Travelling food memories

window of a boulanger (bakery) in Beaune, France
The window of a boulanger (bakery) in Beaune, France

A Dutch friend of mine asked me today, "What were your impressions of the food in the Netherlands?" I had to think a bit, especially since I've only visited there twice, briefly, and only Amsterdam both times. It also got me thinking about all the good, and bad, memorable moments I've had relating to food while travelling. Here are a few...though no Dutch food memories, I'm afraid. (I have a feeling this may be part 1 of many posts on this topic.)

Real fois gras, from Antoine Westermann's boutique in Strasbourg, France. Let's start at the extravagant top. Antoine Westermann is the owner of the Michelin 3-star Restaurant Buerehiesel. I've already said a number of times how much I love the Beurehiesel... He also has a small gourmet food store, La Boutique Antoine Westermann, which is a must-go for anyone visiting the beautiful city of Strasbourg (it's very close to the Cathedral, at 1, rue des Orfévres). One of the items sold there is a whole, fresh vacuum-packed fois gras (They also have one that is preserved in fat, in a pretty glass jar, which would be easier to transport long distances.) Prior to this, the only encounters I'd had with fois gras were in restaurants, and I never really thought much of it. "Ah it's just high-class chicken liver paté" was my general impression. Well was I ever wrong! When we cut into the fresh fois gras, and took a tiny sliver of it each, we looked at each other in amazement. It just melted like smooth, airy butter, with that hint of savory liver flavor. Pure heaven.

Ripe tomatoes in Firenze (Florence). I was alone in Firenze, in the middle of a 3-month backpacking trek around Europe. I was tired, so tired, because I'd spent the last 24 hours caught up in a train mess because of an impromptu mini-strike by the Italian Rail workers. I limped into Firenze, arriving a day earlier than my hotel reservation, though luckily they had room anyway. I sat in my hotel room, feeling too exhausted and anti-social to think of going to a restaurant, yet very hungry too. And the small, clean yet plain hotel had no room service. I strolled out in search of food, and ran into a small local market, The huge mounds of fresh tomatoes caught my eye. Somehow I managed to buy a bagful. I carried the tomatoes back to my room, and ate them all. They were so deliciously juicy and sweet, and so aromatic, they satisfied my hunger and calmed my nerves too.

The only unfortunate thing is that ever since then, no other tomatoes seem to quite live up to the memory of those, although the few really ripe tomatoes I manage to produce in my cool-summer garden come close.

Bombay potatoes in England. I lived in England for 5 years, between the ages of 5 and 10. My parents liked to go out to about 3 or 4 restaurants fairly regularly (unlike many other parents, they always took us kids when they went out for dinner, even to fancy restaurants, which may account for why all 3 of us grew up to be dedicated foodies.) One of the restaurants they liked to go to was an Indian place. I liked to challenge myself food-wise even when I was 8 or 9, so one day I decided to try the Bombay Potatoes that my father liked to order. I remember my father asking me if I was sure I wanted to try it. "It's very very spicy" he warned. I did.

A couple of mouthfuls later, I was crying and drinking cups and cups of water as fast as I could. My mother tsked me and my father chuckled, and my younger sister was almost rolling on the floor with laughter. Well, now my tolerence for spicy food is a bit higher. :)

Bed and breakfast fry-up in the Lake District. While we were living in England, we took an annual holiday. One of those was a driving holiday in the north of England and Scotland, staying at bed and breakfasts. Unfortunately, for the England portion of the trip the weather was miserable most of the time. I got a cold and was car sick most of the time.

When we arrived at one bed and breakfast, we got a rather frosty reception. I think we were their very first Asian family. My father asked if coffee or tea was available, and they said no quite firmly. They provided bed and breakfast, and that was it.

The next morning though, we woke up to the delicious smells of breakfast. I had gotten over my car sickness, and was quite hungry. The breakfast was a traditional English fry-up, with all the works - two eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, and tomato halves. There was milk tea and toast. Ever since then I've had a fondness for the classic fry-up, even though it is mighty unhealthy.

Onaka in Stockholm. I was alone again in Stockholm, trudging around rather grimly to see everything I wanted to despite having a badly swollen knee, from having twisted it a few days earlier. I wandered around a supermarket (I always go to a supermarket whenever I travel), and found something that I thought was milk The package said "Onaka", and had a big red circle, like the Japanese flag, on it. Onaka means "tummy" in Japanese. I knew I had a refrigerator/minibar in the hotel room (I had a 50% off summer rate at a business hotel) so I carried the milk around in my daypack (child of big, heavy, monster backpack) until my knee finally said enough.

I limped back to the hotel, and put the Onaka in the refrigerator and went to sleep. The next morning, I took out the Onaka and tried to pour it into a glass. Nothing came out. I look inside. The white stuff inside was rather solid, not liquid. I shook out a bit of the contents. It was yoghurt. For a moment I thought that I'd somehow managed to turn a carton of milk into yoghurt by carrying it around on my back. A careful inspection of the package yielded no word that looked like yoghurt, but there I was stuck with a 1 liter pack of plain yoghurt. I got a pack of Muesli-type of thing at the supermarket and a couple of apples, and had the yoghurt mixed with the other stuff for breakfast, dinner, and breakfast the next day too.

Belgian waffles and a pissing statue in Luxembourg. My friend took me to a summer carnival in Luxembourg. It was a typical rather rowdy summer fairground, with lots of loud rides, booths selling all kind of things you probably never needed (I particularly remember one woman demonstrating one of those plastic food cutter things, rapidly shredding cabbage and slicing cucumbers, all the time with a cigarette butt hanging out of the corner of her mouth.) We got rather hungry after some fun times spent in haunted houses and on merry-go-rounds, so we stopped at a booth that was selling freshly-made Belgian waffles. In the middle of the booth was a replica of the Mannekin Pis. The Mannekin Pis is the rather unfortunate symbol of Brussels (it is a bronze statue of a little boy, and yes it does urinate. There is also a Jennekin Pis if you care to look for it.) We were munching our delicious, cream and stewed-strawberries laden waffles, when the Mannekin Pis replica started to move. It rose up from its base, and started to spurt water at the unsuspecting customers while rotating. It slightly lessened our appetites (we were almost choking with laughter).

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