Culi­nary tours of duty

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - MICHELLE ROWE

EVERY­food lover has a list of must-do restau­rants, his or her holy grail of din­ing out. That list might fea­ture award-win­ners such as No­main Copen­hagen, San Se­bas­tian’s Mu­garitz or lo­cal stars such as Melbourne’s At­tica and Syd­ney’s Quay. All are sure to be sin­gu­lar ex­pe­ri­ences, wor­thy notches on an ever-ex­pand­ing belt.

Of­ten, though, it’s a touch of serendip­ity rather than a bud­get-bust­ing, pre-planned meal that cre­ates the most en­dur­ing of food mem­o­ries.

Ato­tally un­ex­pected de­light — such as an im­promptu pic­nic with friends in an ex­quis­ite set­ting or a sim­ple bowl of noo­dle soup eaten while on the hop — can be a defin­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

I will never for­get the lunch — as un­planned as it was ut­terly de­li­cious — that my­hus­band and I ate in Italy’s Le Marche re­gion sev­eral years ago. We’d been driv­ing through the wind­ing Si­billini moun­tains for what seemed like hours and were fam­ished. But with no sign of civil­i­sa­tion for the past few miles, we were about to head back the way we’d come when an old farm­house, with a hand­ful of cars parked at its doorstep, came into view.

In­side this out­post we dis­cov­ered a room full of Ital­ians eat­ing lunch; a joy­ful scene of laugh­ter and con­ver­sa­tion, of plates piled with pasta, and carafes of the lo­cal wine be­ing re­filled and plonked down on ta­bles.

Onsee­ing the two tourists at his door, the owner of this agri­t­ur­ismo ush­ered us in and sat us down to en­joy what would be a pro­ces­sion of won­der­ful re­gional spe­cial­ties — cured hams, pas­tas with porcini mush­rooms, grilled meats and more — punc­tu­ated by a glass or two of the lo­cal Mon­tepul­ciano wine. There was no menu— our host sim­ply as­cer­tained at the start that we’d ar­rived with a healthy ap­petite — just dishes freshly pre­pared, on a take-it-or-leave-it ba­sis. It was the best meal I’ve had, not just for the in­cred­i­bly good food, but the sheer ex­hil­a­ra­tion of find­ing such a gem in the least ex­pected place.

I’ve had many sim­i­larly sig­nif­i­cant food ex­pe­ri­ences in my­trav­els since — the bat­tered scal­lops bought at a road­side cafe and eaten on a windy Tas­ma­nian coast; the break­fast at a tiny street stall on the pe­riph­ery of Bangkok’s Lumpini Park; the most amaz­ing seafood mar­ket stum­bled upon while lost dur­ing a port stop in Cadiz. Each cost next to noth­ing, but were worth their weight in gold as un­for­get­table travel mo­ments.

There’s a lot to be said for a Big Night Out, the op­por­tu­nity to lose one­self in the artistry and skill of a Miche­lin-starred chef in a glit­ter­ing din­ing room. But we shouldn’t un­der­es­ti­mate those un­ex­pected dis­cov­er­ies — the pit-stop at a tiny Hanoi pho stall run by a wom­an­who­has honed her craft over decades, say, or the tri­umphant re­turn from a neigh­bour­hood mar­ket in Lyon laden with lo­cal del­i­ca­cies — when it comes to es­tab­lish­ing a true sense of place. In­trepid trav­eller Frank Bures casts his mind back to some of his own­most mem­o­rable meals on P4.

Su­san Kurosawa is on as­sign­ment.

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