‘‘Food has the power to unite us in our common humanity, transcending cultures and backgrounds’’
Martha Collison was a contestant on the fifth series of GBBO, the programme that took the baking (and non-baking) nation by storm.
Now a columnist and recipe writer with two cookery books in print, Martha gives a lot of time to charity – an association that led to a visit to Lebanon earlier in the year.
It changed her life…
I remember so clearly the first time I stepped into that famous tent at age 17 – the youngest ever contestant on the Great British Bake Off. Filming the series passed in a surreal whirlwind… While my friends were prepping for our AS-levels at college, I was getting to grips with a baking technical challenge and pastry week in a slightly-too-warm marquee.
I never imagined that, four years later, I’d be cooking in a tent again. This time over 3,000 miles from home and worlds away from the quaint bunting, state-of-the art ovens and television crew.
This time I am cooking over one small stove, in a makeshift tent made from planks of wood and tarpaulin in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. Cooking alongside me is one of strongest women I have met, widow and mother of three, Areej.
The war in Syria has been going on for eight years, but it didn’t hit home for me until I travelled to Lebanon with international development and relief charity Tearfund and spent time with people whose lives have been torn apart and have literally lost everything. Today, Lebanon hosts over 982,000 registered refugees and, according to the UNHCR, more than half of those are women and children.
''Cooking has the potential to restore a sense of hope and dignity''
Areej and her family have been living in an informal settlement for seven years and the temporary shelter doesn’t provide much privacy for the family or protection from the extreme temperatures. As we cook, it’s hard to think about the trauma Areej has been through and the life and memories she had to leave behind the day she was forced to flee Syria with her young children.
Ever since reaching the quarter-finals of Great British Bake Off in 2014 I’ve been determined to use the opportunity as a platform to speak up for injustice and those living in the vulnerability of poverty.
As an Ambassador for Tearfund I’ve had the privilege to see the work they do first-hand. Working closely with its partners, the charity helps families in Lebanon process trauma caused by conflict. It also provides emergency aid packages of essential food and hygiene supplies to those who’ve had to flee to escape the violence and conflict in Syria.
I watch Areej as she takes a selection of herbs and spice from her small pantry and begins preparing a dish of chicken and lemon rice. The delicious aroma of Middle Eastern spices fills the room as she carefully makes the most of every ingredient, ensuring nothing is wasted, skilfully preparing the entire meal alternating between two small bowls.
I’m humbled by the warm welcome and the hospitality the family show me, despite their difficult circumstances. Areej generously lays out her best plates and insists on serving us chicken even though the family can only afford to eat meat once a month.
What I love about cooking isn’t just the combining of flavours, creative techniques or the feeling of accomplishment at a finished bake fresh from the oven. It’s how food has the power to unite us in our common humanity, transcending our different cultures and backgrounds.
Now, as I reflect on my time with Areej a few months after my trip to Lebanon, I’m struck again by the fact that, even in the darkness of situations, cooking has the potential to restore a sense of hope and dignity and how sharing a meal together can help create a little piece of home – wherever we are.’
Photo credit: Clive Mear/Tearfund
Martha is currently involved in Tearfund’s Cakes, Bakes and Faith tour, sharing more memories of her trip as she does so.
Tearfund is a Christian relief and development agency and a member of the Disasters’ Emergency Committee. Founded in 1968, the charity has been working around the world for 50 years responding to disasters and helping lift communities out of poverty.