It took me a while to realise that like music, food is a great way to integrate with other people when you’re travelling. I’d always been envious of those talented musicians that can bind a group of strangers through memorising a couple of dozen universally loved songs. My guitar playing though, was woeful. I once hosted a dozen Finnish music students in the hostel in Northern Ireland. The delightful elvish musicians would play traditional folk songs, interspersed with heavy metal classics. I was smitten. I used to join them at gigs, then we’d all head back to the hostel basement and play acoustic versions of Metallica and Skid Row classics. As we passed around a bottle of Bushmill’s after their last gig the drummer put his arm around me. ‘Karhu, (Finnish for bear)’ he said, ‘you are very very bad with the guitar. But we love your enthusiasm.’ Ouch, another rock and roll dream trampled.
A couple of years after my musical defeat I was struggling to find work in Cambridge, England. My girlfriend and I had picked a city to live in based on a half day of lying beneath the trees along Jesus Green, eating cheese and onion sandwiches in the sun. Perhaps checking rent prices or employment opportunities would have made more sense, but I’ve always leaned more towards romance than practicality. I soon found that most job opportunities in the city involved teaching students at the university or tending to patients at the hospital. I decided hospitality work might be a safer option. I’d learnt a few culinary tricks from my father, I liked the idea of free coffee, and I found a cafe that didn’t need me to work evenings.
I’ve never worked so hard in my life. From the minute I put on an apron to the moment I peeled it off, I didn’t stop grafting. But along the way I learnt the formula behind a good dressing, the importance of a sharp knife, and the joy of creating a beautiful dish from obscure ingredients. I spent time with Steph, a gorgeous Costa Rican who introduced us to her grandmother’s tendency to cook almost anything with a bottle of coke. The last I heard, she was working in one of Jamie Oliver’s kitchens, hopefully he’s had a chance to sample her specialities before he found out the principal ingredient. I also got to work alongside Welshmen, Aussies, Canadians, Polish and Mexicans, and we all shared stories and samples of foods we grew up with and missed. So I received not just free lattes, but many new recipes, and an understanding of the degree to which food can eliminate cultural barriers.
I’m now able to draw even more from my travels, by learning from everything I eat. I’m in Holland at the moment, a country that isn’t know for its cuisine. But unknown cuisines are often the most fun, you have no pre-conceptions and there’s something special about unexpected treats. I loved sharing ‘new herring’ and palling (smoked eel) with Francoise’ ruddy cheeked Uncle Han at a mobile fishmonger. As I licked the smokey oils from my fingers I imagined how great the eel would be blended with cream cheese and a little smoked paprika. I got to experience a traditional treat, and I had another inspiration for future dishes.
The Dutch have been all too happy to introduce me to foods ranging from traditional childhood treats, to deep-fried pub grub. I got to sample bitterballen (deep-fried gravy balls) in darkened pubs, and poffertjes (mini pancakes with stewed fruit and cream) at an antique-crammed farmhouse restaurant. The best Dutch meal so far though (in terms of both flavour and sheer effort) was a sweet and sour meaty treat called zuurvlees. Ivo (one of our Maastricht hosts) made us this well known southern dish from his mother’s recipe. Preparation began with marinating beef for 24 hours, and eventually ended with the addition of appelstroop (a sweet apple sauce) and ontbijtkoek (breakfast bread), which are stirred into the thickening stew. The enjoyment was as much about the stories around the dish, as it was about the deep, rich flavours.
Autumn has set in here in Northern Europe. Ripened apples and pears weigh down the branches of the trees we cycle under, as we coast between windmills and canals. My hosts have provided beds, bikes, and entertaining conversations. I can’t pay them for their kindness, but I can cook this fresh seasonal fruit with thyme and honey, and roll fresh sweet pastry over the top. The appreciative sounds that escape between mouthfuls later in the evening don’t need much translation. None of us needs to learn a new language to draw pleasure from sharing a meal. That being said I’m sure at least half my Dutch vocabulary is names for pastries and condiments. Much of the rest is made up of words I can use to communicate my appreciation for each new delicacy. Mooi (nice) isn’t usually enough, I have to stretch to prima (terrific) or even lekker (luscious).
Six years ago I sold my last guitar to help pay for a ticket to England, a trip which saw me end up working in kitchens. I like the idea that my failure to spread joy through music so easily leant itself towards learning a new way to bind people together.