Food defines our travels…well almost. I mean, who doesn’t like tasting, savouring and indulging on food while getting to know a destination? In fact we think food and travel go hand in hand. Travel broadens the mind and food gives an insight to a country’s people. Food offers tantalising glimpses of its culture and history. To paraphrase a review on the book ‘Food is Culture’ by Massimo Montanari, everything there is about food embodies layers of different cultural significance of a place and its people. Food explores connections and is a unifier between what is eaten and through cross-cultural connections. It tells a great story of the evolution of a destination.
(Massimo Montanari is a Professor of Medieval History at Bologna University, and one of the world’s leading experts in Food studies)
Take Spain for instance. Historians say that life began as early as 32,000 years ago in the area we now known as Spain. Archaeological findings point to settlements on the Iberian Peninsula by Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians, while the Celts settled in the north as can still be seen in Galicia in northern Spain. In 218 BC the Romans came and shaped the culture and religion of Spain, its language and legal system. But then the Moors came along and banished the Christians. For nearly 800 years Hispania came under Muslim control. With the exception of northern Spain, Moorish Spain became known as Al-Andalus. Some historians consider this period a very interesting time inasmuch as they reason that the Moors (Arabs) added a layer of complexity to the Spanish culture. For example the much-loved Paella, one of Spain’s signature dishes is a Moorish legacy to Spain and the world. Rice, saffron and spices that dominate this ubiquitous Spanish dish tells a story of their occupation of Spain. We can also blame the Moors for the Spaniard’s sweet tooth considering the Arabs brought sugar to Spain and used in many of their dishes- not just for desserts but sugar is also evident in the confluence of savoury and sweet flavours in the same dish on some of their favoured meals such as escabeche or even the polvoron.
Christian Spain on the other hand also tells a tale of ham and pigs. It is common knowledge that Spain is the world’s largest producer and consumer of air-dried-cured ham. The Spaniards (per person) consume an average of five kilograms of cured ham per year. Now, that’s a lot of ham! Ham is so ingrained in the Spanish culture and daily meals that even a Spanish art-house film, an allegory for Spain itself and the many contrasts of Spain and the passionate Spaniards including their erotic desires and their reverence for food was given the title Jamón – Jamón. In the film, food was frequently used in puns and metaphors. I clearly recall the finale because of the bizarre twist with the male protagonists tangled in a duel using legs of ham for weapons.
The history of Spain is steeped in tradition and religion. The consumption of ham and pork has religious connotations too because during the Moorish period in Spain, there was a noticeable absence of ham and pork dishes as eating pork was prohibited because it was a religious taboo amongst the Moors. Then when the Christians regained control of Spain, the Muslims either had to convert to Christianity (and by inference, eat pork and ham I suppose) or flee. So, once again, pork regained its popularity and back in the menu. A very good reason for Spaniards to qualify as the world’s leading ham eater!
So you see, food does tell a very interesting story about a place, its people and culture. There are many more examples we can later discuss such as the fact that the French like to do their shopping daily, the regional flavours of Chinese food, the influence of food on people who have migrated to different countries…the list goes on and on.
More on: Railway to Heaven (On board the luxury train in Spain) ISBN: 9781468970203