In the snatch of tranquil summer days between Christmas and New Year the world seems to wind down to a gentle breeze and there’s no better time to loll about with a new book. Over the past couple of days, accompanied by crumbly bites of shortbread and numerous cups of tea, I have been wrapped up in Lonely Planet’s newly released A Fork in the Road: Tales of Food, Pleasure & Discovery on the Road, a Christmas gift from my girls along with Carla Coulson’s Naples A Way of Love.
A Fork in the Road combines my two favourite genres, food and travel writing, and I am eating my way through the book’s 34-courses with gusto, sampling vivid descriptions from the finger lickin’ feast written by award-winning, food-obsessed restaurant critics, writers and chefs. The thrill of a new taste sensation or culture is exhilarating and there is nothing more exciting than being transported to another place, whether in reality or by turning the page.
Edited by James Oseland, the editor-in-chief of Saveur, these stories told through food arouse the appetite and stimulate the mind but also tell of the emotions, pleasure and sensory experiences that come from food. There are moments and meals in all of our lives that alter our view of the world, and each account in the book captures a pivotal food experience.
In the introduction, Oseland describes a personal moment of transformation on his first solo trip abroad. ‘The food was literally life-changing. I felt I suddenly understood this place, and I realized with equal suddenness that I wasn’t necessarily the person I thought I was up until that moment. I’d discovered another part of me.’ He goes on to say that ‘Taste does not lie. It’s pure. The impressions it leaves are sharp, invigorating and emotional.’
Australia’s Neil Perry vividly describes his first, life-changing trip to Paris, when France was the undisputed king of gastronomy; sublime new sensations can take us off-guard and Monique Truong tells how the love of a new destination can feel like a first kiss if we fall hard; Frances Mayes takes us to the hills of Provence for cooking lessons with the legendary Simone Beck. ‘Biting into poulet à l’estragon, I devoured, too, the way of life behind it,’ she writes. There are essays with misadventure and humour, which always make for entertaining reading, such as André Aciman’s calamitous stay in a Tuscan villa and Francine Prose’s hysterical account of a cassoulet lunch. I particularly loved and related to Consider the Twinkle, written by Giles Coren, restaurant critic of The Times in London, who as a young boy in the ’70s yearned for the thrilling foods and unobtainable, exotic delights seen on American TV. Other chronicles are more confronting.
I tend to remember days and place by what I have eaten. Food is my memory stick. As I bite into a particular day in my mind, the setting, the people, the menu and minute details of time and place appear on the stage set in my head, brought alive by the tastes, aromas, textures and flavours. Dreaming of a picnic will undoubtedly whisk me back to that blissful summer day under a cherry tree on a hill in Provence; a cream-cheese and lox bagel can carry me straight back to 1990s Manhattan, to the morning queue outside the delicious smelling H&H Bagels on the Upper West Side.
One of my most vivid food memories is set in a sun-drenched stone villa in the Tuscan countryside near Colle Val d’Elsa. It was August, 1998 and this Italian holiday was our maiden journey out of a stifling and confining Paris after our first challenging months in the city. We had arranged to meet my brother’s family at the villa and stopped by the supermarket on the way for supplies. I could have stayed all day, awe-struck by the enormous array of sunny Mediterranean food. Needless to say, with the colours and flavours of home before me, I went a little overboard.
An hour later, I found myself lifting down an enormous brightly-painted oval platter from the dining room wall. Soon, it was full of summer delights: smiles of dewy rock-melon wrapped with belts of salty prosciutto, garlicky salami, a bowl of bright-green pesto and fresh, crusty ciabatta bread. I scooped up spoonfuls of glistening olives in a variety of sizes and colours, cut a chunk of hard Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and arranged soft, squishy balls of bocconcini alongside chargrilled vegetables and marinated artichoke hearts. Tall, rustic breadsticks were put into a pot just as my brother’s car pulled up and we ran out out to greet everyone. After our feast, we chatted into the evening over local wine and gorged on sweet, warm figs from the gnarled tree outside as the sun set over the Tuscan hills.
This meal was about far more than the food. It was about spontaneity and freedom after our first highly structured months in Paris. It was about kicking off shoes, relaxing and revelling in the warmth of family, in the colours and flavours and casual lifestyle that reminded us of home.