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Chef Valentina Harris: “I’ve Turned My Outside Space Into A Glorious Garden”

5 min read

When the Covid crisis first erupted, I spent the first week feeling numb and deeply shocked, still holding on to a tiny glimmer of hope that this would all be over soon, soon enough for all the exciting jobs and opportunities that still lay ahead over the spring and summer. Somehow, that sense of anticipation and craving carried me past those first days. I threw myself into spring-cleaning and reorganisation of all my cupboards and drawers, cleaning deep into every corner and moving furniture around, filling each day with intense activity and falling into bed exhausted at night. With the council tip closed, a neat but extremely large pile of things destined for recycling was parked alongside my bins. I was driven not only by my lifetime habit of carrying out any task thoroughly, but by the optimistic idea that I should somehow hurry up because this strange situation would all soon be over, and I just couldn’t bear the idea of leaving a job half done.

In the second and third week, I turned my attention to the garden, clearing away the winter and welcoming in spring with open arms. I mowed; I weeded, pruned, sowed and watered my way through. The weather was in my favour and diligently, I transformed my outside space into my own glorious green space. On a garden ‘Facetime call’ with my professional gardener son, he was enthusiastic about the results, and I glowed.

Artichokes, beetroot, salad, tomatoes, courgettes and flower and herb seedlings are now all lined up on warm windowsills with military precision. House is neat and clean, Marie Kondo eats your heart out. I have had daily contact with friends and family and taken a long daily walk for exercise. I have received, read and forwarded funny and poignant memes that have poured into my phone incessantly. I have kept in touch with all my family in Italy, heard their stories, shared recipes, offered comfort.

I have kept a journal of daily activities, also recording what I have been cooking each day. At the back of my mind was the notion that at some point this cooking frenzy might wane, or that everything might return to normal and this indulgent way of cooking might have to end. I have always enjoyed cooking for myself, using it as a way to hone my skills, experiment and to re-visit recipes I haven’t made for a while. So different from cooking professionally for other people. In a lockdown, everything has been created simply according to availability of ingredients combined with what I wanted to eat at any given time and I have gleefully savoured every mouthful and filled my freezer.

All of these activities have been balanced by spending a couple of hours at least every day at my desk, which has largely been a sharp reality check. Reading and responding to the endless regrets regarding the cancellations of more and more jobs has had to be tempered with the salve that is Netflix, DVDs or a little television. Strangely for a life long bookworm, I have found reading very difficult to concentrate on, my mind simply wandering away from the story for no apparent reason to land unbidden elsewhere.

So now, here we are going on, with the prospect of several more weeks of the same loneliness and tedium ahead. I’ve noticed the memes are fewer; contacts with family and friends are less frequent – though no less anticipated and yearned for. That now distant sense of urgency, which drove me through the start of all this has faded.

I have come to terms with the fact that I am here for a much longer time than I allowed myself to believe at the start. As a result, I’m cooking less, walking less; the journal is growing sparser, and there is little left now to spruce up. It is, of course, the perfect time to start the book I’ve wanted to write for so very long but have never had the right circumstances to begin. But instead, I find myself tuning into the grim news too often; I feel myself slumping, hopelessly procrastinating; and I’m needing to draw harder and deeper on all my reserves of self-motivation. It has definitely got tougher; I’m hungry now to find the magic spark to start that book and hope that, along with a perfectly spotless home, an abundant garden and a pile of stuff destined for the tip, will be the outcome of my isolation.

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My only tips to overcome frustration are these:

  • Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t/don’t stick to your carefully planned routine every day – it will be less boring if every single day is not quite the same, although I grant that some kind of routine is helpful to remember what day of the week it is. At least try to ensure that the weekends feel different in some way to the rest of the week.
  • There will be good days and bad days, up and downs – remember: that’s normal!
  • Set yourself some daily goals that are realistically manageable, so you can at least go to bed each night with some sense of achievement.
  • Do eat fresh food cooked from scratch – it is really important that you eat healthily, so don’t just give in to the lure of Ready Meals! And remember to give yourself the odd treat from time to time.
  • Fresh air helps to lift the spirits – make sure you do go out every day to walk or run, take advantage of that time to just move and breathe.
  • You really do not have to learn how to make sourdough bread, despite everything you might read and hear. You really, really don’t. (Unless of course, you want to.)
  • Most of all: stay safe, stay well and hang on there.

Once it is over and we are allowed out, when I can finally leave the village, I will immediately be rushing to see my children and my grandson again, because at the end of this: family really is everything. Everything.

About The Author

Valentina Harris

Valentina is a passionate Italian cook and award-winning author with more than 30 books to her name. Tracing her family back to 1369 through the illustrious Sforza dynasty, Valentina is the youngest member of a large Anglo-Italian family of gourmets. Educated in Italy, Valentina brought her qualifications for teaching and cooking from Rome to London in 1976. Valentina is also an experienced and enthusiastic teacher and is passionate about sharing her food philosophy, techniques, stories, and experiences both with food and its intricate history, plus solid and unique kitchen techniques. Former President of the London chapter of Les Dames D’Escoffier, Valentina is actively committed to strengthening the position of professional women in the world of food, beverage and hospitality, and uses her wealth of experience to mentor young women who dream of a career within it.

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