London - The travelling foodie reader is a niche demographic – a combination of adventurer, sybarite and gourmet, someone who would not dream of visiting a country without taking certain books. With the travel guide, the crime novel and the slim volume of poetry, he or she will always bring books that evoke the smell of a nation’s cooking, the tang of its characteristic fruit, the rasp of its charred meat on your tongue, the commotion of its fiery spices on your oesophagus.
We’re not talking recipe books, but food-travel companions. In Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons, the food writer Matthew Fort set out “to understand Sicily by eating it” while travelling around the island on his red Vespa, Monica. You might call his stated intention over-ambitious but he brilliantly evokes the island where cannolo is “a tsunami of sweetness, sweetness piled on sweetness… hallucinatory, luxurious and heady”.
Other choices in this mini-genre are travel books in which food is described as part of the changing landscape. Others still are novels you can enjoy for their local colour, in which eating and drinking play a significant part. But all should leave you gagging to encounter the local ham, yam, berry, sherry, roots and fruits.
Travellers in Paris will enjoy A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous memoir of his life in the French capital in the 1920s, when he was starting out as a writer and hanging out with Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. Untrustworthy as autobiography, its descriptions of café life, wine-drinking and literary apprentice-work are glorious.
Gertrude Stein’s lover/housekeeper produced an unmatchable food memoir in The Alice B Toklas Cook Book (1954). Don’t be put off by the title, or the book’s notoriety for its inclusion of a recipe for hashcakes; it’s a fantastic recollection of her years in haut-bohème Paris and rural France, accumulating recipes from high (stuffed artichokes Stravinsky) and low, and speculating on the French intellectual passion for nosh.
Fans of the Meryl Streep movie Julie & Julia will lap up My Life in France (2006), in which Julia Child reminisces, with stunning sensory recall, about the culinary life she enjoyed with her husband in Paris, Marseilles and Provence between 1948 and 1954, starting with a particularly fine sole meunière she wolfed down in Rouen on the day she arrived on French soil.
A curiosity, though a delicious one, for the travelling Francophile is The Debt to Pleasure, John Lanchester’s debut novel which sees Tarquin Winot travel from Portsmouth to Provence lecturing on seasonal food, offering eccentric recipes and gradually revealing his homicidal intentions towards the young couple he’s stalking.
Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes is a treat for visitors to Chiantishire. Forget the cheesy Diane Lane movie – Mayes is an accomplished food writer who conjures up the region’s seasonal grub and characteristic dishes with real flair and energy.
The British writer James Hamilton-Paterson’s Cooking with Fernet Branca is a witty parody of Ms Mayes (and Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence) that charts the feud between two fuming expatriates; peculiar recipes are included.
Elizabeth Romer’s The Tuscan Year: Life and Food in an Italian Valley offers a month-by-month account of how one family, the Cerottis, make meals from the vegetables in their back garden, the animals in the yard and the corn in the fields. The processes move from making prosciutto in January to whipping up zabaglione in December. The book is full of ancient husbandry, magically described.
Dinner with the Doges: History and Recipes of Great Venetian Cooking by Alvise Zorzi is an enjoyable dive into Venice’s imperial past.
In Risotto with Nettles: A Memoir with Food, the prima donna assoluta of Italian food writing, Anna Del Conte, remembers being evacuated from her Milan home to the northern countryside, and describes the cucina rustica, from horsemeat roll to lemon granite, with nostalgia and love.
Among its many literary virtues, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes is a novel crammed with food references. On the first page we learn that “his habitual diet consisted of a stew, more beef than mutton, of hash most nights, boiled bones on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays and a young pigeon as a Sunday treat…” His description of the wedding feast of Camacho will have you salivating.
A Stranger in Spain by the great HV Morton, originally published in 1955, is inevitably dated when it comes to details but his enthusiasm for regional dishes, from shellfish to paella, comes freshly and greedily off the page. (“How dearly I should like to return to Spain and eat my way northward from Seville to Madrid, then to gnaw steadily through the Castiles and chew on to the Basque country…”)
The most prolific author on Spanish food is New York-born Penelope Casas, whose books, Tapas: the Little Dishes of Spain and The Foods and Wines of Spain, are considered the definitive word on paella to padron peppers.
Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell will give you a luxuriant, partly fictionalised, memoir of life on Corfu in the late 1930s; My Family and Other Animals, by Durrell’s brother Gerald, covers the same timescale from a more childish and beast-centric perspective. John Fowles’s The Magus wonderfully evokes the Greek island of Spetses (recast as “Phraxos”) while Captain Corelli’s Mandolin will bring wartime Kefalonia yelpingly to life. To learn about Hellenic society, Imogen Dawson’s Food and Feasts in Ancient Greece is full of arcane knowledge, lightly worn.
Two vivid portraits of modern Greek character and culture, food included, are Dinner with Persephone by Patricia Storace, in which the American poet describes villages, beaches, food (she calls the Greek snacks of pumpkin seeds, chickpeas and pistachios “the edible equivalent of worry beads”) religion, culture and fighting off sexual advances wherever she goes; and 96 Acharnon Street by John Lucas, the record of his year spent as “Lord Byron visiting professor of English” at the University of Athens in the mid-1980s. Helped by gallons of retsina at Babi’s tavern, he discovers the corruption of officialdom, the importance of individual loyalty and the dignity of everyday duckers and divers on the outskirts of the economy.
From the long shelf of books offering Turkish recipes, I’d recommend Turkey: Recipes and Tales from the Road by the aptly named Leanne Kitchen. It describes a journey from high-caste, Ottoman-court dinner to low-rent peasant cuisine.
Umpteen 20th-century western writers have plunged into the souks of Morocco and emerged with a book of rapturous exotica-watching (In Morocco by Edith Wharton, the first travel book on Morocco to be published, The Voices of Marrakesh by Elias Canetti, Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud) but few linger over the food. But Marrakesh Through Writers’ Eyes edited by Barnaby Rogerson is ablaze with the colours and smells of the city, with plenty of foodie rapture. – The Independent