OPINION: Show some edible love to counter post-Covid anxiety

Holkham food and drink festival 2021 PIcture VICTORIA PERTUSA

A scene from the North Norfolk Food and Drink Festival at Holkham Estate. - Credit: VICTORIA PERTUSA

Throughout the traumatic events of the past 18 months, during which it has sometimes felt positively apocalyptic, one thing above all has kept us feeling that a form of normality had been preserved: the ability to sit down and share food and drink with the people closest to us.

The Herculean efforts made by our food producers and retailers to ensure that there was always enough available to eat is something which has been overshadowed by the heroics of those working on the frontline of the healthcare system.

It is invidious to suggest that one or other has more merit; the fact is that both sets of people kept the country going during our darkest hour.

The importance of food and drink in our lives, and its ability to bring us together like little else, was brought home to me last weekend.

I spent it in the walled garden at Holkham Hall, where the North Norfolk Food and Drink Festival was taking place for the first time since those halcyon pre-Covid days of September 2019.

For many – customers and producers alike – this was the first chance to reconnect on a face-to-face level with the foodie community. I am delighted to report that many thousands of people seized that opportunity.


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The North Norfolk Food Festival has always been one of the county’s most important gatherings of people for whom food and drink is an important part of their lives. This year it was even more so. It was as if everybody had emerged, blinking, from some bunker where they had been holed up for many months. And the simple joy which brought everybody together was an appreciation of the wonderful edible produce which comes from our county.

I had the privilege of hosting the cookery theatre at the festival, which over two days saw a succession of chefs cheerfully share their expertise and demonstrate just why Norfolk is such an important place when it comes to food and drink.

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From the head chef at the Victoria Hotel who cooked a dish where every single ingredient (save for some breadcrumbs) came from the estate itself, to his counterpart from The Dabbling Duck at Great Massingham causing health and safety palpitations by bringing a Japanese barbecue at a temperature of 700°C into the tent – and of course, the evergreen double act of Chris Coubrough and butcher Arthur Howell – there was not a seat to be had in the theatre throughout both days of the show.

The Whitlam family. Holkham food and drink festival 2021 PIcture VICTORIA PERTUSA

The Whitlam family at the North Norfolk Food and Drink Festival at Holkham Estate. - Credit: VICTORIA PERTUSA

Of course, our unending appetite for TV cookery shows from Masterchef to Come Dine With Me is evidence that many of us are never happier than watching someone else prepare dinner. But this weekend felt different: audiences were more involved and engaged, asking questions and wanting to be a part of the show.

Producers exhibiting at the festival felt the same. Several said to me that the people attending were stopping to chat much more than usual. And they were buying, too; almost every exhibitor found themselves having to call on more stocks for the second day.

There is an important lesson to be learnt from this. There is little doubt that the past 18 months have imposed huge levels of stress on all of us, and for many, that pressure will have translated into feelings of anxiety, isolation and, in some cases, more serious mental health issues.

Now I am not suggesting for a moment that food and drink is some kind of panacea for mental health problems, but I do believe that it can play an important part in countering feelings of anxiety and isolation.

Sitting around a table with others, enjoying food which has been lovingly prepared, and indulging in the kind of engaged, relaxed conversation which can only come about when the TV is switched off and mobile devices are ignored, is balm for the soul, and it’s difficult not to feel happier, more relaxed and more loved afterwards.

I am a greedy man who loves his food. But more than that. I love the social connection which comes with food and drink. Last weekend’s festival at Holkham showed that I am not alone in this.

So if you are still feeling anxious, or if you know someone who is still struggling with the after-effects of 18 months of lockdowns and fear, my suggestion is to get them around your dinner table and show them some edible love.

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