On a Friday morning we normally decide what we want to eat for dinner each night over the coming week, make a shopping list, and then toddle off to the supermarket for the ‘big shop’. It’s a bit anally retentive and there’s not much room for the slightest gastronomic spontaneity, but in both our former careers logistics featured heavily. Actually, logistics are still a major part of our work, especially when it comes to helping create new Slow Travel holidays with Inntravel. Subsequently, planning things in advance has ingrained itself to the point it’s a completely subconscious act.
Current restrictions of movement and the lottery that is a trip to the supermarket has changed all that. We still make a list which includes essential and hope-they-have-it ingredients, but there’s no clear path ahead with dinner stops featuring set menus that we already know. We’ve driven into spontaneity city… and it’s liberating. Shackles have been broken as meals are dictated by what we have available on any one day. It’s fuelled culinary creativity as we’ve customised favourite recipes, created new dishes, and scoured old cookbooks for inspiration. As many of our cookbooks were purchased after we’d visited somewhere whose gastronomy had wowed us on our travels, these dishes have unlocked travel memories as well as providing us, mostly, with something delicious for dinner.
Risotto from Novara
We’ve got plenty of arborio rice, fresh mushrooms, a jar of dried shiitake mushrooms, white wine, and Parmesan cheese – mushroom risotto it is. Risottos bored me until we visited Novara where some of Italy’s finest rice is grown. A restaurant on a side street, with duo-tone linen cloths covering tables set in neat rows, was a throwback to another era. Its olde-worlde elegance was offset by the fact the owner’s mother, wearing a long nightie, was perched on the end of a bed watching TV in a room just off the dining area. It’s difficult to tell what was most unpleasant; the old woman’s hacking cough or the dubbed dialogue from Murder She Wrote played at high volume. Presumably the door was left open so the owner could keep an eye on her mother. Whatever the reason, it made for a surreal eating experience. Distracting from the distractions, the tri-colour risotto they served completely changed my view on risotto. And the owner, a renowned chef in Novara, shared her secrets for making the perfect risotto; including keep it simple. Now, whenever we eat risotto I’m transported back to that lunch.
Tzatziki in Andros
We’ve been huge fans of Greek dips ever since our very first holiday together, to the island of Zakynthos in the late 1980s. However, we’d only eaten tzatziki as a starter or part of a mezes lunch until we visited Andros in 2018. The plan was to spend the day plotting out a circular walking route from our accommodation in the hamlet Ayios Petros. Owner Irini had other ideas. It was Easter Sunday and she was hosting family and friends for a celebratory lunch. She invited us to join them. As it would have been rude to refuse, we accepted. But it meant we had to virtually power walk our way around the route, arriving back – sweaty and tired – with less than five minutes left before the feast was served. Of the extended family, only Irini spoke any English and that more or less amounted to saying “yessss” to anything we said, so communication with our fellow diners was awkward. Thankfully there was plenty of food to eat to keep talking to a minimum – a full lamb, country sausages, fried liver, Greek salad, trays of spinach and feta pies etc. There were also buckets of tzatziki strategically placed around the long table. Huge dollops of the dip were paired with everything. It was the first time we’d witnessed it being used this way.
Pairing tzatziki with halloumi and couscous this week fuelled memories of our Andros Easter banquet.
Gazpacho in Alentejo
Gazpacho in Portugal? Shock, horror, gasp… gazpacho is Spanish. Yes it is; the refreshing tomato, garlic, pepper, and cucumber soup being originally concocted in the kitchens of Andalusian peasants. Yet, whenever we make gazpacho it conjures memories of a sizzling June day in Castelo de Vide in Alentejo. We’d spent the afternoon in the ebullient company of the relation of friends. He just happened to live in the closest town to where we were staying; a quite remarkable coincidence as it’s an area which makes most other remote areas seem easy to get to. After having been shown the town’s most interesting features and cooling down with a beer in a bar in the company of scorched firefighters and equally black-faced cork tree workers, we decamped to a restaurant where we were served the freshest, fruitiest, zingiest, tastiest gazpacho by a waitress who insisted she’d only serve us if we spoke to her in Portuguese. That dish is now the benchmark gazpacho… even though we do make ours the Spanish way.
Red pepper couscous in Andalusia
To continue a trend of eating dishes associated with one specific geographical area in the ‘wrong’ place, couscous takes me back to the whitewashed houses of Las Alpujarras, specifically the mountain village of Mairena. We spent a week there learning a mix of Moro cooking from chef Tom Ryalls, and traditional dishes courtesy of the cooks at Las Chimineas, our base. We regularly recreate many of the recipes Tom, Soledad, and Conchi taught us, each dish stoking memories of foraging for herbs; being squeezed around a table in a buzzing tapas bar in Granada; meanders in chestnut groves; chatty evenings where the wine flowed and the fruit from each day’s labours in the kitchen were presented and devoured appreciatively. Red pepper and walnut tabbouleh was one of the easiest recipes to reproduce. As a result, we throw together a variation of it on a semi-regular basis – a bowl of couscous flavoured by stock, allspice, cinnamon, piri piri sauce (in the absence of harissa), tomato puree, olive oil, and lemon juice. A sprinkling of chopped walnuts adds crunch but what really elevates the flavour is sweet, succulent strips of griddled red pepper. Before serving, we throw on some crumbled feta just to add a wee bit more savoury saltiness as well as a contrasting splash of colour.
The aroma of Jesus, Tenerife
There’s a particular aroma which used to waft its way up from Jesus’s house when he lived in the casita at the bottom of our garden in Tenerife. Jesus, our neighbour for a while, hailed from the Basque Country and, like every other person from that region of Spain, was an excellent chef. The smell often emanating from his kitchen was a combination of chorizo, bacon, garlic, and onion frying in olive oil. Although these ingredients themselves don’t particularly represent Tenerife, the aroma they produce is also very close to one which had our noses twitching curiously as we strolled old streets in towns like La Orotava when residents were preparing lunch.
We haven’t been able to get hold of red lentils for a few weeks; however, the supermarket had restocked on our last visit so we grabbed a couple of packets and cooked chorizo and lentil stew; a hearty one-pot wonder of a dish which always has us reminiscing about life with Jesus at the bottom of the garden.
In this way many of our lock-down dishes prompt a memory of somewhere – the first time we were served arroz a la cubana whilst waiting for a Champions League match to start; rice and bean lunches in dappled glades in Cape Verde; creamy pasta sauces in a romantic setting by the river in Verona; searing curries on the… Curry Mile in Rusholme, Manchester.
We travel without leaving our house.