Breaking bread: food and community

It’s been a few weeks since I got back from this six-month trip and I’m still digesting it all. It was incredible really. Getting back to basics, living in nature, staying on farms and in eco-communities, learning from people who live completely different lives, cooking local food and eating eating eating.

For the majority of it I was doing workaway, exchanging around five hours of work a day for food and a place to sleep. When I wasn’t doing that, I’d couchsurf or share Airbnb apartments with locals. To get from place to place, I’d often car-share or hitchhike. All of these outlets offered community. An easy way into the locals’ way of life, to live what they live and to feel a part of it.

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I chose my workaways based on where I’d learn the most about local food and for the most part, that’s exactly what happened. Harvesting potatoes in Slovenia, feeding goats in Italy, cracking walnuts in Georgia, grocery shopping in Palestine, making hummus in Israel, digging holes and picking vegetables and cooking all the time… I learnt so much!

Mealtimes were important too. Eating around a table with food that I’d earned directly from my labour, with families and volunteers from all over the place.

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In those instances, the food we shared took on a whole new meaning. Often, we’d have helped to grow and pick it. Beets and tomatoes, fennel and artichokes, oranges and lemons and always fresh herbs, like borage and purple basil, or wild fennel from the hedgerows. It was amazing to be so directly involved in the whole process, from growing to picking to cooking, and to eat it together. Daily life was all about the food. Community relied upon it to bring us together, just as much as our food relied on us to nurture and preserve it.

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I recently read somewhere that once you get to the origins of things, you feel more connected. And it’s cliché, but I really felt like that. Living more in nature, growing food, eating it, spending time in places where community and sharing is important. Food tasted more like food.

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Depending on where I was, mealtimes were small family-led affairs that reflected the local culture. In Italy, we’d make fresh pasta and artichoke pies, in Slovenia it’d be sweet jam dumplings (eaten as a savoury main meal!). In Bosnia, spit-roasted chicken with spicy ajvar, or in Israel, a simple bowl of tahini with sliced avocados.

Other times, and particularly in the eco-communities, meals were international. I ate some of the best Indian food I’ve ever tasted, in Slovenia. Rajeev and Pradeep were amazing cooks. They had a bag of spices that they’d brought from home, Indian music would be on full blast and they’d get down to making black daals and channa masalas, roti and samosas, bhajis and chapatis.

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I remember a potato and egg curry in particular, made with a huge glut of tomatoes from the garden. Basic but so delicious. We ate it together, like everyday, under the chestnut trees, finishing with a bowlful of just-picked figs.

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One thing’s for certain, food and community are intrinsically linked. And being a part of a community that values food can only strengthen a love of it. Whether it’s taking time to grow or pick it, or cooking it with an 82-year-old grandma, or enjoying it around a table in good company, food enables community as much as the other way around.

It’s easy to romanticise it all when sitting in a café in rainy North London, but these months really made a lot of sense to me. Living in communities, eating off the land, working mainly through exchange. If I could find a way, I’d live like that forever. For now, though, I’m re-making that curry.

Recipe right here.

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