2020 has been a year of lockdowns and tiers and unprecedented restrictions on people’s movement in UK. For much of the year, only essential shops could stay open – food shops, of course, being one of them. The run-up to the first lockdown in March saw people beginning to stock up on food. Images of supermarket shelves stripped bare of essentials such as pasta, tinned food and flour proliferated and spread unease. People began shopping in smaller food shops near where they lived as an alternative to crowded supermarkets. I spoke to three independent food shops to find out what their experience of this pandemic year had been.
During the first lockdown I, like many others, was very grateful to be able to buy food online without needing to leave home. I bought excellent British cheese from Neal’s Yard Dairy and The Courtyard Dairy, bread and delicious pastries from a local bakery, fish from Cornwall, fruit and vegetables from a local market trader… Food delivery dates were noted in my diary as the main event of the day. I remember how excited – and grateful – I was when they arrived.
A good cheese shop is a great portal to the wonderful world of cheese. Being able to see, taste, talk about and buy cheeses from a helpful, knowledgeable cheesemonger is a very pleasurable education. I know this from personal experience. I was working nearby as a bookseller when I wandered into the original, small Neal’s Yard Dairy, tucked away inside Neal’s Yard, and had my first glimpse of the British farmhouse cheese world.
One of my seasonal pleasures for many years has been visiting Neal’s Yard Dairy in the autumn months on a quest to buy not just farmhouse cheese but also beautiful, flavourful apples with unfamiliar, evocative names like Blenheim Orange, William Crump or Adam’s Permain, sourced from the Brogdale Collections in Kent.
One of the many oddities of the lockdown period was that while supermarkets were busy – both in their stores and online – many food markets were closed down. This despite the evidence soon emerging that, with regards to the coronavirus, shopping outdoors rather than indoors is safer. For many small-scale food producers selling at markets is an important income stream and being deprived of it so abruptly was a major blow. Some markets, however, commendably stayed open, adapting swiftly and flexibly to the new circumstances of the lockdown. They carried on trading – albeit in an altered form – a fact which was important to both their stall holders and the communities they serve.
As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, the depth of the economic damage being dealt to so many livelihoods is becoming clear. The world of British artisan cheese has been dealt a devastating blow by the closure of restaurants, hotels, pubs and cafes. Practically overnight, cheesemakers and cheesemongers who supplied these businesses saw a massive loss of business. Speaking to cheesemakers and cheesemongers over the phone, as I’ve been doing these past few days to learn their stories, I could hear their shock, anger, frustration, disbelief and fear of what might happen to their businesses in their voices.
Ever since I taught myself to cook as a university student from Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery, cookbooks have been important to me. I have long been someone who read cookbooks for pleasure – happily poring through them at night in bed – and, of course, through my work as a food writer I have also written them, so understand how much work they take. In May 2019, prompted by my affection for cookbooks, I tweeted ‘I love cookbooks and I know I am not alone, so am starting #7favouritecookbooks’. The response was remarkable; I had struck a chord.