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While the COVID pandemic brought loss in so many ways, there were some silver linings - many of which surrounded the way we eat and cook. From the banana bread craze to the sourdough phase, lockdowns brought a renewed love for our kitchens, and a rediscovery for many of the joys of cooking and eating together. From families sitting down together to couples creating restaurant food in their own homes, a slower pace of life and enforced time away from restaurants saw us embrace not just the joy of food but the process of cooking from scratch.
According to a study by Tesco in 2020, lockdown saw more than a fifth of Britons cook every meal from scratch, compared to one in eight before lockdown. The study of 2,000 adults found more than half experimented and used extra ingredients in their cooking more often after being told to stay at home, with two fifths saying they enjoyed cooking more than before and 89 per cent vowing to continue making food from scratch once the restrictions were lifted.
For keen cooks and food lovers, the chance to experiment with ingredients, recreate their favourite restaurant dishes at home and get adventurous in the kitchen has been a much-needed positive, while some people have found the joy of quality ingredients and what they can do with them after discovering local delis, farm shops and independent producers in the early days of lockdown due to necessity. Produce expert and former market trader Chris Bavin, who presents TV programmes including Britain’s Best Home Cook, said lockdown had seen people rediscover their local butchers, greengrocers and delis as they embraced cooking at home more. “In the beginning of lockdown we saw people re-engaging with cooking at home, maybe discovering it for the first time or falling back in love with cooking and baking. It was brilliant - people had a bit more time, we all became sourdough experts or baked banana bread. People also realised they had to be a bit more resourceful. Ingredients and food were a bit more scarce so people got back to that ‘make do’ attitude - using leftovers, batch cooking for the freezer and cooking from scratch. I think that’s continued to grow. We’ve realised how important food is, whether that’s sharing it with friends or going out to your favourite place to eat.”
Bavin admits there’s an irony that while many of us have realised how much we love going out to eat, we’ve simultaneously learned to enjoy cooking our own meals from scratch at home. “We’ve realised how much we have enjoyed cooking and how achievable cooking some of your favourite restaurant meals and some of your favourite takeaway meals actually is.” That change in cooking habits combined with the limits of lockdown forced a change in the way we shop - with many of us turning our backs on supermarkets and buying from independents either because of shortages in the big chains, or a more appealing environment in terms of safety, not to mention the ability of specialist shops to cater for a newfound interest in scratch cooking and the range of ingredients required to whip up adventurous meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“There’s a whole new generation who have found their local greengrocers, butchers and delis and these sort of places,” says Bavin. “They want the quality, freshness and the reduced amounts of plastic and packaging. People are falling back in love with their small stores which did an amazing job during lockdown. When supermarkets were closed or had long queues, these independents were working throughout and looking after their communities. The small independents showed how resilient and adaptable they are.”
The appreciation of independent, specialist shops to cater for our love of scratch cooking is something Charlie Wells, owner of The Farm, Stratford, in Snitterfield, has witnessed first hand. When the first lockdown was introduced The Farm - which offers concessions including a butcher, fishmonger, bakery and deli counter as well as a cafe, shifted from attracting customers to its restaurant with the odd edible treat to take home to a place where they shopped for ingredients to create their own edible treats. “When the first lockdown started we closed for five days while we built a website and got the shop COVID safe, then reopened. We didn’t really have a clue what it was going to be like. We didn’t know if people would see us as an exclusive shop that you treat yourself to or an essential. We are lucky that we became an essential. I think that was helped by the fact we were pushing it as safe, as well as the quality, the environment.”
They also built on people’s renewed enthusiasm for cooking, says Wells, sharing inspiration from ingredients sourced locally with minimal food miles to capture people’s imagination in what they could recreate at home using produce from the shop. “Price didn’t seem to be too much of an issue. You would have things like a £75 Chateaubriand being the top seller each week. People weren’t going out, they were staying in and expanding their knowledge of cooking and spending money on cooking. Our produce sales pretty much quadrupled during that time. People were using raw ingredients. It was the kind of shopping we used to see on Saturdays - the day before roast dinner day - but this time round people were cooking every single day and buying each ingredient.” Steph Johnstone, ambient and seasonal buyer at fine food distributor The Cress Company, said they too saw a growth in demand for store cupboard and grocery-led products as consumers chose to support local farm shops and independent traders rather than go to supermarkets. “Consumers have potentially saved a lot of money during the period of lockdown so are perhaps looking to spend this disposable income on high quality ingredients that they can enjoy at home, albeit I am sure we will see a shift in this pattern again as people begin to move around again with more and more business trading again.”
That shift in our attitude to scratch cooking as life changes yet again is unsurprising. Research from Bakkavor recently revealed that as the UK emerges from lockdown, a third of us are looking forward to hanging up our kitchen utensils after a year of doing our own cooking. On top of that, growing pressures on our time as things get back to ‘normal’ means a fifth (21%) of people now have less than 20 minutes to plan and buy their food each week, according to the research. Bakkavor’s chief operating officer UK Mike Edwards said, “UK consumers are starting to return to normal habits - reducing the time spent preparing meals from scratch to maximise time catching up with family and friends. People are returning to convenient, quick-to-prepare meals which satisfy whatever they feel like that evening – even if it’s a completely different cuisine to what other family members or friends are eating at the same meal occasion.”
Does that mean an end to our scratch cooking obsession? And where does it leave the independent shops, delis and producers who have been buoyed by a year of people hunting for quality ingredients to cook up a storm at home. “It’s impossible to predict the long term,” says Johnstone. “I suspect we will see a mix of people who may still enjoy to cook up a feast at home using high quality food, as they have adapted to doing so over the last year, so we will continue to ensure we are in a position to supply an extensive range of home cooking essentials and ingredients to ensure this new found focus can continue to be enjoyed! Although hospitality is returning, some people may choose to opt for summer picnics and BBQs with friends and family, enjoying the new found speciality products they may have discovered during the pandemic, so retailers will likely continue to see the demand for these products, as well as luxurious snacks and treats.”
For Wells, April 12th and the reopening of hospitality - albeit outdoors only initially- brought an immediate change to people’s shopping and cooking habits. “Everything dropped off from April 12th, literally to the date,” she said. But she’s still optimistic and has noticed that while people are enjoying being back out again, there are plenty of elements that affect their enthusiasm for cooking at home, including the weather. “After it initially dropped off we had good weather for a week so it stayed quiet. Then the rain started and all of a sudden the shop picked up again and produce [sales] started to increase. It almost wasn’t seasonal eating, but eating based around the weather.” For Bavin, longer-term issues that could see us stick to scratch cooking include economic drivers. “Money could well be tight for lots of people going forward. Cooking from scratch is a great way to save money so we could well see people continuing, especially now they’ve discovered how easy it is.”
Johnstone, too, is positive about the future when it comes to independent retailers benefiting from people’s love of cooking “People will likely continue to support smaller independent businesses even after restrictions have eased so as long as the retailers continue to ensure they are in a position to meet the demands of the consumers they should continue to see growth,” she said. “Retailers should continue to ensure that the shopping experience offered to their consumer remains at a high standard as well as the emphasis on shopping local to ensure their loyalty remains.” For Wells, it’s a case of being dynamic and continuing to capture people’s enthusiasm and imagination. “I think the rest of the year we will see peaks and troughs and we as a business have to be open to it and gear our offering accordingly. Normally you can plan ahead for the seasons, but it’s difficult to know what’s going to happen, so we try to plan as normal but also have a plan B in place. We’re looking at month-by-month trends, then when we do the marketing we go to town on pushing something quickly.” That includes social media, which Wells says has been invaluable for The Farm over the past year, and which they have used to encourage collaboration as well as to inspire customers. “We do things like push ingredients we use in dishes in the restaurant. So if someone eats something in our restaurant they can then go and buy the ingredients and recreate it at home. I’m positive. I think we have just got to be really open minded. If we start to be negative that only comes across to the customers.”
Bavin shares Wells’ positivity. “I think this is here to stay. Obviously there’s a proportion of people who might go back to the old habits of convenience, but I think there’s a real appetite for continuing to support smaller businesses and continuing to cook from scratch.” Regardless of how ravenous that appetite for scratch cooking is, the ingredients have to come from somewhere. And that’s where speciality retailers take centre stage.