Can’t travel? Read a book. Can’t get gourmet food? Read a book. Better still, read a travel book that delves into food.
I have been doing just that and getting succour from a delightful volume called A Moveable Feast: Life-changing Food Adventures Around the World. This Lonely Planet publication takes you to distant lands and food, through the eyes and words of some remarkable writers.
Take the opening lines of Pico Iyer’s essay, ‘Daily bread’. He is in a Benedictine hermitage in California. “The quiche is as soft as hope itself, and the long spears of asparagus are so elegant on the plate that to pick one up feels like messing with the symmetry of a Klee. There are bowls of lettuce in our midst, and the chunky vegetable soup alone would make for a hearty meal. Bottles of salad dressing crowd the blond-wood table, large enough for six of us, while early-spring sunlight streams into the window-filled refectory, so that it feels as if we’re tasting radiance and taking a long draught of the sun.”
Each chapter is a beautifully crafted essay that looks at people, food, culture and memories. And some of the recollections are not just about food but also about circumstances in which it was consumed.
“Like most of us, I enjoy eating while actually in motion,” writes author Jan Morris. “An Indian curry is best of all when it has been thrust urgently through your compartment window at Hooghly Station the very moment before your great train leaves for Mumbai.” She recalls boarding the “last frail remnant” of the Orient Express, where she was handed a paper bag containing an apple, cheese and half a bottle of excellent white wine — “what could be a better munch while we laboured across Europe?”
There is something curiously relaxing about these dream-like chapters. You are locked indoors, thanks to a seemingly unsquashable virus, but see yourself in the Italian Riviera with American author and journalist David Downie. He stands in front of a vegetable patch that has been destroyed by boars and watches the farmer snip off, one after the other, the damaged plants. “He rummaged among the artichokes, snipping and yanking, before turning to a lemon tree hung with yellow orbs. Soon the basket was bursting, its contents carefully arranged. He handed it up to us.”
I then find myself in French Guiana with journalist-author Mark Kurlansky, as he recalls his favourite restaurant in Cayenne. “It specialised in the game of the forest: gamey little agoutis, succulent tapir stews, an occasional python or an iguana, foods you can’t get in many places… I couldn’t understand why everyone else wasn’t eating there too… Instead, they crowded into French restaurants to eat northern foods ill-suited to the tropics, sweaty pâtés and gloppy sauces that languished in the heat — and later in your stomach. Well, I concluded, that is what the French are like — as with most cultures with good cuisines, completely hung up on their own.”
It’s the subtext — such as the little aside about cuisine snobbery — that makes this book so very readable. The link between food and culture is the thread running through the essay, ‘Cooking with Donna’, by travel editor William Sertl too. He is in a luxurious Caribbean estate and has just been handed an elegant bell that he must ring for the next course.
“At first, I laughed, without meaning to. Then I baulked, and stood up, pushed my chair under the table and marched directly into the uncharted territory of the kitchen. Donna was stirring the contents of a pot on the stove. I approached, picked up the lid, and said, ‘What’s for dinner?’”
Food, he holds, is the key to culture — “the easiest way into a relationship with folks you’ve yet to meet”. Especially, I would add, food that you still have to try out (python, anyone?) and journeys you still have to make.
Rahul Verma likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.