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

Luis Pedras – Elvas Portugal

Elvas Forts Portugal

Elvas is one of Portugal’s many charming villages that in a previous existence were strategic, fortified frontier posts. Small and snuggled close to the Spanish border, they have a somewhat terrifying history, but now allow the traveller a fascinating insight into Portugal’s struggle to maintain its existence. Here, especially in these small, rural towns we can also enjoy its ancient architecture, traditional culture and cuisine.

Elvas is in the Alentejo region and the town is dominated by its small but highly fortified castle. From up on its battlements you have amazing views that stretch out over the northern fortification of Forte de Graça and east over the rolling plains into Spain. Our experience of this expansive view – on one particularly sultry summer’s evening – had us entranced; Spain’s Extremadura was burning up with a series of bush fires and the whole eastern sky was aglow with a russet-pink hue.

Positioned on the highest point of the city, the Castelo de Elvas is possibly Portugal’s most battle-hardened castle, having survived numerous sieges and battles over its long and turbulent history. Constructed purely for defence, it has thick solid walls, high battlements and a solid keep. Its panoramic view over the surrounding landscape and deep into the Spanish heartland speaks volumes of its historic role.

Luis Pedras

Portugese Potter and Poet
An open door that gave access into one of the old castle’s towers beckoned, and it was here we found Luis standing outside chatting with some friends. We were curious as to what was within, secretly harbouring thoughts of encountering ancient relics from the castle’s past. But when we sought entrance into the old tower he told us it was his workshop. Clearly, we were a wee bit late for discovering ‘antiquities’. Introductions over, he explained that he was finishing up for the day but would give us a quick look around. Following that, he offered to show us his finished wares in his nearby studio-gallery.

The body of work of this talented ceramic artist is notable in that it is both eclectic and prodigious, and while his design-style is unique, it evinces Portugal’s distinctive ceramic tradition. He is also a poet of some note and a discerning collector of ethnic art; this makes a visit to his studio-gallery an interesting experience.

Besides his more interesting works of art, however, his stock and favoured item is the folksy, traditional Ronca. This musical instrument has a long association with Portugal’s past yet, interestingly, and perhaps like wine, it has travelled far. Originating in Africa to accompany sacred and secret rituals, it was also found in Cuba. And in Venezuela it is called a Furruco, in Spain a Zambomba, in southern Italy a Putipù, in Germany a Rummelpot and so on – very well-travelled. Luis actively markets and demonstrates this instrument and many a visitor to Elvas now has a Ronca on their shelf at home. Though it is a mono-tone instrument, its sound will immediately evoke in the tourist’s memory Luis Pedras, the Castelo de Elvas and this quaint little town.

Given the diverse and ancient roots of the Ronca and Luis’ interest in distant peoples and cultures, one can appreciate his abiding interest in this membranophone instrument. He, too, has travelled widely and has a fascinating collection of artefacts from exotic lands. Though they are not for sale, many can be found in his studio workshop.

We both admire ceramic artistry and have a substantial pottery collection of our own. However, like so many other travellers who are on a tight budget and who prefer to travel light, we often have to decline artists’ and artisans’ beautiful works. Luis, bless his cotton socks, in spite of our expressing this, was not at all deterred by our protestations – we ended up buying a (very transportable – and signed) little book of his poems in Spanish and Portuguese.

Do not underestimate the small town of Elvas; there is excellent local cuisine to be had, and superb Alentejo wine to accompany it. Do not leave without tasting some Ameixas d´Elvas either (just ask 😉 ). There is also much antiquity to be explored and it is surprisingly photogenic.

Cena in Elvas Portugal