Summer gluttony: does food always taste better when we're on holidays?
Wed, 5 July, 2017
Holidays can be many things but often they are a food fest. Or, even more often – an eat fest. A lets-try-this-and-this-and-that-we’re-on-hols-after-all. A pig-out.
Sometimes it’s about trying local specialties – not infrequently in places which are as far removed from the ‘local’ scene as a Tex-Mex diner in a Chinese village. You go to Costa Brava and demand paella – why, you’re in Spain after all!
And then complain that it’s soupy and where’s the chorizo? Well, the explanation might be that what you’ve had wasn’t paella because that’s from Valencia; this was arròs a la cassola, an admittedly soupy casserole as the Catalan name suggests. But do people bother to think that entirely different things might be local to Catalonia and Andalusia? Not at all: it’s Spain. They should serve paella.
What we eat on holiday is sublime often enough: we have the fattest, juiciest olives with ripe salty feta in Crete, accompanied by the simplest tomato and fig salad and it truly tastes like ambrosia – even washed down with retsina, which does not. Back home we long to recreate the experience and the only thing that might and will be as good or better is the wine. The half-ripe tomatoes grown in the greenhouses of Isle of Wight, supermarket feta and ‘salad bar’ olives straight from the fridge will not make a sentimental taste bud journey. Plus the undisputed fact is that things back on holiday tasted so wonderful because a/ they were local and b/ we were relaxed to enjoy them.
But I might sound scathing about holiday culinary experiences while the truth is entirely the opposite: my best recipe titbits have been hauled back with a sack of dirty shorts and tops in a suitcase, figuratively speaking of course. A long ago jaunt over Italy taught me never to eat cured ham that has not been brought to room temperature; to never, in fact, eat anything cold from the fridge apart from ice cream. Also there I learnt what burrata and scamorza were and how mozzarella was not the rubbery vacuum packed, or God forbid grated, stuff. That’s all basics, but a raw porcini salad in Florence was more of an epiphany which I’d readily reproduce back home if it were at all possible to get hold of fresh ceps in the UK.
Elsewhere, Austrians reminded me of my grandmother’s coffee of choice, the Viennese Einspänner.
And that poppy seeds are not only used for sprinkling over bread loaves.
And France – where should I start? More first tasting of things than recipe ideas, admittedly, from oysters and fois gras to cassoulets and gâteau Breton which I tasted, not even in Brittany, and adored so much I went to replicate it straight away.
But it isn't right to pig out on hols (there's stating the obvious, if there ever was). It's good to sample new things but to treat holiday as an excuse to gain three pounds in a week won’t leave you with nice memories of that week. It seems fine at the time: another glass of wine, we’re on holidays after all. The best Italian ice cream in town, we must try it. The three course meals every other night, as opposed to once a fortnight when at home. And the worst of all – all-inclusive. Whoever invented it should rot in hell. I know there are people who always go for it and remain skinny – good genes or inhuman restraint, that’s all I can say. I’ve been once and the price tag removed from individual dishes, the ‘all-you-can-eat’ concept, the fact that the ‘all’ was actually very well cooked and appealing… The less said about the outcome of that particular holiday, the better.
To end on a positive (and slightly preachy) note: one of my best ever holidays was thus because I was Really Very Good in the eating, drinking (in moderation) and being active (massively) departments. It just made me feel so good about myself – not least when I got back home to find I’d actually lost some weight. Miracles happen, just help them a little.