Every once in a while, my husband has an idea so brilliant it’s breathtaking. “Let’s move to Spain for a year,” was one; and 14 years later we’re still here in Seville. “Why not try travel without any luggage at all?” was another, and although it took him 20 years to convince me to give it a go, he was right, it was amazing. And last April, he did it again.
We were sitting in a café, floating possibilities for our next multi-month railway journey. Our short list included Greece, the Balkans, and various regions along the Adriatic coast we had yet to explore.
Out of nowhere Rich said, “Have you noticed that every time you write about food, your readers love it? What if we made that the theme of the trip? Everybody likes Mediterranean food, right?”
And just like that, the trip took shape in my mind. “We’ll call it the Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour,” I said. “Travel by train and ferry around the Mediterranean rim, sampling some of the world’s best cooking in its native habitat.”
“We’ll explore local culture through the cuisine,” I went on. “Food always has an interesting backstory, one that tells you a lot about the people who eat it.”
“You had me at comfort food,” said Rich.
As you can imagine, just about everyone we know has suggestions about the itinerary. “You’ll be going to Istria, of course,” a friend said to me. “Where?” She looked at me pityingly. “Northern Croatia’s truffle country.” Did I even know they had truffles in Croatia? She went on, “There’s a little restaurant, it’s not easy to get to, but the food ….” She trailed off, rolling her eyes heavenward in blissful memory. Rich said, “Make a note of that one!”
Lots of people ask what we mean by comfort food. To me — and to Miriam-Webster’s dictionary — it’s “food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal.” It’s the stuff that makes you feel warm and cozy, well-fed and nurtured: your mom’s chicken soup, the homemade cookies grandpa always brought to holiday dinners, your favorite take-out for stay-home movie nights.
The warm, fuzzy, feel-good sensation is universal, but the specifics vary wildly. For instance, in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, marmite (a sticky, dark brown, salty food paste) is happily smeared on toast in millions of homes, a fact that’s incomprehensible to those of us not raised on the stuff. Elvis Presley lived on grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Sofia Loren attributed her famous figure to spaghetti, noting it “can be eaten most successfully if you inhale it like a vacuum cleaner.”
Some take a darker view of comfort food, defining it as harmful substances we binge on when life becomes so unbearable the only way we can cope is to abuse our bodies. As one Huffington Post article put it, in what I consider the most revolting metaphor of the year, “it’s a dietary bandage we’ve all used.” Yuck, no! The author goes on to say, “In the U.S. we understand that when someone is stuffing their face with French fries and doughnuts it’s a signifier for, ‘I’m overwhelmed, please avoid eye contact.’” And this, I think, underscores the difference between American and European attitudes toward food. Just last night I was with European friends, and we all dived happily into a plate of perfectly prepared fried potatoes, commenting with pleasure on the delightful flavor and texture. Living in Spain, I have learned to regard food as a friend, not an enemy, a science experiment, or a test of my willpower.
“I assume all the clothes you’re packing will have elastic waistbands,” a friend commented.
Rich said cheerfully, “We expect to double our body weight.”
“And we’ll be so contented we won’t care,” I added. But the fact is, I don’t really expect I’ll gain much weight. Our plan is not to eat more food than usual, just to choose different kinds based on their meaning in the local culture.
And of course, not all traditional comfort food is fattening. We recently had lunch with a friend who hails from Crete, not far from the remains of Knossos, “Europe’s oldest city,” which we'd decided was the logical jumping-off place for our trip. As he spread a map of Crete on the table, I asked him, “What comfort foods are popular around there?”
A smile lit up his face. “Hohli bourbouristi.” Huh? “Snails cooked in rosemary,” he explained. “Look, there is a recipe on the back of the map.” He flipped it over to show a photo of glistening snails, three recipes, and general culinary advice for visitors.
“Great map,” I commented. “Where did you get it?”
He grinned. “At McDonald’s.”
I like a plate of snails now and then, and while I can safely say that I won’t eat enough of them to double my body weight, I am happy to have the recipe. In fact, one of my goals for the trip is to post recipes for as many comfort foods as possible. I’ve been making lists of local specialties I'll seek out: Greek yogurt with honey and walnuts, Kalamata olives, feta cheese, those Croatian truffles, tiramisu, prosciutto, Prosecco, croissants…
And while I would love to promise I’ll be sharing closely guarded culinary secrets learned directly from master chefs and ancient grandmothers, I suspect many recipes I post will be from online resources. I’ve set up a page on this website called “Comfort Recipes” where I’ll post recipes of foods we try on the journey, plus Comfort Food to Cook on the Road, dishes whose preparation requires few ingredients and the kind of basic utensils you'd find in a rental apartment kitchen. If there's an oven in our Airbnb, I'll likely be making Three-Ingredient Brownies. Can you guess what’s in them? Nope, that’s not it. Not that, either. OK, I’ll spill: bananas, crunchy almond butter (I use crunchy peanut butter instead), and unsweetened cocoa. It's the perfect finish to a meal of Smoked Salmon Pasta Cooked in a Skillet, especially on nights we want to kick back in our home away from home.
Rich and I keep rearranging the itinerary as we discover intriguing new fare: North Macedonia’s tavče gravče, Croatia’s crni rizot, and Slovenia’s potatoes, said to be so good that locals indicate you’re lucky by commenting, “Well, you really have some potatoes!”
One restaurant that Rich has been talking about for years is Albania’s Ali Kali, where the owner brings your grilled fish to the table riding on the back of a trick horse.
Yes, presentation really is everything! I’ve mentioned Ali Kali to many people, and not all of them share Rich’s enthusiasm. Some consider it dubious on many levels, starting with taste, hygiene, and whether it’s OK to teach animals to perform tricks. But I have learned to trust Rich’s “sniffer,” his nose for special experiences, especially those involving food. So while we expect our route to change many times as our whimsy takes us through Europe, the Ali Kali is a fixed star on our horizon.
We leave April 20 and expect to be back in Spain somewhere around August-ish.
Don't miss a single comfort food adventure!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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