I suppose things will never be the same again. We’re all settling into the new normal. These days, more adults are riding scooters than children and we can no longer live without our little bottles of hand sanitiser. Londoners are leaving the city in droves, we’re having to wear masks on every single shopping trip and many of us are working from home, meaning less communing and less pollution.

In the early days of the pandemic, panic-buying toilet roll and tinned food was rife. Not as ridiculous as it seemed really, considering that the entire planet had been gripped by an unknown pandemic.

Now, six months later, a renaissance in tinned food is still happening all over Europe. According to Kantar research, sales rocketed by over 70 per cent in March 2020 compared to the previous year. A popularity unseen since the Second World War.

Apparently, the UK’s first ever festival devoted to canned foods took place on Instagram last week. Who would have predicted that in 2019! Is its wartime association finally being shaken off?

Personally speaking, it could only take something as huge as this pandemic to change my mindset.

The central feature of a Mediterranean diet is its freshness, the fragrant flavours and that sense of immediacy. When I was a child, Antonio would turn up a couple of times a month driving a huge blue lorry down our London street. It was an Italian delicatessen on wheels! I loved that initial impact of abundance as soon as I stepped inside. The children in the neighbourhood loved exploring. It was a wonderland of Mediterranean culinary delights! Utterly crammed with packets of pasta, bottles of olive oil, jars filled with red peppers and olives.

Antonio even had a chilled glass counter with neatly arranged Parmeggiano, Mortadella, Parma ham and other cured meats and cheeses. The wall to wall shelves were filled with chocolates like Baci Perugina, panettones and drinks such as San Pellegrino and aperitifs like Crodino. The lorry would soon be pretty crowded with three or four Italian mammas and their bambini taking their turns to order, while chatting, or rather shouting, at each other jovially. Antonio didn’t seem to mind the chaos.

The truth is that through the decades, most Italian mammas spoke of tinned food with a slight disdain.

‘Shopping with Mamma’ involved going to the butchers and buying meat to make Braciola, or to the deli counter to buy soft Mozzarella di Bufala or to the market to buy pomodorini on the vine to make a mean antipasto platter. We’d even head to the fishmonger to buy fresh eels, an Italian delicacy on Christmas Eve, and unless they were actually alive nobody would buy them.

However, when I think back a little harder, the role of tinned food and glass jars was ever-present! The best Ragu sauces require a couple of tins of plum peeled tomatoes and any complete Italian antipasto contains some artichoke hearts and anchovies from a jar. Pasta e Fagioli, arguably one of the most nutritious soups on earth, requires a tin or two of red kidney and cannellini beans.

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Nowadays you can get practically any foodstuff canned, from caviar to leaf spinach to duck confit!

However, before we fill our baskets with tins, we need to keep in mind the salt, sugar and sodium content and understand that tinned food consumption is fine in moderation.

Keeping your tinned portion size small and finding ways to integrate it with fresh foods is probably the most sensible approach. Ultimately, it comes down to reading the label on the back of the tin and taking responsibility for our own health decisions. I’m sure we all realize how fatty corned beef is, that brine water is actually saltwater and that peaches in syrup are extremely high in sugar; that water-soluble vitamins such as C and B are pretty much wiped out in canned food once the fruits and vegetables have been blanched. We should also be aware of a BPA chemical that can be found in the lining of tins that can cause health issues and that dented or damaged tins can be very dangerous to our health.

That said, chefs have devised countless gourmet recipes using tinned foods then adding a few other fresh ingredients, which require very little preparation. Pureed sardines with cream cheese, lemon and parsley is delicious spread on some crusty French bread. Carrot and coriander soup on a cold winter’s night can be ready in minutes, with added homemade croutons and some fresh peas mixed in. Chickpeas with some tahini, lemon juice and garlic makes a tasty houmous. Quarter pears with some Greek yoghurt and maple syrup is a nice easy dessert.

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I remember how I poked fun at my husband at the beginning of lockdown when he came back from a stressful shopping trip with tins of corned beef and Fray Bentos tinned pies! Maybe, in the light of this ‘tinned food renaissance’ I was a bit hasty. Only a week later we sat down to some very tasty tinned meatballs, costing only 50p from Morrisons and washed down with some Prosecco (which was all we had in at the time)! So many of us experienced trivial yet totally surreal moments especially during early lockdown. We may indeed look back on 2020 amused by the strange turn in our eating habits, including our new penchant for tinned confectionary. Oh well, at least the gyms have reopened!

  • Marisa Laycock moved to St Albans in 2000. She enjoys sharing her experiences of living in the city. These columns are also available as podcasts from 92.6FM Radio Verulam at www.radioverulam.com/smallcitylife .