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July 23, 2011

Food and Travel the Ingredients to an Adventurous Life

I've started doing some Tweeting for a restaurant here owned by chef/owner/teacher/radio personality Bruce Wood of Bruce's Kitchen or @bruceskitchen on Twitter.  Now, in spite of the fact that I love to eat, my own expertise with food preparation and menu planning and anything related to hosting others for a meal has grown even slimmer in the past few years than it used to be as a result of being completely out of practise.
With the intent of picking up some ideas for Tweets,  I've been tagging Bruce a bit like I'm some kind of groupie (which, for the record, I'm not, not that he's not interesting.)  I really enjoy listening to his local radio show (Thursdays 2-3pm) on Salt Spring's radio station CFSI-FM. 

In a stream of consciousness delivery, he'll  talk for an hour about what he's going to be doing for his Friday night communal dinners (for max. 18)  and other cooking tips. Sometimes he makes reference, in French, to ingredients that I've never even heard of. I really love to hear him describe sauces and what to do with all the fresh produce not to mention his love affair with goat cheese. I've discovered that his favourite word is stunning! The whirled peas are stunning. The risotto is stunning. The salmon in fig leaf then smoked is stunning. And, you know, they are.  
 Bruce's Kitchen is based on a communal dining concept and you just never know who you might sit beside. One day, a woman who had worked for the American embassy in Paris for 10 years came in with her father and we enjoyed our soup together. Strangely enough it was the morning I had been doing some Google research on where a friend might possibly stay on her upcoming trip with her husband and daughter on a wonderful month-long journey to Paris, Normandy, Brittany, Scotland, Wales and London.

These two events - my Tweeting for Bruce's Kitchen and also enjoying the smallest bit of research for my friend's upcoming trip - combined to  take me down my own memory lane. Ten years ago, I backpacked through London then over to Paris for 5 days, then back to London and on to Oxford, into The Cotswolds, York, Bath, Edinburgh, Stirling, Oban,  the Isle of Mull and full circle back to London over a 5-week period.

I hadn't thought of that time for ages but thinking of the adventure my friends are about to embark on re-awakened the memories and delivered a strong mixture of joy, wistfulness and an aching realization that I am desperate for a new adventure of my own.

I immediately thought about the day I arrived in Oxford. I was completely exhausted from staying in a hostel in London for a few days where the guy in the top bunk was a snorer on par with Mount St. Helen's on the day it erupted.

He couldn't speak English and I was a bit surprised when I arrived to find a middle-aged Mediterranean man in the bunk directly above me given that I didn't even know the dorms would be co-ed.  I was a little disturbed actually, especially given that I had no way of communicating with him. I'm ashamed now to say that I began to conjure up all sorts of criminal reasons why a guy like that would be staying in a hostel in the first place. Then night fell and the Harley Davidson inside his nostrils revved up. I thought I was going to lose my mind. By the third nigh, in the pitch black room,  I actually got out of bed and yelled right into his ear (at least I think it was his ear). I think he thought I was a homicidal maniac from North America but the fear I invoked must have had an effect because he managed to control his wheezing a little better. So much for international diplomacy!

After that initial introduction to London by the time I arrived in Oxford after a short bus trip, I managed to check into Lincoln College on the medieval Turl Street and a student dorm that gets rented out in August.

Immediately after checking in I fell into a deep sleep as if I'd been a hostage victim who'd been tortured and forced to stand for 23 days straight. I slept so soundly that when I awoke at 6pm, I was starving, so I wandered out into the streets and as I was meandering trying to decide where to eat I passed a gentleman whom I estimated to be about 65 years old. He stood out because he was exceptionally well put together. He had on a double-breasted blazer, grey pants and a military crisp white shirt with cufflinks. His shoes were almost blue they were so black.

I took note of him and I went about my way to a pub for a quick meal feeling very strange sitting on my own there. I only remember that it was located kitty corner to the Bodleian Library. The only other thing I recalled was walking down some very narrow, cobble stoned back alley that came to a dead end.  At the end, there was a small doorway painted pink that led to a courtyard and inside another very boisterous pub/restaurant where the late Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton used to rendezvous while they were performing there.

After dinner, I continued wandering around Oxford and on another narrow street I came upon a group of people, also quite well dressed, waiting outside some old building. I stopped for a bit and enquired about what was happening at which point they informed me it was the Oxford Summer Opera Festival and there was a performance tonight. "You should come," they said. "It's going to be great." It wasn't very expensive and having never been to Opera, I bought a ticket. When the doors finally opened, I chose a seat.   Lo and behold, about 10 minutes later that man I'd spotted earlier ended up sitting right beside me as if he and I were cast members in a play that we didn't even know we were in.

I chatted with him briefly before the performance and during intermission he asked if he could buy me a glass of wine. Brilliant idea! We watched this fantastic performance where the people who had been dressed so well outside, turned out to be the performers interspersed in the audience. When it was their time to sing, they merely stood up where they were and belted it out. It was called the HolyWell Music Room (which I later learned is the oldest custom built concert hall in Europe). 

Afterwards, he took me to a new fish restaurant he'd been wanting to try.  It turns out he had been an engineer who owned his own company (but he was NOTHING like the kind of engineers I've met). There  wasn't a bone of social ineptitude in his body.  His wife had died a few years earlier. He also wrote theatre criticism for some Internet site and he'd performed in community theatre for 25 years. As a result, of his theatre involvement and his writing, he got "fam"  tickets to performances all over England.   When we parted, he gave me his e-mail and said if I was going to be anywhere near Stratford in September that I should meet him at The Dirty Duck (slang for it's more official name The Black Swan) and then we could go to see Shakespeare's The Tempest, together at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon. 

To make a very long story shorter, I  looped back around and did make it to Stratford and we had a fantastic time. Meeting him was one of the highlights of my trip.  I wonder how he's doing. I have no doubt that he'd be alive because he was so incredibly youthful and vibrant for his age which turned out to be 72, not my guestimate of 65.

I stayed with him when we returned to Oxford and I remember he also took me to a really great little restaurant called, at that time,  Petit Blanc  (now called Brasseries Blanc) run by a well known chef/entrepreneur named Raymond Blanc. Don told me that it was near The Turf Tavern where the famous television Inspector Morse used to go for his pub time on his television show.

We had to walk along a canal for quite a ways to get there where there were those long, flat barges that people rent to float around Europe. It was very romantic. And may I just say that writing this down makes me marvel at how amazing it was to meet this man which all just happened so naturally. We connected as if we'd known each other for years. It also makes me wonder what happened to my life. Oh ya, I moved to some little island and now my entertainment consists of watching the bunnies jump in that weird way they do - straight up and down.

So, in a long round about way, I guess what I'm trying to say is, really good food provides a focal point that dissolves just about any kind of barrier, cultural or otherwise, and can bring strangers together in an intimate way; the same way that happens at a small dinner party at the table of good friends that leaves you feeling happy to be human and alive and satiated like you've really accomplished something when all you've actually done is experience the culinary version of divinity.

It's a formula I see at Bruce's and I think it's his "bestest" secret ingredient. Bon Appetit!

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