A Culinary Circle from Iceland to Malta

A Culinary Circle from Iceland to Ireland, Algeria, Tunisia, and Malta

ICELAND

It took 3 flights and 40 hours to get from one geothermal island to another. Unfortunately, my luggage preferred to holiday in Copenhagen. Thankfully I packed my carry-on strategically. Three days later my bag was delivered. It felt longer.

August highs in Iceland average 13 degrees. One day only was 20. It is a sunny 9 degrees as we head off for a whale watching cruise. Two humpbacks give us more than an hour of frolicking as they repeatedly spout, and dive with tails flipping just metres away.

The food has been excellent. Fish is superbly fresh. Soft, black rye bread, steamed for 24 hours in a hot spring, gets slathered with butter, and pickled herring that is tender and sweet like smoked salmon. It is served with 38 proof potato spirits. I tried surprisingly mild shots of cod liver oil for breakfast. Fermented Skyr for dessert and breakfast is a cross between thick yogurt and soft cheese, mixed with tiny berries.

Trees here too are small and slow growing as warmth and light can be meagre. Outside of towns are volcanic islands, rapids, seals, caribou, fjords, spectacular waterfalls, people fishing for salmon, vast lakes with blue ducks and hundreds of swans, fields of scoria green with moss and lichen.

Mountain tops are often flat like cake layers, sliced by advancing glaciers. Isolated farms have sheep with curved Viking horns, wild mink, and long maned horses. Survival here favours short, stocky, and furry. Hobbits would do well. Geysers erupt and Arctic winds threaten to blow me over.

Towns are named to torture tourists. I stay at Borgarfjordureystri, a fishing village of 85 inhabitants. Brightly coloured houses, some with sod roofs, have names instead of numbers. I pick wild blueberries and a nearby family invites me to dinner. We eat pink Arctic char and foraged mushrooms. Poetry is read, and tales of elves and trolls are told with gravitas.

One day I stand between the high rocky sides of the rift valley where the tectonic plates of Europe and North America meet. This dark, narrow, and savage gouge was used compellingly in Game of Thrones. The whole country could erupt like White Island, and locals reference our New Zealand disaster.

Along the Ring Road, my bus travels the southeast coast past Europe’s biggest glacier. We stop and watch nesting puffins swoop and feed. A small boat takes us through a lagoon with mighty icebergs seemingly constructed from different shades of blueberry meringue. Swimming is not recommended with water at 4 degrees.

We visit a geothermal plant. The country’s power is from 100% renewable sources. The air is 12 degrees, but I happily swim and soak in the toasty waters of the Blue Lagoon with my new friend Mona, a retired Irish nurse living in Sydney. We enjoy silica facials, champagne, and jollity.

More books are published here than in any other nation. It has no standing army and one of the lowest global crime rates. 80% of citizens are members of the Lutheran Church. Iceland doesn’t allow Uber, Starbucks, MacDonalds, casinos or strip clubs. The population is the size of Christchurch. All school children learn Icelandic, Danish and English. People are hardy, proud, friendly, and industrious. Humans are extraordinarily resourceful. No other species roams and adapts so extensively to extreme environments.

Odin would approve.   

IRELAND – Fifty Shades of Green

Eleventh century church bells ring with frequency and joy. Buildings are elegantly Georgian brick. Most streets have a succession of ancient pubs with larrikin names. A city park is home to wild deer, and a statue of the local boy who became Duke of Wellington, and defeated Napoleon. Another lad, Bram Stoker, used Irish mythology to create Count Dracula. This must be Dublin.

At a nearby rural estate I dine at Ballyknocken Cooking School with owner and TV food star, Catherine Byrne-Fulvio. The 1855 cottage is full of charm and antiques. She serves a three-course meal sourced mostly from her clearly loved garden. A standout was fresh herb scones served with spinach, carrot and cumin soup, swirled with fresh cream. On the narrow country road back, we pass resident and actor, Daniel Day Lewis on his yellow Ducati motorbike.

More than 20% of New Zealanders have Irish ancestry. Both lands are fair, green, rolling, sea-edged, sheep-dotted, and snake-deprived. Together, among the OECD, we have the greatest number of adventurous expats living overseas.

Sadly, 93% of Northern Ireland schools remain religiously segregated. Belfast though is now booming instead of bombing. A walking tour with a local history teacher guides us through the protest art, barbed wire, and endless new apartments. The Titanic Museum is huge, prow-like, and architecturally stunning. Immersive depictions of dockside workers reveal harrowing lives even before the deadly voyage. Newsreel footage shows hungry, dirty, desperate living and working conditions.

Farther north at Ireland’s windiest point is the Giants Causeway. It was formed by shifting tectonics and red rivers of lava. However calm the surface, the earth is shaped by foundations of fire. Huge vertical columns of basalt rock thrust up and over jagged shores and tempestuous Atlantic waters.

You don’t come here for the weather. Their August summer is often like our August winter. The Romans came briefly and left. Later their Barbarian conquerors did the same. Only the English Protestant Tudors took a strategic interest, as this was a potentially dangerous landing site for their hated rivals, France and Spain. On such singularities can an entire history be shaped.

I try my first whiskey. A drink invented by the Irish and quietly reported as perfected by the Scots. There is wild salmon, plump oysters, Guinness meat pies, seafood chowder, and seaweed dishes. At breakfast I enjoy black pudding, and fried soda bread. There is every interpretation of the potato. Especially good is colcannon (mashed with cream, kale, and onion), boxty (potato pancakes), and farl (potato flatbread).

There is a grand banquet dinner and boisterous medieval entertainment at the 15th century Knappogue castle. Other meals too are accompanied by music: from harp, violin, bagpipe, Van Morrison, U2, Sinead O’Connor, to fast tapping dance. Country western music originated with the Celts in the southern United States. Their King William supporters were known as “Billies” and then hillbillies. 

I volunteer to try Gaelic dancing (did well), and the national 3,000 year old sport of hurling (did badly). I love the Irish gaiety, colourful phrasing, speedy gab, and easy wit. The castles, abbeys, drystone walls, thatched rooves, vividly painted cottages and shops.

Stroll through the grounds of Trinity College and imagine an alumni dinner with Oscar Wilde, Niels Bohr, AA Milne, Ralph Vaughan Williams, scores of royalty, politicians – and infamous spies.

This is an ideal land to practice the philosophy of its revered romantic poet, W B Yeats, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper”.     

ALGERIA

Fresh dates, camembert, pastries. You’ve probably had them. Not like this. One mouthful here is so intensely complete as to transcend any previous claimants.

This is Africa’s largest country. It has a Mediterranean coastline, snowy mountains, and an interior with the largest swathe of the Sahara. Its national animal is the adorable, blonde, huge-eared desert fox. Algiers, the capital along the sea, is known for the maze of its Kasbah, the winding lanes of the Medina, Ottoman palaces, marble mosques, the old port’s colourful fishing vessels, French boulevards and vast botanical gardens. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site – one of seven in the country.

The nation was colonised by the French from 1830. They fought together during World War II. And then viciously against each other until independence in 1962. Over one million Algerians died during that claim for independence. In 1957, one of its famous sons, Albert Camus, won the Nobel prize for literature. Women have better status here than in most Islamic countries: 60% of judges and 70% of lawyers are women. There is a lot of poverty, though that is ever decreasing, and no national debt due to petroleum and natural gas exports.

Algerian foods are a statement to its varied past. Hearty stew-topped couscous; pastry with lemon, olives and coriander; mhajab – flatbread filled with onion, tomato and then fried; rachta – pasta with veg and chickpeas; makroud – semolina parcels filled with dates, and glossy with lemon syrup. Particularly good are samsa, their triangular, densely almond and orange cookies. Despite the French influence, don’t bother asking for a glass of wine though, alcohol is rarely available.

Every aspect of arranging travel here was problematic: flights were changed; hotels were changed; walking tours difficult to book. Out of the six countries I visited, it was not just the only one to require a visa, but my passport had to be physically sent to their embassy in Canberra. Their bureaucracy (tellingly, a French word for “rule by desk”), set the entire experience somewhere between Monty Python and the Twilight Zone. Amid their many political, and socioeconomic issues, they made an important civic stipulation before my arrival: the Barbie movie was banned.

As in many other Arab countries, people are tenderly besotted with children. Otherwise surly officials, and the weary on cramped planes, gaze at screaming toddlers like they are the epitome of endearment. About 70% of the population is under 30.

Locals are hospitable and easy to engage with. They apologise for the well-known, suspicious entry requirements. Seeing other tourists is uncommon. When women of all ages pass me, they often smile softly and are quick to help. I did two 5-hour walking tours, each with smart, charming young guides who could answer my every question, discuss history and world events, find me the foods I wanted to try, and head me safely home. They spoke of wages averaging 250 Euros per month (basically double that for NZD), while rent is 150 to 200. Even doctors earn just 500 per month. Families squash together. Young people sigh about privacy being a fairytale concept.

Algerians can withdraw a small amount only of Euros each year. Downtown I pass an entire street dedicated to black market currency trading, which the heavy police presence everywhere, ignores. We Westerners are born to Luckyville.

TUNISIA

Its beauty is a surprise. Seaside towns, such as popular Sidi Bou Said, were postcard whitewashed, with vivid blue shutters, yellow doors, and crimson bougainvillea, long before the Greek islands copied them.

I stay at the Royal Victoria, built in 1662, and the former British Embassy. It is ornately Raj-style, as if designed during an opium rapture. Think the Civic Theatre turned into a hotel. I write this from my room’s balcony, which looks onto the bustle of a town square, and a street designed to resemble the broad, welcoming ramble of the Champs-Elysees.

A slim wedge of North Africa’s vast expanse, this nation comes perfumed with jasmine. The Republic of Tunisia achieved independence from the French in 1956. Customs and croissants remain. The land is home now to many mega movie sets such as for Star Wars and Indianna Jones.

With a push for more presidential power, parliament was suspended in 2021. It partially resumed in March 2023. The legitimacy remains questioned, home and abroad. As a protest, recent voter turnout was merely 11%. Oh, the privileges of democracy that we take for granted. 

Next to the parliament buildings is the Bardo. After Cairo, it is Africa’s second largest museum. Due to proximity and thus politicians’ safety reasons only, this splendid collection of antiquities remained barred for three years until the very day I visit. By chance, I was approached within by Tunisian TV. They interviewed me and filmed while I gazed at superbly curated exhibits. It was easy to enthuse.

The capital Tunis, sprawls along a lake with flamingos. I wander through the medina’s colourful markets and try cactus fruit, and mint tea from filigree pots, served with sesame cookies. Coastal homes and gardens are gloriously intense. September temperatures are 37° Celsius and beyond.

Nearby, I explore the extensive ruins of Carthage. This once wealthy maritime centre inspired poetry, and mythology. It existed for more than 500 years before its fall to Rome in 146 BC. It has one of the world’s largest historical amphitheatres, built in 238 AD for a capacity of over 30,000, and still used for theatre and concerts. If you have any lust to forge an empire, look upon these magnificent but dusty ruins, and ponder how time mocks egoic obsessions.

Tunisia ranks among the world’s top three olive oil exporters. The cuisine is a mixture of Mediterranean and Berber influences. Couscous is spicy with harissa, or sweet with orange, dates, and geranium. Brik are triangular filo parcels filled with fresh, local tuna, and preserved lemon. Zingy Merguez sausages come fragrant with sumac, fennel, garlic, and chili. For sweets enjoy bambalouni, fried dough rings soaked in honey. Or their version of makroudh: semolina dough wrapped around a thick paste of figs and almonds.

MALTA

After the dusty clamour of North Africa, Malta is clean, calm, discretely prosperous, easy and safe to traverse. It’s like a Sicilian Riviera with British infrastructure. Children starting school must learn Maltese and English. By middle school it is mandatory to study at least one other language. There is a lot of Italian speech, food, and relaxed vibe.

In area, Malta is about the size of Christchurch. It is one of 21 small islands, with 18 of them not much more than tiny, barren rocks. The main island has no lakes or rivers, but beams with 300 days of sunshine. Carob, olive, and fig trees flourish. The beauty and climate have made it a hub for the wealthy and some impressive yachts.

Historically, it has been part of almost every nearby civilisation. A home to Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, French, and lastly British. Its strategic location and natural harbour made it a fought for prize.

Malta’s golden age story is told through its baroque architecture, especially enhanced and protected by the Knights of St John for 250 years. This still active, medieval Catholic military order, built hospitals, and fed the poor. The Holy Roman Emperor, in 1530, rewarded them with sovereign rights over the island. In return, the Order made a token annual rent of a live falcon.  This payment was immortalized in the Humphrey Bogart movie, The Maltese Falcon. The territory gained independence in 1964.

I stay in the walled World Heritage capital, Valletta. Overlooking the magnificent harbour, the Barrakka Gardens were created as a private idyll for the Knights of Italy in 1661. They are full of busts, statues, and colonnades. Structured over two levels, there is a lift from the waterfront that swiftly goes up 58 metres.

Stroll through markets and find WW II memorabilia, glass blowing, and ornate lace work. I sail to the stunning Blue Grotto, weaving through its caves, and sweeping limestone arches over radiant turquoise waters.

Thanks to the excellent Valletta Street Food and Culture Walking Tour, I snack on the local favourite of pastizzi: flaky pastry stuffed with spiced peas. We have coffee mixed with orange peel and aniseed liqueur, served with a cookie, dark with treacle and honey. Other specialties are peppered sheep cheese, horsemeat (looks and tastes like beef), pies with spinach and anchovies, and prickly pear liqueur. The national dish is Stuffat tal-Fenek: rabbit and vegetables, stewed slowly in red wine.

Narrow streets run steeply to the sea. Many are profuse with restaurant tables and convivial diners. Everywhere are glimpses of effortless beauty. With this final gracious chapter, there is a mixture of joy and relief. My health and possessions have survived. Now 30°, I head for the pool and then packing. It is time to prepare for one of the world’s most popular destinations: home.    

Food, Politics and Peril: En Route to Antarctica

Food, Politics and Peril: En Route to Antarctica

In contrast to the stark, white world of Antarctica ahead, I spend a few weeks travelling on my own to four South American countries that are new to me, in a tidy arc from west to east. Months of online tuition helps revive my Spanish.

First, to Chile. The flight follows the long, snowy spine of the Andes. We land in a hot bath of 32 degrees shared with 8 million Santiago-ans.

I book a taxi at the airport and have difficulty finding it. A female police officer comes over to help. She says I am speaking to too many strangers and this is dangerous. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

This crazily thin country runs from the waist of the continent to its toes – almost 3 times the length of New Zealand. Home to ancient forests, volcanoes, fjords, ski resorts, sand dunes, an abundance of seafood and wine – and the world’s most extreme 9.6 earthquake ever recorded.

I do a day tour of Valparaiso. This foggy, hilly, San Francisco-like city is on the coast and filled with poets and painters, sailors and sex workers. Its street art is considered the best in the continent. There is a maze of steep streets, crumbling mansions and eccentric charm. Stores feature local lapis lazuli and our jolly eleven global travellers share food, sites, D&M conversations, and wine tastings.

Our guide, Diego, is a school teacher who must work two jobs to merely get by. Locals often speak of this and politics too are frequently discussed. Natalie, a smart, young Melbourne lawyer on our tour, comments on the contrast of how apolitical she and most of her peers are. This can be an unquestioned luxury when times are comfortable. Illustratively, on the bus ride back, large trucks start to block the motorway as a government protest. We just manage to squeeze past before gridlock.

In Santiago I stay in the old, cosmopolitan area. Filled with gracious plazas, museums with Mayan columns, innovative art galleries, and a central station designed by Gustave Eiffel. The Museum of Memory and Human Rights is especially poignant. The exhibits tell the story of the abuses and ‘disappearances’ during the military government’s brutal control from the 1970s to the 1990s. Paving stones on some streets have the names of those known to be tortured and executed. Many have their ages inscribed as just 16 or 20. Some Westerners accuse their governments of being totalitarian. Criticise sure, but consider such stories as these to clarify your definitions.

On the street and in cafes there is eel soup; the largest cherries I’ve ever seen; chicken stew with walnut sauce; potato bread fried in pork lard; dried horsemeat; stuffed and braided intestines; desserts and beverages made with corn kernels; corn husks filled with vegetables and basil; shrimp, mullet, crab, oyster, octopus and abalone dishes. Food is history and culture on a plate.

Before any overseas travel, I check out the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. This year there are two in South America. When visiting Peru in 2017 I went to one, Central, which is currently ranked #2 in the world. Borago is now also on the list. This biodynamic farm is at the foot of one of the country’s highest mountains and achieves zero-kilometre cooking. Many courses are served on hot or cold rocks. One savoury starter looks convincingly like a slice of garnished chocolate cake. The shiny, uniform, dark exterior is actually moulded, aged venison. Inside is a vertical, heavily seeded cracker to provide upright structure and gateau-like crunch. Earthy, yet elegant and deft with surprise.

This year’s MasterChef New Zealand TV show had the local chef, Vaughan Mabee, as a host and judge. He is also the nephew of a yoga friend. I contacted him via Facebook and said how impressed I was to hear that he used to work at Noma in Copenhagen (world’s #1 restaurant for several years). I mentioned being booked for Borago. Vaughan said he is good friends with chef and owner Rudolfo. Small world!

Bolivia has the world’s most dangerous road. Rough, lined with rocks, the narrow passage crumbles toward a dizzying precipice. I leave Santa Cruz airport in a taxi and have a much scarier experience.

It is a mood challenging 41 degrees. Everywhere there is dirt, dust and neglect. Soon comes menace. Milling crowds are angry and despairing. Many are in the middle of the road and wave homemade weapons at us and other cars. At first, there seems to be no logic to this. Their argument is with the government and a proposed two year delay to the census. This might sound perplexingly trivial, but the census results are used to direct social spending. For related, politically fraudulent reasons, almost no one in Bolivia knows what the actual population is. Crazy. Today, passing drivers just happen to be more accessible for wrath than politicians. Also, throughout all these countries, what stirs general turmoil, eventually gets government attention.

I crouch low so I’m not mistaken as some symbol of foreign oppression. The driver manoeuvres like he’s doing Formula One, ploughing through several red lights and makeshift road blockades of rubbish bags and tree stumps. Buildings are set afire. Never before have I landed in a country and seriously considered immediate escape. There is no safe option though but to move forward fast.

My boutique hotel is a sanctuary in the city centre. I am not keen to leave until I am too hungry not to. Downtown is quiet. There is the poise of its Baroque architecture, though many buildings are in chronic disrepair and slough ruinously over the pavement. I stuff money in my bra and leave a little in my pocket as a decoy, in case I get stopped. Two fellow tourists I speak to, had their phones taken off them. Writing this, I feel more like a war correspondent than a tourist. It’s a dramatic travel story, as long as you get home to recount it.

Over 60% of the population is of indigenous descent. Music, dance, weaving with vicuna wool, and other textile arts and crafts are radiantly diverse. There are vast natural resources and a sparse population. Yet political crisis, social stratification, and electoral fraud make poverty and protests a way of life.

When dining, tripe is popular; lamb intestines; anticucho snacks of grilled beef heart; and soup made with vegetables, rice, and bull’s penis (the national hangover cure). Or you might prefer the regional pancakes with cloves; or bunuelo – a fritter-doughnut cross, sticky with aniseed syrup.

A patient contacts me. I urge her to await my return, but she is very concerned about her son. Despite wifi flickering like candlelight, we manage a video chat consultation. The modern world.

Bolivia can bring to mind images of bright garb, bowler hats and deserts with salt mines. Strikingly different is the relaxed and tropical east. Seated along cobbled streets, people listen to the music of the lowlands and drink chicha – a fermented corn drink. 500 acres of botanical gardens are filled with a sea of fragrances, towering orchids (Bolivia has about 3,000 species), swarms of butterflies, wandering sloths and large tortoises. Not far away in rugged, wild terrain – where Che Guevara once hiked – are pumas and bears. Beauty and danger mingle.

At the heart of the continent and beyond the usual gringo trail is steamy Paraguay. After the turmoil and rubble of Santa Cruz, I want to kiss the tarmac of capital city, Asuncion.

My hotel has a glorious pool, dependable aircon and wifi, and other worthy markers of civilisation. There are craft workshops and stalls, vibrancy and squalor, and, thanks to early British engineers, South America’s first railway. The country is resoundingly Catholic. Military service is mandatory. History is told through a succession of dictators with sprinkles of democracy. The Irish harp (originally an Egyptian invention) became the national instrument and is used to passionately play what they call polka. All culture is fusion.

I stroll through the city centre and get asked by police where I am going and why, as – guess what – there is a street protest nearby. About 65% of the population is under 30, which the teeming night life confirms. In rural areas there are Jesuit ruins; stealthy jaguar; isolated Mennonite communities; toucans and other bright, squawky look-at-me birds. I travel by taxi rather than bus, as armed robberies can occur on public transport. Not just the wildlife prowls with potential peril.

I delight in manioc bread; hot maize pudding with onion; yuca empanada; cassava patties; hot chipa rolls made with corn and peanuts; banana leaves filled with cheese and egg pie; and refreshing, cold yerba mate tea. For dinner, I eat at Bolsi, a popular restaurant since the 60s, and have two small, though filling courses and a glass of local wine for NZ$13.

In each country I book a 2 to 4 hour walking, history tour. Guru Walks offers thousands of these in over 100 countries. There is no fee and payments are based on tips. Great entrepreneurialism. It is lovely to meet many well informed and passionate guides, plus engaging fellow travellers. Here, as elsewhere, some of the young women participants say they are inspired by my solo travels. Nice for an old gal to get the nod. The world has dangers, but far more fellowship.

Finally, to South America’s smallest country. Uruguay is wedged like a round, seaside ball between the vastness of Brazil and Argentina. The population is only 3.5 million.

Before I travel, I register with the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Safe Travel site. They keep track of citizens abroad and send notice of political and natural dangers. Everywhere else on this itinerary (and previous ones in Africa and the Middle East) comes accompanied with strong warnings about crime and political instability.  In contrast, Uruguay is progressive, stable and sophisticated. The life expectancy and literacy rates are among the highest in Latin America.

The temperature drops 10 degrees to a more comfortable 23. I leave the airport in the first clean – and most expensive – cab of this trip (as soon as I get free wifi then I use Uber).  Montevideo, the capital, looks prosperous and well tended. Prices are commensurate. What buys a glamorous hotel stay in Asuncion is more like youth hostel territory here. There are occasional homeless men, but no strings of families living on the pavement, nursing infants under sheets of plastic called home.

It is a ferry ride next door to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Uruguay is like a humbler ‘Canada’ to its brasher neighbour. I join a walking tour of the old port, glorious beaches, artisan markets, antiques, museum, plaza, and a food market with over 100 stalls and eateries. You can walk for hours along the stunning Rambla walkway that hugs the sea. The arts – both traditional and innovative – are a strong part of their culture and pride. In 2013 it was the first country to fully legalise cannabis.

Our fun, young, local guide (who worked in Queenstown for 4 years) tell us that Uruguay is the least corrupt country in South America – though he adds with a chuckle, that is a low bar achievement. There is a strong feminist and LGBTQ+ community. Most people describe themselves as secular and it is illegal for government institutions to promote religion. Officially and amusingly, Christmas is thus “Family Day”, while Easter is “Tourism Week”. Meanwhile stores look as traditionally festive as ours.

There is a museum dedicated to the famous Andean plane crash of 1972. It was immortalised by the book and later movie, Alive, with its tales of heroism, desperate cannibalism, and – after 72 sub-zero days – the unexpected return of 16 survivors. I well remember the news and global, water-cooler, moral discussions that ensued.

Later there is an evening tour that includes dinner and Tango dancing. Good thing I’ve been taking Tango lessons most of the year. Ole! It’s how today’s seniors roll, baby.

Outside the main centres there are hot springs, horseback riding and gauchos. I enjoy seaweed fritters; chickpea flatbread; and steak sandwich piled high with toppings.

All these countries are soccer-mad (games are broadcast at almost every café) and meat-mad, especially for beef. Their papaya is so deeply orange that it looks caramelised. Coffee and wine are dependably good. Some type of barbeque, empanada and chili sauce are everywhere. As well as creamy, caramel dulche de leche perhaps served as a pudding; slice; or a filling for cakes, meringues, churros or cookies, or a spread for toast. I take some home for the grandchildren to try. Here in Uruguay, it is also served with quince tart for breakfast. I manage to cope.

These lands are warm and boisterous with Latino life and centuries of culture. They are a staggering contrast to my journey’s next phase and the white temple of sacred silence that is Antarctica. Even in temperature, I must pack for the extremes of 41 degrees above to 38 degrees below.

Or so I think.

Three days before the Viking cruise is due to assemble and depart, a giant rogue wave damages the ship on the previous sailing as it nears port. The Drake Passage is listed as one of the world’s worst 5 bodies of water for dangerous seas. Broken windows kill one passenger and injure four more. Unusually, a few weeks previous, another company had two people die when a wave overturned their Zodiac landing craft. My cruise is cancelled with a full refund. Tragic for some and so disappointing for me.

I’ve been a wasteful, slow developer in this regard, but in the last few years I finally learned not to catastrophise. Ah, the more pleasant sanity of acceptance followed by action. I manage to book earlier flights home – at a cost. This will be an interesting test of my travel insurance. I have a few days in the graceful elegance of Buenos Aires. I, and life’s opportunities, move on.

Humans are notoriously poor at risk perception. Cruises and air travel have a death rate of 1 in 11 million. Our most likely form of accident of any type is being near a moving car, with a rate of 1 in 5 thousand. Hmm.

Onward huskies to another day, another year, when I will visit the seventh continent.

Food and Travel in Africa

Food and Travel in Africa: South Africa, Egypt and Morocco

South Africa

No matter where you live, genetically speaking, a trip to Africa is a journey home.

Local women might have the world’s most inventive hairstyles. Less attractive are the unemployment figures of 27%. And for the young, make that 56%. South Africa has the world’s greatest economic disparity between rich and poor. And it is a shining achiever of courageously sought democracy and justice.

In Johannesburg we visit the Apartheid Museum and spend the day in Soweto where blacks were forcibly removed from former mixed areas. There are about 3 million people in homes that range from comfortable brick houses to abject lean-tos with streams of sewerage. There is also dancing, singing and a nearby church reverberates with passionate gospel. Without African roots there would be no blues, jazz, reggae, rock, samba, salsa, tango and more.

Cape Town is Joburg’s beautiful older sister. The coastline is spectacular with crashing waves, sharks, baboons, ostrich, pods of whales and colonies of penguins. I join a walking history tour and later one focussed on cuisine. We sample local cheeses, impala sausage, seafood, sweet Afrikaans curries and custard-mad desserts, stewed antelope, springbok carpaccio with pickled figs, sophisticated wines, and gin with rose petals. South Africa is not yet a significant food destination – unless you are a four legged carnivore. As a marker, this nation on a major coffee growing continent has had artisan cafes and baristas for less than 10 years.

Next we safari at Kruger. This national park is larger than Israel. Each day at 5:30 am and near dusk a ranger takes us out in high-sided, open-air jeeps with tiered seating for 3 to 7 hours. Train your bladder as there is no exiting the vehicle except for lunch in a secure compound. There are repeated warnings that viewing game is a gamble like going to Vegas. Fortunately the weather is dry and cloudy, which animals prefer for heading to waterholes.

Amazingly, we see ibex, antelope, impala, hippo, rhino, eland, zebra, Nile crocodile, warthog, mongoose, honey badger and wildebeest. Many are less than 2 metres away. Lions creep through long grass to eye Cape buffalo. A hyena family plays with their cubs. They have jaw strength second only to crocodiles and they’ll take on a lion. A leopard holds onto his kill encircled by vultures. Giraffes playfully press necks while nearby sentry birds monitor for predators. Mother elephants and baboons nurse their babies. We live half a world away and yet grew up with stories of African animals. Big magic.

A typical greeting is Sawubona, which is Zulu for “I see you”. See you next in Cairo.

Egypt

Cairo is home to over 25 million people. All of them are on the road at once.

As usual in a new city, I join a walking food tour and try tamarind juice; cardamom coffee; mint and vinegar drink; flat bread filled with hummus, fresh coriander patties and super crisp potato; deep fried brains (a cross between scrambled egg and chicken) and numerous nut pastries, sticky with honey. We visit a 14th century market where Al Fishawi’s has served mint tea since 1773. It is now well over 40 degrees. Summer temperatures can reach 55. Businesses and even doctors cater to clients at a milder 1 am.

No one got the memo about the dangers of smoking. But there is lots to be awestruck over: the pyramids of Giza with their somehow manoeuvred stone in seamless symmetry while the Sphinx stands guard; Karnak Temple lit up at night in regal indigo; the Egyptian Museum with its towering statues and King Tut’s gold coffin.

On my birthday, ‘Mariapatra’ is exotically on a 4 day cruise down the Nile. The world’s longest river is more than 4 times the length of New Zealand. The Egyptians invented the 365 day calendar to predict its flooding. Female commoners then could own property, run businesses and initiate divorce.

When travelling, I love my hour long buffet breakfasts. Though most Europeans are GDW (Guilty of Dining White) and stick to familiar pale starches, plus eggs. There are such usual items while I sample the many pickled fish, fruits and vegetables; herb and spice seasoned soft curd cheese speckled with caraway; eggplant everything; halva and comb honey; legume stews with a side of couscous and whole grilled chillies; filo parcels with spiced lentils. In the evening I try a national favourite: whole pigeon stuffed with rice and raisins.

Whether on the pool deck or out the open window of my elegant stateroom, there is a changing scene of banana palms, water buffalo, donkeys pulling carts of raw sugarcane, children swimming, and men fishing out of small sail boats. We stop and visit the Valley of the Kings and its tombs of Queen Hatshepsut and other rulers with their hieroglyphics telling tales from 3,300 years ago.

At night, the all-male crew play traditional instruments and show us men’s dance moves with lots of arm and shoulder action. On the river, young men will hire an open air boat, play music and dance together just as our youths might get together over beer and pizza.

Morocco

“Come with me to the kasbah”.

The Kingdom of Morocco is mint and mosaics; cedar wood forests, coastal life and snowy mountains; serpentine 9th century market places; and the towering dunes of the Sahara.

If you ask for a cup of tea you automatically get a glass filled with green tea and fresh mint leaves. It is Africa’s top tourist destination and second only to Hollywood as a film set. Over 70% of the population is under 30.

The current King Mohammed VI is progressive and upon ascension immediately improved employment, democracy, human rights, women’s rights and increased universities from 3 to 24 – and all free.

Arriving in Casablanca, I go on an old city walking tour. Sampling a popular fermented milk drink I notice that glasses are merely rinsed in a bucket. Good thing my immune system is old and invincible. We try prickly pear – a type of fruit from a cactus plant; rounds of polenta with butter and honey; ground almond, peanut and sesame cookies from a tiny adobe nook with praise from the New York Times on its wall.

We head north and east to exotic Fes. Its Medina has the world’s oldest university, Al-Karaouine, which was started by women. The lanes are the narrowest I’ve seen with endless small shops selling intensely coloured ceramics; live chickens; 5 kilo blocks of nougat and hanging camel heads. From an ancient wood fired community oven, rounds of hot bread come out on a paddle. I pull off sweet, nutty chunks.

Compared to Egypt, this is greener, cleaner. More prosperous and socially integrated. We dine at a riad, meaning a private home with a tree and fountain-filled central courtyard. Riad Arabesque is also a guest house with photos of visiting celebrities and royalty. There are vaulted ceilings, intricate tiles, chandeliers and a rooftop dining room to admire the city from. An array of eggplant, fig and other salads precede a succulent tagine (a conical clay pot cooked over charcoal) of spicy beef and dates, served with couscous.

Another day we stop to admire the King’s palace. Outside a joyful Jewish Moroccan bride and groom invite us to join the singing and dancing. Judaism preceded Islam here by 6 centuries. Later the French contributed bureaucracy, language and the best patisserie and honest bread of my trip.

Near dusk we take a jeep and drive to the Sahara. The dunes shimmer like sculptures of caramel meringue. Camel drivers undulate in the distance as I walk through the sands – checking for snakes and scorpions – and watch the sun set.

We drive past the pink, striated, Grand Canyon-like sheer rock of the Atlas Mountains; the shock of green oases thick with date palms; forests of cork; nomadic shepherds tending sheep and goats; fields of argan fruit and roses for oil production. Morocco’s wealth is not from oil or gas, but water for agriculture. This securely feeds its people and export economy.

Marrakesh is softly beautiful with its buildings pink from local clay. The vast souk or market here is a celebration of art, craft and human enterprise with its snake charmers, palm readers, drummers and lively vendors.

The seaside gem of Essaouira is known for its walled Portuguese core. Numerous outdoor seafood restaurants offer views of weathered fishermen in vivid blue boats and parasailing youths. I enjoy spicy, stuffed, palm-sized sardines with a glass of local chardonnay and toast the end of the journey.

A bientot

Food and Travel in the Middle East

United Arab Emirates

On my birthday, I ride a camel into the Arabian Desert and dine with Bedouins.

We start with watermelon drinks, camel milk (rich and nutty), and tiny cups of thin coffee served the old way while chewing a date for sweetness. Then creamy lentil soup and griddle-fried flat bread made by hennaed hands. The main is camel stew (tastes like beef), lamb baked below ground, rice pilaf, lemon and fattoush salad. Last is fresh fruit with luqaimat: small saffron doughnuts sticky with date syrup. Read more

Eating South America

From the fish, fruits and serious threats of the Amazon, and the sensual caffeinated throb of Brazil, to Argentina’s wine and beef estancias and the cosmopolitan Paris that is Buenos Aires. From the ancient customs of the Andes-hugging villages of Peru to Lima’s indie food scene including its top restaurant Central, currently ranked #5 in the world. I came, I ate and – like the resident anacondas – I slowly digested. Read more

Elite Dining in New York: Counting Calories or Pennies? Fuggedaboutit

One of the pleasures of travel planning for me is to check out the esteemed World’s 50 Best Restaurant list and make my dream choices.

Most of these dining destinations have waiting lists of one to two months (Google prestigious The French Laundry and find over 7 million results for “how to get a reservation”). Some take your credit card details upon booking and charge you the full price for no-shows. And all of the places internationally among the 50 Best list that I have ultimately eaten at started by saying no, they were fully booked. On this trip it was easier for me to arrange a 20 minute meeting with New Zealand’s former Prime Minister Helen Clark, now in charge of the #3 job at the United Nations (yes, this meeting really took place), than to be immediately deemed table-worthy at New York’s culinary top 5.

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