Over the last few weeks I have been working in a warehouse outside Calais for the charity RCK. The charity is volunteer led and, in the days of the Jungle, distributed food to 2500 people in the camp as well as the hundred odd volunteers in the warehouse. It now provides all the hot food for over a thousand people living in the rapidly expanding refugee camp in Dunkirk, because the Jungle has been cleared and thousands of people displaced from their homes. RCK are also planning on launching a mobile food project in order to provide food for refugees living in unofficial camps around Paris.
I won’t give you an update on the crisis in Calais, I’m sure you’re already well aware of it, instead I will try to paint a picture of the incredible working of the warehouse kitchen. Established in December 2015, the industrially sized kitchen runs 7 days a week (sometimes for over 12 hours a day). It is attached to the warehouse of L’Auberge des Migrants and also worked with the charity to set up smaller kitchens in cafes inside the Jungle. The food, which is nearly always vegan, is unbelievably delicious, comforting and nutritious. The chefs always aim to make food which would remind people living in the camp of home; they have an entire wall dedicated to storing more spices than you could imagine.
The day kicks off around 8.30 am with the meticulous washing of the rice. Huge vats of rice are soaked in water, which is changed three times as the rice is poured between containers through giant sieve spoons which catch the grains. The soaking means that, even though the cooking pots it are so enormous that you could sit in them, the rice cooks in 10 minutes. The soaking also removes most of the starch, leaving the rice perfectly fluffy even after a vigorous stirring. The chef’s magic touch is to drizzle through a combination of varying spices (cumin, sumac, cardamon or cloves) cooked in olive oil. I will always be in total awe of this industrial process, and slightly embarrassed to think of the many times that I’ve allowed rice to go starchy or stick to the bottom of the pan.
This generally takes most of the morning and is done whilst an army of peelers and choppers prepare the vegetables for the 16 salads. Hundreds of lettuces, chicories, tomatoes, cauliflowers, carrots, onions and peppers are chopped very particularly (Ugo would occasionally grab your knife and offer his professional chopping advice), mixed together and lovingly dressed by a cauldron of homemade, inventive salad dressing. After the salads are made, the rest of the afternoon is spent peeling onions, garlic and veg for the next days meal.
The main event of the meal is normally a type of vegan beany curry which is started the previous afternoon and mixed and reheated the following morning. A varying combination of boiled vats of either fava beans (dried broad beans), chickpeas, lentils, potatoes or kidney beans form the protein element of the meal. The curry base cooks simultaneously in the afternoon and consists of, for want of a better way to put it, a heck of a lot of whole garlic cloves and sliced onions, spiced with cumin seeds, coriander seeds and chili. The onions are added gradually and cooked for hours and hours (seemingly an eternity when you’re stirring them) until they break down and form the base of the curry. Depending on donations, sometimes fresh spinach or herbs are also added. Once the chefs made a baked tuna pasta with parsley and olives, and despite my determined disgust for (verging on totally allergic aversion of) tinned tuna, I ate and enjoyed it!
Nothing is skimped on, often there would be spiced cous cous or roasted turmeric potatoes accompanying the rice. As a treat there might be humous or a warmly spiced tomato sauce on the side. I remember the warming feeling that those meals gave me every day in the warehouse, therefore I know that all at RCK’s continued efforts to supply refugees around France with food are valued beyond words.