I just choked up watching Anthony Bourdain eating in the Lyon episode of Parts Unknown. Wow, man. I’ve got this Europe bug bad.
For the last three years since I moved to Victoria, I’ve worked two jobs. I’ve probably been working “overtime” since late-2012. Very seldom have I time for cooking weekends, or to cook involved meals, because I lose a lot of life to work, and something’s got to give. I feel loss for all the times I could’ve made coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon. Instead, I’ve had more than my fill of pizzas, gwailo Chinese food, and underwhelming burgers.
But it’s all in service to the dream, man. I’m closing in on being debt-free, and that means that I’ll have reduced my cost of living by a solid 50% once I go abroad. If that’s not a change of life, nothing is. I plan to work 30% less, and work smarter. Life will change dramatically, and the food I eat will be one of the best benefits of that change. Until that dream begins in October, I’ll be working and wishing wistfully for better meals.
A dream I’m presently slave to is the idea of learning to cook throughout my travels. I’d like to take at least a couple cooking classes in every food-centric country I visit. Meaning, if I go somewhere like Macedonia, who have some pretty abysmal-looking restaurants, I’m gonna let myself off the hook, but in France, Spain, Morocco, Italy, Croatia, Greece, et cetera, you can bet I’ll be sussing out some unique cooking opportunities when I can.
In Croatia, I have a lead on a sommelier/chef who does underground wine tours and gives cooking classes. I can’t wait to meet Goran and his Zagreb colleagues, who will show me its local food scene. I’ll tell you all about them once I’m there. Goran teaches how to prepare and cook traditional fish dishes. I’m not a seafood fan but cooked over flame and prepared traditionally has to be a great way to eat it, so why not give it a really solid shot? And if I learn how to do it, I’ll always be able to recreate it elsewhere.
In Morocco, I’ve located a hotel near Marrakech who offer cooking classes too. Moroccan food was that “aha!” moment when I was 13 or so, the point when I realized how dynamic and enthralling food could be. Ironically, Vancouver never had a Moroccan restaurant and I’ve never eaten it at a restaurant since. I’ve never really had the chance to explore that emotional connection with food again — until this fall.
Those are experiences I’ll cherish, but I’d also love to just meet average, everyday folks cooking their region’s food and hang out with them in their kitchens. I think, for those of us who have a real sense of what’s important in life, how we operate in the kitchen says a lot about our values in life, and these would be like-minded kindred souls to me.
The real “soul food”
It’s one thing to appreciate eating good food, but it’s another when it’s so important to you that you spend your life in constant search of new flavours, new techniques, new tastes, new cultures. It’s time I become that person.
I don’t know whatever possessed me to be crazy enough to think I could be the chick walking away from her life and embracing five years of the unknown and chasing little dreams and taste experiences around the world, but I’m so glad I had that lapse of sanity.
I can’t fathom what it will be like to find professionals in every country to teach me their tricks. I’ll love the short-term experiences and relationships that unfold as a result of such wish lists. Single-serving friends I’ll always remember fondly.
I’d like to partake in a wine harvest. A salt harvest. I want to see food made in all its glorious ways. I might visit mustard makers in Dijon, for instance. Truffle-hunting is already in the works for Croatia, so that’s the first big food harvest dream to get checked off my list. And so much more!
The quest for flavors
The love of food is a strange, sensual journey for some of us. It’s exciting when a meal is so interesting that we sit there smacking our lips and trying to identify each individual flavour. It’s exhilarating to have a food experience that opens a door for you.
For me, the first one was chicken b’stilla, a Moroccan sweet-savory pie wrapped in phyllo pastry and filled entire bunches of parsley and cilantro, ginger, almonds, currants, and so much more, then sprinkled on top with a cinnamon-sugar mix. It’s mind-blowingly good, and I make it like a pro. It’s the kind of food that makes you groan when you eat it, whether it’s me cooking it or you get it from a restaurant, because it’s just hitting all those notes we celebrate — sweet, savory, bitter, umami.
It’s such a tight-rope, flavour. This fascinating article I read earlier this year is case in point about just how much of an art and science cooking is for those of us who love it. It’s all about how science finally cracked the code about what makes some Indian curries transcendent.
When food can blow a mind
“Transcendence” is a word that smacks of snobbery and elitism with food, isn’t it? It conjures those wankers who sit about sniffing brandy and speaking nasally about a food’s ethos.
But it shouldn’t evoke that. “Transcendence,” for me, is when a food experience is so good it just stops time. Right then, nothing else in the world matters. That doesn’t mean it costs a million dollars or needs me to book a table eight months in advance. It’s just that rare experience where it’s made with attention and love, enjoyed in the right place at the right time.
One example is the time I was in Sonoma Valley, 1994. I took a bunch of cheese samples from the cheese factory in the town square, wandered to a baker to buy a baguette, and I drove around the hills until I saw a winery that looked good. It was Benziger, who would later become a leader in the biodynamic winery industry.
There, I tasted wine, and then I took my cheese, bread, and Merlot, and sat on a picnic table overlooking the whole valley on that gorgeous May day. I drank wine, ate, read, and had probably one of the nicest experiences of my life until that point. Moments like that, it doesn’t matter who’s doing what anywhere in the world, there’s no one who is enjoying life any better than you are at that exact moment. There is nothing more you could want than something tasty, beautiful, and real in a place like that.
For me, that’s the journey I’m after. A life that moves slow enough to pause often and meaningfully, filled with beautiful places that celebrate slowness and authentic foods. This is the dream.
A journey that doesn’t need to end
Whether it’s nations going to war over things like nutmeg 350 years ago or a family that passes on artisanal food skills for generations, like the Bibic family in Croatia who’ve been making wine on the same land for five centuries, it just goes to show that food really can speak to the soul.
So, sure, I choked up a little watching Anthony Bourdain smile like a man ready to die happy as he ate cheese, sausage, and swilled wine in France. Maybe it’s because life, for me, is about things that are that simple. Food, wine, beautiful places, good people to share it with. That’s it.
When I read reviews on sites like TripAdvisor, I can’t believe how many North Americans go to Europe and then give 4 out of 5 stars because “The service is too slow, or I would rate even higher.” If you’re in a hurry for a meal, you’re visiting the wrong continent. Europe is slow. That’s the whole point.
Keep your quick-ticking travel itineraries. You’ll find me staring blankly in bliss as I while away time between dishes on a sidewalk cafe. Or savouring a selection of cheeses with salumerie on a Croatian roadside as I break from a day of photography. There will be no rushing. I will have nowhere to be, no obligations to meet. I’ll get there when my soul’s ready.
This is the pinnacle of “good life” for me. A world governed by whimsy, taste, and location. And that is exactly 3.5 months away from today.
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I love your thoughts and philosophy of enjoying the simple and real foods of a culture. My wife and I had what we considered one of our most memorable food moments last spring in Florence. It was about 10:00 am and in a light rain we stood in front of a food cart eating lamprodotto (basically cow stomach in spicy tomato sauce). We knew at that moment we were having an experience that very few if any Americans would ever have (or want to have). We savored each bite and tried to make the experience last as long as possible. Knowing we were two Americans enjoying one of their iconic foods impressed a few locals with whom we shared our food moment. Impressing locals though is not the reason we eat this way. We view the simple authentic dishes as way to gain a little knowledge of a people, culture and their history. I wish you so much happiness and joy on your coming adventure Steffani.
Thanks so much, Lisa! I really look forward to stuff like that. I’m a little scaredy-cat about trying new foods but I’m really going to make myself go for it for the reasons you mention. 13 weeks! 🙂