The most memorable meal I ever had was on the island of St Klement in Croatia. It was nothing more than a plate of pasta that followed a day of sailing the Mediterranean, hiking through woods, swimming in clear waters and sunbathing on rocks. I don’t know the name of the little seaside restaurant where I ate it, and although I could probably find out with a little effort, I’ve never been much inclined to try.
The meal itself was simple – spaghetti with freshly caught local seafood in a light tomato sauce and just a touch of white wine, paprika and rosemary – but at that moment, there could not have been a more perfect dish to end a day of adventure.
It was years ago, but I still remember it well and with some fondness. With the clarity of hindsight, however, I know that it was, in many respects, an unremarkable plate of food. The seafood was cooked well, the pasta al dente and the sauce bright and flavourful, but it was not so different to what I might have been served in 10,000 other similar restaurants. It would be naive of me to pretend that I would have been as enthusiastic if that same dish had been dinner on an ordinary Tuesday night in front of the telly.
What made that meal so special to me was everything else that surrounded it. I was in a new and exciting place with good friends, exploring and enjoying myself immeasurably; and in that plate of pasta, I was quite literally consuming my surroundings.
It’s not just some quirk of luck that our most memorable meals are often found in faraway places, or in the company of wonderful people. There’s so much more to a dinner than just what is on the plate.
The experience of food far from home is almost hyper-sensory. Sights, sounds, tastes and all the other details of an evening that might slip unnoticed at an after-work dinner near the office are meticulously if subconsciously catalogued when we’re away, and then processed with the happy optimism of a person on tour and having fun. A snooty waiter can be the death of an evening at a local restaurant, but combine the same service with a view of the Eiffel Tower and every eye-roll and harrumph becomes part of the romantic ambience of Paris. Malaysia comes alive with the flame, sizzle and smell of hawker stalls and the street, so much so that eating the inevitable satay is almost an afterthought to the whole experience. The cobblestoned alleyways of Trastevere have seasoned a million plates of pasta.
Anthony Bourdain recently described his favourite dining experience in Victoria as a midnight snack of polpette, prepared impromptu by Tetsuya Wakuda from dinner leftovers at a Yarra Valley winery and shared chatting with other chefs into the night. Now, I would assume that Mr Bourdain isn’t saying that the best food Victoria has to offer is a meatball made by a Sydney chef; there must instead have been something else in the experience that moved him.
At Heston Blumenthal’s iconic destination restaurant The Fat Duck, about an hour’s drive from London, he captures the magic of occasion as well as any in the business. The edible components of his dishes are coupled with elaborate stories, tableside theatrics and in some cases, a soundtrack. Even from the time of making their reservation, future diners can access an online video presentation, immersing them in the sights, sounds and themes of their dinner months before their first mouthful. I’d be willing to bet that there are not many who have eaten at The Fat Duck and have forgotten that experience quickly. Closer to home, Tony Bilson once told me that the whole experience of the Berowra Waters Inn was designed with the idea of travel in mind. The stages of the journey: crossing the Hawkesbury River by ferry; climbing the stairs; walking through the front door; and even the lines of sight from the tables themselves, were all orchestrated to transport the diner further away from their workaday lives. By the time they would sit down at the table, they would be in a different place – mind and body. I’m told that visiting the restaurant by seaplane was one of the finest dining experiences in Australia.
The relationship between food and travel has been around ever since the first hunter-gatherers went looking for lunch. In more recent history, the origins of the Michelin Guide as a driving companion produced by the eponymous tyre company are widely known. Since 1926, when the first star ratings were published, restaurants worth a stop, detour or special journey have been awarded one, two and three stars respectively.
The world and the ways we travel across it have changed dramatically, but the original intent of the rating system somewhat improbably still holds true. Today’s visitors to Tokyo may try for a table at one-starred Birdland when in town. Those in London may change their plans to accommodate a night at The Ledbury for their two-star menu. Others still may fly across the world for the chance to experience three stars at New York’s Per Se (as long as they’re lucky enough to snag a booking).
The idea of travelling for food is not just for Michelin diners and the jet set. When I lived in Japan, I could travel just a few kilometres to the next town, region or prefecture and find it was 'famous’ for some produce, dish or local delicacy – and not without good reason. Beef from Matsuzaka, mushrooms from Nagano or pickles from Kyoto are known around the world as among the world’s best.
For years, my weekends were often spent in a car or on a train on my way to one prefecture or another just for a box of exquisite Yamanashi peaches, or the best apples from Gunma. As wonderful as the produce was, what struck me as much as the flavour was the pride with which it was grown, sold and cooked.
Whether a farmer, grocer or a beaming restaurateur, I was never short of a local willing to spend a few minutes enlightening an ignorant Australian about why the rice, fish, fruit or vegetable I was eating was the best in Japan, or even the world. That pride came through in the taste, and even today, my strongest memories of travelling through Japan are of the foods I ate along the way.
Memories of food can take us far away, and they can also bring us home. Mum’s lamb chops or Grandma’s pancakes can transcend time and space to transport us back to our childhood.
Anyone who has tried to re-create their parents’ or grandparents’ dishes knows that the reproduction will never quite live up to the original, no matter how closely the recipe is followed. The missing ingredient is not a secret spice or a hidden flip of a whisk; it is something unquantifiable and irreplaceable. You may as well try to bottle a mother’s love.
When I lived abroad, any item of Australian food or drink a visitor had smuggled over in their luggage, whether it was a Coopers Pale Ale, a Tim Tam or a salt and vinegar chip, was treated with a near-religious reverence. It was not just the taste that made it important, but more the thought of being home again at a time when home felt so far away. In those moments, through some uncanny transubstantiation, a bottle of beer became a country, and a biscuit a flag.
It is also said that our sense of smell is the strongest trigger in creating and recalling memories. Is it any wonder then that memories of food are among our most vivid? Are these memories strong and evocative because we love food, or is a love of food born from strong memories and their emotions? Whether the chicken or egg came first, both are delicious.
We are all the products of our experiences; and if our experiences are in turn the sum of our memories, then perhaps we are what we eat in more ways than we ever imagined.
Destination Flavour Japan begins 19 September, 8pm on SBS ONE