A taste for adventure: What to eat in the Med and beyond
For gourmets, every foreign holiday can be a gastronomic odyssey.
Thursday 04 August 2011
Food markets are a glorious bonus of foreign holidays, but I once came across one unappetising stall in the Toulouse area. Aimed at British expats and holidaymakers, its dusty signs read "Bisto", "Oxo" and, weirdly, "Fish Shop Fish". For those scared by the 360 French cheeses that de Gaulle cited as an example of his country's innate anarchism, the stallholder also offered "Cheddar". The display appeared designed to confirm Gallic prejudices about British food.
Worse still, it appeared to fulfil a deep-felt need in my fellow countrymen. This sorry collection reminded me of a travel courier of my acquaintance who proudly announced: "When I'm abroad I always eat the same thing: a chip butty!" It is unlikely that this occupationally misplaced character would have shared my relish at the unexpected treat that my wife and I once enjoyed on the heel of Italy. On the first night of our Apulian holiday, we came across a well-patronised hamburger stall on the seafront. Thinking it strange that such a commonplace item should attract southern Italians, I joined the queue and returned to my wife clutching a couple of burgers. "You're in for a surprise," I told her.
But before she could take a bite, a tentacle dangled out of the bread roll. Fresh off the charcoal griddle, the tender, tasty octopus was a delicious reminder that we were far from home. People who travel the world in a bubble of Britishness are depriving themselves of the gastronomic pleasure of travel. You usually don't need much money to enjoy these transporting mouthfuls, only an adventurous palate.
Though France's culinary crown has slipped in recent years, it remains a cornucopia, especially of food from small producers. If you have the good fortune to visit the Mediterranean port of Collioure, so picturesque that Matisse and Derain set up their easels on the beach, don't miss the town's other claim to fame. The pungent scent emitted from a tiny hilltop factory is a clue to the treasure within. At a long table in a dark workshop, black-clad women pass their days packing salted anchovies in bottles. Plump, juicy and richly flavoured, they are the world's finest example of this vital ingredient in dishes ranging from salad Niçoise to spaghettini alla puttanesca. I urge a substantial purchase. However many jars you buy, once you get home you'll wish you had more.
Not far away, the Cathar town of Castelnaudary is the home of cassoulet, probably the world's greatest bean dish. I would not advocate having such sustaining fare in the heat of a French summer – I once saw red-faced tourists in the nearby city of Carcassone streaming with sweat as they tucked into their obligatory cassoulet in the midday sun – but the tinned version is a valuable acquisition for fast winter suppers. Go for La Belle Chaurienne brand stocked by major French supermarkets.
No-one visiting Nimes should omit a visit to the shop of Raymond Geoffroy, 34 rue Nationale, which specialises in the salt-cod dip known as brandade de morue. Far more delicious than it sounds (Elizabeth David gave the shop a plug in French Provincial Cookery), brandade is available freshly made (delicious spread on crunchy baguette for picnics) or in handsome red tins.
France's passion for tinned sardines has generated shops solely devoted to this delicacy. I invested in a brand called La Belle Iloise, sold near the harbour at La Rochelle (1 rue Léonce Vieljeux). The equally excellent La Quiberonnaise brand is sold on the seafront at Quiberon in Brittany (30 rue de Port de Pêche). Extreme devotees can tour the canning plant. At Le Touquet in Normandy, you can see Pérard fish soup, sold in litre bottles at Waitrose and other outlets, being simmered in vast cauldrons in the restaurant window at Restaurant Pérard, 67 rue de Metz. This delicious concoction is modestly described as "one of the two or three best in France". By buying at source, you can also try the saffron-rich crab and lobster versions.
Every visitor to this food-obsessed peninsula should bring back dried porcini in their luggage. These potent fungi will enrich pasta sauces and transform risottos. Gastronomes should also buy salamis (go for finocchiona studded with fennel seeds) and cured ham. If you ever see the long-matured prosciutto from Emilia-Romagna called culatello ("little arse"), snap up a sample. Culatello is scarcely ever seen in this country. The best is said to come from ancient, fog-shrouded barns hidden from the health police.
A more unusual pork product is lardo, the hard, cured fat particularly associated with Colonnata, Tuscany. After being marinaded with salt and spices for up to eight months in marble baths (Cararra, where Michelangelo got his marble, is nearby), slivers of this delicious, if dangerous, delicacy are served as nibbles with aperitivos. One day I intend visiting the Colonnata lardo festival, held in late August.
Ask for hazelnuts in the vast food market at Asti in Piedmont (held Wednesdays and Saturdays) and you'll receive a bulging plastic bag for a couple of euros. Grown in profusion on hillsides, this local speciality is also ground into flour (it makes a wonderfully nutty cake) and pressed into addictive, soft nougat called torrone.
Top of my souvenir list from Italy would be a good bottle of grappa. This spirit made from vinous detritus is a classic example of the Italian tradition of cucina povera (poor kitchen). One delicacy that you can't pack is Neapolitan pizza. This makes it all the more imperative to consume large quantities when you have the chance. Go to Da Michele, 1 via Cesare Sersale, Naples, and have a Marinara. Then have a Margherita and you'll have eaten the entire menu. Soft and undulating with slightly carbonised uplands, they are by a considerable distance the best pizzas in the world.
The fruit grown in Sicily is outstanding for sweetness and size. The oranges are as big as grapefruits but the super-sized lemons are actually citrons. This perfumed citrus is grown for its sweet peel, which can be eaten in salads or candied. Stemming from the centuries of Arab occupation, candied fruit is an unknown glory of Sicily. Every fruit you can think of is transformed into sticky, lurid sweetness. Invest for your Christmas cake or (if you're feeling adventurous) panettone.
But there are gastronomic treasures to be found in every corner of Italy. The food writer Matthew Fort discovered a fish-based condiment called Colatura di Alici at Cetara on the Amalfi coast. Intriguingly described by Fort as "potent, penetrating and muscular", it is a direct descendent of garum sauce, adored by the Romans.
If you're in the gorgeous, largely unknown Maremma area of Tuscany, seek out wild boar sausage (salsiccia di cinghiale). Even on the Aeolian Isles, sun-blasted volcanic specks near Sicily, there is a must-buy comestible. Lerici, largest island of the chain, is the main producer of salted capers. Preferred by chefs to the pickled version, they pretty much last forever.
Spain and Portugal
Though tempted by the snails in the celebrated Boqueria market on Las Ramblas in Barcelona, I decided that an Iberico ham was a more practical memento of Spain's glorious cuisine. It will keep for months, years even, in its shrink-wrap. If you're pressed for luggage space, a few tins of Spanish paprika (both sweet and smoked) will be a valuable and decorative addition to the kitchen. Taking up even less space, botarga (pressed tuna roe) is a pricey treat but a few shavings are sufficient with scrambled egg or pasta.
In Seville, look out for bars advertising a cured ham called 5J. Usually carved by the proprietor – the action is reminiscent of a cellist's bow – it comes from small, dark Iberian pigs who dine mainly on acorns. The translucent slices – so tender that they dissolve in the mouth scarcely without chewing – deliver an incomparably intense, hammy sweetness.
Fish fanciers should head north. Spain's Atlantic ports offer some of the finest seafood known to man. Vigo is the best known but Alan Davidson, the supreme authority on fish, preferred La Coruña, where "the lover of mariscos (Spanish for fruits de mer) finds his ultimate feasting place".
In Lisbon, the handsomely refurbished Mercado de Ribera should top the foodie's itinerary. The fish stalls are sensational. Near the market is another piscine destination, which makes up in aroma what it lacks in the picturesque. The street called Ruo do Arsenal specialises in the sale of bacalhau (dried salt cod). At its best this national favourite is deliciously distinctive, imbued with richness and complexity. Available in grades ranging from crescido (growing) to special jumbo, a large chunk would make a souvenir with a difference. I plumped for salt octopus on my last visit. Superb for tapas.
USA and Mexico
While it seems ambitious to bring back fresh food from a long-haul holiday, why not make use of the natural refrigeration in your aircraft's hold? On my last trip to New York, I brought back a dozen pots of different seafood salads from Zabar's, 2245 Broadway, the rackety, wonderfully stocked Jewish deli. Arriving in perfect nick, the lobster, shrimp and baked salmon salads provided an authentic taste of the Upper West Side in south London. I know a photographer who adds pizzazz to his London kitchen with tins of dried herbs from the gourmet shop Dean & DeLuca (560 Broadway in SoHo), though I was tempted by gorgeous cans of maple syrup.
From the splendidly old-fashioned Central Grocery at 923 Decatur Street, New Orleans, I brought back a Muffuletta, claimed by locals to be "the best sandwich in America". It consists of a 10-inch Sicilian circular loaf stuffed with provolone cheese, salami, mortadella, olive salad and other mysterious layers. I may have been pushing the envelope of food souvenirs, since the sandwich arrived somewhat squashed after its 4,637-mile journey. It still tasted OK, though my wife was a little disappointed. "You brought me back a sandwich?" she gasped. "From New Orleans?"
My haul from Mexico City was more successful. From the excellent Abelardo L. Rodriguez food market in the central area of Cuauhtemoc, I acquired a large quantity of dried peppers, including fruity anchos, smoky chipotles and herby pasilas. Possibly I was too successful. Despite using a dozen or so peppers in highly authentic chile con carnes, the consignment still fills a large coolbox. I also brought back tins of huitacoche fungus and courgette flowers for stuffing tortillas. I only wish I'd brought back some tortillas. Especially when made with blue corn, they were the best street food I've ever had. Next time.
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