A Brief Glimpse of Calais
✨ MELANIE FULLBROOK
In December, Revels In Hand co-founder Melanie Fullbrook went out to see the situation in Calais now that The Jungle is long gone. Here is her account of her weekend.
A good friend of mine whom I met at chef school had been to Calais a few times to volunteer with Refugee Community Kitchen. She lives in Paris so makes the trip when she can and had told me they are always in need of chefs to help organise the mise en place of a bulk cooking kitchen. I had planned to go with her but our dates hadn’t matched up so I ended up going with some friends of my flatmate who go out as often as they can - a doctor, a psychotherapist, a lawyer and a charity worker. What an incredible array of selfless jobs.
I hadn’t realised how quick and easy it is to get across the channel from here. Once on the Eurotunnel at Folkestone you’re there within 40 minutes. We decided to stay in an Airbnb as there were 5 of us and the other girls suggested that the hostel is a little overpriced for what it is. Tired after the working week and not knowing what to expect, we had an early night, ready to get a big porridge breakfast in us, wrap up in many, many layers and head out early.
We headed over to the secret location of the charity warehouses - no longer made easily public due to the issues they have had with protesters etc. To be honest - and forgive my naivety - I don’t know too much about the political implication of refugees in Calais and therefore how much resistance to the help being given is deserved- but all I do know is that I believe no human should be left without food, water, shelter and respect. The warehouse is home to a fair few long-term volunteers, some who have been there for months, even years - and also to three or four different refugee charities. Refugee Community Kitchen - as the name suggests - have their home in the kitchen.
On arrival there is a debrief with that day’s leaders to assign the day’s volunteers according to their skills. I headed straight into the kitchen and within minutes was chatting away to Tomas - a friendly French carpenter by trade who has spent the last 3 months in Calais volunteering. He is now head chef. He welcomes me with a huge smile - and a tiny amount of relief - a sense of ‘thank goodness ; cooking 2000 meals a day without any training is hard’. However, he needn’t have been so modest. The food they produce is genuinely delicious and the tasks of the long-term volunteers now run like clockwork. I very quickly got given my own little team and first task was to deal with a huge delivery of fresh, donated, red chillies. The men in Calais are predominantly from different parts of Africa and had been complaining (in jest) about the western spice level they were being given. So... the team had got some chillies that were lethal! With my little team we set to making a ginormous vat of hot sauce to end all hot sauces. The outer edges of the kitchen are lined with huge gas hobs and metal pots up to my hip-height filled with the daily kilos of aromatic boiled rice and whatever is today’s dish of the day (a vegetable curry with whatever amazing array of spices / fresh ingredients have been donated). In the centre of the room are huge metal tables circled by the day-volunteers in their hats, coats and the charity chef clogs and overalls - all turning their mind to sorting bread bags from yesterday’s bread donated by local companies; and then the salad... enough lettuce and tomatoes for 2000 people, all chopped fine enough that it can be eaten easily with a spoon. Health and safety is taken pretty seriously. They have an incredible array of commercial chef equipment - potato muddlers (I washed and peeled kilo upon kilo in a matter of 1 minute per mound) and a huge onion / cabbage / carrot dicer. The hours flew by, zesting and squeezing 20 lemons, hundreds of garlic cloves etc. Eventually the hot sauce was complete and my goodness had we met the brief - I had to get a lovely male volunteer from Turkey to come and season it because it was way way way too hot for me to taste anything once it’d been near my tongue!! He gave it a big thumbs up, even though using the huge hand held blender that was bigger than me to mix all the chillies into a paste nearly had all of us choking on the strength of the spice fumes.
The daily food drop leaves the warehouse in two white vans at around 3pm. One heads to Calais and the other to Dunkirk. Only 4 volunteers fit in the van once the food is loaded so not everyone will by any means go out into the field but I got selected on my first day to go to Dunkirk. We headed out on the road but warnings from the charity who had done the lunchtime drop told us that it was the first day of the protests about fuel prices and most roads were blocked. Actually the roads were scarily empty right up until the Dunkirk turn-off, where lorries were jammed back to back. We had to call the mayor’s office to organise a police escort to allow us past the tyre and metal fence blockades that had been built. Luckily we got there eventually, but the light was basically gone. We drove down the dirt track to a huge carpark where the tables are set up. On the driveway lots of young men - excited by the van’s presence, were banging the doors and jumping on the back. Although a little intimidating, it very much felt like an overly zealous and bored reaction rather than anything threatening. We set up the tables and the first vats of rice, curry, bread and salad and started to serve. Very quickly a queue of hundreds formed to get their white box of hot food. 95% were men. A few women and a few children. It was a very odd and humbling realisation that most of them understood and spoke English to me, despite it being most likely their third language. It made me realise, and again please forgive my naivety, that most of these men are incredibly well-educated. Some I spoke to were dentists / doctors / engineers but with nowhere to go without citizenship. As darkness fully fell, I found myself feeling a little uncomfortable as one of four female volunteers amidst hundreds of men but - despite the odd remark and intense stares - the atmosphere was one of kindness and gratitude and respect. I headed home exhausted and with a lot on my mind. I’d learnt so much. As I went to my warm house with my warm food and my warm shower I thought long and hard about their situation and about my understanding or lack of understanding.
The next day was another full day in the kitchen. This time I was helping Tomas with the main curry. It was chickpea and leek. The volume of food is insane. All leftovers from the meal the day before go to feed the volunteers. Very little is wasted.
I very sadly could only give two days but it was an experience I will cherish. Sure, it was nice to feel like I was doing my bit... but it was much more profound than that. I realised I had known so little and made such boring, wrong assumptions about what the refugees would be like. It was great not to see women and children out in the cold anymore, but the majority of the men there were either teenagers separated from their mothers and younger siblings or fathers separated from their wives and children. There are just still so many people displaced and desperate. And these are just the people who have made it to France. It is very odd as well to hear that all of their dream / final destinations seemed to be England. With the current political climate I thought ‘why?’ It definitely made me think long and hard about appreciating what I have. The right to be with my family, to warmth, to health, to food, to freedom.
If anyone is interested in volunteering then do it. They always need help, especially on week days as most volunteers come for a weekend. For more information visit http://www.refugeecommunitykitchen.com/volunteer/