Where do you go when your team has lost: when the final whistle blows and there’s no extra time? When grief has left you empty and hope has proved a liar? The answer for many of us is the fridge, the larder or the nearest bottle.
It was certainly so for the group of devastated Remainers now known as EUnitySeahaven. A year ago, gazing helplessly from the Sussex Downs over the Channel to “our lost community of content” *, we needed a comforting cushion against the new hard reality of 31 January 2020. Britannia’s priapic premier, Boris Johnson, armed with the sword of disinformation and the prophylactic shield of optimism, had apparently “Got Brexit Done”. After more than three years of campaigning, marching and hoping, we “Remoaners” were left wondering, as in the new name of our favourite Remainiacs podcast, Oh God, what now?
For our then-scattered, small EUnity group, the answer came quickly, as one of our members was diagnosed with cancer. Her closest friends rallied round to cook, transport and share meals with her, and gathering in local pubs to eat also cemented our closeness as a group. Then came COVID, shielding and lockdown. But the healing had begun: despair and grief were giving way to resolve and purpose, and food had been the key.
“Why not continue with the dinners despite the lockdown?” someone asked, and then: “Why not extend the original group?” And so ‘Remain Friends’ Dinners’ was born. Like most, we had to contend with the sharp learning curve of Zoom video conferencing, but anything that distracted from the unfolding dual tragedy of Brexit and COVID was welcome. Committee meetings in gloomy pub function rooms gave way to themed weekly dinners, held on Fridays in our own homes. So – locked down and unable to go anywhere, let alone jump onto the next Dieppe-bound ferry to panic-buy wine and enjoy a few farewell French lunches in those amazing cafes while we still could without visas – we nevertheless decided to travel to Europe once a week.
Staunch Europhiles as we all are, there were nonetheless great contrasts in people’s approach to the evenings. For some, the only themed decoration was an EU flag hung as a background, or a bottle of Côtes du Rhône, while others conjured up a full Estonian gala dinner with all the trimmings. But regardless of differences, all the dinners were fun-filled with generous side helpings of subversive gossip, news about virtual campaigning, Zoom conference scheduling with Sussex for Europe and plans for the post-COVID future.
One couple, clearly foodies to the core and homesick for their past life in Europe, invited us all to a weekly lavish virtual dinner party representing a different country each time. With a properly laid table and looking elegant (at least from what we could see waist up!), they produced not only a main course and side dishes, but also pudding.
We worked methodically through the lucky 27 remaining members of our beloved EU, invited each week to a different place in the appropriate language. From that first invitation to dîner en France through to the last offer, Slovenská večera, we have travelled the length and breadth of this extraordinary continent, spotting both similarities and differences in the cuisine. Dumplings were a feature of many an Eastern European dinner, and various versions of the delicious Swiss Rösti were also to be found.
Spanish tapas were a great favourite in the group, as were plates of moules et frites (much appreciated by our Belgian friends), although there was also an occasional outlier, such as carbonade a la flamande, a delicious Belgian stew. The Romanian Amandine cake − baked by someone whose husband now describes her as ‘a domestic goddess’ − took an entire day to make. To be honest, there were a few dishes which made even the most loyal spouse balk, and all agreed that the Finnish cabbage casserole was definitely a test of devotion!
There was also a weekly quiz, which gave those with a thirst for knowledge − rather than gastronomy and fine wine − a chance to shine. The country-specific questions were well-nigh impossible unless native-born or a professional quizzer. Some members of our group fell into one of these two categories while the rest of us, once we’d overcome some initial feelings of inadequacy, learnt more about the continent from which we have been so cruelly separated.
As we were forced to count down to the final, heart-breaking Brexit deadline at 11pm on New Year’s Eve, a fittingly strange year’s end full of grim statistics, tiers and fears, we asked ourselves the question “where next?” After much discussion, the group has decided to go regional, and excitement is mounting as we think about the massive range of European culinary traditions still to discover and enjoy. This will keep us going over the years to come, until the true ‘sunlit uplands’ of European membership (also the real ‘will of the people’ going by all the latest polls) are the UK’s once again.
* “Our lost community of content” is paraphrased from a poem by Alfred Edward Housman (1859–1936). Ginny Foster said: “I adore poetry and my mind is full of half remembered lines. It represents my beloved Europe in the context of the article. Instead I called it the ‘community’ rather than the ‘land’.”
A Shropshire Lad XL Into my heart an air that kills From yon far country blows: What are those blue remembered hills, What spires, what farms are those? That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain, The happy highways where I went And cannot come again.