If there ever was a time when food wasn’t a major element of travel, it’s hard to remember it. Today we’re all culinarily curious travellers, thoroughly clued-up on the cuisine of our chosen destination. The internet has made it the work of a few minutes to research what’s on the menu where we’re headed, and social media has turbo-charged every traveller’s tastebuds. Scrolling through Instagram and Facebook, almost by osmosis we become creepily well-informed about the current streetfood scene in Lima, the morning markets of Dubrovnik, and precisely what the Michelin-starred restaurants of San Sebastian are making with zeitgeisty ingredients like charcoal and seaweed.
For slow travellers, by boat, rail or road, the delicious intermingling of food and travel is even more of a game changer; what was once a journey has evolved into a foodie odyssey. As an adventure/active travel writer who happens to be hopelessly loved-up with food and drink, it’s been a delight to experience my two twin passions hooking up like this. Food-oriented road trips will always have a place in my heart, and touring the winelands of New Zealand, California, France and Italy should be on any booze-lover’s bucket list. But when your mode of transport is a boat, fabulous things happen to your menu. Because there is no better way to taste a destination than by skimming around the edges.
Port towns have always thrilled adventurous eaters. Ports are where new, exotic spices, fruits and other comestibles first hit a new country. Ports are where chefs find the freshest of ingredients. Ports are where sailors and merchants alike congregated from all over the world; port towns were doing fusion cuisine centuries ago. The money is there to nudge chefs into greater realms of inventiveness, and the stream of hungry diners is constant, curious and an inspiring mix of discerning regulars and intrigued newcomers.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that my most memorable slow food odyssey is a sailing trip around one of the most notoriously beautiful stretches of one of the world’s most notoriously food-obsessed nations: Italy’s Amalfi coast.
Amalfi is hardly an “insider’s secret”, a “hidden gem”, a “hotspot” or “emerging destination” or any of those other travel journalism cliches. People have been banging on about how great Amalfi is for centuries. The coast was, however, once considered a rough diamond, and accordingly attracted writers, artists and associated bohemians and hangers-on. D.H. Lawrence worked on Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Ravello, and Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set would visit most years, staying at Villa Cimbrone. John Steinbeck deemed it one of the “most beautiful and dramatic coastlines in the world” in 1953, although he made several thoroughly Californian observations about the coastal road, observing it had “1,000 bends” and was “carefully designed to be a little bit narrower than two cars side by side.” In Ravello’s main square there is a plaque commemorating starry Hollywood visitors including Humphrey Bogart, Greta Garbo, John Huston and Truman Capote.
And as soon as we moored up in Positano, I realised that all the modern-day tourists and all those dead writers and movie stars, well, they weren’t wrong.
The Amalfi Coast is about as dramatic and beautiful as Mediterranean landscapes get, with plunging mountains, soaring cliffs, topped off with picturesque pastel-hued towns and dinky harbours. And in Positano, Ravello, Amalfi, Capri, Sorrento and the other countless small towns along the way, sailing up to restaurants along the way is considered as normal as pulling up in a Vespa or a Fiat. There’s no better appetiser than the sea, and when we moored up in Ravello and scaled the cliffs to reach the beautiful family-run hotel and restaurant Palazzo Avino, we were ready to sip a Neptune, the resident mixologist’s inventive combination of kiwi, lemon, tequila and a splash of seawater. Comparatively low-key Minori holds an annual food festival in early September showcasing local ingredients and dishes; for any culinarily creative galley chef, this is a dream pitstop, although glossy sardines, fluffily fresh buffalo mozzarella and supernaturally delicious lemons, tomatoes, figs and other fresh produce are always on the table at the morning markets.
In Italy, rustic cuisine is often more memorable than self-conscious Michelin attempts, and after snagging a balcony table at Ristorante Pulalli in Capri, I taste a Caprese salad that that makes me finally understand Caprese salads; the penny drops as the grassy olive oil melts into an unthinkably light puff of buffalo mozzarella, dancing with the sweet acidity of fresh tomato.
For centuries, sexually repressed, gastronomically unadventurous and emotionally stunted British and American artists and aristocrats have been travelling to Italy and returning transformed. And even today, hungrily skirting a stretch of the Italian coast by boat, as we did, proved a powerful tonic that restored our appetites and awakened the senses. When you put sea and sail, Italy and food together, you have a culinary cocktail like no other.