I had a post all ready for this weekend, I was planning to upload it on Friday and then, well, then we know what happened. I don’t think I have ever been more shocked by a piece of news since my dad died. That may sound melodramatic, and maybe it is, but, then, as now, it feels as if I have walked through a door from one world into the next and there is no going back.
Like most people of my generation, I have gained an awful lot from being part of Europe, more perhaps than I can describe. When I started learning French aged 11, I had no sense that this would enable me to live in France for 2½ years, or that it would give me lifelong friends in another country. It was just another subject. I learnt German for the same reason, then Italian, neither of which I managed to keep up. Then, as an adult, long past exams, I lived in North America and, via friends I made there, who inspired me to go and visit, I discovered Spain and Spanish, both of which I’ve flirted with for years.
What each of these languages and experiences, from the age of 16 onwards, has given me is an immense curiosity and enthusiasm for different cultures and tastes. Sometimes that curiosity spills over into far too much interest in the new, but most of all it has given me the endless joy and discovery that comes from recognising that your place in the world is just one of many, that no one country is better than another, no one language, no one people. Europe has always seemed to me to be the embodiment of that: 28 nations not yoked together by anything other than the desire to work, live and thrive together, to benefit from the sheer chance of geography and, after the tumultuous first half of the twentieth century, to remain peaceful. And now, well, now most of the benefits of that, including the peace if the hateful scenes of racism across the UK are to be believed, are either threatened or lost.
When I think back over the last thirty years of my life, the benefits of Europe show in my education, where I have lived, what I have been able to do and where I have been able to visit. And, yes, to come back to the title of this post, what I have eaten and cooked. That might seem the slightest of things to care about at this moment, but my daily life, and probably yours if you live in the UK, has been enriched by proximity to, and engagement with our neighbours. I grew up in a working-class family in the 70s, in a family that had no books, never travelled and ate distinctly unmemorable nursery food: fish fingers, jacket potatoes and packet soup. I don’t think this was unusual, nor did I particularly mind; I knew no better. The arrival of the ready meal in the 80s was, for my very hard-working mother, a cause for celebration, not despair; why cook when you can reheat?
But slowly, through visiting France, through meeting people from other countries – Wales, Ireland, Germany, Canada, France, North America, Italy, Spain – I discovered that there was so much more to food than fuel. I discovered the exotic which has now become commonplace. The daily basics in my kitchen are either inspired by, or come from other places: sea salt, olive oil, wine vinegar, herbs and spices. None of these ingredients were something I knew about, or had heard of in my insular English childhood. The European, the global influence in food is evident in my life, every day, in the most mundane ways. Whereas instant coffee was a treat when I was a child, I now drink the real thing; whereas ‘cheese’ used to mean only one thing, Cheddar, or maybe Stilton at Christmas, I now take it for granted that I will find halloumi and Parmesan in most shops and whereas I used to live on ready-sliced, plastic-bagged bread for breakfast, lunch and every snack in-between, I can’t remember the last time I bought it, not even for a bacon sandwich. And these are just the tiniest of examples. Our food culture, both in what we can buy, cook and eat in restaurants has been transformed in the last forty years.
Europe isn’t, then, to me, over the water, faceless; it is part of who I am, what I eat and drink every day, part of the daily pleasure of my life. I have benefitted enormously from its influence and I am devastated by its likely loss. And, though, suddenly, we have made eating its food a lot, lot more expensive and difficult (did you know that we import 27% of our food from the EU? No, me neither), I plan to keep engaging with this continent I love, however I can, whether on a plate or on a platform. The tasteless politics of the last few days and weeks have left me reeling. In whatever way possible, with whatever I have, I plan to keep educating my palate, and myself, to keep Europe and everything it has to teach me, to teach us, at the heart of a life and a country enriched by it.