By David Revagliatte
Let’s face it. The last few months have been a rollercoaster, haven’t they? We ended last year just about getting over what had been an interminable Brexit-themed soap opera and many of us had started 2020 with a little more clarity about the future, feeling somewhat hopeful about what this new year would bring…
And then the coronavirus started to emerge from the East. And with it came a whole raft of uncertainties, a fresh wave of alarming headlines, stark warnings about the economy, a closed frontier and a strict lockdown for our over 70s. Everything that we took for granted – we were told – could no longer be guaranteed and for some time in late March, the future looked bleak. So we set about figuring out how to adapt. Our living rooms became home offices, Zoom became ‘the’ place to be on Friday and Saturday nights and we became experts at washing our hands and practising the very un-Gibraltarian trait of keeping our distance.
It’s no wonder then that we started to look for hobbies for new ways to keep occupied at home, we sought comfort and an escape from the negativity of the news. For many – myself included – that comfort was found in the kitchen. With my favourite bars and restaurants closed and food deliveries saved for special occasions, I had no choice but to chop, mix and create my own Russian salads, slow-cook my carne en salsa and make my own pasta-soaked rostos. In need of recipes, I took to the internet for inspiration and that’s when I came across Sonia de la Rosa.
“It was so lovely seeing people share pictures of their own dishes.”
Comfort in Food
Sonia de la Rosa has become somewhat of a celebrity during the pandemic. Through the weeks Gibraltar was in lockdown, she started to share videos of herself cooking some of Gibraltar’s best-loved dishes on Facebook to the glee of people everywhere. In just three months, her Facebook group named ‘Sonia’s Recipes’ has amassed just under 5,000 members – that’s more than Hungry Monkey by the way – and her book, Mama Sonia’s Cooking with Passion has been sent all over the world. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, she’s just launched a YouTube channel.
In order to get the lowdown behind one of the lockdown’s biggest success stories, I recently met Sonia at the home she shares with her husband. Greeting me at the door with a smile, she waves and says “Come in, come in” and walks me past the kitchen in which she films her videos and into her living room. “I’ve just finished making a stuffed chicken for lunch – if you’re not in a rush you could stay and eat as there’ll be plenty!” she says. Totally gutted that I was in fact in a rush, we both take a seat on her comfy leather sofas. As soon as I sit down, I feel right at home; Sonia’s living room is familiar and welcoming, her television is on and showing the news, there are family photographs on the walls and along the mantlepiece – it feels like I am visiting my auntie rather than someone I’ve just met.
Food for Heroes
Perhaps in response to our socially distant greeting or in reaction to the news headlines showing on a now-muted television, our conversation kicks off with mention of the pandemic. “It’s absolutely terrible what’s happening isn’t it?” she says. “At the start of this all I really didn’t know how things were going to turn out – one of the biggest scares for me came when I found out about the extra graves being created at the cemetery – it really had an impact on me.” In the same breath, she flipped it to a positive saying, “seeing Gibraltar come together has been so good, we have a strong sense of community here and that helped us all through I think – I did my part and started baking and cooking for the care workers and GHA staff, I sent them all some treats – I saw that they posted it on social media – I hope they enjoyed them!”.
“I used to help her in the kitchen every day”
On the subject of the lockdown, I asked Sonia about how she decided to start posting recipes and videos of her cooking, “I was encouraged to do it by my family! I had been posting recipes on the Facebook group ‘Gibraltar’s Home Cooking’ by Yvette Casaglia and I had started getting some comments and requests so back in April my grandchildren said, “Mama why don’t you start your own group?” and that was how it started. I then started getting requests for recipes and started to film myself cooking them in my kitchen – it was so lovely seeing people comment and share pictures of their own dishes, it makes me so happy knowing that people enjoy cooking as much as I do.”
One of the parallel successes to the Facebook group has been her book Mama Sonia’s Cooking with Passion book which has become a welcome addition to many a llanito kitchen. “Well, the success of the book took me by surprise,” she smiles, “in fact, the whole thing was a bit of a surprise, including the book itself! Liam Baldachino, my granddaughter’s boyfriend called me up one day and said: ‘Sonia, I have a surprise for you’ – I had thought that maybe he was calling to tell me he’d passed his exams at university, but he had actually gone and made me the book! It’s such a lovely gesture, considering the fact I didn’t choose the recipes featured myself. It includes a great selection of home and restaurant favourites.”
My natural next question was for what recipes she felt were missing from this book, her eyes lit up and she showed me a huge ring binder file. Almost full-to-bursting, each page included photographs and carefully written recipes, “I have been writing and keeping recipes for years, I am planning another book of classic local dishes – you know, the dishes we have all grown up with – the ones that we all remember and love. I hope to get onto getting the book ready soon!”
Sonia’s love of cooking is palpable, I wanted to know where the passion for the kitchen came from, “Ever since I was a little girl, I remember enjoying it. I come from a humble family and when I was very young I used to watch my Spanish mother cook – I used to help her in the kitchen every day and that’s where I started picking up techniques and recipes – even when we went to see my auntie I would head into the kitchen and help them prepare meals by with things like peeling potatoes, chop vegetables – pretty much anything they needed help with.” I asked her whether she thought that some traditional dishes are being lost through the generations, “Yes, absolutely, that’s what people tend to write when I post my videos and recipes, it’s like nostalgia for a different time – most of my recipes are so simple and I am just so proud and happy to help preserve that little bit of Gibraltarian tradition.”
If this feature’s left you wanting more, search ‘Sonia’s Recipes’ on Facebook to access loads of tasty local recipes. You can also place an order for her book.