I don’t want to be the harbinger of that depressing news. But if this is the case - and even if it isn’t, we should brace ourselves in a practical fashion. We hear about the UK hoarding loo paper and pasta, an intriguing combination. My email inbox is crammed with videos of strangers’ children doing unbelievably dangerous things indoors without apparent parental intervention because Maman or Papa is busy holding the camera, and video entreaties to join online ballet lessons (what?) or send a thoughtful poem to a chain of 20 people, and invitations to virtual cocktail and dinner parties. (Sorry, not dressed for it.) I don’t plan to come out of this proficient in a pirouette or having memorised the Bhagavad Gita. But I do think it could alter my approach to stocking the kitchen.
Four years in Moscow during the Soviet period of deprivation taught me never to throw out any leftovers but to convert them into another meal. When a glut of fruit or vegetables appeared in a battered cardboard box tied in twine and hauled by some smallholder from the countryside to sell on a city pavement, we bought as much as we could fit in our shopping bags and worked out only later how to preserve the treasure for the barren months.
It’s back to a blitz existence.
It doesn’t have to be. We are assured by supermarkets there is plenty of food. We do not need to hoard more than we can use immediately ourselves. The problem is logistics - how to sort and stack it on shelves when self-isolation is affecting staffing numbers. Working in a food bank, I notice the food we are being sent by supermarkets, growers, and restaurant suppliers is all fresh, not dried or tinned. Crates of excellent vegetables, fruits, cuts of meat, fillets of fish, are all being delivered because their Best Before dates - the confusing indicator that doesn’t mean the food has become dangerous to eat but only that it's no longer at its peak condition - were about to expire. But we aren’t being sent any tinned or boxed or bottled provisions. There aren’t any of those going spare. Even before it needs to, the general public is filling every household nook and cranny with non-perishable products against the future.
In this critical time, if we don’t support now the people who work to provide us with fresh produce by buying it in the measured manner we do in normal times, they won’t survive this crisis to supply us with fresh vegetables, fruits, meat and dairy goods once it’s over.
However, I suspect you won’t take the slightest bit of notice of this entreaty. So here is a shopping list for an emergency store cupboard of ingredients that if you don't stray from it, will help create delicious meals, will prevent the shelves from being unnecessarily stripped of everything, and will leave grocery supplies for others to buy. Then you can hunker down in self-isolation, emerging only to buy fresh food from those dedicated people producing it:
One tube each of tomato paste, anchovy paste, and garlic paste; tomato passata and tinned tomatoes; basic spices like black peppercorns, fennel and coriander seeds, and cinnamon sticks; curry powder, turmeric and coconut cream if you like a curry; instant coffee (for drinking in extremis - but can you make tiramisu without it?); cocoa powder; Pruneaux d’Agen and dried apricots; oatflakes; flour (learn to make your own pasta - it’s easy and passes the time); mustard; oil and vinegar; salt, sugar, honey; capers; tinned tuna; dried pulses and legumes, from chickpeas and lentils to butter beans and flageolets; rice and couscous; Knorr’s jellied bouillon pots.
Meanwhile, you can make a personal contribution to your store cupboard by drying your own tomatoes and mushrooms. Both cheer up a soup or stew with their intensity of flavour. Drying often tasteless supermarket tomatoes makes more of them, and of the summer glut about to arrive.
Take the oven racks out of your oven and preheat it to 50C or the lowest setting possible. Remove the stems of the tomatoes and slice them in half lengthways. Lay the halves side by side, cut side up, on cake racks, making sure they don't touch each other. Set the cake racks on top of the oven racks. Sprinkle very lightly with salt. Bake until the tomatoes are shrivelled and feel dry but flexible. You don't want them brittle. This will take from 6 to 12 hours, so keep checking. Once dried, take them out of the oven and let them cool completely on the cake racks, then store them in clean glass jars or in ziplock plastic bags. They should last indefinitely.
The same principle works for mushrooms, especially cepes. But check them regularly as they contain less water for their size than tomatoes.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the May 2020 edition of The Bugle.