We’ll let’s start off in Spain, a country as close to my beloved Africa as you can get in Europe. Elizabeth Luard is the best possible person to introduce us to a lively, spicy slice of Spanish omelette in her hootingly funny, deeply poignant and endearingly eccentric memoir, Family Life:Birth, Death and the Whole Damn Thing Although it starts off in England and ends back in that country with an interlude in France, the Spanish chapters are the warm heart of the book. The prose is dreamy, her line drawings a delight and the recipes increasingly resourceful. There are moments of hilarity, but these are tempered later in the book with Luard’s haunting account of her daughter’s death from AIDS. Certainly a book to treasure and return to time and again.
If you like to travel – and read - in short bursts, it would be hard to beat editor Lucy McCauley’s anthology of travel writing. Spain : True Stories - Travelers’ Tales gathers its stories and journalism from writers over the last fifteen years. Authors include such luminaries as Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Barbara Kingsolver, Colm Tóibín and Louis de Bernières, whose ‘Seeing Red’ on the tomato-throwing festival of Bunol is hugely entertaining.
Norman Lewis is surely one of the unsung literary heroes of the 20th Century. More than half of his work is fiction but, among his devoted followers, it is travel and memoir that place him in the first rank. My favourite is Voices Of The Old Sea about three post-war summers he spent in the remote fishing village of Farol, on what is now the Costa Brava. He documents without sentimentality the gradual decline and destruction of traditional ways of life under pressure from the arrival of mass tourism and environmental decay. The way of life of the people and their beliefs is so extraordinary you may find it hard to believe they lived on the same planet we inhabit today.
Where to next? A soupçon of France, perhaps? Then Hot Sun, Cool Shadow : Savouring the Food, History and Mystery of the Languedoc by Angela Murrills and her husband, the artist Peter Matthews, is your book. It was more than a decade ago that their love affair with the Languedoc region of southern France began. One of Europe's oldest and most historic regions, it is rich with wonders including fairytale castles, wild white horses, Roman ruins, and Carcassonne, Europe's greatest fortified town. What really drew them to this area, however, was the locals' love of food and wine. As their visits to the region became longer, and their dream of owning a home intensify, they begin to discover another way of living - a slow paced existence based on gastronomic pleasure and the really important things in life - hunting for mushrooms, morning trips to the bakery, long lunches, and heated debates about the best way to make cassoulet. They discover ancient houses, take in the scenery that inspired artists like Henry Matisse, retrace the steps of Toulouse-Lautrec, and recreate typical dishes of the region; finally settling themselves in this staunchly independent agricultural region, where life moves slowly under the mellow sun. Fortified by mouth-watering recipes and gorgeous illustrations, Murrills’ gentle prose pays homage to the connection between the history, the food, and the people of the Languedoc.
It has to be Italy next, wouldn’t you agree? Are you an obsessive romantic? Well then, you simply must meet Lisa St Aubin de Teran. She takes us to Villa Orsola, deep in the Umbrian hills in her memorable account of refurbishing a palazzo in ruins in A Valley In Italy. As the palazzo - with its loggia, noble balustrades, numberless rooms and urgently necessary plumbing - emerges proudly from the ruins, the book's spell begins to have its effect. The signora may be the umpteenth expatriate to describe a grape harvest but she does it beautifully. The fact is that the sheer enthusiasm of this unconventional enterprise finally gets to you. By the time her runaway imagination is converting a few pots of struggling lilies into fields full of fragrantly waving cash crop it is hard to stop yourself thinking this a jolly sensible idea. A Valley In Italy is a book you should read curled up in a comfy armchair with a glass of delicious, full bodied, garnet red Boscarelli Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. You’ll savour both, I promise!
Should we zip over to Portugal now? This land of bay leaves, baccalah and piri piri has stretched out her roots all over the globe. My first taste of Portugal was as a child. Not Portugal proper, but pretty close to the real thing, except with an African flavour. Every year, until things got horrid, we’d go to Mozambique, and in particular Lorenzo Marques (now Maputo), for school holidays. I can still remember the exotic foreignness of that city - the bustling markets, the striking colonial architecture, the tree-lined streets, the gloriously colourful houses and the cafes spilling out on to mosaic pavements. It was there, at one of those outdoor cafes where I had my first encounter with Portugal’s fiery piri-piri sauce. It took the ordinary prawn to volcanic heights and set my taste-buds jangling wildly.
Feeling hungry? Let’s journey to the mother country in Tessa Kiros’ Piri Piri Starfish : Portugal Found. “When she takes her family to live and travel in Portugal, she is captivated by the country and charmed by the old-fashioned way of doing things. Portugal has everything she loves - the markets, the sea, the beautiful old poussadas and, most especially, the food.”
Tessa draws the reader into a kitchen where traditional culinary methods have been handed down generation-to-generation, shared and refined with the help of family and friends who have watched, chopped, stirred and tasted. It’s difficult to put a finger on exactly what makes the understated peasant food of Portugal so beguilingly delicious and distinct from the cuisine of its near neighbours – I guess you just have to experience it.
Rather than risk you all going squiffy-eyed and dizzy over too many books, I’ll leave you with those until the next time I fire up the Pod when maybe we’ll travel even further afield. Until then, I do hope you enjoyed this journey!