The inflight magazine in front of me was titled “The Taste of Travel.”
I started to laugh because not all experiences when travelling leave a good taste in your mouth. There were some that were particularly challenging and good manners dictate that one never offends the host by passing on a dish.
The setting was perfect in the souq after sundown which was bathed in Middle Eastern charm. The meal was ceremonious and featured the most favoured of dishes, and in doing so had surprises. The baked baby camel resembled the taste and texture of what we would expect from roadkill. I discreetly spit into my napkin. It was saved however, by the Moroccan chicken, dusty with cinnamon beneath the light pastry that it was baked in. Strong coffee was always the saving grace of Middle Eastern meals because it was of such high grade that the expresso was velvet on the throat.
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It was a long day in Peru and we were hiking on a budget of about $2 a day. The food choices in some of the smaller villages were slim because of the lack of refrigeration. We always asked which “end” of the animal the meat came from and one day feeling absolutely famished opted for what we thought was boiled rice soup, costing about 20 cents. I was wolfing it down when the primary protein was exposed beneath the broth. Cow lips (yes lips from the face) floating as a dark reminder that one can make soup out of anything.
But it was the holy dish of guinea pig that kept me on full alert because to refuse such an honour would have been a huge insult to the host. Parasites are always a part of travel and undercooked meat can haunt you. Cooked flattened on the grill, the presentation was not all that appealing regardless of how hungry you were. Served with warm beer at a high altitude the combination challenged minds made of steel and tummies made of iron.
At the risk of offending all my Aussie friends, the truly most revolting thing for me to eat is vegemite, Australia’s favourite yeast spread. One tiny bit turns me inside out and no amount of coaxing will get me onside. One day my friend Linda and I were stuck in a traffic jam just outside of Melbourne near the factory where the fumes belted out the yeasty smell. An experience I hope to never repeat.
Food is truly also a way of creating memories and bringing people together. The Dutch make beautiful dishes, are masters of yogurt and coffee (Holland is one of the world’s largest coffee exporters) and their baking is legendary. I grow fat each time I visit but I never miss taking the train to Amsterdam to buy french fries on the street served in a newspaper cone and mayonnaise for dip.
In Argentina, the Malbec wine that was served for hours before a meal of beef that had cooked all afternoon in root vegetables and presented on the front porch of the hacienda seared a luxurious memory in my mind. The ease of an afternoon on the cobblestone streets in smaller towns where we sat, sampled lovely charcuterie, and chatted with the local folks call me back to the rewards of travel.
The presentation of food can be so simple and meaningful. When I was invited to a late-evening meal by a Fijian woman, I watched that afternoon as she stood in the ocean and patiently waited until she could spear a fish for our meal. Served with boiled cassava, it was more than enough — and truthfully, all that she had. And who can ever forget the warmth of Cuban hospitality and the perfectly wilted ensalada with every meal finished with strong Cuban coffee and sugar cane sweets.
Sugar cane juice and coconut milk are must-haves in extensive travel where dehydration is a risk. Always take these when you are offered because the juice can supercharge your body for the rest of the day.
In India, it was with caution that I drank a sour milk product at midday but was pleased with the results. Once in Cuba I was having real trouble with asthma on a remote mountain farm. One of the workers quietly strode into the bush and presented me with a yellow fruit and indicated I should eat it all. The fruit was a cure, just as coco matte (cocaine leaves) is used to ward off altitude sickness in the Andes. (Do not buy coco matte to bring home.)
Beverage is a big part of travel because of the extremes in temperature and the lack of access to clean water. I have affection for Chai tea as I was presented it formally in lovely homes as well as on roadsides in India. Indian cooking remains an important part of my menu — if only to recall again the scent of jasmine or freshly roasted cashews and to hear the constant hum of a nation in motion.
It is late fall in Canada and time to travel to Quebec where we start our day with crepes folded in maple syrup and strike out to visit the artisan farms starting with the fromagerie for our cheese, the orchard for apples and apple cider, the farm bakery for baguettes, and the vineyard for beautiful local wines. It is truly an eastern Canadian autumn and this I will experience en route to another destination with foods and flavours yet to be discovered.