Restaurant critic and mum-of-two Amber Dalton asks the experts what food they pick up on their travels, and ponders whether edible mementos are history.
Last year, British Airways surveyed returning holidaymakers to find the most popular foodstuffs brought back from 200 destinations worldwide. What delicacies would make the top 10 for our apparently food-obsessed nation? Blue Mountain coffee from Jamaica, perhaps, or a robust Parmigiano Reggiano from Modena? No, dear reader. The number-one item on this culinary hit list was that lowly excuse for a chocolate- based confection from across the pond – Hershey’s Kisses. I suspect a fair proportion of those surveyed were American ex-pats, but when you learn that peanut M&Ms came in at number three, you start to wonder if the foodie revolution that dominates our TV screens and bestseller lists really happened.
So, what does the more culinarily discerning traveller stash in his or her suitcase? For Antonio Carluccio, it’s all about obscure ingredients seldom found on these shores. ‘I bring back very local produce – for example, special sauces from Japan, tamarind from India, unusual pickles from China and bush food from Australia,’ he says. Saiphin Moore, head chef of Rosa’s Thai Café, uses trips home to stock up on her beloved kaffir limes, holy basil and even green papaya, ‘It’s so expensive to buy in the UK. The quality and price are much better in Thailand’. Drinks writer Victoria Moore rarely finds time for shopping when travelling for work, but has been known to beg wine producers in Piemonte to help her track down ‘a very expensive, muddy ball of truffle and the perfect tajarin pasta to go with it’.
After a magical week on Lefkada, I found myself at Preveza airport recently eyeing the jars of Kalamata olives, the packs of barrel-aged feta and the kitsch boxes of baklava in the duty- free shop before turning on my heel and leaving empty-handed. OK, so perhaps the departure lounge isn’t the best place to get your mitts on the finest artisanal ingredients, but I began to wonder if holiday food souvenirs are a thing of the past. Has the availability of high quality ingredients in all but the remotest corners of the UK put the brakes on holiday food purchases?
When it comes to food from his native Italy, Carluccio says he can get everything he needs right here. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Carter, Consultant Editor of The Good Food Guide, finds herself increasingly replacing foreign favourites with homegrown ones. ‘We used to have a house near Perpignan, in France, and always drove back to Kent piled high with goodies, so much so I used to worry about fitting the kids in,’ she says. ‘As it’s become easier to buy lovely produce at home, many things have fallen off our list. For example, we now have a fantastic cheese shop near us selling only British cheeses, so we don’t bother buying French’.
I expect the sprogs are grateful not to be sharing the car with a stack of stinky fromages. Still, there are plenty of Gallic essentials Carter claims not to be able to live without, from the grey, sludgy sel de Guérande (‘There’s no other salt for me’) to naturally carbonated Vichy-Celestins water (‘It always feels as if it is doing me good’).
Even I would draw the line at stocking up on eau minérale, but a bouteille or 12 of un bon vin is another matter. That’s assuming you’re driving, of course. I once lugged a couple of bottles of fine Burgundy across France, onto the Eurostar, and back to Brighton, whereupon one smashed on the pavement outside the station. There may be no use crying over spilt milk, but spilt Montrachet elicited salty tears from this weary traveller.
Airline baggage restrictions have also put paid to some holiday food purchases. ‘We were in Istanbul for a few days in May’, recalls Elizabeth Carter, ‘and flew, hand luggage only. I’m still mourning the wonderful foods we saw at an Anatolian market and couldn’t bring back. That’s why I hate flying’. Perhaps she should have taken a leaf from chef Anna Hansen’s book. ‘I’m a big fan of delicious crunchy candied coriander seeds,’ says Anna. ‘I first came across them in a small shop in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar market. They’re usually eaten straight from the bag, like sweets, but I tend to bring a load home and sprinkle them over ice cream’. Surely they’re the perfect food souvenir – esoteric, compact and lightweight.