JOHN’S JOURNEYS – WINING AND DINING
John Burke recalls eating out abroad
Most travellers are neither gourmets nor connoisseurs of wine – and that goes for me too. When in France, my choice is a brasserie where the wine is as ordinary as it is called or else a self-service restaurant, such as Le Berigny in Dieppe which doubles as the station buffet.
In the German-speaking lands, there are no less than 7,000 local breweries, often with a choice of brands for washing down such fare as a Bauernfrühstuck or rösti or Wiener Schnitzel. Yet in two countries it has to be fish: Norway and Portugal. My first taste of octopus (polpo) was in Lisbon, but I have also eaten swordfish on Grenada and barramundi (a bit like buttered cod) with chips in Darwin.
Ostend too was seafood only, and that was during my brief career as a gastronomic professional in Belgium where leisuredly eating one’s fill is a national custom. While based there for Reuter, the expatriates’ weekly Brussels Times paid me to visit restaurants where I was probably more expert on writing about the decor than the cuisine.
That work ranged from eating hearty Dutch dishes at the top of the Euromast in Rotterdam to dining on wild boar or pheasant in front of log fires in the Ardennes. The local liqueur on those occasions was green, either Pisang Ambon, distilled from Indonesian bananas, or one derived from pine-trees. I have also sampled the four strengths of Trappist beer, indentified by caps of different colours.
There have been other culinary novelties in various countries, such as reindeer meat at Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle and skyr (a mild yoghurt) at the Naust boat restaurant in Reykjavik. Sometimes the ambience was more memorable than the delicacies, although these have ranged from oysters at the Duchesse Anne in St Malo to snails at the Ritz-Carlton in Montreal where I also drank Caribou (a blend of red wine, whiskey and maple sugar) at Les Filles du Roy.
Named after the 800 girls who Louis XIV shipped to colonial Canada, it is one of several ancient or famous eating-places that are a must for any traveller. They range from Munich’s rebuilt Hofbräuhaus, which dates back to 1589, to U Kalicha in Prague whose name and pictures are out of the Good Soldier Schweik although it is too grand to be the tavern where the Czech bumpkin quaffed beer from Pilsen.
They also include the Hauptmann von Köpenick, a public-house named after the cobbler who, donning a captain’s uniform, collected a squad of troops to rob Berlin’s easternmost townhall in 1906. And even the communists in Leipzig maintained Auerbachs Keller, the ancient basement restaurant immortalised in Goethe’s Faust.
I have dined in even classier surroundings. British Columbia’s tourism minister stood me lunch at the Union Club (founded 1879) in Victoria, and I was a guest of his Jamaican counterpart at the Liguanea in Kingston. As the model for the colonial club in Ian Fleming’s Dr No, it featured in the film.
Also in the Caribbean I discovered rum punch as well as sorrel, a non-alcoholic drink even more delicious than сок от слива (plum-juice) in Bulgaria, while my one pisco sour – as potent as ούζο in Greece – was when lunching with a diplomat from the British Embassy in Lima. I remember a table-top grill in La Paz, while in Montevideo the steak came straight out of an open oven.
As for Brazil, one normally pays per kilogram, but it was all-you-can-eat plus the usual complimentary coffee at Velho Madalosso, the famous Italian restaurant in the Santa Felicidade district of Curitiba. The wine was a white Andino from Argentina, and my guide’s young son tinkled Two Lovely Black Eyes on the piano.
At the Thalia social club in the same city, there was a lavish German buffet plus Bavarian folk-music, and another unique experience was in Asuncion where I had maize empanadas in the canteen of Paraguay’s historic and dominant Colorado Party.
When I crossed America coast-to-coast as a freelance photographer for BBC-TV, my schedule was usually too tight to eat much. While photographing the Great Salt Lake, my guide fetched hamburgers; in St Paul-Minneapolis, another efficient guide bought me a hot dog at airport departures – plus Cokes each time!
I did, however, have a KC steak at the Golden Ox in Kansas City, a yard of ale in a tall pipe of a glass in Cincinatti’s Sheraton-Gibson, and a business lunch at Detroit’s country club. And there was a working breakfast at Illinois Athletic Club. I asked Chicago’s convention manager whether he was track or field, to which the reply was: “Negative. I come here because the ham ‘n eggs are so good”.
The worst experience was having to get through spicy Mexican food in Red Rocks Park because my guide from Denver was obviously on an expense-account. Precious daylight was wasted when I could have been photographing more of the Rockies.
It would have been fine south of the border, because I always try the local cuisine such as red Egri Bikaver with goulash, while serenaded by gipsies, in Budapest. Yet I was warned off rice-wine in Macau, because it is even more like fire-water than Sebastian Stroh’s 80% rum in Austria.
Hyatt’s manager in Manila once invited me to lunch, but was amazed when this westerner asked for a Filipino menu. It was rice with everything plus soy sauce, and the glass of green mango juice had frosted sugar on the rim. Travellers in Israel are restricted anyway to a kosher diet (except in Christian hostels), while the menu at the baptismal site of Yardenit by the Jordan is even based on Jewish recipes from the Roman era.
The one place abroad where I avoided bars and cafes downtown was Benidorm. I mean, who wants pub grub or fish ‘n chips with brown ale in the romantic land of paella, gazpacho, sangria...