There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 26 June 2017

'A Fine Drinking Man's Country'

I have long intended to write this post but now, with a huge bloggy backlog and much else to do, I don't have the time.

But I've written it anyway. Oh well.

My father retired in 1980 and bought a house beside a golf course in Portugal. 'Why Portugal?' I asked. Unlike Greece it was not a country he had visited much and although the dust had largely settled after the 1974 Carnation Revolution the new democracy remained fragile. 'Because,' he said, 'it’s a fine drinking man's country.'
A younger me standing in the doorway of that house in Portugal (April 1992)
For my father was a drinking man, not an alcoholic or a habitual drunk, but a man who liked a drink, then another one and that was the evening started. I differ from him in many ways, but I share his face - I often stare into the shaving mirror and wonder what the old bugger is doing in my bathroom - and his fondness for an occasional tincture.
I enjoy the occasional tincture
A toast in home made mulberry vodka, Goris, Amenia, July 2003
So, staggering in my father's footsteps, here is a drinking man’s guide to a small selection of the 50 or so countries I have visited. I also like eating, so I have rated them as eating men's countries, too. And when I say 'men' I only echo my father from those far off less inclusive times.

I like to eat - but I should point out that is a sharing plate
Tallinn, Estonia, July 2011
The ratings, on a scale of 0 to 5 (halves permitted), are personal, any woman or man is free to take issue with my scores, but to give a semblance of objectivity here are my criteria.

Drink: How easily available is it? How much variety is there? What is the quality of the local products? Are imported drinks available to fill gaps in variety or quality? Is the price reasonable?

Food: I am judging food from everyday rather than high-end restaurants. How easy is it to find such restaurants? Are fresh ingredients used? Is there a variety of ingredients? Is there a variety of cooking methods? Is food a cultural expression or a commodity?

So with an idiosyncratic selection of 10 countries across 3 continents here (in alphabetically order) are my scores.

1)                  China

Scoring only the Han heartland; travelling among Uighurs and Tibetans has its charms, but they do not include food and drink.

Drinking 3½

Chinese drinking culture exists but European-style cafés are unknown and bars are not obvious. Beer is widely brewed and available but the quality is poor – too much rice and too little (or no) barley. Chinese wine is best avoided - you rarely see locals drinking it. Spirits are easily available, cheap and drinkable – once you have acquired the taste. Knock-off western brands exist, too; I treasure the memory of a bottle of ‘Bushtits Irish Whiskey’, with its familiar black label.
A litre of sorghum based bai jiu (clear spirit) bought in Hangzhou
50% abv, it cost around £1
Eating: 4½

Restaurants of every class abound but I never cease to be amazed by the variety and quality of food that can be produced so quickly by one man and a wok working behind little more than a hole in the wall.

Even little local restaurants like these in can be relied upon for an excellent meal
Beijing September 2013
It is difficult to get a bad meal in China.

But it doesn't get much better than this - though it still costs less than a pub meal at home
Beijing duck, Quanjude roast duck, Beijing Sept 2013
Why not 5? Lack of dairy products (I do like my cheese) and their tendency to relish things....

Why am I nibbling the webbing from between the toes of this unfortunate water fowl?
Dinner with Mr Zhua, Huizhou 2004
.... nobody else regards as food (1.2 billion Chinese can’t be wrong – or can they?)
Scorpion soup, somewhere in Guangdong Province 2003/4
Picture credit Sian Morris

2)                  France

Drinking: 5

What could you want that they do not have? Good wine at any price level, fine beer (in the north, anyway), the world’s best brandy, pastis (a particular favourite of mine) and a huge range of other drinks. If you insist on scotch or gin & tonic, that is available, too.

Eating: 4

Shock horror, the home of European gastronomy and no 5! You can eat excellent regional dishes, but too many of France’s mid-range restaurants are resting on their laurels. Menus read better in French, but we don’t eat menus.

Spiny lobster - excellent local speciality
Cargèse, Corsica July 2006
3)                  India

Drinking: 2

Hindus are often tee total vegetarians, Muslims tee total meat eaters. Beer, though, is widely available at least in tourist areas, and passable local gin and rum in bars, hotels, and ‘wine shops’ - often disreputable looking places which don’t actually sell wine. Gujarat is dry, Kerala has reportedly put its ‘rolling prohibition’ into reverse.

Naughty boys at a 'wine shop'
Thomas and I, Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, March 2016
Eating: 3½

Good Indian food is among the best in the world but finding it is tricky. Most restaurants catering for western tourists are clean and relatively expensive but dial back on the spices; desperate not to offend anyone they ultimately please no-one. Those aimed at the local market can be dull too, the same melange of spices in every dish regardless of the other ingredients, which you cannot taste anyway. But sometimes, and not necessarily in a smarter restaurant, each spice retains its individuality and the combination complements the ingredients instead of drowning them out. Thomas Mathew, our driver on our last two southern India trips, has a gift for spotting the right restaurant in an unknown town. Many of the best meals I have eaten have been in his company, and some cost less than £1 a head.

Thomas' choice in Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, March 2016
Here the humble biryani is raised to a thing of joy

4)                  Iran

Drinking: 0

Iran is dry.

Tea house at the tomb of the poet Hafez, Shiraz 2000
It's the nearest we got to a drink!
Eating: 1½

I hate to say this about the land of my birth, but the restaurant food we encountered was too dull to photograph and numbingly repetitive; mountains of rice with a pat of butter, maybe some yoghurt to moisten it and kebabs, unseasoned chunks of beef, chicken or lamb, every day, sometimes twice a day. Home cooking, we were told, is much better, and maybe it is. My (Hampshire born) sister’s recent visit suggested variety has improved markedly, but as Iranian cuisine eschews garlic and all spices, how much better can it be? Pluses: breakfast feta-style cheese and the world’s finest pistachios.

5)                  Macedonia (Former Yugoslav Republic of)

Drink: 4½

Mastika (better than ouzo, maybe as good as pastis) before a meal, a choice of wines with and an acceptable brandy after. Tikveš is the only wine region of note but it produces a range of interesting varietals including the dark, smoky and seriously underrated Vranac. Skopsko Beer, dominating the market, is a pleasant lager but hardly memorable.

Popova Kula winery, Demir Kapija, Tikveš region, Macedonia May 2015
Eating: 3½

The Balkans specialises in grilled meats but Macedonians have a lighter touch than most. Vegetables are rare but salads, often covered in a blizzard of grated cheese, abound. Being landlocked, fish only figures around Lake Ohrid, but trout, eel, carp and whitebait were fresh and sympathetically cooked.

Carp and eel, and a bottle of Tikveš Zupljanka beside Lake Ohrid, May 2015
 6)                  Mongolia

Drink: 2½

In Ulanbaatar there is good beer and, as a former soviet satellite, more vodka than is good for some locals. In the countryside there is airag, fermented mares’ milk. Good manners say you must taste – and it is not unpleasant – but drink more and you will discover it rifles through the European digestive system with destructive haste. Believe me.

Making airag, Mongolian encampment July 2007
Eating: 1

Outside Ulaanbaatar there are no vegetables or salad – digging in God’s good earth is a rude intrusion. Goat’s milk cheese is sun dried until it has the colour and consistency of a pot sherd, though it (eventually) softens in the mouth to release a punchy goat flavour. In a week, 12 of our lunches and dinners were mutton. For the thirteenth we found chicken in a restaurant in Ulaanbaatar. The fourteenth? We were too full of chicken to eat  anything!

The first step in cheese making, Mongolia encampment, July 2007

7)                  Morocco

Drink: 1½

No Muslim country can be a drinking man’s country, but the Moroccan wine industry limped on after the French departed and has recently undergone a revival. There is a full Appellation d’Origine system, but the wine is easier to find in France than in Morocco. Flag lager used to be a contender for ‘worst lager in the world’, but I am told it has improved. The Jewish community distil a spirit from date palms for which a taste can be developed.

Food: 3

Moroccan food is excellent - tender mechoui roast lamb, tagines of lamb, beef and fish with couscous, pastilla (a savoury pastry with pounded chicken and almonds), mountains of fresh fish on the Agadir dockside - but by day four you are going round the cycle again. The quality and skill on show are impressive, the variety sadly limited.

8)                  Portugal

Drink: 4½

Portugal offers the world’s most underrated wines, plus Port and Madeira, brandy, bagaçeira, and liqueurs of varying palatability. My father was right; it is a fine drinking man’s country. Why not 5? Portuguese beer, though widely available is of modest quality and limited variety.

Modest quality, limited variety - but that won't stop me
Evora Sept 2016
 Eating: 4½

I eat more fish in two weeks in Portugal than in the whole of the rest of the year. Restaurants use fine, fresh ingredients and let them speak for themselves. Why not 5? Although the variety is impressive (unlike Morocco), too many restaurants concentrate on the same old favourites; a little innovation would be welcome.

Sardines with Mike and Alison, Portimao Oct 2016
9)                  Sri Lanka

Drink: 3

Falling like a dewdrop from the end of India’s nose it might be expected to be similar, but not so. Lion lager, overwhelming the best selling beer, is available everywhere as is arrack, the very enjoyable national spirit, distilled from toddy (see The Backwaters of Kerala) and bottled at various qualities. They also distil gin and more.

Eating: 2½

Drinking maybe better than in India, but eating is not. Rice and Curry (in that order) involving three or more bowls of vegetable and meat curries with little variation is ubiquitous. Devilled meat or fish – resembling sweet and sour with a chilli kick - or ‘Chinese’ noodles dishes are the only alternative. Beef is always tough.

Rice and curry, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
10)              Thailand

Drink: 3½

Chang Beer is the sort of light, fizzy, flavourless lager I would normally avoid like the plague but, in the Thai heat, it somehow hits a spot. There are other beers (notably the more characterful Singha), Mekhong ‘whisky’ (which is not whisky), SangSom rum and several other easily available spirits.

Chang beer works its magic, Cha Am beach, November 2015
Food: 4.5

We have eaten one or two dull Thai dishes, but generally the standard of cooking is high; a red curry in Bangkok and squid with lemon and chilli beside the Mae Klong River stand out. All tourist orientated restaurant dial back (sometimes omit) the chillis while other restaurants often clock a large lumbering frame and a pale face and do the same automatically. You sometimes have to fight for your right to a chilli.

Squid with lemon and chilli (and some fish cakes) beside the Mae Klong, November 2015

Being a mathematician I put the results on a graph.

Microsoft calculated the line of best fit and I calculated Spearman’s rank correlation coefficient. It was 0.69. (The coefficient is a number between -1 and +1, 1 implies perfect positive correlation, -1 perfect negative correlation and 0 no correlation) so there is a moderately strong correlation between good eating and good drinking. Well who’d a thunk it?

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