How a young Wirral family saw the bright side of the lockdown
PUBLISHED: 00:00 01 July 2020 | UPDATED: 17:25 01 July 2020
Journalist Jade Wright lives with her husband Marc and their daughter Bea in Hoylake. This is the story of their life in lockdown.
If you had told me at Christmas how we’d live this summer, I’d never have believed you. I’d just bought my 2020 diary, a super-sized tome, boldly announcing ‘best year ever’ in huge letters across the front. I filled it with all the events the first year of the new Roaring Twenties would bring – the definites in neat italic black ink, and others – the exciting maybes – scrawled in soft pencil.
Seven months on, I find every lunch and launch crossed out. I have become, entirely accidentally, a walking lockdown cliché.
From baking banana bread to cutting my husband’s hair (with dog clippers), we have scored a full house in 2020 bingo, one entirely predictable act at a time. My once-packed diary is now filled with nothing but lists and recipes – ideas to use up every last scrap of food to spread shopping trips as far apart as possible.
Where once I’d eat out and see friends across the county three or four times a week, my excursions are limited to long walks on the beach and occasional short trips to pick up boxes brimming with ingredients.
Much like wartime whale meat and powdered egg, most of the recipes have come from necessity. When supermarket shelves were shorn of basic ingredients – dried pasta, bread and chopped tomatoes – we were lucky. We got a pasta maker for Christmas; we could bake our own bread. At a pinch, I could grow tomatoes.
Then came the second wave of shortages, as everyone else started to make do and mend. Long after bread came back into the shops, flour and yeast were still hard to come by. When the yeast ran out, we ticked off our first lockdown cliché, switching to making sourdough.
We nervously made a wild starter in a Kilner jar, a process taking several days of careful nursing. My husband Marc fed it flour and water every day for nearly a week, despairing over the fermenting gloop, his days made or broken by the size of its bubbles, desperately sniffing for a fleeting whiff of the pub cellar... Our three-year-old, Bea, named it Triceratops and talked about it like a little brother.
And finally after six days, we made that first leap and created the best loaf we’d ever eaten. Quickly demolished with a slab of salted butter, it was replaced the following day by a better one, and many more, each somehow more perfect than the last – with flour-coated, crackly crusts on the outside and moist, stretchy crumb inside, gently punctuated with little bubbles.
Much like the music-lovers who bemoan the fans who arrive when their favourite band becomes popular, we sulked somewhat as raw materials became scarce. Flour was a particular issue – essential for bread, pizza and pasta production. Thankfully, the Nelstrop family in Stockport sells Cheshire’s finest in 16kg sacks. It weighs the same as a police battering ram and nearly put the door through as Marc staggered in with it.
West Wirral is fantastic. As well as a beach on our doorstep, we have so many independent food shops. We’ve picked up a weekly fruit and veg box from Lunt’s greengrocers in West Kirby, and Hoylake Pantry has kept us well stocked with dry goods in pretty jars. Claremont Farm shop carried on selling a great range of Cheshire produce, from free-range Raby eggs to its own divinely tender asparagus and ripe aromatic strawberries, grown with love in the sea breeze.
I haven’t been to a supermarket since this all began, everything we’ve bought locally has been excellent quality and hasn’t come wrapped in three layers of plastic. A small paper bag or a cardboard box is about as much packaging as we’ve seen.
When schools closed, Bea was sent a pack of things to cut out and colour in. She has missed her friends. We have missed ours. We added another tick to lockdown bingo with Zoom sessions to grandparents. But we have had a huge amount of fun doing very little – she’s a natural gardener, eagerly planting strawberries, lettuces and tomatoes in spring, and carefully watering them each day. Each plant has a name and a personality and it’s been magical to see the garden growing through her imaginative eyes.
We’ve never had so much time to spend in the garden. This will be the first year we haven’t been to the RHS Tatton Park flower show, and I’ll miss it more than I care to admit. But there’s plenty to keep us busy as the strawberries ripen, the lettuces are cut and the tomatoes rapidly grow. There’s little division between the garden and the kitchen and Bea happily runs between the two.
When I spotted the blossoming social media trend for garden focaccia we dashed out of the back door and grabbed a handful of pretty herbs and a few tomatoes, which were rapidly passing their best. The last of a bag of kale or spinach was the perfect chance to try Alison Roman’s amazing recipe for The Stew (two tins of chickpeas, two tins of coconut milk and plenty of store cupboard spices). We served it with Greek yoghurt that had fallen out of favour in the fridge, made into delicious two-ingredient flatbreads (combined with an equal weight of self-raising flour, and then dry fried). The composter we’d waited months for arrived just as we cut our food waste to zero. Sod’s law, you might say.
This spring and early summer have been remarkable in so many ways, but there’s one thing the time in lockdown has done: it’s taught us to value more dearly what we have, and it’s shown us how many things we can actually live without. It’s the simple things that make us happy: good food, a loving family, good health... It’s made us yearn for the people we love, made us realise how lucky we were – and are – to have them in our lives. That, more than anything, is the end of this story arc: the parable of the lockdown.
I look at my diary, packed with scribbled recipes and realise that, while 2020 might not be the ‘best year ever’, it is destined to go down to go down as one we will not forget.
There are as many methods for getting your wild yeast starter going as there are people who made them, but this is the one that has worked for us.
In a large clean Kilner jar, mix two tablespoonfuls of pineapple juice and three of flour with a wooden spoon, leaving the lid balanced but not screwed shut.
Then each day, feed it with two tablespoons of warm filtered water and three of flour, giving it a good stir with something non-metal – we used a wooden chopstick. Leave the lid partly open to allow the air in. After five or six days, it should be ready to start baking with. Discard most of the starter and then feed again to make the quantity of starter your recipe says you will need. When it rises and is at its most active, you’re ready to go.
When bananas started to go soft and freckled, it was time to make banana bread. Summer 2020 has been ripe with them, and for good reason – a simple thing, well executed is difficult to beat. Torn, rather than sliced, it’s perfect warm from the oven with butter. Any still left is great with a blob of mascarpone as an after-dinner treat
2 mashed bananas, the riper the better; 115g butter; 115g sugar; 200g self-raising flour; ½ tsp baking powder; 1 free-range egg, beaten; 55g walnuts, pecans, or any other nuts you have in your pantry, chopped
Butter and line a 500g or 1lb loaf tin with baking parchment and preheat your oven to 180ºC or gas mark 4.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until soft and fluffy. Mix in the mashed banana. Fold in the self-raising flour, baking powder and egg, then the nuts. Gently pour into the loaf tin.
We cook it on the floor of our Aga simmering oven for 3 or 4 hours, until a skewer comes out clean. Or, cook in the centre of a conventional oven at 180ºC, fan oven 160°C, gas mark 4 for about 50 minutes. Place it on a cooling rack for 15 minutes and then carefully remove it from its paper and serve buttered with a cup of strong tea.
400g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting; 100g fine ground semolina or polenta; 7g dried yeast; ½ tablespoon sugar; 300ml lukewarm water; good quality olive oil; a handful of fresh herbs and tomatoes, peppers or other leftover raw veg to decorate
Place the flour, semolina and salt into a large bowl, and make a well in the middle. In a jug, add the yeast and sugar to the lukewarm water. Leave this for a few minutes and when it starts to foam, slowly trickle it into the well, mixing gently.
When all the ingredients begin to come together, knead vigorously for around five minutes by hand or with a mixer with a dough hook until you have a springy, soft dough. Cover with a damp tea towel and leave in a warm place for 30 minutes until it has roughly doubled in size.
We use an Aga, but if you
have a conventional oven, preheat your oven to 220°C/425°F/gas 7.
Get your toppings ready. This is where you can get creative. Think about what’s in your fridge and garden, and how you’d like it to look. Red onions, radishes and tomatoes all make lovely flowers. Chives, rosemary and mint make good stems to attach your blooms to. If you have nasturtium or chive flowers you can use those as ready-made flowers (be careful with other garden flowers though, and never eat anything you’re not sure is definitely edible).
As soon as the dough has risen, pound it, then place on oiled baking parchment on a baking tray and spread it out to make your ‘canvas’. Push down roughly on top of the dough and drizzle some good glugs of olive oil over the top.
Leave to prove for a further 20 minutes, then decorate your work of art.
Bake for 20 minutes on the floor of the Aga roasting oven, or in your pre-heated oven, covered with foil so your toppings don’t burn. Keep checking until the bread is golden on top and soft in the middle. Sprinkle with a bit more semolina for crunch and serve up your artwork with a fresh green salad.