Travel expands the culinary skills

Fondue on a table, bread on two forks dipping in
Classic Swiss fondue. Photo by Jerome, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

How our repertoire as cooks expands when we travel! What startling new ideas bombard us at cafes and restaurants in exotic places!

As a newlywed, I spent four years living in Geneva, from 1960–1963. This experience made a momentous impression on me, and as for the food, it was bouleversant.

My food background: post-war, English-style cooking

Bear in mind that we came from New Zealand, and in the 1960s we were just emerging from a very basic meat-and-three-veg policy for meals. (I’m not complaining: my mother’s cooking was tasty and economical, and gave me a sound basis in nutrition.)

A typical New Zealand salad was iceberg lettuce sliced finely like cole slaw, mixed with all manner of extras and smothered in pretend-mayonnaise that was essentially sweetened condensed milk plus malt vinegar. Yuck.

Before marriage I had taken a course in so-called “Continental cooking”, learning a new dish every week. They were yummy, but rich and heavy: think Hungarian goulash and coq au vin. What I learned: if in doubt add wine and cream.

My food education: eating, talking, eating, drinking

My education in Geneva was organic. We were asked to dinner many times by my boss Peggy and her husband Ray. They were gourmets extraordinaires (sorry, the French keeps bubbling up) with an excellent cook, and they also introduced us to the glorious specificity of cafe life. Local specialties and celebrated chefs abounded, even in the smallest village. You went to Cafe X in the month of Y and ordered dish Z, which was famous throughout the land: everyone else knew that, but we had to be told—and taken.

Of course there were numerous cafe outings with other friends, and we did indeed frequently eat cheese fondue, raclette with small potatoes and gherkins, sauerkraut with  special and specific sausages (depending on the date and location), and so on. Wine, wine, wine, and kirsch featured strongly.

I lapped up these strange new comestibles and styles.

What I learned and never forgot

Back  home in New Zealand, we continued to have fondue parties for some years: they were fun. That’s a hefty dish, good for snow-bound winters in the mountains. Also, for years I made my own sauerkraut and croissants—because nobody else did.

But the most important things I learned were very different, and extraordinarily modern:

  • to include a side salad with every meal
  • to honour simple ingredients as an entree in themselves, without mash-up, for example asparagus or radishes
  • to respect freshness and simplicity
  • to serve smaller helpings
  • to pay attention when eating
  • to experiment when cooking.

These culinary principles influence me to this day. Thank you, Geneva!

Rachel on ski-slope in Switzerland 1962
That’s me, ready for my apres-ski treat. Every snack an adventure in Switzerland!

 

Souvenirs: joy of travel in retrospect

Couch with souvenir cushions from 5 countries
Everyday reminders of travel: exotic cushion covers

Souvenirs of travel are never far away in my apartment. Maybe I won’t travel to any faraway places in future: my body doesn’t like it much.. However, I’ll never forget the places I’ve lived in or visited, because discreet reminders are close at hand. These cushion covers were collected at random. If only I’d brought one back from the Malvinas, or Chile, or Argentina, or the Tokelaus, or Tonga, or (for goodness’ sake!) Geneva, where I lived for four years… Anyway, I love my accidental decor, and I kid myself the cushions  go together.

I wonder, what souvenirs do you bring home from your travels?

KEY

  1. Christchurch, woven by my sister Prue
  2. Kyoto, cushion for our favourite doll, Kyoko
  3. A local shop
  4. Dhaka
  5. Ditto
  6. Marrakech
  7. Samoa

Dining in the dark: not exactly fun

Logo of Dining in the Dark on a black background

Dining without being able to see the food? Dining in the Dark sounds extraordinary: a unique experience for all the senses. Moreover, it’s promoted as the best or second best restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. So naturally my friend and I made a booking.

And it was indeed fascinating. The blacker than black air filling the room (I presume it was a room). Entry step by cautious step (sans phone or any device that can emit light) holding the shoulders of a blind or partially sighted waiter. Being seated at a small table, hands guided towards the implements. Then the first course placed in front of us, ready for our teeth.

Here are my honest impressions. Lovely people, lovely idea, and thousands will continue to visit (once) and sing the praises of this restaurant, so one ambivalent review will not hurt their business. I’m glad of that.

The simplest foods impressed

Four appetisers were placed before us separately but simultaneously. The second one I tasted was a piece of steamed squash (?) with a splash of sweet chilli sauce(?). The sauce was a distractor—probably out of a bottle. But I did intensely relish the fresh, natural flavour of the squash as never before. Such a humble vegetable, served with no fancyfication, no crumbing or battering or whipping or combining with other ingredients. No confusion, either. I felt as if I had never appreciated squash until that moment.

And for me, that was the highlight of the evening. That experience was surely the very purpose of dining in the dark: to heighten your sense of taste.

My other favourites were equally spartan. One of two soups and one of four desserts hit me in a similar way.

Too many, too much, too messed up

I hated having three main course plates served together: too much food and just plain annoying. One plate with pasta, one a casserole perhaps—I don’t know. Later, we were shown the menu and discovered that we had eaten beef, chicken and duck. Yet astonishingly, neither of us had identified the meats. We couldn’t distinguish beef from chicken, imagine that, or spot the style of cuisine. The texture and taste seemed identical. Now that’s weird, right? And honestly, the food was not great.

Socially and psychologically a fail

I wanted to like it. I kidded myself I liked it. All through the meal we both exclaimed about how interesting this was. After all, it was a unique experience, and an education, and a worthy cause. But afterwards, we both confessed that this was far from a top night out. We’d had more fun eating a simple pasta dish the night before.

Besides the problems I’ve mentioned above, I did not like our conversation over the meal. Imagine two old friends who typically talk and talk and talk, whose conversation goes deep and high and wide and big and small, who wear each other out with their talking. Now imagine us sitting across from each other over a meal, talking about one thing only, over and over: what food am I eating?

Not only boring, but anxiety-inducing, as if every ingredient of every dish was a test. Was I right? Did I pass? Turned out we both failed pretty much all the time, although we often agreed on a wrong answer. But failing wasn’t the point. This was like spending time in a horrible classroom with a patronising teacher testing us over and over and over again. I’m not talking about the staff: they couldn’t have been more considerate. The teacher was in our heads, I know, but so what?

How to improve this interesting restaurant

Based on a case study of two customers, I have learned the following:

  • We got the most pleasure, and the strongest taste sensation, from eating simple fresh foods that we recognised. In the dark, even these were challenge enough.
  • If food is too plentiful and too varied, in the dark, tastes become a blur.
  • If the food isn’t excellent, and your customers focus exclusively on the food, that’s a fail.
  • If you focus exclusively on the food in the dark, the arteries of conversation shrink and harden.
  • It’s tempting to exaggerate your enjoyment of an adventure.

Air travel style: from glamour to practicality in one lifetime

In Singapore Airport T1,I was admiring the confident, relaxed travellers all around me and remembering my first trips on a commercial airline, in the early 1960s. At the time, air travel seemed impossibly glamorous and we were all strongly aware that these journeys were changing the world of travel forever.

We bought special outfits or at least wore our Sunday best. (Don’t ask.) For my first trip I wore my “going away suit”: Mrs McAlpine ascended the steps to the entry dressed in a sage green two-piece suit, with a short straight skirt and a perky shaped jacket with collar and bow. Her outfit was topped off with a multicoloured raffia hat to hold her golden hair neatly in place for the long journey to Australia. Her handsome husband Grant wore a crisp navy reefer jacket with silver buttons, a polo necked sweater, and classic trousers in khaki wool gaberdine.

One turned at the top of the steps to wave farewell to the sniffling relatives left on the ground, then one disappeared into the bowels of the plane. As the plane taxied on to the runway, a uniformed official ran ahead waving a red flag to shoo stray cattle off the tarmac … just kidding. Then we were in the hands of the Air Stewardesses, the most glamorous, modern job available to ambitious young women.

Jump ahead 50 years. Comfort rules, and most travellers wear jeans, shorts, T-shirts or sweatshirts, and sneakers. Backpacks and roller cases and rolling tracks and golf-carty-things make carting luggage around a fairly simple business. One tiny device acts as portable phone, map, ticket, boarding pass, camera, wallet, newspaper, book, movie theatre, games room, insurance policy, address book — oh stop me or I’ll go on all night. Coffee comes in a cardboard cup. Airports unrecognisable.

You know what I mean. We moan and groan about new inconveniences around travel (security checks, cancelled planes, bad this, bad that, jet lag, leg room not…) — fair enough. But it’s good to remind ourselves of those long ago days, when every air trip was noisy and slow and wildly exotic, and we knew exactly how great was our privilege.

Which cabin bag?

Green cabin bag, denim bag, Doctor bag, vinyl bag, antique Webstock bag and 3 day backpacks
Ten hand bags: which ones to carry on the plane to Malaysia?

Shortly I’m off on a quick trip to Kuala Lumpur, always a great pleasure. But this entails torturing myself over the issue of The Travel Bag. I take the same dirty little green wheelie bag everywhere: that’s not a problem. I will take my usual wallet on a string for passport and phone and tickets: that’s not a problem.

IMG_9381

I will take an ancient pink WETSUIT bag that holds the electronic stuff (ipad, keyboard, Kindle, adaptors): I will love it until death do us part.

But where to put the WETSUIT bag, plus water bottle, snacks, toothbrush, and neck cushion?

For a mad day or two I thought of b-u-y-i-n-g a new bag, since my everyday brown vinyl bag is mighty shabby. Then sanity prevailed: I recalled all the other bags in my possession, and threw them on the floor in a beauty parade. Half of them are used every week as a gym bag, dance bag, swim bag, choir bag or daily bag respectively.

  • Green bag: perfectly designed as a cabin bag, is colour coded, totally naff and a hefty 1.2 kg. OK OK, I will consider it.
  • Sloppy brown vinyl bag: old and familiar, the default choice.
  • Doctor’s bag: cool, but zip’s too short. Na.
  • Bright blue $5 gym bag: tempting.

Not short of bags, no. But which one to take on the plane? No trip is complete without a certain amount of neurotic self-torture of this nature. What do you recommend?

 

Travel blogs and travel talk

marrakech-gare
Marrakech Gare: going places!

Travel blogs: hugely popular for good reason

Travel blogging is a brilliant way to keep a travel diary, manage your trip photos, and keep family and friends up to date with your adventures. Also, you only have to write about each memory once — one post and it’s done — but you can edit at your leisure. You can write into life with this genre.

There’s room for every kind of travel blog: visual, verbal, mundane, philosophical, private, public, chatty, literary, jokey, romantic — it’s all good. A travel blog can quadruple the pleasure of a trip.

Travel conversations are not so easy

These after-the-trip conversations are inevitable. When you return from an exotic place, you are obliged to talk about it. Friends ask about Your Trip (especially in New Zealand, where every country except Australia is a fairly long way away). Or you have an urge to talk about it anyway, bursting to share all your strange and marvellous experiences.

But how? Travel talk can be such a pleasure, but it can also go seriously wrong. Half your audience has already been to the same destination, and the other half has been there in spirit thanks to TripAdvisor and Facebook.

Is there a taxonomy of travel talk? I have been watching how others do it, and I hope to learn from their triumphs and mistakes.

A. Travel talk that I enjoy

  1. Personal experiences combined with insights into broader topics.
  2. A story steeped in joy or excitement or delight or drama or fear: strong frank personal feelings.
  3. People who travel with a specific purpose: how did things pan out?
  4. A story about people.
  5. An amazing fact that I have never heard before.
  6. Stories that grow and grow in response to the listener’s questions.

B. Travel talkers who drive me nuts 

Hello B-team. I’m glad you had an adventure and I wish you all the best, but let’s set a 5 minute limit.

  1. The bore who tells you 1,000 (dubious, random, context-less) “facts” about a place.
  2. The know-it-all who believes that spending 5 minutes in a place gives their every opinion the ring of authority.
  3. The full-time cruise traveller who compares tours, not places.
  4. The super-generaliser.
  5. The person who forgets you used to live there.
  6. Mr and Mrs Cost-a-Lot, Mr and Mrs They-Can’t-Make-Chips, and their friends.

After my next holiday in Kuala Lumpur I’d better prepare an executive summary so that I don’t lapse into category B.

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This blog post is reprinted from Old Lady Laughing, which nobody ever read. My own photo, cc by 2.0