Travellers’ Tales – hopefully with a meal included
Whenever I have been going to a new place, in my own country or abroad, my hopes are: firstly, good food; secondly, good wine; thirdly, a comfortable bed. Ideally a conjunction of all three. I have slept in quite a few horrendous beds in Africa, the Middle East and especially in small hotels in France, but I am happy to say I have had far fewer horrendous meals
Before I found my vocation (writing this stuff every week) I loved travelling; and when I wasn’t doing that, I loved reading about it. First choice, food books; second, wine; third, travel. Lately, I have become fondest of travel writing. There are incredibly well-travelled writers who nonetheless are extremely boring. Lawrence Durrell, for instance – ploughing through the is like reading Dickens when you’re an eight-year-old; and although I have read a number of times, I find the writing conceited and self-obsessed and in parts impenetrable. It is a pity that this is regarded as the classic book about Cyprus in its fight for independence. It is not.
by G. Phillipou Pierides is the one. Beg or borrow a copy from Ruth at Moufflon bookshop if you can.
When I look at a travel book, the first thing I do is riffle through the pages and if, after a riffle or four, I can’t find a reference to a meal or a drink of some description, I am put off. If the book has an index, then I search for the word ‘wine’. You’d be surprised how many very famous writers don’t appear to drink the stuff.
The newspaper in London used to have a famous writer, Eric Newby, doing the travel. He was erudite, academic, but he could be a little pedestrian now and then. His wife, Wanda, in my view, was a much more exciting writer because she got you involved with the people in her travels, whereas Eric told you about the routes, the history and the archaeology, in somewhat dry style. Nevertheless, if you are an armchair traveller, Newby’s books are well worth reading.
Patrick Leigh-Fermor ( traveller, writer and WWII hero (he kidnapped a German General) who lived to be 96, was also a scholarly man, and very human, as this extract from
(Penguin) shows. “As I drank the coffee and listened, their features slowly came back to me. At some point, unwillingly emulous of the casualties I had noticed with scorn, I had slumped forward over the Hofbrauhaus table in unwakeable stupor. There had been no vomiting, thank God; nothing worse than total insensibility; and the hefty Samaritan on the bench beside me had simply scooped me up and put me in his handcart, which was full of turned chair legs, and then, wrapping me in my greatcoat against the snow, wheeled it clean across Munich and laid me out mute as a flounder. The calamity must have been brought on by the mixture of the beer with the schnapps I had drunk in Schwabing; I had forgotten to eat anything but an apple since breakfast. Don’t worry, the carpenter said: why, in Prague, the beer-halls kept horses that they harnessed to wickerwork coffins on wheels, just to carry the casualties home at the brewery’s expense... What I needed, he said, opening a cupboard, was a ‘schluck’ of schnapps to put me on my feet. I made a dash for the yard and stuck my head under the pump. Then, combed and outwardly respectable, I thanked my saviours and was soon striding guiltily and at high speed through these outlying streets.”
Evelyn Waugh was not really, a travel writer but, as a correspondent, went to Ethiopia and wrote a delightful book, first published in 1931 and republished in 1985 by Duckworth, called
He later fictionalised many of his experiences into a less absorbing but amusing novel called In this delightful episode from one can see his gastronomic proclivities.
“At last supper arrived; first a basket containing half a dozen great rounds of native bread, a tough, clammy substance closely resembling crepe rubber in appearance; men two earthenware jugs, one of water, the other of ‘talla’ - a kind of thin, bitter beer; then two horns of honey, but not of honey as it is understood at Thame; this was the product of wild bees, scraped straight from the trees; it was a greyish colour, full of bits of stick and mud, bird dung, dead bees, and grubs. Everything was first carried to the for his approval, then to us. We expressed our delight with nods and more extravagant smiles. The food was laid before us and the bearers retired. At this moment the Armenian shamelessly deserted us saying that he must go and see after his boy.
“The three of us were left alone, smiling over our food in the half darkness. In the corner lay our hamper packed with Irene’s European delicacies. We clearly could not approach them until our host (the Abuna) left us. Gradually the frightful truth became evident that he was proposing to dine with us. I tore off a little rag of bread and attempted to eat it. ‘This is a very difficult situation,’ said the professor; ‘I think perhaps, it would be well to simulate ill-health’. It was admirably done; the Abuna watched him with the greatest concern; presently the professor held his stomach and retched a little; then he lay on his back, breathing heavily with closed eyes; then he sat up on his elbow and explained in eloquent dumb show that he wished to rest. The Abuna understood perfectly, and, with every gesture of sympathy, rose to his feet and left us.
“In five minutes, when I had opened a tinned grouse and a bottle of lager and the professor was happily munching a handful of ripe olives, the Armenian returned. With a comprehensive wink, he picked up the jug of native beer, threw back his head, and, wimout pausing to breathe, drank a quart or two. He then spread out two rounds of bread, emptied a large quantity of honey into each of them, wrapped them together, and put them in his pocket. ‘
he remarked cheerfully, winked at the grouse, wished us good night, and left us.”
James A. Michener, who died in 1997 at the age of 90, is perhaps best known for books such as
but to me, his two volumes on Spain (large paperbacks published by Corgi in 1983 under the title proved him one of the most meticulous researchers and seekers after accuracy; but this didn’t stop him being a wonderfully evocative writer. He is the only author of travel books in my ken actually to include recipes in his index. There are quite a lot of them, but not set out with the amount of ingredients and the precise method - but they are descriptive enough. Take, for example, this one for rabbit:
“One of their delights is to shoot a rabbit, skin it and then spreadeagle it on a structure made of three sticks tied together in the form of a Cross of Lorraine. The upright member of the cross is left long, so that it can be used as a handle for holding the rabbit over a fire of hot coals until the meat is hard and crisp. Salt is rubbed on the finished meat, which is cut into thin strips and mixed with raw tomatoes, peppers, much onion, garlic, olive oil and vinegar. ‘Maybe the best salad a man can eat,’ those who live along Las Marismas claim.”
You can replicate this quite simply without shooting or skinning your rabbit, merely buying one from your local supermarket. Then, charcoalgrilling it and carrying on from there.