Saturday 30 May 2020

Coronavirus diary: recipes

I baked, cooked and experimented recipes extensively during the lockdown. It was a way to keep me busy and cheer me up making and eating good food. I mainly made new cakes, pastiera for Easter, bread, pizza but also jams. I prepared more elaborated meals with lasagne, gnocchi, pasta amatriciana and puttanesca. I have good neighbours with whom I exchanged recipes and cakes, leaving our things on the front door. I had a go at the Royal Easter biscuits as well, a fantastic recipe, but could not make them as beautiful as in the official pictures, here is the link:

Bread with olives

You need: 500 g of strong flour or bread flour; 200 ml of lukewarm water, one tsp of salt, 7 g of dried yeast, 20 pitted black olives and 20 pitted green olives, two tbsp. of extra virgin olive oil.

Mix all the ingredient and knead the dough. Let it rest in a warm place for 2-3 hours covered with a wet tea towel. Knead it again and form small breads, then place them in a greased oven tray and bake at 200°C for half an hour.

Pane azzimo (unleavened bread)

You need: 200 g of plain flour (or self-raising flour if you wish to have a softer result), 150 g of wholemeal flour or other alternative flours (such as rice flour, buckwheat flour, hazelnut flour, or spelt flour), 200 ml of lukewarm water, two tbsp. of extra virgin olive oil, salt, one egg to brush the top.

Mix all the ingredients and knead the dough. Let it rest for one hour then prepare sort of round pancakes. Set them on a greased oven tray and make some holes on the top with a fork. Brush the top with a beaten egg and bake at 180°C for half an hour. For a sweet version add 100 of Demerara sugar instead of salt.


This is a simple and tasty recipe from Tuscany. It was also called ‘pan lavato’ (washed bread) as the main ingredient is stale bread soaked in water.  Originally it was the peasants’ lunch or poor people’s food made with bread and the vegetables they had in their garden, such as tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and basil. They also added salt, oil and vinegar.

To make panzanella you need to soak some bread in water, better if stale bread, and crumble it. Add the vegetables cut in small pieces, extra virgin olive oil, some drops of vinegar and salt. Mix and chill it for one hour before serving.

Flower biscuits with marmalade juice

I had some left over of marmalade juice from the marmalade I made in winter, so I decided to use it. But you can use whatever syrup you have and like.

You need: 300 g of rice flour, two eggs, 70 g of caster sugar, 150 ml of marmalade juice, 70 g of melted butter, 1 tsp of bicarbonate of soda.

Mix all the ingredients and knead the dough. Let it rest for half an hour then roll it out. Cut the biscuits with a biscuit cutter (I used a sakura shaped cutter, that is, cherry blossom, I bought in Japan). Bake the biscuits on a greased tray at 180°C for half an hour.

Cake with marmalade juice

You need: 150 g of rice flour, 150 g of sponge flour, three eggs, 100 g of golden granulated sugar, 3 tbsp. of canola oil or sunflower oil, 150 ml of marmalade juice (or another syrup), two tsp of baking powder, one tsp of bicarbonate of soda.

Beat the yolk of the eggs with the sugar, add oil and flours together with the baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. Whip the whites stiff and add them to the mixture. Pour the mixture in a greased cake tin and bake at 180°C for half an hour or forty-five minutes. Decorate it with melted dark chocolate and sprinkles.

Rhubarb and ginger jam

I found rhubarb at the greengrocer’s and couldn’t resist trying to make jam. I added ginger as I think the two flavours match well.

You need: 400 g of rhubarb cut in 2 cm pieces, 50 g of glacé ginger, 500 g of sugar, half a tsp of grated ginger, zest and juice of one lemon.

Grind the lemon zest with the sugar in a blender. Add all the other ingredients and set the mixture over a medium heat in a pan. Bring to boil and cook it until the rhubarb is soft. Store in clean jars.


Saturday 16 May 2020

Coronavirus diary: staying at home

Just before the lockdown, my work at UCA Farnham stopped. My husband, I and my third son were all at home for four weeks they said, but I felt that it was an indefinite period that might go on through the summer. My husband was very busy teaching his lessons and meeting his colleagues online. My son, after a first period of cancellations of all activities, courses and meetings, had some online interviews. I concentrated on supermarket shopping at first. I did not have the intention of doing bulk storage or obsessing over panic-buying as I could find almost everything I needed, but I was bewildered when I saw the shelves almost empty at Sainsbury’s. No vegetables and fruit, no
toilet paper, no eggs and flour, no yeast, no passata and cans. I had some supplies at home for about a month but I felt uncomfortable all the same. Boz, the local greengrocer, had plenty of fruit, vegetables and eggs. I found flour and passata at the Italian Deli in Horsell and I luckily had yeast for our Sunday pizza and toilet paper for four weeks at least. I felt reassured. Food hopping food became my priority and only distraction as all the other shops were closed. I noticed that the clothes and home aisles at Sainsbury’s were deserted, everybody was shopping only for food. I visited the local Tesco as well from time to time for supplies of biscuits and sweets, and Morrison’s for plants as the plant nurseries were closed. I spent a lot of time cooking and baking both to have something to do and because being at home we ate more and more often. The most important moment of the day seemed to be the evening meal when the three of us met after our daily activities and partial isolation from each other.

I stuck to exercising, half an hour-forty-five minutes cycling per day and twenty minutes’ yoga at 6 pm watching the news. Despite my efforts, I gained two kilos though my target was to lose two, so I need to lose four kilos now. I think it was too much chocolate, biscuits and cakes. So, after a few weeks I made up my mind to reduce sweets to one piece of cake in the morning and only one biscuit or small piece of chocolate with my tea break in the afternoon. I also reduced my portions and am waiting for some results in the long term. During the day, I alternated my academic work on my PhD thesis to my writing (reviews, poems and articles) and to some paintings. I wished to develop the sketches I had made in Japan but my mind was obsessed with the pandemic so I gave up and painted coronavirus instead. 

In the end, I realised I tended to follow some patterns: academic work in the morning some writing, a short tea break at 11 am, lunch, watching Bargain Hunt and the news at 12,30-1 pm, sometimes a phone call to friends and relatives. Then more work in the afternoon, if I still had some energy and concentration, then cycling, setting up the dinner and I finally watched the 6 pm news while doing my yoga practice. After dinner I was too tired to do any more work so I watched TV and did my crochet or sewing. My favourite programs on the BBC are detective stories like Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Midsomer Murders, Lewis, DCI Banks and Scott and Bailey. On the Italian TV we watched the news every day at 7 pm, some history programs and Italian-style comedy films. I also like Bella da morire (drop-dead beautiful), a mini-series with Cristiana Capotondi who plays the role of a tough police inspector determined to solve stories of violence against women. On the Italian Paramount channel, they broadcasted Sherlock’s season four and five and Inspector Morse.

I spent much more time than usual on Facebook and Twitter posting pictures, thoughts, quotes and updates. It was a way to keep in touch with my friends as well, commenting on their links and putting likes. I also put some stuff on sale on Facebook Market place and managed to sell two items before the lock down: two sets of kangaroo shoes and a table football.

After two weeks the supermarket shelves were restocked though flour and yeast were still missing. Luckily I found some flour at the Italian Deli and made yeast with ‘pasta madre’ (sourdough) from a recipe my mother in law sent me. It took about two weeks to make it as it is a long process. I started with flour and lukewarm water I mixed and kneaded it, then stored in a warm place covered with a wet tea towel. I ‘refreshed’ it with more water and flour every 24 hours for five days then every 12
hours throwing away the upper part which is usually sour and crusty. When it was ‘mature’, that is, when it doubled its size and didn’t smell sour, I stored it in the fridge and used half of it to make pizza, leaving the rest in the fridge after refreshing it again with more flour and water. It worked, and I can use pasta madre for months maybe years. This is the way women made bread in the past when yeast was not sold in shops or supermarkets.

Of course we couldn’t visit my autistic daughter Valentina at Fullerton school near Doncaster. We skyped with her once a week and I sent her some parcels with sweets, clothes and our picture. Sometimes she was unsettled but other times she was cheerful and happy to see us.  We sent each other kisses and hugs through the screen. I also sent a parcel to my son and daughter in law in Leeds with Easter eggs, floor, Italian pasta, rice and two crocheted pot holders I made. The postage cost more than the content.

While I was at home, I stopped wearing earrings at first but still combed my hair. I wore my pyjamas until 9.30-10.00 pm then put on a track suit bottom and loose t-shirt. Then I decided to have a bit of improvement. I went back to earrings, three per ear, matching them with some nice tops with flowery patterns. I still kept the comfortable track suit bottom though, wore warm socks at home and combed and straightened my hair. I took off my rings after a while as my fingers had swollen from all that washing hands and kneading dough.

Going to the supermarket was the most exciting experience during the lockdown, so I put on a nice dress or jeans with a belt with a big buckle cowboy style and loose colourful shirts. I even wore make-up, bought new lipsticks and put them on at home. It was a way to cheer me up and survive in such a stillness. Some people in Italy called it a period of ‘emptiness and plenty’. The emptiness of streets and squares and the houses full of people forced to stay at home. The emblem of this emptiness in Rome is St. Peters’ square, deserted when the Pope speaks. But we need to face this emptiness looking at a better future that will be built on this vulnerability, constructing creatively, fiercely surviving despite the silent killer. It is excruciating to hear from the news how many people are still dying, especially doctors and nurses who give their lives to help others. I liked what the Pope and the Queen said during Easter time. They said what we all needed to hear in a direct essential way. I also like Tom Moore’s motto: tomorrow will be a good day. Hopefully.

Saturday 2 May 2020

Coronavirus diary: the beginning

For me, the beginning of the coronavirus crisis was in Italy where part of my family lives. On the Italian TV they have been speaking about Covid-19 since February. The government said that Italian people did not need to worry as the National Health Care (Servizio Sanitario Nazionale) was prepared to face it. When people started to die they said they were elderly or already sick people. But then the situation got worse and out of hand, especially in the north of Italy, in Lombardia. Here is an article I wrote for Woking Writers Circle giving my view of the situation in Italy, Japan and the UK: Coping with COVID-19 in the UK, Italy and Japan: a comparison

Travelling to Japan at the beginning of March, I could feel the change. Airports were almost deserted and there were a lot of empty seats on the plane. There was a lot of space to stretch my legs and place my things. At the check-in desk they did not let me take my crochet stuff on the plane (apparently the hook was a problem), so I bought six water-soluble colour pencils at Düsseldorf airport where we changed plane and started to record images on my sketchbook, a sort of travel journal. I drew the Gucci bags I saw at Heathrow duty free shop centre, the Japanese masks of kabuki theatre from the intriguing ANA airlines safety video ( ) and magazine covers in Düsseldorf with Covid-19 headlines. Once in Tokyo, I made sketches of photos I took downtown and kimono patterns from the books my daughter had on her shelves. I especially liked the pictures on a book by Sheila Cliffe ( ) where the author wears elegant old and new kimono. She adapted them to her taste with cleverness and expertise. I also made collage pieces using cuttings from Japanese brochures and magazines.

I could finally hug my daughter after a year. My eldest son was already there as we were supposed to attend the graduation of my daughter’s master in fashion at Bunka Gakuen University, but the ceremony could not take place because of the coronavirus emergency. We were there, and we celebrated the achievement all the same. Unfortunately, I had a terrible jet lag. I woke up at two or three at night hungry and sleepless. I locked myself in the toilet with a book or my crochet and waited to feel sleepy again. This didn’t happen until six or seven in the morning when the day began. I felt sleepy from the late morning throughout the rest of the day and fell asleep everywhere I sat down, in the underground, at cafés and restaurants. I couldn’t help it, my eyes closed, I leaned against my husband’s shoulder and had a nap.

The weather was warm, almost spring time and the sakura (cherry blossoms) were starting to bloom. We could not visit museums as they were closed for the pandemic, but we did a lot of shopping at Senso-ji temple and shopping centre and at Solamachi. I bought some beautiful kimono and haori (sort of jackets), Japanese ceramics and two books: The Pillow Book and selected haiku by Masaoka Shiki. My husband and son spent a whole day at Yodobashi Camera department store and Akihabara, places full of games, video games, anime and toys of all kinds and materials, from plastic to wood, paper, metal and fabric. Everything was so diverse, colourful and stimulating, I felt flabbergasted in such a profusion of creativity.
We took a trip to Mount Takao. Despite my jet lag, I managed to reach the top, 599 metres, and admire the beautiful view with layers of dark mountains against the blue evening sky. We took the easiest trail going up but going down my son opted for the hardest one across the forest. It wasn’t easy for me because my shoes had no slip grip but I managed to reach the end. Luckily the last bit had a cable car connection.

We had some problems with our flight back, as I explain in my article, but we eventually reached the UK safely. On the plane back home, I read The Pillow Book and the haiku. I also listened to relaxing music and watched Parasite, the film that won the best foreign film Oscar 2020. It was funny, cracking at first, but harrowing and hyperreal towards the end. I was mesmerised and shocked at the amount of cruelty that was so easily performed and the aftermath of it.

Back in the UK in the middle of March, I had jet lag again but it lasted only a few days. In Italy the lock down had started. We were supposed to fly to Rome for Easter but the flight was cancelled. All the events I had booked in the UK were cancelled as well and the conference I was supposed to attend in Canada was postponed to next year. My husband’s school was temporarily closed, so he started teaching online. I felt vulnerable, in an indefinite position of possible danger though everything looked normal outside. The weather was gorgeous; nature was inexplicably blooming as if nothing was happening. In Italy my family was all right though the death toll was getting higher and higher especially in the north of the country. And then the UK lockdown began.