I was thinking we should get going, but my husband was drinking wine from unmarked bottles that had been brought out of the cellar… The table was spread with cheese and tomatoes and Tuscan bread and salami. Though we had reservations elsewhere and other places to be, we all sat and drank wine under the stars until it was time for bed.”
In the spring of 2020, these lines, from American writer and self-professed “wanderer of the planet” Mary Morris, read like a fantasy of the wildest sort. I can almost feel the weight of the warm summer evening settle over my cramped London flat. With my world shrunk to the limits of an all-too-familiar horizon, I’ve rediscovered the vicarious pleasures of armchair travel.
My favourite trips are those that give the reader a glimpse of the food that fuels them: the bread and cheese that propel Patrick Leigh Fermor from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn, or the spicy yak-meat noodles Vikram Seth devours on his way home across the Himalayas. Yet not every writer seems to eat. The formidable Jan Morris, so great on history, politics and culture, manages to write a whole book on Venice with barely a mention of spaghetti.
Morris once described Sybille Bedford as “a little too irrepressible” on the subject of food – but Bedford knew these details bring a journey to life. Her train picnic from New York to Mexico convinces me of her merits as a travelling companion: “A chicken, roasted that afternoon at a friend’s house, still gently warm; a few slices of that American wonder, Virginia ham; marble-sized, dark red tomatoes from the market on Second Avenue; watercress, a flute of bread, a square of cream cheese, a bag of cherries and a bottle of pink wine.”
Food can signify more than just dinner. John Gimlette’s description of a Sri Lankan feast, many of the dishes so unfamiliar he struggles to name them in English, is the perfect example of food’s power to conjure an entire culture: “There were huge architectural crisps, rich beetroot broths, columns of rice… pancakes baked as thin and fine as millinery… it was the chemistry of all this that was so beguiling, and the sensation of colour and landscape and the perfect kiss.”
Breaking bread unites us like nothing else – especially when booze is involved. Dervla Murphy, cycling from Dunkirk to Delhi, records going to bed “dead drunk” after dining with the chief of an Afghan village. Tucking into her mutton and potato stew, one of her host’s sons arrived with a bottle “and said he’d heard Christian women liked alcohol and would I have some wine. It is hardly necessary to record my reply.”
Another cyclist, Tim Moore, meets a less welcoming local after making a poor pizza choice in France. “The smell, an apocalyptic marine rancidity, ensured I would not be summoning any of my other senses in dealing with the chef’s creation.” The episode ends with an exchange of furious Franglais before our noble hero flees the scene in flapping espadrilles – proof that the worst of meals can make for a good story.
Even hopping on a train to Dover to the “lively, steamy and deliciously warm” caff where Bill Bryson enjoys his first British fry-up “with a side plate of bread and marge, and two cups of tea” sounds good right now, when the greasy spoon around the corner feels hopelessly exotic. That said, the tea is a lot better at home.
Next week: John Burnside on nature
This article appears in the 29 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave