to prepare three meals a day every day with no option for a break from it. I’m only doing it for two adults, neither of whom is in any way fussy, so I can only imagine how tedious and exhausting it must be for those who find themselves doing it for every person in their household, every day, without end.

But meeting the basic need to feed my family isn’t what puts food at the heart of my approach to coping right now. Instead, I think it is that food is something over which I have some control; something I can have confidence in.

The professor and the pached egg: the asparagus lies on a (borderline chef-y) ‘swirl’ of tangy labneh made by a Yorkshire cheese company started by Syrian refugees
The professor and the poached egg: the asparagus lies on a (borderline chef-y) ‘swirl’ of tangy labneh made by a Yorkshire cheese company started by Syrian refugees

No matter how I chop them, I know that onions cooked for 5-10 minutes with a little salt in some decent oil or butter on a medium heat will provide the perfect base note to whatever I put on the table. I know that as long as I beat those egg whites properly, the souffle will rise. I know that if I salt chopped tomatoes and drown them in a little olive oil their juices will seep out and in 20 minutes they will be the perfect little salad. I know that if I stuff a chicken with some lemon, season and oil it, all I have to do is put it in an oven for 90 minutes and the skin will be crisp, the meat will be moist, and it will taste delicious. I know mashed potatoes will make me happy, and that strong mustard will turn spring greens from cabbage into a delicacy. Maybe this is why I don’t bake; baking is temperamental and tricky. Cooking is intuition. Food is predictable.

What I haven’t done yet is try to cook food from home. You can’t get the proper bacon here, so there is no point in trying to make bacon and cabbage: the queen of all meals. There would be no point in trying to make the oxtaily-mincey-carroty concoction my granny used to cook me when I was little. No matter what I do, it won’t be right. No. Food from home belongs at home; it won’t work if I try to bring it into the current chaos of life in the UK.

But there is nothing I think about more than a day at home when this is all over. I have it all planned. Egg and toast with my parents in the morning, a ham sandwich (real ham, real butter, white sliced pan) with my granny in the afternoon, bacon and cabbage and floury spuds with the whole family in the evening, and a pint of Guinness in the warm outdoors that night.

Corona cooking keeps us fed, but home is the nourishment we long for most

As I imagine it, I can taste the memory of every bite. My whole self is brought back to summer at home; to the distinctive sweet smell in the air when hay is being made, the unmatched refreshment of strong tea when you walk in from the yard, the purple and green of the Galtee mountains from my childhood window.

Corona cooking keeps us fed, but home is the nourishment we long for most.

Fiona de Londras grew up near Dundrum in Co Tipperary, went to school in Tipperary town and university in UCC. Since 2015 she has been the Professor of Global Legal Studies at the University of Birmingham. She lives in Moseley in Birmingham with her wife, a historian from Celbridge, Co Kildare

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