Travel. Have you missed it? Oh, my word, there's so much that I've missed, so much - but perhaps we are now edging closer to that moment where we can begin to contemplate dusting off our suitcases, checking that our passports are still valid (note to self) and venturing back out into the world.
Food is one of my favourite things at home AND away, so of course, it's an aspect of travelling with which I'm excited to be reacquainted. I am that person who plans trips and holidays around food; the local specialities; the best coffee; the lesser-known cafes; the dates of the farmers' markets; the best example of a baguette vending machine … I'm certain that it's as good a way as any to explore a new place and I can't wait to get back to it. Here's what I'm particularly excited about…
The strange allure of airport food
If I'm honest, I can't relate to a pint of beer in an airport bar at 10 am but I'm open to a glass of wine and some tortilla chips in the earlier hours of the morning. Any airport with a Pret has got to be the ultimate. Mine's a Bircher Muesli if it's close to breakfast time, otherwise some kind of salad bowl that includes their pink pickled onions and perhaps a little salmon. A black coffee with a variation on chocolate tiffin is also a favourite. Obviously, there's the obligatory purchasing of bottled water and of course, food for the flight, to compensate for what you are about to receive.
The even stranger allure of aeroplane food
Perhaps it's not so much the food itself but rather all that it represents; the start of a new adventure, a little paper menu to select from, a break from a marathon stint of movie watching and a momentary break from the boredom of long haul travel. I do, however, love the tiny bars of chocolate on Swiss Air (they also have remarkably comfortable mini pillows, in case that's interesting to you) and I cherish the 'mystery filling' sandwich in those afternoon tea packs that you get a couple of hours before landing. By that point in the journey, I really will eat anything.
The supermarket shop
Where weekend cereal becomes everyday cereal and where everything is fair game because you're on holiday. I can spend an hour or two browsing the unfamiliars in a local supermarket just for fun; marvelling at the fish counter; realizing that my A Level French vocabulary does not stretch to sea creatures and how best to cook them; buying too much cheese (always) and too much wine (never); selecting a bar of chocolate to eat in the car on the way back to the house and demolishing it before we're even out of the car park; laughing that the checkout lady with no teeth and no bra is still reporting for duty; realizing that the 'bags for life' are not in the car.
Exploring local markets
Stumbling across obscure little markets is life-affirming; it's romantic. In France there's Franck the patissier with his cakes and tarts; there's the butcher with his enviable moustache; there are the crepes slathered in Nutella and the cheese lady who's a bit sad because we already bought too much cheese at the supermarket. Buying food from the people who grew it, or baked it or picked it is a beautiful thing and knowing more about its journey definitely enhances the flavour. It's expensive though, so beware of becoming too romantically involved with the tempting fresh produce - it will suck you in.
Taking a moment for coffee
I love the way that coffee punctuates the day when you're travelling. Morning coffee at an outside table for breakfast; a nostalgic mid-morning cappuccino with an unfortunate topping of Chantilly Cream (for old time's sake, not culinary value); a café con hielo at a pavement cafe in Barcelona (this is iced coffee the simple way; two cups – one with hot coffee and one with large ice cubes. Simply pour the hot coffee into the glass with the ice and stir.) If I drink all of the above in one day, I'll never sleep again but hey, I'm on holiday ...
I am a die-hard fan of a picnic and my definition is broad. Anything eaten while on the move, especially if it's been made pre-journey and comes packaged in old Tupperware; anything eaten outdoors and paired with a carefree holiday perspective; anything that involves hard-boiled eggs and a baguette; anything eaten on the meadow behind our house in France; anything bought from an M&S Food Hall and eaten on a park bench in a dreary city centre; anything eaten on a park bench anywhere, preferably with a touch of sunshine and a family packet of crisps in the mix; anything eaten on a bike ride; anything eaten on a beach, with or without a sprinkling of sand; anything spread out on a tartan blanket; anything eaten on a classic wooden picnic table (several summers spent in France have lead me to believe that French families always carry a tablecloth with them to use on such tables - can anyone confirm this for me?); anything eaten in the dappled shade. Count me in for any or all of the above.
A great café means as much to me as a great restaurant - it's a coffee and a cake; a sandwich at lunchtime (with a side of crisps, not chips); poached eggs in the morning; an early evening snack. National Trust cafés are right up there on my list of favourites (a Victoria Sponge or a classic fruit cake), but I'd also never say no to the John Lewis café (a sausage sandwich) or the legendary café inside the Atticus Book Shop in New Haven, Connecticut (the 'Half and Half' - a cup of soup and half a sandwich).
I'm a bit sick of home cooking. I want at least a week of passionate, talented professionals cooking my dinner. And my breakfast. And my afternoon snack. I'm excited that they will have sourced their ingredients from a totally different environment to my own, with its unique inspirations and flavours. I'm giddy for the long, loud, silly conversations around the table; tasting each other's chosen dishes (please don't tell me we'll never return to that again...); asking the waiter, 'What would you recommend?' and being taken by the hand through the menu. To be honest, even just the idea of a breadbasket is pretty thrilling - a breadbasket plus being a little bit dressed up AND on holiday.
Often, our travelling is structured around staying with family and friends so enjoying what they love to cook is such a treat. My Mum's breakfast spread of fruit salad and toast with mushroom paté (for me) and tuna paté (for Hella); my godmother's legendary egg and bacon sandwiches + her 'kitchen sink soup' and her delicious apple turnovers. And then there are the family dinners, where the food becomes incidental - it's about the chat and the stories and the laughter and the jokes and about squeezing everyone around the table and finding extra chairs from around the house. Precious times.
Fish and chips + the great outdoors
There's really nothing better, wherever you are in the world. Just add a beach or a pretty view, a breeze (preferably sea air), plenty of vinegar and a healthy appetite. In New Zealand I'd opt for the kumara fries; in Manchester, I won't choose curry sauce (but I will take the mushy peas); in Portsmouth watch out for greedy seagulls. A cold beer would probably finish it off perfectly or maybe a nice cup of tea.
Eating an ice cream every day
Isn't that what childhood holidays are all about? How many less exciting outings have been tolerated with a promise of an ice cream later? It's the flavours that I enjoy; the choice; the colours; the combinations. I'm always a cone and not a cup. How about you? I never want any toppings and I reserve the right to ask you for a taste of yours. My favourite ever ice cream was Roasted Cherry and Ricotta from a cute little shop in Soho, London. I can't remember what I did yesterday, but I can tell you the exact ice cream cone that I adored three years ago ...
Discovering the local specialities
Experiencing the food and drinks that are important to the locals, what they're proud of, feels like a shortcut to getting to understand the place and the people. I love a food festival; chillis, wine, a Women's Institute produce tent - I'll take them all. We did our first proper, organised food tour in Boston when we last travelled and I'd wholeheartedly recommend it; snacking around the North End, learning about the history of the city (including Boston's stickiest tragedy, the Great Molasses disaster, yes really ...) and meeting interesting people along the way. Pace yourself though, otherwise, you'll peak too soon and be too full for the treats later on. I'm excited about getting back to exploring, about dusting off those guide books (I do love a physical book) and discovering the diamonds in my destination. I miss walking around a city searching out its hidden restaurants. I miss eating things I’ve never tasted before and the lasting impression they made. I miss the thrill of having an unexpectedly amazing meal in a very unpromising looking restaurant. I'm ready to get back out there now.