On a very wet day in January 2016 I was walking through the centre of Chippenham with a Syrian refugee. He had recently arrived in England from a refugee camp in Lebanon as part of the UK Government scheme to provide asylum from the Syrian conflict. There were a few dripping market stalls selling vegetables and baked goods and near one, on the floor, was a piece of sliced loaf. He immediately bent down to pick up the bread which to his dismay turned to mush in his hands. For him to leave bread lying on the ground was an affront on two levels. Firstly, his islamic faith taught him to respect food, "Ak ri'mul khubza" (handle bread with respect) and secondly, as someone who had fled from a brutal civil war and had to live in refugee camps you did not waste food. Even four years later, this moment still resonates with me. I saw for myself the respect given to bread in the Islamic world when visiting Uzbekistan where the bread is revered and is almost an art form.
Bread made with love in Uzbekistan
As a child crisps came in a waxed packet with a blue paper twist containing the salt. I have a clear memory of my Grandmother saving those blue paper twists and emptying them into the salt cellar. Her life had been a cycle of good and bad times. As a child she had emigrated to Australia from impoverished Ireland. After marrying my Grandfather they cleared some land in New South Wales and built up a prosperous dairy farm. Then came the Great Depression of the 1930s and while the farm survived those were hard times. My Father as a young boy remembered a steady stream of destitute victims of the depression wandering the countryside in search of jobs and food. My Grandmother would always share the evening meal with them. Her whole life experience taught the value of food, not even that tiny paper twist of salt would be wasted. If there are good times you never knew when they might be snatched away.
Smiths Crisp of my youth note the price 2d (1.2p in today's money)
Many of us as children will have learnt the mantra of “Give Us Our Daily Bread’ as part of the Lord’s prayer. It is not just a request for bread but a recognition of our dependency on food. Most faiths have a recognition of the importance of food. Whether you are of a faith or, like me, of no faith we need to reconnect with food and respect not just as a familiar jar on a supermarket shelf but where it comes from, the cost in labour and transport of getting it there and consequences of it not arriving.
In our times of plentiful, cheap and ready to eat food, familiarity breeds contempt and we seem to have lost that connection with food and no longer respect it. Until that is of course the COVID-19 pandemic. I knew there was real trouble looming in the food supply chain when in a supermarket the shelf given over to Marmite was empty. The next day, not long after opening my daughter secured one of the 2 remaining jars on the shelf, in the space of less than 24 hours the empty shelf had been restocked and then emptied. Love it or hate it Marmite is one of our Nation’s staples, and suddenly that comfort of slightly burnt toast oozing a gooey mix of butter and marmite was under threat. Our food supply is fragile and should not be taken for granted as my Syrain refugee friend and Grandmother understood only too well.