Oh, the Things You'll Eat: A Tour Guide’s Year in Food
When I was a backpacker in my 20's, I lived on bread, cheese and tomato. You can get that in any country, it's cheap, non-scary and portable. Boy, I thought I was living the good life when I could add Nutella and a 50 cent bottle of wine to that spread. Although my scruffy travel years were good fun, I missed out of one of the great aspects of travel, the food!Food is one of the most important experiences in travel, no matter where you go. Yes, even haggis has its finer points. I feel that food is so important to a visit that I "curate" the meals on my tours, meaning that I carefully consider and select meals to go with the location and the time of year.Usually I'll tell my tour guests that trying new foods is so important to travel, that it should be more rightfully thought about as a museum. I call it the "Museum of Food", as in, "Today in the seafood wing of the Museum of Food we will visit the anchovy collection." And just like any museum, you don't have to like everything, but you do need to experience everything. Simply put, everyone needs to take Mean Mommy's "No Thank You" bite.I definitely took some "No Thank You" bites in my adventures this year. I've eaten some weird and wild things, all in the name of RESEARCH, (You see the things I do for you??) Let's have a look back on the highs and lows of what went into my belly this year.
I will be straight with you, I could eat Thai food every day for the rest of my life. I suspect I was possibly Thai in a past life. So now you may understand my motivation for starting my new Asian tours. All Asian food- Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, India, Cambodian, Vietnamese- is my favorite. ALL OF IT.There are no lows here, only deep-sigh inducing highs. Thai food, as it turns out, is a fusion cuisine. The country itself is a crossroads of cultures, blending western Asian (Indian) and Eastern Asian (Chinese/Japanese) influences. Thai curry, for example, takes the Indian influence of curry seasoning blends and fuses that to the locally available produce, which is mostly tropical.The result is curry with mango, coconut milk, noodles with lovely veggies and an infinite number of meat dishes with sweet and salty sauces.Here are some favorite dishes I ate in Thailand in 2017:Pad Thai! Oh, my favorite noodle dish! I was a little disappointed with my first helping. They gave me an "American" version, meaning not spicy. Still, delicious.Breakfast- fresh, local fruit cut up on demand, smothered in yogurt and muesli with a sweet Thai iced coffee. That was an unforgettable meal.Group dinners are wonderful. The Thai hospitality tradition brings you plate after plate of different flavors. Nobody goes hungry and there's always something for everyone to enjoy.
I wasn't sure what to expect from Cambodian cuisine. I thought it might be similar to Thai, but I had the impression that they were very poor, that the food would reflect that. Nope. Cambodian food is every bit as rich and diverse as Thai, but has its own spirit. Lots of fresh veggies and meat stews.Because the country was ruled by the French in the past, there is a strong French influence, including lovely bakeries. And it's all so cheap! I was happy to buy one of everything.Bugs-as-food is a real thing in Cambodia. They really do enjoy snacking on crickets, snakes, tarantulas, beetles and scorpions. Vendors pop up at markets with a wide selection to choose from.I shared a plate of beef with red ants with my colleague Reid Coen. It was a non-event, really, the ants were just sort of like sesame seeds or any other garnish. But hey, I get to say I ate ants.My favorite Cambodian meal was at a dinner theater. It was beautifully plated with little compartments, each featuring a different delicacy.Fresh fruit is basically on every corner. The mango ladies hang around and sell the most delicious, ripe mangoes I've ever had, peeled and sliced up as a to-go snack.Eating well is easy in Asia, and I was feeling so healthy at the end of my stay. Little dairy, gluten or sugar will do that.
Doing reattach to update the Rick Steves Italy guidebook required me to EAT ALL THE THINGS. Who am I to argue with Rick Steves? I was a dutiful foot soldier and ate my way through Florence, Tuscany and the Cinque Terre, making sure it all tasted good enough for our books. Which might explain why I joined a Crossfit studio recently.
In Florence, I was stunned to find this crazy sandwich shop that everyone knew about but me. Five Euros for the biggest panino you can find, stuffed with whatever you want. I'll take the porchetta. ALL of the porchetta, graze.
Sometimes the most humble, outdated restaurants can really surprise. I was considering axing a longtime guidebook stand-by as it was getting a little run down. And then they brought me this ravioli, stuffed with lemon-laced ricotta and sage butter.
Mmmmmm. Meat. Florentines do know their steak.
Another day in the salt mines, this time inspecting wineries in the Montalcino area. I made sure that the Brunello still paired well with the prosciutto. It does.
Sometimes great food comes with a side of great fun. In San Gimignano, Gelateria Dondoli makes original flavors that are molto gustoso, but hanging with Signore Dondoli, the gelato master himself, was even sweeter.I'm not sure how I feel about pretentious food, plated like a miniature work of art. I feel bad eating it and ruining someone's work. I'm more of a big, sloppy bowl of something yummy kind of person. But when done right, like this appetizer, I think I could be persuaded otherwise.I'm kind of giving you the wrong impression. Book research isn't actually a parade of luxurious meals. It's normally a quick bite eaten while standing and making notes about what I have to do next. I'm serious.I don't really like seafood, but there are a few chefs that tickle my palette just the right way. My friend Carlo at Piccolo Diavolo in Monterosso can cook me anchovies and I won't even grimace.My favorite new trend in Italy: simple pasta shops offering well made pasta dishes in a fast food environment. Just a counter, a few small tables and a self service drinks cooler. All the deliciousness of a sit-down Italian meal in a quarter of the time.
France and Switzerland
There is a good reason I spend only a couple of weeks per year in northern Europe, I just love cheese and sweets too much. Cheese-based cultures kill me, but at least I'm dying happily.The cheese course is a big part of French culture, served just at the end of the meal when you think you are full. You're not, there is always room for cheese. The best part of the French cheese course is the variety. A good cheese plate will have soft and hard cheeses, mild cheese and cheeses with a scent so vile you're certain you've found the devil's armpit.French wines have never really been my thing, but I have discovered that they are magnificent when paired with the right cheese, almost as if they planned it that way.It would be hard to pick a favorite French food for me. If my ordering behavior is any indication, it must be steak-frites. I've never gone to that place that everyone says you have to go in Paris for steak-frites, any bistrot will do. Steak, fries and béarnaise sauce, with a glass of rose on a hot, lazy Parisian evening. Sigh.Oh, and pastries. I ate all of those.On the other hand, picking a favorite Swiss food is easy. Rosti, that beautiful pile of buttery hashed browns smothered in Emmentaler cheese and meat, with an occasional vegetable for variety. Fondue is lovely, but I can't stop eating it and eventually feel kind of sick. Rosti is the perfect mix of fatty, greasy and heavy that fills you up and shouts Nein!
I don't combine Italy and Sicily because they aren't really the same thing. I mean that the cultures are very different for a variety of complicated historical reasons, but also the food. The cuisine of Sicily is only slightly related to Italian food.The unique ingredients that have shaped Sicilian food are tree nuts, sugar, fish and citrus. Throw in a close proximity to Africa and you get couscous and African spices.A dirty little secret about Italy in general....the bread isn't very good. Central and northern italian regions put little to no salt in bread and use it more as a utensil, so it has almost zero flavor. Sicilian breads are different and much tastier. The sesame bread is a highlight, but there is a ton of variety in grains, which explains why the Romans considered the island to be their bread basket.The street food scene is very fun, but I did eat a few questionable things. In Palermo I tried a meat snack that was sort of fluffy and greasy. I really wish I hadn't been told how it was made.A local vendor challenged me to try unusual meat parts, something that Palermitani enjoy eating. I agreed because of the Mean Mommy No-Thank-You-Bite rule, yes I even enforce that on myself. Probably the most challenging was veal penis. Yes, you read that right. It reminded me of oysters--something that doesn't taste that bad until...freak out...oh god what is this and where can I spit it out without humiliating myself.A Sicilian highlight was a fancy lunch. A colleague took me to try a Michelin star restaurant in Ragusa. I don't know that I've eaten at a Michelin star restaurant before, and the experience lived up to the hype. Impeccable service, wonderful dishes served in just-right portions and creative presentation.I've eaten possibly too much gelato in my life, but Sicily has offered up an even better treat, granita on brioche. Dipping warm egg bread into an almond slushy on a warm evening is my idea of heaven.To end a sweet year, I brought home some sweets from my travels.My dad just adores marzipan and almonds, and since I'm turning into him, so do I. I brought home almond cookies from Sicily, made with ground almonds, sugar and egg whites.I am hoarding them somewhere in my house, enjoying a taste of my travels from 2017 one forbidden cookie at a time.Perhaps the biggest culinary treat this year, out of a big year, was wine. I'm not really a wine snob but I know what I like. Unfortunately I like nice wine. I've been lucky enough to try some really special wines in my travels but this year blew them all out of the water. At the final dinner on an Italy tour, a very kind man brought two special bottles, one was my favorite and the other was a wine I'd always wanted to try. The latter was a Solaia, a wine I'd never even considered buying because a)I don't have the money and b)I don't have anyone to drink it with who would really be excited about it. Not only did he share these bottles with me, he shared them with the owner of the restaurant, the staff, and people in the group.Which leads me to the main point of all the food I ate. Food is good. Food eaten while traveling is better. Food eaten with interesting people you've met while traveling is best, making for life long memories.