DURING a year when many of us spent more time at home than ever, the kitchen came calling.
At one point, it seemed that almost everyone on social media had decided to make their own sourdough starter.
Baking banana bread became a weekly ritual.
Boredom and isolation led to creativity and inspiration with food and, for some, it travelled beyond their own table.
Weekender meets with three Novocastrians who developed food products and businesses during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Conjurup Food Company
ISLINGTON-based cook Anna-Jane "AJ" Dalton was looking for ways to use surplus lemons from a lemon-based product she was working on during lockdown when she developed the recipe for her aromatic spiced lemon jam, Confiture de Citron.
When restrictions ordered us to stay home, Dalton turned to the kitchen.
Cooking kept her busy.
"Panic stations, right, COVID. We're locked down. I am here at home. What am I cooking?," Dalton tells Weekender.
"First day I made sausages. I had a leg of lamb and I deboned it, minced it and made sausages. Day two, 'What am I going to do?'. I made lemon curd tartlets.
"Day three, 'I might do a leek, ricotta and blue cheese tart'. It went on and on like this. I'd cook, we'd eat, we'd drink, and then in the morning, I'd go for an eight-kilometre walk. I'd come back and think, 'What am I going to do now?'.
"It was a prime time for creativity for me because I had a lot of lemons on hand and I was locked down here, and thought, 'Well, I'll just keep playing with them until I get something right'.
"I'm a country girl and I cannot bear waste, but there were lemon slices that were just not perfect for my other product and I wasn't using them, so I thought, 'I bet I can do something interesting with these'.
"I didn't want to just make a jam, I wanted to make something that was really interesting and I thought, 'You know what? I'm going to spice it and I'm going to get the balance right, and I think it will be great with cheese'."
The spreadable condiment is an ideal replacement for quince paste on a cheese board.
The fragrant, intense lemon flavour is balanced with the sweetness of sugar and the right amount of spice, and is versatile enough to be used as a glaze on fish, chicken, pork, and vegetables, or add a zesty burst of flavour to sandwiches, toasties, and pizza.
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Dalton mixes with mayonnaise to create a dipping sauce, folds through mascarpone and freezes to make ice-cream, and even adds it to her martini.
Using locally-grown, single-sourced unwaxed lemons, the jam is hand-poured and set in a reusable glass pot.
"It is new and it is different," she says.
"It has a very intense flavour, but it's also extremely more-ish.
"It is intense, with no additives, and it has spicing that gives a point of difference and balance that I am told is perfect. It just takes food to another level.
"Everything I do has an extraordinarily long palate, so you get lots of layers of flavour."
And she knew she had to share it.
She launched Confiture de Citron commercially this month through her brand, Conjurup Food Company, which she founded back in 2011.
The product is available online at conjurupfood.com.au. It's also available in-store at Milford Espresso in Islington, at Hunter Valley Chocolate Company in Pokolbin, Wollombi Road Providore in Cessnock and at Hungerford Meat Co, Branxton.
"It is one of the good things that has come out of COVID," Dalton says.
COMFORT food came calling for chef Ashley Marcantelli.
It was during the first month of lockdown when he and partner Laura came up with his Waratah-based business, Knockin' Gnocchi.
"The idea came to us once it became apparent that restaurants would not be opening any time in the near future," Marcantelli says.
"As a chef, I'm used to being on my feet most of the day and being productive, so going from working 70 hours a week to sitting around the house during lockdown was a huge change.
"The restaurants weren't opening, so I needed to fill my days in somehow."
Marcantelli decided to tap into the home delivery market by making restaurant-quality homemade gnocchi, frozen fresh and delivered to your door.
He promoted the business on social media and, to his surprise, received almost 40 orders on the first night.
"The first week or so it was nice to take a bit of a break and enjoy my own time, but after that boredom quickly kicked in," Marcantelli says.
"The kitchen, for me, provided structure and purpose during lockdown.
"It was great to be able to get up each morning and cook food to deliver to the public that couldn't eat out. It definitely kept me busy and my mental health in check."
The business is still going strong.
The weekly menu is released every Monday and is available by messaging 0428 858 780 or via Instagram @knockin_gnocchi.
He delivers to Newcastle, Maitland, Fletcher and Toronto, and most places in-between, from Wednesday to Friday.
I Like You Raw
ISOLATION provided Helenah Sinclair, of Islington, with time to create her own range of homemade nut-derived "milks".
After moving to New York City to live and work in 2019, Sinclair made the tough decision to put her dream on hold and return to Australia in March due to the pandemic. Faced with the prospect of two weeks at home in quarantine, Sinclair chose to get creative in the kitchen rather than binge on Netflix.
Taking inspiration from a fellow Aussie in New York who was operating her own nut milk business, Sinclair learnt the process of making the milk from scratch. She developed a marketing plan and began selling the milk through her new business, I Like You Raw, in June.
"It sounds bad to say, because COVID is horrible, but the one good thing is it gave everyone time to think," Sinclair told Weekender in August.
"People had time to do things they have wanted to do for so long, which I think is amazing.
"That's how I got started with I Like You Raw. I was making it [nut milk] at home and I thought 'This would be such a great little business in Newcastle', because no one else does it. I was bored in isolation and I thought, 'I'm just going to do it'."
Her specialty is the nutrient-rich tigernut milk, along with cashew and coconut milk, and choc almond milk.
The business has continued to grow since she last spoke to Weekender, with the addition of creamy black sesame milk, and almond and macadamia milk to her range (order online at ilikeyouraw.com).