From the moment I arrived in my tiny car with catering tins of coconut milk and tomatoes and 100 kilos of donated Shipton Mill flour, slumped like lumpen bodies in the boot, the Refugee Community Kitchen in Calais reminded me of my activist past, of squat cafes, of cooking at festivals.
Young people with dreadlocks, fresh faced students, punctuated by the odd older person were basking in the May sunshine, eating a simple lunch of lentils and salad.
I off-loaded my food supplies, a young Australian woman noting with concern that they only have one week of rice left.
‘We are desperate for donations. Usually there is a line of vehicles waiting to deliver, but today we only have three: you are the third.’
In the kitchen, set in a tented section with low burners lining one wall crowned by enormous hundred litre stewpots, I suggested I could make flatbreads with the flour. The kitchen comprises several stainless steel counters, an industrial mixer, a robo-coupe, hot water and a slightly dodgy oven.
The stores are well organised with sections for dry goods, tins, spices, fresh vegetables, herbs, and an area where they bag up family packs so that some refugees can cook for themselves.
Further along the vast warehouse is where the clothes and bedding are stored. First they are cleaned then sorted into types of garment – hoodies, men’s trousers, womens t-shirts long-sleeved, etc. There is a large area for sorting shoes into sizes; one woman volunteer checks their laces – are they matched? Are they in good condition?
At the back are shelves full of water bottles, camping stoves, saucepans, plates, cutlery, childrens’ toys.
If you volunteer for the kitchen you will be catering for around 1,500 people a day. Usually three pots (300 litres) are for stew, all made with the same aromatics – 1 part ginger, 1 part garlic to 2 parts onion.
Paul, the head chef, has perfected the art of making perfectly fluffy rice, 500 litres, for 1,500 people. This requires experience and know-how. Their technique is to ‘dress’ the rice with oil then parboil it, scoop it into gastros (the metal rectangular pans used in catering) and let it continue to steam, adding nuts, sultanas, spices, fresh coriander.
‘This is basically Ready Steady Cook en masse,’ explains Paul. ‘We use one tonne of food per day.’
Always there is a curry or stew, rice and salad. The refugees LOVE salad. I can see why: when you are camping for months on end without running water, you end up craving raw vegetables.
Simone, who used to be a singer and is now the kitchen coordinator, tells me:
‘Some chefs get here and want to do complicated dishes, say fennel, ginger and orange salad. But actually the refugees want simple food: lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes.’
At the moment there is a surfeit of swedes. The trouble is the refugees don’t like swedes, finding them too sweet. The idea of sweet vegetables in curry is anathema to them. They aren’t mad on courgettes either.
Another chef tells me: ‘The Africans don’t like salt, other nationalities love salt. Some of them love spicy food, others don’t. Surprisingly they don’t really like Indian food…’ (implying there is a kind of snobbery about it)
It’s difficult to cater for everyone. Some of the chefs are professional, but this is mass catering, a different ball game. Viv, for instance, who has worked for Deliciously Ella and The Detox Kitchen, volunteers one week a month, depending on how much paid work she has.
All sorts are providing supplies: Riverford Organics sends vegetables by the tonne. Welsh vegetarian organisation The Parsnipship regularly bring over produce. Sometimes individuals drive up with just a few items. The day I was there, dozens of five litre glass jars of red pepper sauce and babaghanoush from Ottolenghi were being added to a curry.
‘This week Ottolenghi saved our arse, we’ve so few donations.’
Lush cosmetics gave £53k to build the warehouse.
‘Pretty good considering they get no advertising from it. They gave us cash, not products.’
‘We have the best smelling refugees in the world,’ joked Paul.
Later we visit the infamous Calais ‘Jungle’. There are myriad rules. Don’t go at night. Wear baggy clothes. Don’t give any personal details. Don’t ask their stories, you might trigger bad memories.
I leave my car outside the camp.
‘Have you got anything valuable in there?’
‘Yes I’ve got my laptop.’ (I hadn’t yet checked into my hotel.)
‘Hmm. You might be ok as there are police around.’
This place is full of rats at night.
‘I thought they were rabbits,’ says Viv. ‘There were hundreds.’
During my entire three day visit I only see four female refugees. Paul, the Scottish chef who is a long term volunteer, talks about the hidden women:
‘We mustn’t judge their culture.’
Behind me, my daughter fumes, remarking later that he is a mansplaining brocialist.
Walking down the ‘high street’ of The Jungle, there are two bakeries, a barbers, a bookshop, several grocers (packs of ten cigarettes wrapped in silver foil) standing in front of neat shelves, a few chai shops, some restaurants. I take a picture of the cigarettes.
‘Don’t take pictures,’ says Paul. ‘Things could spark off.’
‘I only took a picture of an object with my iPhone,’ I protest.
‘Yeah, well, it’s really delicate.’
I take pictures of things and ask people if it’s ok. It’s always ok. In fact, some people want selfies. They love that I’m with my daughter. Normality. Families. They ask Paul why he isn’t married, why he doesn’t have children when he’s in his 30s.
At one chai shop, the edges of the room covered with billowing rose-blotched fabric, men sprawl and smoke as the sun filters dustily through the gaps in the tarp.
Under the bar are pinned photos of successful emigrés to the UK, each has a date below, the date that they managed to get over the water. 30/11/15. 2/1/16.
‘It’s like tombstones but instead of the date of death, the date is when their life begins,’ I try to explain to one.
He understands and he laughs, translating for his friends. They nod. These are the success stories – those who have made it through the fence, through the tunnel, over and under the English channel to the chalky cliffs and beyond.
Sweet milky chai is offered, a toot of a fruit shisha pipe.
I look at some pencil drawings on a wall. A man sidles up to me and lisps in a whisper:
‘Can you help me? Ten euros please.’
I say no, shaking my head and smiling. If I start giving money, it may never end. It’s hard to know what to do.
Further along we stop to eat at the Three Idiots restaurant where the charming restaurateur, a Pakistani who learnt good English in Israel, welcomes us.
‘Please please welcome. Remove your shoes,’ he beckons, bowing, for us to ascend a small platform built around the edge of the space.
We eat cross legged around a piece of coloured plastic tablecloth, used as a picnic blanket. Vegetable samosas, spinach, lentils, rice with sweet carrot batons and raisins cost us eight euros. The food is very good, as is the nearby bakery that sells freshly made naan bread in a fiery tandoor oven. I start to feel embarrassed that us Westerners are cooking for them when these people cook so well.
‘Why am I making bread when they make fantastic bread here?’ I ask a volunteer.
‘Many refugees cannot afford to buy the naan.’
It costs one euro for three naan.
In this camp there are 5,000 souls sometimes sleeping 12 to a tarped-up hut, and I’ve heard claims that there are 1,000 women but I don’t see one in The Jungle, not even one.
The men try every night to get on lorries, to make it to England. Some have got through and manage a couple of years before getting deported back to their countries. Then they go through the whole process again, making the gruelling journey to Calais. Sometimes, those that do reach the UK miss The Jungle. It’s a community. Starting from scratch in a new country with no money, no accommodation, no job, no family, hiding from immigration, must be very lonely. When somebody gets asylum, there are celebrations in the camp.
As you drive from the ferry port you can see patched up areas in the white metal grills, topped with the rolling coils of barbed wire, where it has been cut. The camp is very near to the port, a tall fence, a sand bar, tufts of long grass and then the tented shacks, strapped like badly wrapped presents, tarp blowing in the beach winds. I imagine the atmosphere was very different through the long winter.
Right now lots of people are getting through to England because many French police have been deployed elsewhere in France to deal with riots.
I ponder the refugees I have met. The energy they must use up. The determination. I don’t know how they keep going.
‘Why the UK?’ I ask a volunteer youth worker.
‘It’s the land of milk and honey. We have benefits, we aren’t as openly racist as the French. They’ve been treated horribly by the French. And we speak English, plus there are already Afghani, Pakistani, Syrian communities in the UK.’
I meet a Belgian guy who gives slam poetry workshops. I think, but don’t say, that this probably isn’t a very useful skill for the British economy, but at least it keeps them entertained.
Perhaps they have a distorted view of the British people via the volunteers. We are all smiley and friendly and non-judgmental: the volunteer men are dispensing ‘salam alaikums’, back slaps and hugs. Many long term volunteers are judgmental of other ‘lesser’ volunteers, who they refer to as ‘voluntourists’. There’s always a hierarchy, the cool kids versus the rest, even in the most well intentioned organisation.
One young woman half my age tells me my footwear isn’t adequate (it was), my apron shouldn’t be worn to the camp (why?), if I put my bag down it will be treated as a donation (useful), that my cookbook will get splashed (so what?). I felt like I was treading on eggshells, everything I did was wrong.
There is the beautiful Israeli girl who speaks Urdu who gets told off for inadvertently showing her bum cleavage in one of the cafes.
I ask some heavily made-up peroxide blonde girls with blue face paint on their cheeks (yes, they seem to think they are at a festival) if I can take a picture of their meal.
‘Only the food, not us,’ they sniff.
‘Oh because you are illegal immigrants,’ I say sarcastically.
What the refugees are seeing actually is British hippiedom in full flow. This is not England. This is alternative England, the England of Glasto and protest marches. Things will be very different if they succeed in getting here.
On the second day I make 300 peshwari pitta breads, filled with dessicated coconut, sultanas and ground almonds. The oven doesn’t work so I cook them on flat pans on the low burners. By the end, my daughter and I are like a well oiled machine, dividing up the dough, weighing it, filling it, rolling it out, toasting it. It’s not enough for everybody as I have to wait until the main food is finished. I feel disheartened but Paul assures me it’ll be a treat for the refugees to have home-baked bread, even if it is just the women and children.
That evening we work till 7pm, clean up the kitchen and go to a restaurant in Calais, the only one open on a Monday night. It’s a fussy looking restaurant with lace curtains, peach tablecloths and empty Balthazars and Jeroboams bottles of champagne lining the stairway. The restaurateur is alone and we are the only customers. We chat in French and I explain that I’m cooking for the refugees. She smiles sadly:
‘No one comes to Calais anymore because of this situation. Les gens fuirent (the people flee). They read about the refugee camps and see it on the news and they are frightened to come. It’s hard to keep the business going,’
Suddenly I see things from their perspective. Calais and the North has always been the poorest part of France, with the highest unemployment and alcoholism.
We eat our set menu, three courses and two glasses of wine cost 72 euros. The food is refined and well presented. This is the only money she makes all night.
A sleepless night at the F1 hotel (30 euros a night, walls like cardboard) and a decent croissant at a bakery, we drive half an hour to the refugee kitchen.
While waiting to continue with the bread, for a free work counter, I chop vegetables with the other women: tomatoes, aubergines.
We are told that we have been bumped off the distribution rota, the opportunity to serve our food to the refugees in The Jungle, which is disappointing as we are leaving that night.
I drive instead to Dunkirk, which Jeremy Corbyn visited this winter, where they are building a new kitchen. You can see the camp from the autoroute, wooden structures rather than a shanty town of tents and tarps. This new camp is mainly Kurdish and Syrian refugees.
I’m shown to the kitchen where the atmosphere is very different from Calais, welcoming and relaxed. Here the refugees themselves are the chefs and the volunteers do the prepping.
My daughter and I are given name tags by Sylvie, a French volunteer, which is lovely as people can talk to us using our names.
One of the Kurdish chefs, a baker by profession, calls to me:
‘Kerstin, you want to cook tonight? You be the chef!’
‘So sorry I can’t as I have to catch the ferry,’ but I’m pleased to be asked.
We catch the lunch session and are encouraged to help distribute. We stand in the serving van; there is a long queue of around 200 people. The first pot is rice and fried potatoes, the second is a Shlai Patata, a tomato and potato stew with mysterious objects floating around.
‘What is this?’ I ask the chef.
‘Humi,’ I think he replies.
‘Hummus?’ I haven’t understood.
Then I eat a bowl, I’m hungry, and I pull apart the strange black object which turns out to be black dried lime softened in the soup. In fact the chef was saying ‘loomi’. It’s deliciously sour. I’m so nicking this recipe.
The third dish is the salad, a chunky cucumber and tomato salad with lemon and then my breads, which are a mash-up between peshwari naan and pitta breads.
Some refugees just want salad and bread. They look at the sultanas intently. They pick them out, eat them then smile and ask for more. The breads I made that day are still warm.
The atmosphere is jolly with Kurdish music, loud joking, dancing, singing, catch phrases in various languages.
‘No pasa nada’ cries chef Rebar, something he’s learnt from his new BFF, a Spanish guy with whom he plays dominoes after the meal.
Again, the majority are men (some of them, my daughter and I agreed, were rather handsome).
Later we drink tea together, or should I say, we drink sugar with a little tea. At the bottom of the cup I can see a melting mound of ‘white death’. Haval, a Kurd, plays guitar.
Sylvie, a French woman who has been volunteering since December, tells me what they need:
‘We don’t need chefs so much, we need choppers and helpers. We always need help though. Yesterday we had hardly anyone. Here in this kitchen we want the refugees to cook themselves. Originally, Utopia, the organisation here, didn’t want that because it’s a security risk. We give the refugees cards. They all want to be here, they are near the food then.’
I think if I were a refugee, not having control of my food situation would drive me crazy. I hate staying with other people when you feel like you can’t eat what you want. Sylvie continues:
‘We are forming three teams that will alternate. We want one of the teams to be women but we have to get their husbands to agree. The husbands didn’t want them to come because of the German men. We are working on that with the help of a Tunisian volunteer who speaks Arab – she’s talking to the husbands. We’ve said the husbands can come and check, make sure everything is ok.’
In Dunkirk they provide three meals a day:
‘The ‘German Kitchen’ makes the breakfast, fruit, hummus, babaghanoush, every morning. This Kurdish team make dinner every night.’
‘Are you German?’ I ask, as I want a translation.
‘Yes,’ he says, pausing. ‘But I don’t want to be.’
‘I want to be me, not a German.’
I think of all the young men outside the kitchen in the camp that would love to have a German passport.
The German tells me that when the refugees cook for themselves, the queues are enormous.
‘They know what the camp wants to eat. Their food is very popular.’
‘And it’s really good food! I exclaim. ‘It gives them something useful to do, it’s empowering. ‘
‘Yes, it’s the taste of home. ‘
Sylvie’s List for Dunkirk Kitchen
Fresh herbs, particularly coriander
Chicken (they rarely get meat)
Vegetables – lots
Fruit – always
Aubergines – they like them
Large white beans in tins
Spinach in tins
Green beans in tins
Basmati rice (good quality if possible as it’s easier to cook in bulk)
Fresh yeast as they like to make bread
Knives for the kitchen (if you volunteer bring your own)
Large catering colanders
For smaller quantities of food, they put it in the ‘free shop’ for families to take and cook.
Simone’s list for the Refugee Community Kitchen at Calais
Money for gas
Brooms and dustpans
Catering sized clingfilm
Volunteers, and this is what I did, must pay their own way in terms of transport, accommodation and meals outside of working hours.