Food is a great way to explore a country. Some of my best travel memories are mixed up with the food I’ve eaten there. Food is often so intertwined with a country’s culture that you can’t fully experience a place without engaging with its food. Here are some of the reasons why food and travel go so well together.
The weird and wonderful
When you’re travelling you open yourself up to new experiences. It’s one of the things I most love about travel and it’s something I hope to teach my two boys. For me, food is a big part of these experiences. I’m far more adventurous with food when I’m travelling.
Take guinea pig for example. In Cuzco cathedral in Peru there is a painting of The Last Supper. Everything is as you’d expect – Jesus and the twelve disciples are sitting down for a meal together. But look more closely and you’ll see that they’re about to tuck into roasted guinea pig, Cuy, a Peruvian delicacy. You can’t not try it after that.
In Marrakesh in Morocco, the boys loved eating pigeon pastillas, pigeon meat mixed with almonds, cinnamon and sugar. Every evening we spent ages at the Djemaa el Fna, the main square. Once you’ve walked past the snake charmers, the tooth pullers, the fortune tellers, musicians and monkeys on chains, you’ll find the food stalls selling goat’s head curries, stewed snails, spicy sausages and sheep’s heads. You really feel like you’re abroad when you’re sitting at a table lit by lanterns, eating food from one of these stalls, even if it’s only a vegetable tagine.
The magical moments
Sometimes food memories are all about a moment, like the exquisite lemon risotto I had in Southern Tuscany in Italy. My husband and I were spending a week cycling between hill towns. That morning we’d had a tough ride up numerous hills. We turned up in a small village to find it half empty apart from this one tiny restaurant. That risotto was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had.
We washed it down with half a carafe of the local white wine and wobbled back down the hill on our bicycles. After about five minutes we decided we needed a nap after all that good food and wine so we just found a strip of grass and lay down under the shade of a tree for a much-needed sleep.
Then there was the breakfast my son and I had on our minuscule hotel balcony on his first trip to Paris. It was our last morning and every other day it had been raining but on this particular morning the sun came out. It was a cold February morning but we wrapped up warm and sat at the little table looking down onto the Marais street, eating croissants with jam, boiled eggs and fresh kiwi fruit, feeling like the luckiest two people in the world.
Eating a thali on a boat trip down the backwaters of Kerala in southern India was pretty special too. We’d stopped at a village beside the riverbank for lunch and were given rice, pickles, vegetarian curries and lentil gravy on a banana leaf plate, all to be eaten with our right hand as we watched the boats drifting down the river.
Food is such a feast for the senses – there’s so much to see, smell and feel as well as taste, and the best places for this when you’re travelling are the fresh food markets. We love trying new foods at local street markets, like the fantastic prawn noodles we had in Singapore.
I love the weekly markets in France too. In Provence in the south, most villages and towns take it in turns to host markets with stalls packed with cheeses, salamis, bread, honey, fish, olives and fresh vegetables.
You just walk around, savouring the atmosphere, tasting the samples in each stall. My two loved the wild boar salami and bright green cheese.
There are great covered markets in most of the Spanish cities. In both Barcelona and Seville we let the children choose a selection of foods from various different stalls to create a picnic for the whole family. They loved the independence and it was a great way to get them to practise the local language.
There’s no reason why food shouldn’t be fun. Children, in particular, enjoy doing something that’s different from sitting down at a table with a knife and fork. Mine love eating bowlfuls of mussels in France, scooping up all the sauce with one of the mussel shells, or cheese and meat fondues in Belgium.
They love the fun and drama of a feast. In Morocco, it’s great to go to one of the palace restaurants where you can dine like kings on silken cushions and eat lots of different foods out of silver dishes. When we were in Fez, my oldest was sat in his highchair munching his food while a belly dancer gyrated in front of him. Now that’s what I call top-rate childcare.
Learning how to cook the food is a wonderful way to up the fun factor. On a cooking course in Bali, we got up early to watch the fishermen hauling their catch in onto the beach. Then we went back to the hotel to learn how to make monkfish parcels tied up in a banana leaf.
The family meals
When we travel, our meals are often so much more relaxed and sociable. It’s the time when we can look back on what we’ve done that day while enjoying the local food.
In Greece we love being able to sit outside in the warm evenings and order a table of mezze for the whole family. Mezzes are the perfect food for sharing and so delicious: stuffed vine leaves, Greek salad, grilled feta cheese, fried whitebait, stuffed peppers and tiny slices of marinated octopus.
The boys are far happier to linger over their food than at home when they want to bolt as soon as they’ve eaten. We have great conversations over these meals. We’ll discuss everything from What magical power would you choose? to Which is most important, literacy or numeracy? (this always causes heated debates in our family).
It’s good to follow the lead of the locals when you’re travelling. We discovered, on our trip to Provence, that a quick sandwich for lunch was a big no-no. Instead, we did as the French families did, and sat down for the ‘menu du jour’, a main course and a pudding. Some days we had fresh cod with cockles; on others, steak or a big chicken salad. Puddings were equally delicious: tiramisù, crème brûlée or raspberry cream.
We slowed down and felt all the better for it. Instead of bolting down a quick sandwich and heading off, we lingered and enjoyed.
So here’s to lingering over your food when you travel, to trying new things and having the most fantastic fun while you’re doing it.