The other night we had fresh ocean salmon for dinner and had a little left over. The night after, we converted that remnant into a creamy pasta dish with salmon, white wine and a hint of lemon, and instantly I was cast back in time into the charming village of Vasson in rural France and a little restaurant steeped in tradition. It was there we first encountered that recipe, or close to it, which we duly incorporated into our culinary repertoire when we got back home. I’m into stealing ideas from other people’s cooking.
I was reminded that night that food is one of the things I most enjoy about travel. It doesn’t have to be expensive; it just has to be good, even if it’s a few simple ingredients from a market stall. Not just experiencing a world of flavours and techniques as you travel, recipes or traditions that have been around for centuries, but borrowing little bits and pieces and carrying them back home with you to become part of your own every day existence.
Sometimes our most treasured food discoveries are accidental and sometimes deliberate. This occasion was a bit of both. When travelling, you often end up at very ordinary places because of lack of local knowledge, so we often put a lot of effort into researching the food and restaurants of places we’re travelling to for a bit of advantage. Sometimes it pays off in spades.
Mr T was keen to visit Bourge-en-Bresse, the feted home of the best chickens in the world, or so the legend goes. According to France Travel Guide, ‘Poulet de Bresse chickens are treated like fine wine. They have an appellation, get to eat real food and walk around the countryside—all regulated by law. The king of chickens is truly a part of French culture.’
So we had to go and try at least one for ourselves. We arrived in Vasson, the village home of George Blanc, one of France’s most revered chefs and a village native. We located his restaurant and read the menu outside while inhaling the intoxicating aromas emanating from inside. Indeed it looked amazing but alas, it was also outrageously expensive. It’s a long time ago, nearly 20 years, but my memory was that it was going to set us back about $1000 for four of us (two being our two girls aged 13 and 15 at the time), without drinks. A little beyond our means!
Then we noticed waiters in white coming out of the restaurant and heading down the road wielding cloche-bearing trays. Where were they going? We followed and discovered they were headed to a little restaurant just a hop and skip away, La Limonade, which seemed to be owned by the same chef, the poor cousin if you like.
It didn’t have the same grandeur, (or luckily the prices) but we figured it had to have a similar food ethos, so in we went. As it turns out, it was sublime and remains one of the meals most clearly etched onto our palates and into our memories of France.
We ate chicken—of course—and it was bloody good. At the time, France offered an abundance of ‘kids’ menus’ (do they still?) so we took up that option which was ridiculously good value. In France though, kids’ meals didn’t mean dried up chicken nuggets and chips thrown at the kids; they were beautifully prepared, proper dishes with accompaniments all prepared with the same love, but just pared back. The kids had chicken too, and creme brulee which they cracked open with the backs of their spoons.
It was here we ate the ocean salmon in the creamy pasta dish for entree, and it was amazing. At the time we didn’t have mobile phones with cameras so I have no pictorial evidence and we didn’t get the actual recipe. We just took the essence of it and recreated it at home, many times over the years, sometimes with a bit of variation. We’ve never got it quite to the same standard but each time it takes us back to a French village lost in time and we relive the memory. The trip to France that keeps on giving.
We’ve done a similar thing many times over the years, trying to recreate stand out dishes at home. Invariably ours don’t look as pretty, but sometimes they taste nearly as good. And it always reminds me why I love food and why I love travel.
That’s not the only thing we absorbed into our lives from that part of France. Just down the road from Vonnas, we stayed in St Andre H’uiriat at ‘a chateau’. Be wary of the term: in France, that often just means whopping great old house rather than an actual castle. What we remember most about it is meeting the 12 week old Golden Retriever puppy of the owner, a delightful bundle of fluff called Ookie. When we were checking out, the owner woke Ookie from his puppy sleep just so we could play with him some more. We were so taken by this little fellow and his name that a couple of years later when we got a new retriever ourselves, we attempted to call her Ookie. We found though that people couldn’t cope with the name and we had to add an initial consonant to make it Mookie and easier for others to remember and pronounce. Our beloved Mookie is now long gone too, but the chateau remains and you can still stay at the same place. If you’re exceptionally lucky, they might even have another golden retriever to play with.
Of course we live in a world where we have access to foods from all over the world and the recipes to create them are at our fingertips. But there’s still something very special about eating them in the places they were created. I’ve had some amazing food experiences while travelling. On a rainy grey day in Italy 40 years ago I had my first cappuccino and in France I first discovered morel mushrooms and that grapefruit and avocado in a salad is surprising but delightful. It was there too I discovered the delicious aperitif ‘Lillet’ (white or red) which got quite trendy here a few years ago. In Turkey I discovered what true Turkish delight is all about (hint, it’s so much broader and more delicious than just rose-water flavoured jubes); in Spain I learnt the joy of tapas as well as paella washed down with sangria; in Vietnam we learnt star anise is the necessary star of beef pho and also how to pickle chilli to take out the heat but retain the flavour. In Greece I discovered the joy of slightly charred barbequed calamari fresh from the ocean and I first truly appreciated the crisp goodness of great apple strudel in the very fresh mountain air in Switzerland. And in Croatia I determined that their gelato is even better than that of the Italians. Yes, that’s a big call but geographically, they’re actually very close.
So many foodie delights and so many we can and sometimes do recreate at home ourselves. I think that’s what Australians do particularly well with food. While we don’t really have a national cuisine like so many other countries do, we’re rather excellent at absorbing and pilfering the best of others’ and we’re not afraid of mixing things up in a fusion of flavour and styles into something new and exciting. Not surprising given our hugely melded population. Just watch Masterchef to witness the incorporation of culinary traditions with innovation.
That’s the thing with travel. Wherever we go, we bring home little snippets of the travels with us in various ways – keepsakes, artworks, new learnings and understandings, even recipes and a name for a dog.
What about you? Have you borrowed any cooking techniques from your travels, or pilfered something else?