December 4, 2022


Qualified food specialists

Mementos from around the world remind this writer of what he loves most about travel: Food.

6 min read

My hoarding tendency has paid off in these tethered times. Over the past 20 years, I have collected souvenirs around the world, from Sydney to Buenos Aires — tins, glasses, foreign-language books, mementos from restaurants and bars, mustard pots, corks, beermats, even checks from memorable meals. As my home city of London staggers to the end of its latest lengthy lockdown, each is a reminder of what, to be blunt, I love most about travel: finding delicious things to eat and drink.

I didn’t set out to build this odd little collection, but I’m glad it exists. As a travel writer, I find food particularly fascinating because what we eat and drink is a crucial (and, largely, benign) marker of local difference. The shape of beer glasses, the flavour of mustard, the texture of rice; this is what sets neighbors apart, but not at each others’ throats.

In a world where global food trends travel more quickly than ever — a hunger for pancakes in Los Angeles on Tuesday means 15 copycat street-food stalls across Europe by Friday — that kind of local flavor is to be cherished. Which is what I do, in my idiosyncratic way, by bringing reminders of it home to be savored at my leisure.

That dented, scuffed tin — now home to Lady Grey tea bags — takes me back to Brussels, nearly 20 years ago, and a boozy pre-fatherhood trip with three friends. I bought a tin of Langues de Chat biscuits adorned with a grotesque cartoon cat, its fat tongue poking out, as a gift for my then girlfriend, now wife, Claudine. The biscuits were devoured long ago, but the tin still revives memories of that weekend — like a superb lunch at Bij Den Boer, a fish restaurant in Quai aux Briques, where I asked my friend who lived in Brussels if we should speak French to the waiter. “Oh no,” he said. “This is a Flemish restaurant. They’ll definitely prefer English.”

The tea tin has served us well since, which cannot be said for the beer mats stuffed into a drawer in my office. They’re just clogging things up. Claudine might say the same of the koozie I was given in Sydney in 2007, on our Australian honeymoon, and I might admit that she has a point. There’s not much need for it here — koozies are meant to stop canned beer from warming up too quickly, rarely a problem in the great British outdoors — but the image of David Boon (an Aussie cricketer whose luxuriant mustache and barrel shape made him an icon on both sides of the world in the early ’90s) and the inscription (Boonie for Prime Minister) make me smile.

Also, Boonie doesn’t take up much space. That’s not true of my beer glasses, but I’m equally keen to hang onto them. I have half a dozen Belgian chalice-style glasses, of which my favorite is the Duvel, a bulbous stemmed glass whose delicious contents I first tasted on that Belgian jaunt, when I ordered it late one afternoon despite my pal from Brussels warning me that it was 8.5 percent alcohol by volume. (Did I pay for that later? Honestly, I can’t remember.)

There are four glasses from Bohemia, the best a stocky, fat-bottomed mug from Pilsner Urquell that epitomizes the quality and easygoing conviviality of Czech beer culture. There’s a handled glass from Munich, which I don’t use but which is — thanks to its impressive size — potentially very useful. You never know when you might need to drink a liter of beer in one sitting, do you?

The centerpiece of my ever-expanding collection is a stoneware mug, a steinkrug, which cost 8 euros at Spezial, a 485-year-old brewery in Bamberg, in the Franconia region of Germany. I spent three happy days at Spezial — an inn as well as a brewery — in March 2016. A month later I was back (Bavaria was celebrating 500 years of the Reinheitsgebot, its beer purity law, and there was unusually high demand for German beer stories) staying across the road at Fassla, another wonderful brewery and inn. I left in a rush, forgetting to pick up a Fassla steinkrug; every time I drink from the Spezial mug, I remember I need to go back soon.

My steinkrug is quite a handsome item, I think, with its matte beige sheen and glazed 19th-century lettering. It’s certainly more attractive than my kids’ water glasses. They started life as mustard pots, bought in a supermarket in Argèles-Sur-Mer on France’s Mediterranean coast and were converted to their current use when the Dijon was used up. There are 10 of them, mostly squat tumblers with a colored band at the bottom rendered almost invisible from years of dishwasher cleaning. The others come from specific sets issued by manufacturer Amora: two from a series focused on Europe’s great cities (we have London and Paris), one featuring Tintin, another celebrating 100 years of the Tour de France. This latter pair is in most demand at mealtimes.

Not everything that comes back from our summer holidays is so useful. There’s a cork on my desk, for example, pulled from a bottle of what might be Roussillon’s finest dry white wine: Domaine de la Rectorie’s L’Argile, a perfect balance of acidity, peachy fruit and rich depth. We brought a bottle home in 2019. The cork, which I occasionally play with in moments of tension, is a reminder of just how delicious it was, on a balmy Roussillon evening and in our warm kitchen.

When I think about it, it’s the trips where I have failed to pocket any culinary reminders that stick out. The most glaring was 2015’s visit to Kuala Lumpur, a city of wondrous food based on a holy trinity of cuisines: Malaysian, Chinese and Indian. All I acquired there was a pair of stuffed animals (an orangutan and a proboscis monkey) that I blithely agreed to seek out after heavy lobbying from my eldest son. It took me until the final day to chase them down, but it was worth it: They’ve been well-loved since.

The restaurants I loved in Kuala Lumpur weren’t huge on mementos, anyway. At Kin Kin, where I gobbled superb, unctuous chili pan mee, the bowls, tables and seats were plastic, and I drank Coca-Cola.

European restaurants and bars offer more frills. The notice board in my office is brightened by elegant cards from Sol e Pesca, a bar in Lisbon where the menu consists entirely of tinned seafood, and Café des Fédérations in Lyon (a carnivore’s heaven; the card features an understandably nervous-looking pig), plus a beer mat emblazoned with the elegant logo of La Capsule, a tiny but delightful beer bar in Lille.

Over the past year, I have had to go online for my fix. It is, I’m relieved to say, fertile soil. I recently bought a large and exuberantly colorful map, first published in the late 19th century, by Deyrolle, a unique Parisian shop that specializes in taxidermy and pedagogical aids. (Its website is almost as much of a delight as the store in the Rue du Bac, particularly if you’re in the market for stuffed animals.) My map shows the huge variety of fruits then grown in France: apples in Flanders, apricots in Provence, peaches down in Roussillon, cherries all over. Already, I can’t imagine my kitchen without it.

And then there’s the steinkrug I thought I had secured on eBay, an elegant tapered mug from St. Georgen Brau in Bavaria, whose kellerbier — a spicy, marmalade-rich unfiltered amber lager — I like as much as Spezial’s gently smoked Rauchbier. A day after the purchase, though, the seller told me that Brexit had sent import duty spiraling upward by 500 percent, which proved a touch too rich for me.

My Spezial mug will have to wait for a partner. Oh well. It’s an opportunity, I guess, to dream of future adventures amid my daily reminders of past pleasures.

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