As the overnight sleeper makes its final journey across the marshland north of Venice, I see early mist clearing to reveal the water, towers and architecture of Venice. A delicious anticipation unfurls and grows as I leave the train station and wander through the early morning, dew-dampened streets to St Mark’s square.
Except for the occasional red-eyed Venetian baker, I could be alone. So it is with relief I see an old man in a white cotton shirt and braces, pull up his shutters to reveal a small café, painted light blue, open for business.
I ask him for coffee and a plate of breakfast pastries. As soon as the aroma of freshly ground cocoa and hazelnuts drifts towards me I feel my senses sharpen and come alive. I cannot resist pushing my finger into the centre of one of the small pastries he gives me and am thrilled to feel it is warm, just this minute from the oven.
As I relish the buttery, nutty pastries, the air in the café quickens and takes on more urgency. People are arriving now and a new, deeper smell is starting to radiate from the small kitchen. I test my nose. Garlic, that’s easy, tomatoes, definitely, and something else - basil I decide.
I’ve heard of the Italian’s love of Pomodoro sauce and it smells every bit as good as its reputation. There’s richness I can’t place for a second but then the penny drops: I can still smell the lingering hazelnut from my breakfast! The combination is irresistibly different. I think it could really work. In my notebook, I jot it down: Pomodoro and nuts? One to try at home!
My senses are alive! Since I walked wearily into Durango two days ago I have been intoxicated with the colours, noises and tastes of this energetic culture. I should feel exhausted by the long journey to get here, but instead I’m invigorated and ready to explore.
The noise is deafening. Drums beat constantly. Vibrantly dressed dancers twirl, twist and shake to their beat in front, behind, alongside me. At the side of a dusty street, a smiling man thrusts a warm, floury parcel into my hands as I scrabble for coins. It smells delicious.
The intense flavour of the chorizo hits me first, then just a hint of garlic tickles my taste buds before the jalapeno peppers kick in. I can tell these are chipotle chillies, jalapenos that have been slowly smoked over wood chips. Wow – a taste sensation that really packs a punch!
I saunter slowly through the town in search of the bus station that will take me away from this wonderful place and on to somewhere new and just as fascinating. As I turn a corner, I stumble across a shop offering the brightest, most striking figs I’ve ever seen. I stop and fill up my little canvas bag. The girl who serves me tells me her grandmother eats them mixed with yoghurt and honey. I promise to try this when I get back to Dellcombe Bottom.
The bus station is straight ahead but my host Jorge suddenly appears. Tonight, he says, fireworks will light up the mountains behind the town as the festival gets into its full swing. I agree to stay one more night – glad for any reason to extend my Mexican adventure.
My guide wakes me early so that I can watch my first desert sunrise. I marvel again at the beauty and tranquillity of this vast place where there is everything and nothing to see. The tent that we called home last night is minute against the spectacular Moroccan scenery of the Atlas Mountains.
Outside, our camels await the final leg of our journey to Marrakech. This eight-day trek has been an eye opener for me in many ways. Camping under the desert’s star-spangled skies, I feel elated to have rediscovered my delight in life’s simple pleasures.
What has prompted this joy in me? Nothing more than the enjoyment of the simplest and most satisfying meal I have tasted for some time. Before my eyes, our plain fare became an exotic banquet thanks to a handful of herbs and spices! I watch transfixed as our guide combines almond and ginger, saffron and cumin to create a dance of mesmerising temptation and delight.
I can still almost taste the harissa, the hot sauce with piri piri chilli peppers, the stark freshness of the mint and the gentle glow of the almonds. I can taste too, my own excitement as I think of how I can put what I’ve learnt here into practice back home. What a tantalizingly different twist these flavours will offer when enjoyed among the lush green pastures near Dellcombe Bottom.
Our guide tells me there is an ancient tradition in Morocco of passing recipes by word of mouth from generation to generation. I too cannot wait to delight and inspire my friends with the ideas that are buzzing around my head as we move camel-wards to Marrakech.
My world has shrunk to the size of a little boat. Sailing gently on this pretty Arabic dhow, it feels like the handful of charming, unlikely sailors I’ve been travelling with have become dear friends.
As we fished for our lunch, I painted a picture for them of my idyllic Dorset home and my dreams of the fabulously crazy but fulfilling life I am enjoying there. Suddenly I find myself longing for the familiarity of the Old Watermill.
I am brought back to reality by the deliciously delicate ginger, orange and coconut sauces our crew of culinary experts have created to accompany our fresh haul. What an amazing, intriguing meal!
The most delicious smell is risng from a bowl of slow roasted nuts that heads my way. I am entranced by the hint of cinnamon that wafts towards me, tossed on the wind, before dispersing over the Indian Ocean. I wonder: are all the flavours of this tiny boat trip drifting out there, hitching a ride on individual gusts of wind? And what would happen if they were to swirl together?
It is an idea that takes my breath away. I savour a handful and note how dramatically the smoky, roasted nut sits alongside the delicate, exotic, is it perhaps fruity flavour?
As usual I want to start experimenting, inventing, creating immediately but I must learn to be patient. Soon we will return to the romance of beautiful Zanzibar with its noisy maze of narrow streets and overhanging balconies. There may be more I can learn of my craft there. I have no doubt I will be captivated again.
Every day at this most wonderful festival of food and celebration of the Cherry blossom is a revelation. A new delicacy is produced almost every minute. So many times my blood quickens and my heart races with excitement as new recipe ideas jostle for position in my head. I know there is one more avenue I must explore. So I say goodbye to the busy, bustling city of Okinawa to climb along a shady hillside nearby.
A pretty mountain stream acts as my guide, leading me straight to him: the wasabi root grower I’ve heard so much about and his aromatic horseradish ingredient.. He sees me watching and beckons me closer. A few deft movements, metal shining in the sun, and he has my prize – a handful of the freshly grated root.
I close my eyes. A flash, it’s hot. Then coolness hits the inside of my nose. It’s a refreshing blast but lasts for only a second or so. Almost immediately the sensation softens and dissolves away into a lingering sweet breath. I feel this root has potential. It could be a striking accompaniment – but to what? It is surely the most Japanese of tastes but for some reason I can’t stop thinking of Dorset and the lush fields of Dellcombe Bottom, so rich and green. Then the answer comes to me - sweet, lightly roasted marrowfat peas.
I open my eyes. The grower is smiling indulgently, arm poised ready to go back to work. I am too.
The scene is picture perfect. The faded red of the market trader’s cloth splashes across the golden sand while the crystal, turquoise sea spreads to the horizon – an ideal backdrop. I marvel at how simply a colourful, exotic, outdoor restaurant has been created for what will be a quick snack for most of the passers-by.
The stall holder shakes his heavy silver pan as if panning for gold. In fact, it contains an array of colourful jewels that glisten in the sun. I spot noodles, lentils, split peas. All do their own individual jig around their metal home as they push and vie to be coated in smooth coconut oil.
I sit and curl my feet in the sand with contentment. This small bag of vibrant ingredients reminds me of why I first fell in love with food. I know every mouthful will be a surprise, a combination of different tastes. The delicate will waltz with the spiced, each taking turns to show off their flavours. I prepare to be enthralled.
The glimmer of an idea forms in my mind. Could this moment – with its beautiful sounds, colours and rich variety of tastes be recreated into a single snack? Could I take home a touch of India and combine it with a dollop of Dorset to form a new and unique snack? There is only one way to find out. I decide to stay a little longer and settle down to soak my senses in this wonderful place.
I feel a small but vital part of the surroundings as I walk towards the edge of the wildly beautiful Californian woodland. The woodcutter stops work to greet me, his face weather beaten from working among the elements every day. He leads me to a shady glade among the trees where he and a colleague have set up their camp and invites me to sit next to the makeshift fire. The flames are throwing up great wafts of smoke, which wreathes and twists away into the tall trees above.
The fire gives off light, warmth and… something else? Suddenly I recognise the smell as that of smoked almonds. Of course! The Californians love this nut, which is just packed with flavour and bursting with nutrients. My new friend tosses a handful into a pan of sea salt before handing them to me. The taste is tangy but soft, the texture a smooth, gentle whisper.
The little clearing with its home comforts reminds me of my usual life. Here, where I am so far away, I could be back in my own kitchen looking out on my little herb garden where thyme sits next to mint and rosemary.
I jump up as my companions look on in smiling bewilderment. I begin to tell them my idea of combining lightly smoked almonds with rosemary. It seems only fair to share my plans for a new recipe with those who have inspired it. They nod enthusiastically and ask me to send them a sample.