Monday, 31 August 2009

Why breakfast is special

Some things are the same everywhere, or not very different. Some things, on the other hand, change drastically when you cross a border.

Dinner and lunch don't change. Breakfast does.

Breakfast seems to be the single most diverse meal in the world. Each nation defines itself in its breakfast choice.

In France: ah yes, tourists think it's croissants. Nope. Real French breakfast, at home, is baguette, perhaps toasted, with jam, and coffee in a bowl, not a mug. I think the reason it's in a bowl is that perverse people like my significant other can dunk their bread in it... Littl'uns get drinking chocolate instead of coffee.

In the Netherlands: a massive buffet of ham and cheese. Buttermilk, carefully distinct from ordinary milk in its different coloured bottle. (And a cigar... I don't quite understand the Dutch attitude to smoking, but there you go. And in Friesland, you can add a stiff drink to this, as long as it's after nine o'clock in the morning. Maybe that only happens when they're entertaining foreign business journalists.) But buttermilk, ham and cheese everywhere.

Germany: the cheese and ham are there, with slight differences. But you'll also find a lot of yoghurt and mix-it-yourself muesli - not nice soft easy muesli like Alpen or supermarket mixes, but crunchy tough stuff for Alpine wanderers, with whole hazelnuts, chunks of dried fruit, oats stiff as if each flake has been starched and hung up to dry before putting back in the box. And coffee. Lots.

In Japan: hot rice with a raw egg broken on top, which gradually cooks in the rice as you stir it in. Surprisingly nice.

Spain and Italy: still have to find out whether these countries do breakfast. They do coffee, and you might have a pastry (which my supercilious French alter ego regards as vraiment barbare) to soak up some of the bitterness. But breakfast?

Except in those few places where you can still get churros y chocolate. The doughy, fried strips with their crunchy outside and a scattering of sugar crystals ... those are the real thing, but for some reason the Spanish seem to be turning their backs on them.

Morocco has liquid breakfast; beisara, a rich thick pulse soup. I stopped in the market of Fes-el-Djid for some; in a thick green earthenware bowl with a lump taken out of the rim, and with huge mounds of cumin, paprika and salt on the table for scattering on top. (I like it with a huge amount of cumin and very little salt.)

English fry-up; very rare in my life - but I did just have a superb fry-up at Peterborough Beer Festival (one of the staff perks), hence this post. Bacon and sausages, fried potatoes, baked beans, tomatoes (almost always out of a tin, even for quality breakfasts - a stronger but less acid taste), mushrooms, and hash browns. Ah yes, hash browns - an interloper really, but I do like them.

Russia - I have no idea what the typical Russian breakfast is. But I have happy memories of staying in St Pete's and getting brunch that consisted purely of blinis, sour cream, and five kinds of 'caviare' (actually all non-sturgeon derivation, like lumpfish roe, so not quite as decadent as it sounds).

Best of all? Difficult to choose. That big bowl of beisara comes close. So too does a really crisp buttery croissant and a bowl of cafe au lait, milky and bitter at the same time.

But for me, the best of all is scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, on buttered toast.

PS - for pedants, and others who enjoy great words; Aristology, the study of breakfast (by extension, of fine dining), is featured on an excellent blog, World Wide Words.

Monday, 17 August 2009

The landscape changes

Sometimes when we travel we just want to see new things. So we give one day to one city, one day to the next. We walk our linear paths to Santiago, or Canterbury, or up the mountain and down the other side.

And we miss a lot.

I was reminded of this as I ran by the Wensum this morning - back in Norwich after a month and a half travelling.

The sky is leaden though the sun is out, shining palely. The leaves of trees by the river are dark green, and fleshy, heavy, almost sinister. Everything seems heavy, lethargic, and I can feel thunder in the air.

A line of swans passes silently, two adults and five cygnets in their greyish brown fuzz. Their wing feathers are just beginning to grow out white.

Yet two days ago, running at evening, I saw a different world; one in which the low sunlight dappled the path through glowing leaves, and the one streetlamp that always comes on early added its orange-pinkish glow to the scene. A world of luminosity and warmth, so beautiful you could almost cry.

The purple loosestrife is out, tall spikes of garish flowers, swarmed by bees. Ladybirds are everywhere. The first blackberries are ripe (I missed the flowering), and the mulberry tree has spattered the pavement with black. Autumn is coming, this morning; yet two days ago it was still summer.

This is what you miss when you travel too fast. When you walk a street for the second time, you see how it's changed; different light, a different time of day. You get to know it a little.

I know the temptations. The list of 'places I must visit this holiday'. The map that shows the Pennine Way, neatly coloured in as far as I've gone today, and the lure of the uncoloured path - the desperate feeling that you must finish it, you must press on. The desire to stick pins in the map; 'been there'.

And yet resisting this onward pull is what real travel is all about. Instead of forging a path forward, letting yourself sink into the surroundings; staying a few days, finding your footing. Slow down, rest, allow the small things to tell their stories.