Last week was a busy one: we finally relaunched Escapism after a brief hiatus thanks to that pesky global pandemic that succeeded in grounding flights and shuttering the travel industry for the better part of two years. The sister magazine of Foodism, Escapism remained one of the capital’s leading travel mags until its hibernation, and bringing it back to life has been something of a career highlight. It’s also got me thinking about the joys of travel – more specifically, the fun that can be had from eating your way around the world.
I wrote a piece for this issue of Escapism on the joys of rediscovering my ski-legs after a decade off the slopes, and how Morzine as a snowsports destination can offer fun and adrenaline-packed runs for enthusiasts of all levels and confidences. It got me reflecting on the food I ate there, which I briefly mentioned in my first ever Where Molly Ate column: mainly, cheese. I’m not kidding, every meal involved cheese in some way, shape or form. There was tartiflette (bacon, onion, potato and cheese, baked til oozing), fondue (a giant pot of cheese you dip bread into), raclette (half a wheel of cheese, the top layer grilled and ceremonially dolloped on top of some combination of carbohydrates) and, just in case you hadn’t had enough lactose, a cheese plate for dessert. It’s the kind of obscene calorie consumption that can only be justified by the fact that you’re exercising for most of the day, and even then you’ll return desperate to consume something of the leafy and green variety (at least for a few days, before you regain control of your senses).
My most recent holiday was a trip to the Greek island of Hydra, a car-less paradise where everything is within walking distance and I very nearly considered going full Mamma Mia, purchasing some dilapidated hotel and never coming home. I was, in part, lured by the possibility of endless platefuls of almost rudely creamy tzatziki, made with the kind of stocky Greek yoghurt that makes its international counterparts look like weak imitations. Going forward, no matter where in the world I am, a fava bean purée and a plate of tzatziki will whisk me back to the island’s shores, the faint scent of figs in the air.
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All of this musing about holidays and food got me wondering about holiday meals past, and that very specific sensation of eating something wonderful and not knowing if you can ever eat it again. If I was going to construct my dream meal, solely made out of dishes that I have only eaten once or twice in places I may never return to, what would that meal look like? It’s a specific kind of nostalgia, that yearning for something you know you may never experience again, and it really allows you to paint things with rose-tinted glasses, turning that slightly rude waiter into a charismatic Prince Charming, and the cacophonous space’s hospital lighting into a warm, twinkling oasis in a world of chaos.
But, even among the warm, glowing pot of my manipulated memories, some meals stand out for the absolutely incredible experience that they were. Some are defined by silver service, others are perfect bites scoffed with my hands on the side of the road, all of them are united in their perfection, whether that’s the joy of stumbling upon something great, or simply a meal that seems to define a moment or a place.
So, to kick things off, I’d have Fijian lolo buns slathered in a mound of salted butter, ideally consumed as I remember last doing so: in the Yasawa Islands in the humid tropical evening heat, tinged with the vague hum of fresh sunburn. Cooked with coconut milk, they are slightly sweet, improbably fluffy, and sort of resemble a brioche but also not at all, because they’re a million times better thanks to the coconut milk giving them an irreplicable hint of depth.
It’s a specific kind of nostalgia, that yearning for something you know you may never experience again, and it really allows you to paint things with rose-tinted glasses
Then, because this is an imaginary meal and therefore I am not restricted by the pesky parameters of fullness, I would have a pre-dinner slice of pepperoni pizza from Scarr’s Pizza in New York City. Gooey, oily and yet robust enough to not slide half your toppings onto the pavement, liberally topped with spicy slices of pepperoni left to go slightly crispy in the oven, the perfect pizza sauce (salty, sweet, a balancing hit of acidity) and a base that manages to be at once pillowy yet crunchy, it was like being slapped in the face by every NYC cliché possible.
The starter would be a heaping plate of shrimp ceviche from El Camello in Tulum. Sitting along the main road that runs through town, this is a no-frills spot frequented by locals that serves up classic Mexican fare, a far cry from the tourist-adapted hotels and restaurants that dominate the beachfront strip. The word heaping is really doing no heavy lifting here – this is an enormous plate of food, one that would easily defeat you if you were attempting to eat it alone, and thus as a starter is best shared between at least four of you. It is simple food at its absolute best: shrimps, juicy tomatoes, coriander, red onion, lime juice and a liberal amount of salt and pepper, all of it hoovered up in seconds. Bosh.
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And so, onto the main course. Phew, the main course. This is where things get tricky. Part of me wants to say a plate of meltingly tender lamb from a hole-in-the-wall taverna in Athens. Another wants to say a fiery bowl of Tom Yum Goong on Koh Chang. I also considered choosing a steaming pot of seafood from Fleur’s Place, a restaurant sitting along the coastline outside Dunedin, or even my all-time nostalgia dish, the risotto with grilled fish at Ponsonby’s Prego Restaurant. But considering both of those are meals I can have again and weren’t technically consumed on holiday, they were quickly vetoed and, instead, I settled on the curried goat and sweet potato gnocchi from Compere Lapin in New Orleans. I have spoken about this dish before in my column on pop ups and supper clubs, so I don’t need to rhapsodise on it anymore, but I will just say that it, and the restaurant itself, were so deeply wonderful and entirely perfect for the time and place in which I visited.
There were so many options for dessert, but the dish that is going to have to pip the post for this one is a gargantuan tiramisu cake that was delivered to my table the time I celebrated my birthday in Positano. It might not have been the best tiramisu in the world, but the sheer ridiculousness of it, coupled by the fact I had just spent the day in one of the most unbelievable places in the world and I was eating dinner mere steps away from the ocean, made it complete and utter perfection.
Food is never just food. It’s a window into other people’s lives. It’s an insight into other cultures, countries and, most importantly, it’s history. It's a connection to people and to places and to memories that might fade or soften over time but will still crop up when you happen to encounter one specific flavour or combination of ingredients. With travel (and Escapism) back and better than ever, I imagine all of our dream menus will be growing and changing over the next few years as we get back out into the world with a bang.
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