Food Glorious Food

One of the key ingredients in our travels is – food. This daily pleasure inspires us when we are travelling.

Tapa in Granada Spain

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
Fish tagine in Assilah Morocco

Paella – Algeciras, Spain
Paella in Algeciras Spain

Barbequed Tuna –Bilbao, Spain
Barbeque Fish Portugalete

Smoked Pork Sausage – Evora, Portugal
Smoked Pork Sausage - Evora Portugal

Evora – Portugal

9th July 2015

I am a peacock plucker . . . . .

And a peacock plucker’s son . . . or was that a pheasant plucker hmmm?

Anyway, having settled into our comfortable accommodation conveniently situated in the heart of this olde walled city, we ranged out to fortify ourselves with some strong flavoured char grilled local meat dishes and generous amounts of excellent local wine. Soon after, well-fortified and wandering loose-footed, we found ourselves at dusk in the university grounds – quite open but, interestingly, infested by peacocks. They were calling to each other with their pleading, plaintive-yet-haunting (Portuguese?) cry of Eeeeoooowwwaaah. We were drawn, seductively, by these calls and encountered them in the most strange of places as they sought each others presence – no doubt to carry out ritual mating (well, they’re certainly prolific breeders – the buggers were everywhere). Young chicks were being fussed over by the hens while the cocks sauntered and strutted their colourful stuff, and when we climbed the crumbling steps of one of the rickety old stone watchtowers (carefully avoiding some of their eggs) there they were again, Eeeeoooowwwaaah-ing to each other in the dusk. The olde city park, and even the surrounding buildings, is alive with these free-ranging creatures and you can spot them up high on ledges as well as in the bushes.

Evora Peacock

And there were more boids! In the late evening (about 10pm) shortly before the sun finally sets the sky becomes alive with birds – predominantly swifts/swallows – and small bats feeding on-the-wing. I should note, too, that local musical performances or events here start no earlier than 10pm – and this is during the week! They really do ‘dance to a different tune’ here around the Mediterranean.

Cork-covered bottle
Evora - cork

Main plaza
Evora - main plaza

Walk on this in your high heels will you!

All the roads within this olde walled city are laid from old basalt and marble chips. They are the roughest ancient roads we have encountered, but they would be incredibly durable. They are a challenge for us walkers, but fortunately, in this city we do not have to watch out for dog shit – which is a relief. For some reason pet dogs are not so prevalent here: but we nevertheless have to place our feet carefully.

The cuisine, not to mention the wine of The Alentejo, has been outstanding and we have indulged ourselves with some excellent dining experiences and snacks.

Upon crossing into Portugal in the bus from Spain we found ourselves riding through a bleached landscape with greatly reduced agriculture. Quarries began to dominate the landscape. They were cutting and raising massive blocks of cream, pink, grey, black and streaked marble. In other areas the blocks were being cut into fine slabs to clad walls, or to be used as flooring or stairs. The small and glaringly bright village of San Bento de Mato appeared to be constructed entirely from marble and the surrounding countryside was dotted with mountains of huge marble chunks. Considered scraps of lesser value, these piles of imperfect pieces just await buyers, as even the smallest pieces will eventually be utilised to pave roads, footpaths and praças (plazas).

Impressive, intricately carved marble in a delicious variety of assorted colours adorns all the churches throughout this region and, typical throughout Portugal, they pave the praças and footpaths with small contrasting black and white marble cubes laid in decoratively-distinct patterns as illustrated above.

The (ongoing) Crisis
A local, young and fluent-English-speaking instrument shop owner explained that the European Economic Community, upon bailing out Portugal’s big Banks and financial institutions imposed several restrictions, one of which was for it to stop producing certain crops and another, to severely reduce its fishing fleet and catch. Effectively, the country was paid not to produce – which saved the big banks but did nothing to help the unemployment problem (look out, Greece). According to our informants, backed up by our observations, their economy is getting worse every day, though the current, seasonal, tourist influx will keep some afloat for a while yet.

The Alentejo
Alentejo is an Arabic word describing the area south of the ‘Ribera Tejo’ (the Tagus River), which ends at Lisbon. This southern region and neighbouring southern Spain was conquered and occupied by the Muslims for some 9oo years, following on from its Roman occupation, which followed on from the . . . Heeesus kristo, what a history this land has.

Evora and Elvas are in the centre of the Alentejo region of Portugal and bake in sunshine nine tenths of the year, and as we head westward to Faro the flat land featuring large crops of pine trees (for pine nuts), sunflowers, cork oaks, corn and wheat gradually gives way to more mountainous coastal area of The Algarve region. And so the comfortable bus delivers us into old Faro, package holiday centre for all the northern Europeans . . . sigh . . . but it is seductive with its bountiful eateries, extensive wetlands and nearby beaches under clear blue sky. We should’a given it longer.

The Abandoned Convent in Evora
Evora Convent Portugal
Being curious (and not a bit frustrated at having been refused entry to a monumentally huge, marble-fronted Carthusian monastery on the outskirts) we skirted a small and old church-type place looking for an entry and found one that led to its garden at the back. Meandering around its paths shaded by grape vines and orange trees, we were approached by a woman who told us we shouldn’t be there. We persisted, claiming we would love to see into the buildings and she called over her male associate – another gardener/caretaker – and he relented, kindly offering to show us around. He unlocked a door and led us at first into a charming cloister replete with shady trees. It was like a magic garden. The small cloister’s surrounding building had the classic, Arabic-inspired two levels creating this cool and tranquil sanctuary. The place was, in fact, an old (now disused) convent. Then he showed us the interior, up and down, through its many little rooms: kitchen, dining room , chapel, refectory and church – all neglected but with all its original materials in place – even big marble slabs with fitted, rusting rings to lift them, under which were buried the bones of the convent’s brethren. Let the photos speak!

Evora Convent - Portugal

Ye olde beneath-the-floor bones

And a few more pics of Evora

The Church of Ossos (bones)
Evora - church of bones

Basta ya!