The famous chef Rick Stein once said that food is crucial when picking a holiday destination. He said he wouldn’t go to a country, no matter how beautiful, if its food was not good. How important is good food to you when you travel? I consider both good food and travel to be inextricably linked. For a trip to be special you quite simply can’t have one without the other.
When having a holiday meal, it is not just the taste that makes it special rather how it feels. New smells, sights and sounds arouse all the senses. The pleasures of discovering local cuisine when travelling were brought to mind this week when interviewing Russ Parsons, the renowned former food editor of the Los Angeles Times for my Travel Tales with Fergal Podcast.
Russ was the food editor when the LA Times had the biggest newspaper circulation in the world and his food sections often ran to 100 pages as interest in everything to do with food exploded in America. Russ is also the author of several best selling books on food.
After retiring Russ moved to Waterford to be near his daughter, son in law and grandkids in late 2019. He now writes a brilliant monthly food column for the Irish Times. I love his articles because he writes about how wonderful Irish food is from the perspective of an outsider.
My brain flooded with memories of great food from my travels as I chatted to Russ about his favourite trips to places like Umbria, Los Angeles, Gascony and Mendocino, which all seemed to revolve around great food.
My happiest travel memories are often around a table eating, drinking and sharing stories with fellow travellers and family. And the simpler the setting the better. When I was doing the Camino a few weeks ago I won’t forget stopping at a tiny village, to eat a hardening croissant, saved from breakfast, and washed down with a bottle of ice cold Coke, after hours of walking over the mountains into Galicia.
One of my favourite meals was a green curry from a street stall in Bangkok accompanied by a mixed fruit smoothie in a plastic bag. Asian street food is the ultimate sensual experience where you see the food cooked right in front of you surrounded by the sights and sounds of a bustling city. You hear the chatter of passing people and the loud engines of Tuk Tuk taxis mixed with the joyous laughter of the locals dining around you. You really see the soul of a city when you see how they dine.
When I think back to a place it is often to a particular meal. A T bone steak in New Zealand stands out when they were banned in Ireland during the Mad Cow disease scare. It was like tasting forbidden fruit. It was the juiciest meat I have ever had. I was chewing the bone like a ravenous dog. Bringing back childhood memories of when my dad would get a T-bone and I’d hover by the table waiting for him to finish, so I could chew the succulent bits of meat left on the bone.
The best fish I ever ate was a huge Red Snapper I caught when sea fishing off Broome in western Australia. That night the fisherman taught me how to barbecue the fish in bamboo leaves and no fish has ever tasted better.
If I am asked about my favourite place to eat then I say eating the local Flaggy Shore Oysters with a pint of plain whilst sitting outside Vaughans restaurant in Liscannor in Co. clare. Where you gulp down oysters whilst breathing in the salty sea air whilst hearing the Atlantic waves against the harbour walls just a minutes’ walk away.
Russ tells us all about his favourite meal on the podcast “I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve been able to eat in some really great Michelin three star restaurants and work with those people. But the meal that I keep coming back to was one afternoon when driving in Northern California and coming across an oyster farm, where you just had picnic tables up to just above the water. And they had bags of oysters in the water. It was cold and windy, and it picked up the scent of the water which was exactly the scent of the oysters. It was a total sensual experience because everything was focused on the taste and on the smell and I’ve never had a meal greater than that”.
I would recommend this week’s podcast interview with Russ Parsons to all lovers of everything to do with food from ingredients, food trends, to the differences between French, Italian, USA and Irish food. Russ also gives great travel tips for California. “Los Angeles is, I think, the most misunderstood travel destination in the world. People go for the tourist attractions, but having lived there for 30 years, the real magic of the place stays hidden in out of the way corners”.
“If you want to do the Hollywood thing then I would suggest the Hollywood farmers market on Sundays, as it is amazing. I mean everybody talks about the movie industry, but you know more than half of all the fruits and vegetables that are grown in the United States are grown in California.
The farmers bring down their produce to right off of Hollywood Boulevard so you’re in that old mixture of grunge and spectacle that everybody expects from Hollywood. The people watching is the real thing. Because there’s everything from famous chefs to celebrities who are all dressed down. They’ll wear baseball caps real low, and they’ll have sunglasses on. And then because it’s Hollywood, the most flamboyant drag queens you’ve ever seen, like seven feet tall on roller skates. You get a real sense of the weirdness that’s celebrated in Los Angeles”.
For more on Russ Parsons then check The Travel Tales with Fergal Podcast on all platforms. All Travel Tales with Fergal Podcast on https://www.traveltaleswithfergal.ie.