Speciale Maturità

Maturità 2015: linguistico Day-Lewis: the language of food helps us all travel well

I managed to get to the age of 19 having only travelled abroad once, to Paris, to a friend of my parents’ for a couple of weeks, with a weekend in the country where I duly fell under the spell of the older son. He took no notice whatsoever, but the younger son fell under the spell of the gawky, silent, teenage guest. I didn’t open my mouth. The words wouldn’t come out. Everyone spoke so fast, I barely understood a word.

All our family holidays were spent in the west of Ireland, which wasn’t considered “abroad” since my father was Irish and nothing felt weird, different, incomprehensible, foreign.

I seem to have been making up for this wholly un-cosmopolitan, unsophisticated start in life ever since and at some stage I lost the fear of arriving in an unknown city alone, with a film crew or with friends or family, even if I didn’t speak a word of the language.

As a documentary maker, and later as a writer, I have been lucky enough to see many of the places I have travelled to all over the world while researching, interviewing, filming, taking notes about the place, the food and the country for work. This has engrained in me a love, a thrill, at stepping inside the very different worlds I have encountered neither quite as a tourist nor as a disinterested observer.

If you have a deadline, you have to get to the heart of things quickly and you have to be open to searching out and finding things that you wouldn’t otherwise have the time or opportunity to find as a holiday maker. You don’t always know where to look, nor what you are looking for when you have so little time to experience, find the essence. Guidebooks offer background information but not the key to the doors of the inhabitants, their families, their ways of life.


I have found that the common language, in the absence of words, is always food. I have walked into kitchens, cafes, restaurants, homes from Morocco to Mauritius, from Lombok, Bali and the Himalayas to the homes of sherpas with whom I have trekked in Nepal to within two days of Everest Base Camp. From the hills in Santo Stefano Belbo and the Asti vineyards where I have wandered into a cafe in the morning and found the owner making the wine harvest supper for the villagers, wild boar and peaches fizzing in the local wine, and been invited back to join in that evening, to the desert vegetarian food of Jaipur, where preserving, pickling and drying is an art perfected by nomadic people who can’t carry meat or fresh foods in the heat of the desert sun.

Chefs, cooks, are, on the whole, a generous hearted, hospitable race and sharing knowledge, the secrets and skills of their culinary traditions, is something we barter, exchange, as both sides are curious, always interested in the wholly different ways each other has for putting good food on the table, however simple and basic the ingredients.

If I had stuck to hotel menus and restaurants on my travels I would never have had the experience of not just the generosity but the insights into family life worlds away, and the common humanity of sitting strangers down and sharing from your table what the earth, locally, has to offer.

When I was in Hong Kong I was lucky enough to experience a world of contrasts, both ends of the scale. I always head for the markets wherever I am and Sheung Wan was filled with sights we never see: turtles, frogs, unrecognisable fish, snakes, pig’s heads, wreaths of intestines. At a congee shop we enjoyed dried oysters, salted duck, goose intestines, preserved egg and pork and snowy mounds of congee. I was a guest at the Mandarin Oriental, so I experienced, also, the most sophisticated way of cooking all the local ingredients, the presentation and the cuts of meat being the real difference between the best restaurants and the local congee or snake shops.

At the Oriental I dined on exquisite dim sum, deep-fried won ton with walnut, honey and sesame sauce, sweet sour scallops with shrimp and barbecue sauce, dried scallop with a rare delicacy, sea moss, which the Chinese believe brings you wealth and cleans the system of rich foods. It looked like tiny catkins of mossy velvet floating in a light chicken broth.

But the pinnacle of the trip, culinarily speaking, was being taken to one of the last two surviving snake shops and drinking snake wine, seeing a snake being despatched “chop chop” in front of my eyes and boldly cooked and presented, and in then declining the blood which has been bled before your eyes, as reserving the right not to participate in all rites has to remain an option.

I remembered the huge circular chopping board sunk into the work-top so that it didn’t shift, however robust your knife skills, when I got home, and I had one made for my Somerset kitchen. It reminds me of Hong Kong every time I cook.
Tamasin Day-Lewis is a chef, food writer and documentary-maker. She writes on food for the Telegraph, has appeared regularly on television and has written a number of cookery books in a unique style that often incorporate recipes and experiences from her travels. She is the daughter of the late Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis.


"Amo ricercare, leggere, studiare ogni profilo dell'umanità, ogni avvenimento, perciò mi interesso di notizie e soprattutto come renderle ad un pubblico facilmente raggiungibile come quello della net. Mi piace interagire con gli altri e dare la possibilità ad ognuno di esprimere le proprie potenzialità e fare perchè no, nuove esperienze." Eleonora C.

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