Ξ April 4th, 2013 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Languedoc/Roussillon, PORTUGAL |
A couple of years ago, while directing a wine documentary on Pico Island in the Azores, I came upon a well-attended religious event, Espirito Santo, in the main square of a small village not far from Madelena. A heavy church bell was pealing in the gray of an early morning. Just out of sight up narrow, winding streets, I heard the echo of what turned out to be a gathering of colorfully dressed musicians tuning and warming their many and varied instruments while awaiting instruction on the proper ordering of their procession. From out of this cacophony a familiar face came into focus, my friend Vasco, a fine guitarist in a local band. A question had occurred to me while on the mainland of Portugal weeks earlier. It’s common enough to hear church bells ringing in Europe, but I had come to hear what I believed was the same basic note, sometimes an octave or two apart, repeatedly sounding, including the very bell in the square below us. And so I asked Vasco about this. Sure enough, so predictable was the note, an ‘A’, that his band would often tune their instruments to it no matter where in Portugal they might play.
This would be unremarkable perhaps but for one important detail: the manufacture of church bells, extending centuries back, has always been and remains an inexact practical science. A bell may sound the ‘A’ of the chromatic scale, but it is not necessarily a mathematically perfect ‘A’; pitch and fundamental frequency vary, not only because of differing production practices from one bell foundry to another, but also due to the bell’s age, use, and the daily and seasonal changes to which it is subject. Further, vibrating within a bell’s commanding note, practiced ears can hear a bewildering array of sub-tones, flats and sharps, a resonating signature as precise as a fingerprint. From this I drew one key lesson: When Vasco and his band tune their guitars to a specific bell, the acoustics are found only there, in that one village and nowhere else. Just as with family cuisines, neighborhood design, and social intrigue, could it be that there is difference in the acoustic atmosphere of a village as well? I think so. More, what I’ve suggested of the subtleties of bell variation et al. may also apply, again with reference to Portugal, to regional grape varieties, flavors and terroir.
Now, if cultural experience was the same, wherever one travelled, then travelling would be dull and predictable. Indeed, travel is about – or should be about – sharpened sensitivity and active immersion in difference, of tastes, architecture, dress, even the demeanor of taxi drivers and hotel housekeepers. Similar to Vasco’s band, one attunes their senses to local variations and atmosphere. Indeed, adventure begins with the willingness to surrender to difference.
But what happens when we return home, when our active immersion in difference ends and daily routine resumes? To be sure, this is a first world matter, and subject to ethnicity and socio-economic standing, but I believe that for all of us, our recently-lived differences begin to fade, overwhelmed by habit, work, the familiar and predictable. Distance is reasserted. Ambiguity creeps into memory. And for the American, we again become the more passive consumer championed by our culture. Tabouli and tangine, paella and calisson are replaced by cheeseburgers, surf and turf, and the major restaurant chain, Olive Garden; Espadeiro, Loureiro, and Kalecik Karasi, by readily available Merlot, Cabernet Savignon, and Pinot Grigio; a soundscape of church bells by Spotify in the Volvo.
Yet it can happen that upon returning one finds domestic life strange in ways large and small, their rituals and familiar rhythms now somehow arbitrary, badly in need of a shake-up and a rethink. Take wine and cuisine, for example. Returning for a moment to Portugal (though the same may be said of Turkey), her wine-drinking culture generally holds that wine without food is unthinkable, that both are enhanced, joined together in holy matrimony. Portugal’s wines are often made with food pairing in mind, and show bright fruit, acidity, and unusual flavors; they are therefore frequently misunderstood by those who insist wine is best judged as a solitary beverage necessarily divorced from any and all culinary regimes. But remember, Da Vinci painted The Last Supper, not The Last Wine Bar.
More, the styles of wine and food the traveler perhaps experienced may have opened them up to the exotic flavors of unpronounceable grape varieties and obscure spices that even if found in the neighborhood Safeway can only be purchased in tiny packages. This is the very best part of exploring the world, I believe, the healthy disequilibrium and curiosity it can set loose.
Having done a fair amount of travel myself, over the next several posts I am going to explore topics including grape and flavor diversity, culinary habits, and why these things should matter.