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25 Years of Travel - 25th Anniversary Special - Africa- Asia- Australia and Southern Pacific- Europe- North America- South America

In the past three years the world of travel has been turned upside down, but go back further and you can see how countries have been reshaped, opened and closed since 1998. Even the way we visit and what we look for has changed beyond recognition, says Michael Raffael.

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.

The 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.

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