Food Glorious Food
One of the key ingredients in our travels is – food. This daily pleasure inspires us when we are travelling.
“Well,” you may ask, “what’s so special about food? We eat every day, anyway. What’s so interesting about food when travelling?”
O.K. And where do I start?
I was raised and grew up in New Zealand and Australia, two former British colonies. There, food was treated more generally as fuel – a necessary disruption to the business of work, sport and play rather than something to be taken leisurely and actually savoured. A generalisation? Arguably, yes.
And possibly, no. But then, while travelling overseas it becomes clearly noticeable that besides the obvious differences in cuisines there is a distinctly different attitude toward food. Oh, today in our lands Down Under there are gorgeously decorative cook books galore on bookshop shelves, Reality TV ‘Chef’ programs for the activity-challenged and innumerable restaurants touting more than they are able to deliver and usually at exorbitant prices. Pretentiousness abounds: so-called ‘Chefs’ are anointed with celebrity status – the term ‘Cook’ almost a derogatory appellation – and over-simplified recipes are ladled out to the (apparently starving and culinary-challenged) TV media’s masses. But food is still largely seen as fuel.
In contrast, cuisine we have encountered in our travels has far less celebrity, less glamour, less media-commerciality. Indeed, on a daily basis food is often treated almost reverentially: the experience of eating certainly not hurried and the food consumed being the subject of much contemplation, discussion and even debate.
We all recognise that eating is pleasurable – the receptors in our palate ensure that. But to our shame many of us eat hurriedly and with fleeting thought as to what we consume: What are the ingredients? How and where were the ingredients harvested? How were the constituents prepared, melded together, constructed, aged? And is the resulting dish pleasing to the palate? All this may sound like obsessive gourmandising but those I refer to, those who we encounter on our travels, are neither gourmets nor gourmands. They are just enthusiastic folk who have been taught from birth that food is to be deliberated over and savoured as one of life’s few pleasures.
Oh, there are true gourmands in many of these countries, to be sure. They often form clubs based around certain foodstuffs, or just to enthuse and critique their own (often male only) efforts like Bilbao’s ‘Txokos’, or perhaps Britain’s ‘Tripe Clubs’. But these only serve to highlight the distinction between these ‘other’ countries and my own (though the Tripe Clubs have travelled to the colonies).
Many nationalities and/or religious sects are convinced that certain foods are detrimental to our health and longevity and they may eschew meats and/or dairy products for example, but in this, most are dedicated to passionately concocting and enjoying their food. Where we reside this is sometimes the case with individuals, but rarely does such dedication become available to the public at large.
Though I suspect that our great coloniser – Great Britain – began its disinterest in food-as-pleasure with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the debasement of food to that of fuel cannot be attributed solely to the increasingly hectic lifestyles that this started (and which many of us have continued to take on): there are cultural factors at play, too. I would hazard that climate also plays a part in the interest or disinterest in food. It appears that in warmer climates life is determinedly lived at a more leisurely pace and this naturally translates into a more leisurely construction and consumption of food.
But it is the sheer, noticeable availability of food in these countries that we find so markedly different, too. It is in the streets (and sometimes on the streets – drying), on trolleys, in stalls, restaurants, bars, food-halls, markets, fishing boat harbours, etc. In fact, in some places it is hard to avoid it – and all for one’s delectation. I think I’ll try this tasty morsel. Ooh, and this, and perhaps that? Food for pleasure. “Och weeel, I guess ye’ll naw be wantin’ yer dinner the noo!” Self-restraint is often called for.
The association of alcohol with consumption of food (not encouraged in some Muslim countries) makes for an interesting comparison, too. Where I was brought-up the only food to be found in a bar would be highly-salted peanuts with the clear intention of getting you to drink more. Staggeringly, in many Down Under hotel bars this is still the case today (with the addition of salted potato crisps in packets and Biltong – beef jerky), with not a skerrick of food on the bar itself. The countries we travel to encourage you to eat if you are choosing to drink alcohol. The bars are often laden with tempting, tasty and affordable titbits, while part or full meals are readily available if it is your intention to dine.
The general bastardisation of our food into ‘convenience products’ and ‘processed foods’ and their damaging health impact has been well written about so I won’t go there, but do take time with that next morsel as it touches your tongue, that next slither as you slowly chew it. Feel the texture, experience the magic as its juices circulate around your mouth arousing and stimulating the senses while titillating your palate. Ponder a while on how it was made and from what . . . Mmmmm.
Tagine – Assilah, Morocco
Paella – Algeciras, Spain
Barbequed Tuna –Bilbao, Spain
Smoked Pork Sausage – Evora, Portugal