True neighbourliness is a single onion sitting on a garden wall. It’s a nub end of ginger or a roll of greaseproof paper. Over the past year, all of these things and more besides have loitered on the old brick wall that separates our garden from that of our lovely neighbours, Marc and Elvira. The pandemic has written many narratives around food: there have been community projects to make meals for those in need, and schemes to keep frontline healthcare workers fed during long shifts. But alongside the big arching themes are the more intimate stories of people simply finding ways to bring moments of joy into the flatline of lockdown. When I eventually look back at it all I know it will be the story of our garden wall, and the part it played in how we ate, that will make me smile the most.
Before Covid-19 we would, of course, knock occasionally on each other’s doors and ask to borrow a missing ingredient. We discovered shortly after they moved in a few years ago that our new neighbours were as up for a cooking project as we were. Marc once showed me a picture of a suckling pig on his phone, like he’d been offered a hot motor, and asked me if I fancied going halves. He’s that sort of man. (His name suggests he might be French, doesn’t it? He isn’t. He’s from Exmouth.) Marc and Elvira could always be relied upon to have what we did not and vice vera. Plus, we were all impeccable neighbours. We replaced whatever we had borrowed. Have a couple of onions back. Here’s your lemon.
Suddenly there was a WhatsApp message. Would we like some pavlova? Yes please. It’s on the wall
Then the first lockdown happened. The world shrank and the shop queues lengthened. I’m not sure exactly when we stopped traipsing out along the street to knock on the door. Perhaps, in the age of Zoom and working from home, we’d simply worked out there were other ways. Now we had a tiny WhatsApp group, just the four of us. We called it Over The Wall. We’d message each other for the missing ingredients, and they’d go on the wall for collection. We no longer replaced them. The requests were so regular, so commonplace, that really, what was the point? We’d be returning the favour within days. Our fridges and cupboards had become each other’s emergency stores.
Our WhatsApp group really came alive, however, when the product of those borrowed ingredients also started landing on the wall. Elvira is half Irish, half Colombian. Naturally, therefore, she makes a killer pavlova. Suddenly there was a message. Would we like some? Yes please. It’s on the wall. Oh, what crisp and chewy meringue joy. Marc has a particular way with pork belly and crackling. Ping goes the phone. On the wall. Then I started cooking my way through the greatest of cookbooks and producing tarts big enough to feed eight when there are but four of us. Have a slab of the Gary Rhodes custard tart, or some of the onion one by Simon Hopkinson. It became a dish exchange, a way both to feed each other and to show off a little. Now we needed one more set of messages: for the emptied and washed crockery to be returned. On the wall.
Spring came and the days lengthened, and we would meet there occasionally for socially distanced drinks. There might be snacks. One night, when summer arrived, we had a barbecue. I cooked over fire on my side; they provided the salads from theirs. We lined up all the dishes along the brickwork and helped ourselves. Finally, that old, moss clad, London brick wall, less divider than enabler, had realised its full promise: it had become our shared kitchen table.