A Bit of the Best of 2023: Travel
Some of the flavors of my travels abroad in 2023
I used to know someone who saved paper clippings of entertaining items all year, then would send a copy of his collection to each of his friends at the end of December. You might think there aren’t a lot of laughs to be had on the subject of food, but in my own humor file I have a recipe for a cake that is meant to look like a cat litter box and a letter from a man who asked (seriously) if it is okay to drink the water that drips from the iron radiator in his apartment.
Since I usually don’t save news bites I have to go from memory and personal experience, as well as my writing – articles, essays, and recipes. In many instances I really can’t name names – some of the most absurd things I’ve encountered involve people I have to see again. So I’ll not look back at the worst of the year, as tempting it is to mock people whose LinkedIn photos show them in business suits and whose Instagram accounts have them preening in their underwear.
Instead, I’ll reflect on a small smattering of some of the best things I found in 2023. Travel was one of them.
Al dente Pasta
In June, Agnes Callard’s article for The New Yorker made a case against travel. Without countering the specific points made, I brush them all aside when I reflect on what travel does for me. My memories of place include landscapes, sounds, aromas, and, of course, flavors. People too. Welcoming smiles, haughty waiters, and a man in military gear with a machine gun who approached me in a small airport and eagerly asked questions about the United States.
In Normandy, France, there are apple tarts and crepes filled with Normandy apples. But my favorite was Normandy’s most distinctive dish, Poulet a la Normande, which marries braised chicken with apples, onions, cream and Calvados (apple brandy).
In Brittany, France, I was introduced to a remarkable pastry called Kouign-amann (from the Breton words for cake and butter). It was flaky, rich, buttery, and sweet, and many months later I think of it often. I found a recipe online that, one of these days, I am going to try.
In Brittany I also had Moules de Bouchot de la Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel (mussels from the bay by Mont-Saint-Michel) and Belon oysters that are famous for their briny flavor.
2023 was a year in which I went to Mexico, northern Italy and France.
My older son, a food editor and writer, moved with his wife from New York City to Oaxaca, Mexico and launched a newsletter about the transition to life there. A one-week trip in February to Mexico City, Puebla, and Oaxaca gave me my first tastes of Mexico (sorry for the pun) that included pitaya ice cream, tamarind margaritas, and chapulines (toasted grasshoppers seasoned with chiles, salt, garlic, and lime). I liked them all, including the fried grasshoppers that I had to amp up my courage to try – they were crunchy and tasted of their seasonings. If you go to Puebla, be sure to try Tortitas de Santa Clara, fine crisp cookies topped with a sweet glaze made with ground pumpkin seeds.
Although I’d been to Italy before, I was surprised to realize that my idea of al dente (literally, “to the tooth,” meaning that the pasta should still have firmness to it) was not in sync with the pasta I was served in restaurants, which was so firm it was just past having a crunch. In Italy I also encountered an unfamiliar soft crumbly paste as part of a cheese plate. I asked about the ingredients and then recreated it in my kitchen. What I’m calling Crema di Parmigiano is now something I keep handy for snacking and for guests. And it goes very nicely with an Aperol Spritz.
Not everyone is able to travel; there are the obstacles of time, money, and the responsibilities of home. But that’s a different matter from having a desire to learn about the world by seeing it firsthand. The history — the literal flavor, the very story of survival — of a particular place is expressed in foods cooked and served in the region they were grown. You can’t get that from cookbooks or the travel channel.