GASTRONOMY Wine and Food Diary of Giles MacDonogh

Cooking in Times of Corona

Written by Giles MacDonogh

Congratulations to Giles MacDonogh for sharing his 50th  “Wine and Food Diary” Post on Connoisseur ! 

“Cooking in Times of Corona”

Posted: 1st April 2020


I’d be hard pressed to say how long we’ve been at it now, but I could look it up. Time just floats by. There are three of us shut up in this house and a fourth who might return any moment now, as her university course can be polished off online. We find ways of filling our days and no tempers have been lost to date.

I read (not enough), I polish off the occasional assignment (there aren’t many), I watch a film in the evening (thank God for DVDs), a go for the occasional walk to the top of the hill and back and from time to time I go shopping. And, of course, I cook.

“Shopping is clearly a problem, and it doesn’t look as if it will get better for a while. When it comes to commodities, the problem is not just panickers and hoarders, it is also profiteers hoping to make a killing later. We don’t eat that much pasta, so rice was the first thing I noticed had disappeared and it wasn’t just the packets of Uncle Ben or Auntie Tilda. In my local Phoenician shop, the five kilo sacks of Egyptian Doha rice had been plundered along with the fragrant Thai rice, but I nabbed some old Basmati before that went too. A lot of people are going to find that their new rices behave differently when they try to cook them. Thai rice tends to go soggy like pudding rice, Doha too.”

The Phoenicians have a wonderful shop filled with exotic things but it had never had so many Western customers before. I suspect there are Whatsapp groups that organise squads of marauders. Shortly after my visit they closed down. With any luck they will re-open on Sunday.

I haven’t tried to buy sugar: we don’t use that much, but eggs have been rare. I had a moment of reflection when I couldn’t bind my meatballs, but I remembered that I could use mozzarella and found what I was looking for in the new vegan greengrocer across the road. Meatballs bound with mozzarella proved more popular than the original recipe. One day I procured six French eggs from the butcher at a high price but my wife came in later with 30 dodgy-looking things from the corner shop. He would not sell her any lesser quantity. Still, it meant that we could make some cakes after all and I needed a couple for the Kartoffelpuffer my son and I cooked last night.

Talking of cakes, the locusts had hit the cake-making shelves in my local mini Co-op. Everything from glacé cherries to pine nut kernels has been mopped up. I had some egg-whites left over from making a Guglhupf and my wife wanted to use them to produce some little almond cakes. The only problem was that there were no ground almonds to be had for love nor money. She made meringues instead. I assume people are making cakes to pass the time. I blame Bake Off!

I make my own bread so I need strong flour. Once again, hours and hours of sitting in front of the Gogglebox watching Bake Off might have inspired the Coronavirus generation to make bread too? It could be, of course, that the panic buyers are unaware of the difference? Stocks of strong bread flour have vanished anyway. I saw a tweet about a £1.05, 1.5 kg bag of Sainsbury strong wheat flour being sold on e.Bay for £15, plus £5 for postage and packaging. That would mean enough for two small loaves at £10 each, even before you have acquired your yeast. For once you would be better off paying the outlandish charges levelled by Gail’s etc. I haven’t run out of flour or yeast yet, but I am apprehensive. If the worst comes to the worst I can make Irish brown bread with bicarbonate of soda.

I am worried about my coffee, as I buy green beans from an Ethiopian café and roast them myself. The café has now closed. Fearing the worst, the lady who runs the place gave me a big bag for a change, but I will need to locate an alternative source.

“The shops have run out of both French and Italian unsalted butter. I have yet to try my online French supermarket, but they have been suspiciously quiet recently. I keep peering into Italian delis to see if they have had fresh supplies of lovely white butter from the Dolomites. One of my local Italians told me on Saturday I had arrived five minutes too late and he had sold the last packet. This reduces me to yellow, English unsalted butter, which is not quite the same beast. French butter uses slightly soured cream, not the sweet cream found here: it is the gustatory difference between French crème fraîche and the English single cream.”

So far I have used the stall outside the tube station for fruit and veg. Sally the Hat tells me that prices have risen because the Spanish Border is closed. Lorries have to travel out empty and pick up their loads on the border itself. As we have nothing to sell to the French that means transport prices go up. I can see that difficulties in obtaining Spanish produce would have an effect on strawberries and tomatoes, but I have not yet bought any of the former and only precious few of the latter, as having a Lycopersicoaphobic son there is no great demand for tomatoes. Her stall has most of the things we do eat, and there is no problem with plastic wrappers or possibly contaminated packaging. I have seen pictures of people disinfecting their supermarket purchases in the bath with bleach or overpriced Dettol. I doubt this does any favours to the taste of your fruit and veg (it could even render it inedible). It might not be a good time to insist on salad, but anything boiled or steamed will be just fine, just like any fruit that you can peel. Strawberries could be iffy.

“The fishmongers are open as usual and we still try to eat fish at least once a week. As for meat I make a weekly trip to Paul the Butcher and what with three or four things and reworking the leftovers we are more of less fine. Paul tells me that some meat prices have actually crashed as a result of the lack of restaurant sales. Certain cuts that were popular in gastropubs are up for grabs. I doubt the supermarkets will cut their prices, but a good butcher will. Four fresh meat meals for three cost a little over £30 last weekend, and you can toss in a couple more from the left over roast beef etc: £10 each for six days of protein is not a lot. I don’t eat at midday, but lunches tend to be improvised from what is lying about including any small amounts of leftovers that can’t be made into a ragoût or a curry.”

And there is time to experiment. A few days ago we boned out and stuffed a small chicken with spinach and a mozzarella that was going cheap from the Italians.

We had a bit of wine before the crisis kicked off, but we are still buying. Some firms like the Wine Society, for example, have stopped trading temporarily, but there are plenty that are still working, and they are fairly keen to carry on given they have lost their restaurant sales. I noted too that when the restaurants around here closed, some were selling off their stocks, including wine, in the hope of financing the lockdown. I didn’t see if there were bargains to be had but I am sure there were.

So tout va bien for the moment, but anything can happen and in a week’s time, this relatively rosy rendition of “locked down life” might have become a true picture of hell.

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Giles MacDonogh
Author: Giles MacDonogh

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Giles MacDonogh

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