Sometimes when you look back at how travel has changed,
it’s the simple things that come to the fore, even just the
practicalities. For instance, tickets were printed on paper
and there were long queues to check in for your boarding pass at
the airport – now it’s a flash of a mobile screen and you’re through.
Well, through to security at least, which in recent times has taken
up all the time those 25 years of technological advancement were
supposed to save. Then there’s the navigation of the airport. It can
still feel as if you’re crossing time zones if you have to switch from
one terminal to another, so that hasn’t changed, but most airports
have and now they make for an easier arrival. In the case of my
first-ever trip with Food and Travel, to Istanbul back in 1998, you could spend two hours trying to make your way through.
To rewind the story, perhaps the reason I was going to Istanbul
is of more interest than the nitty-gritty of paper tickets, passing
security and general travel logistics. It was for what we now
commonly know as a Gourmet Traveller, a regular feature which,
in the passing of a quarter of a century, has come to describe the
way many of us travel in the world. Apparently, some 60 per cent
of people now book holidays where food is a major deciding
factor. That’s increased by 20 per cent in the past five years, so
who knows how much the number has grown since 1998.
The original Gourmet Traveller has never been ‘who’ so much as
‘what’. More than a postcard, more even than a letter, it’s a kind of
zip file that compresses the spirit of a destination’s food and
drink culture into vignettes and images. Distilled tastes, smells,
people and stories are pointers for you, the readers, to uncover
when travelling – not as epicurean tourists, but as people with open
minds and curious palates. In essence, it’s at odds with the food-
travel stories on television where the presenter stands centre stage.
Istanbul was my first, because the depth of flavours was
abundant – the gastronomic, the historic, the cultural... It was all
there, waiting to be tasted. I’d been to the city some 30 years
before when, populated with a large volume of crumbling wooden
buildings, it almost had a feeling of a city falling apart, but when I returned, it had transitioned into a modern metropolis.
Europeanisation of Istanbul was in full swing, and while perhaps
the hotels aren’t where they are today – more business than
boutique then – it was the food that told its story. I vividly
remember writing about going into the Egyptian market and
being able to take one’s time, to sit down with somebody and
argue about the prices of saffron. And they were quite open to
discussing it all – as if taken by the fact that someone from Britain
would be interested – and we’d find out about the adulterated
saffron sold for an average price to people who couldn’t taste the
difference; then Kashmir saffron, Kherson saffron, Moroccan saffron.
I came away with a large amount of green cardamom pods, which
cost next to nothing. To many travellers back then, markets such
as this were perhaps ones to avoid, full of unknown ingredients
that had no place in an English kitchen – only they could have,
and they do: it was just a matter of having intrigue sparked.
We headed just outside Istanbul to place called Beyti, still
comparatively under the radar today, and there was a row of
charcoal burners, each with a different kind of kebab, serving so
many different variants. There were nuances to each one, a microcosm, in a way, of what the Food and Travel ethos has
always been about: discovering the subtle differences in food,
the accents. To many, a kebab was a kebab, but not in Beyti,
where each one had a unique story about how it came into being.
How things have changed, since Istanbul and its cuisine were
considered far below the discerning gastronome’s radar – now
M&S have even sent their sniffer dogs there to find out more
about Turkish breads, looking to insert them into the mainstream.
So many countries have shifted perceptions, either through their
own doing, or following holidaymakers’ demands. Turkey is just one
example – once it was all about directing people to the southern
Mediterranean coast, now they understand people are after a deeper,
broader experience. Another is Cornwall, once a bucket and spade,
fish and chips experience, now offering Michelin dining, lobster at £60 a
pop and five-star luxury previously associated with big cities.
Perhaps the biggest mover and shaker among European
destinations is Spain, where we headed at the turn of the
millennium. Food and Travel launched just months after Ferran
Adrià’s El Bulli won its third Michelin star in 1997. Then, the smart
money was on molecular gastronomy becoming the overwhelming
direction of travel for chefs, but that never really happened. It did,
however, leave behind a tide mark since the energy it generated
has served Spanish restaurants well, gelling with the native passion
for eating out, preferably late. El Bulli stopped serving in 2011,
but younger brother Albert now has his own six restaurants in
Barcelona, all with nods to El Taller, the laboratory off the city’s
Las Ramblas where he and Ferran did their research.
Basque restaurants Azurmendi, Martín Berasategui, Arzak,
Akelarre and Mugaritz vie with Catalan El Celler de Can Roca,
ABaC and Lasarte for Iberian accolades. The winner here, though,
has been the pintxos bars in San Sebastián. By their variety,
imagination and often virtuosity, they’ve changed the landscape
of the where-to-graze scene around the world.
But while Ferran’s methods and protégés would soon spread
across the diaspora, it was also the local ingredients we sampled in
Spain that drew us in. Before the likes of Brindisa and José Pizarro
made it commonplace, jamón Ibérico de Bellota, from the
black-footed pigs, was a new discovery, something
you would experience only on holiday, forever ingrained in the
memory bank. The thinnest of slices, almost translucent, cut with
the blade expertise akin to a Spanish samurai, was placed on the
tongue and left to melt. And there wasn’t just one Bellota. There
were grades and classes, depending on where, when and how
much acorn grazing they’d been doing – you knew the life story
of the pig. It shows how far we’ve come that it’s on sale in our
supermarkets, but then, it was a Spanish state secret.
Countries have been reshaped by disasters, tsunamis, tornadoes
and by war – a little over ten years ago we’d been planning a trip
to discover the food of Damascus, but it never happened. And in
Sri Lanka, one year after the tsunami, our guide told us he’d been
on the coast when it hit. But he loved animals, he loved birds and
he knew it was coming when all went quiet. He told his cousins to
move inland just as he was doing, but they didn’t heed the warning
and tragically perished. He was part of the effort to rebuild and, as
we’ve seen across the world so many times in 25 years, for every
terrible story travel uncovers, you also hear one of resilience.
Of course, no one foresaw a pandemic that would shut the
world and lead to a dizzying amount of change. When travel was
impossible, at least in real life, instead we travelled through our
laptops to destinations no longer open to us, took guided ‘tours’
and virtual-reality holidays and could even take a gastronomic tour
with delivery to our homes of a box full of the flavours of a country.
We’ve started to tread lightly in recent years. We’ve become
aware that safaris can come with consequences, and our footprint
is bigger than we think. Even the sight of wild animals shouldn’t
be taken for granted – a lesson I learnt on a five-day tiger safari
to India that brought me a grand total of zero viewings, despite
getting up at 4am every morning in eager anticipation.
Experiences with the word ‘eco’ as a prefix and volunteering to make the world a better place are no longer the domain of
gap-year students, but can now be luxury trips where you pay for
the privilege of helping communities for a couple of hours and
then retire to your lagoon-based villa for the evening. People are
more thoughtful and considered when it comes to travel. Take
cruising: smaller, boutique ships are providing a more intimate
experience, and they’re doing more and going further, with
exploration and science all wrapped up in a boat-shaped package.
The world is changing. Sustainability is a word that can be
overused in the trade – sometimes people throw it at everything,
hoping it’ll stick and make their world seem a greener one; yet it
should be a given. People may not Google it as their fourth
requirement along with ‘sun’, ‘sea’ and ‘sand’, but it matters to
them, and it’s something the travel industry must aspire to achieve
at all levels. Even from the earliest editions of Food and Travel,
we’ve looked at carbon-offsetting our experiences. At the end
of the last century, few casual trippers would have thought about
offsetting the carbon footprint of their air miles, but that message
soon started pricking consciences.
We’re also Googling questions, endless questions, as once
you might have asked your travel agent, and the smartest travel
operators provide the answers online. But the simple questions
we once asked – ‘Which country has the best beaches?’ or ‘Where
is the best place for snorkelling?’ have been replaced with
complex specifics, very often about food, along the lines of,
‘How did lactic fermentation evolve from pickled cucumbers and
sauerkraut into a Scandi food trend?’ ‘How do artisans in Okinawa
age their miso – and what makes it different from an Asian
supermarkets’ brands?’ ‘What sort of fish sauce or paste gives Isan
Thai curry the best flavour?’ ‘Why is an unpasteurised Camembert
fermier better than its manufactured equivalent?’
Where Food and Travel have been, people are following, in search
of experience. Genuine off-the-radar locations: Bhutan, New
Caledonia, Namibia, Oman, North Maluku (Indonesia) may still seem
exotic, but they will tempt the more adventurous. This contributor,
who visited Papua New Guinea would willingly have taken one
for the team and risked the cannibalism rumoured to persist, with
a helping of roasted long pig, had it been on offer. Instead, I
settled for a fire dance, where tribesmen jumped over a roaring
blaze juggling pythons, and a lobster picnic on a desert island.
There have been less risky, but still surprising discoveries, over
the years, such as Gaziantep, near Turkey’s Syrian border, which
turned out to be as exciting as Lyon, with a gastronomic heritage
choc-a-bloc with culinary gems. Riga’s quirky Central Market
filling old Zeppelin hangars matches Valencia’s famous one. And
Mexico continues to deliver: we visited with Thomasina Miers long
before her Wahaca concept became an empire, but as we delve
deeper and deeper, it continues to reveal the depth of its cuisine,
layer after layer, with ancient traditions that remain undiscovered
despite staying true to their origins for thousands of years.
Travelling to eat and drink well is now a unique way of melting
unnoticed into another culture. This isn’t, per se, a learning
experience. It’s about rooting for fresh truffles of enjoyment.
People now realise food is one of the best ways of coming to grips
with a destination quickly. It means rapid immersion in a place.
There is always much to discover even – or perhaps especially – in
places that are massively developed such as Luxembourg; and you
don’t just visit Tokyo, you visit a specific part to find a certain type
of food. Or discover a Vienna beyond Mozart, Beethoven and
Freud through its cuisine. Food and Travel was ahead of the game
and, 25 years later, it’s a game we’re all playing.
Words by Michael Raffael
This interview was taken from the 25th anniversary issue of Food and Travel Magazine. To subscribe today, click here.