There we were at last, just outside Carcassonne, in the ancient French chateau that my brother, Alan, a food-and-wine freak to the max, had chosen to kick off our family's whirlwind culinary tour of Europe. With its huge stone fireplace and massive ceiling beams, the dining room couldn't have been more romantic, nor the waiter more charming, full of that passionate French conviction that the selection of even a single course is a weighty, world-shaking decision. He murmured with approval when we told him that Madame, my 83-year-old mother, would indeed have wine with the rest of us, perhaps one of those delightful vintages produced in the nearby vineyards; and when she polished off her escargots and wiggled her glass for a refill, he looked at my brother and me and breathed, "C'est magnifique!"
My daughter, Kate, dug into her rabbit, exclaiming over the perfect frites that accompanied it; and my boyfriend, George, beamed as the sommelier refilled his glass. There was just one little problem. I couldn't eat a bite. Something utterly unprecedented was happening in my body. Not only had the concept of hunger lost its meaning, but it was impossible to imagine that I would ever consume anything again. I gazed at the tasty tableau before me as if upon a distant, disturbing planet.
"What is it, sweetheart?" George asked. "Are you feeling jet-lagged?"
He should have known better. Like that Oscar Wilde character, at even the worst crises of my life, I've refused everything but food and drink; and like the proverbial army, I travel on my stomach, speeding through the cathedral so we'll have time to linger in the sidewalk café.
But my case of "traveler's tummy," as my brother delicately called the intestinal virus that struck me last spring, obliterated my appetite in one cruel blow. The illness accompanied me all through the South of France and on to Paris and London, where, gaunt and grumpy, I tried to choke down some tea as a raucous crowd of friends and relatives toasted Kate's 24th birthday and devoured Thai delicacies in Notting Hill's trendiest new spot. I still couldn't eat at Gatwick airport, even though George discovered a kiosk that served smoked Scottish salmon and champagne at 10 o'clock in the morning.
Halfway back across the Atlantic, I began to feel a little better. The flight attendant brought my tray of microwaved chicken and noodles.
Suddenly, I felt a lot better.
I fell upon it like a savage, mopping up the last, still-unthawed bit of sauce with a stale white roll. "Delicious!" I sighed. The one memorable meal of my entire European vacation: airline food.
I may have missed out on a world of culinary delights, but fortunately, we don't have to leave home to enjoy some of the most spectacular food and wine on earth. Fed by population growth and affluence, our ever-expanding restaurant scene is attracting top talents from all over, as you'll see in our story in this special food and wine issue on the 10 best new restaurants in town. Sarasota is also home to this month's Florida Winefest & Auction, a 15-year-old, week-long extravaganza of tastings, seminars, dinners and special events.
We're always intrigued by the seminars, which often feature nationally known chefs and vintners. Who could resist, for example, the chance to nibble six different kinds of caviar and sip various champagnes while chatting with an expert about their merits? We certainly couldn't, especially when we saw that our own Marion Martinez, executive chef of Fred's, will be leading that class, which will compare some of the new soy-based caviar substitutes with the classic Caspian product. We asked Martinez to stage a preview tasting, then invited some leading Sarasota sybarites and put them to the test: Could they tell the real caviar from the new fakes?
Sarasotans are famous for their adventurous spirit-that's what led so many here in the first place-and that extends to culinary adventures as well. You'll read one local globe-trotter's memory of magical meals in faraway places, and you'll also get a taste of an upcoming food-and-wine trek. Tommy Klauber, of Pattigeorge's restaurant on Longboat Key and the new Fete catering, is taking 70 Sarasotans to South Africa in June.
In culinary circles, that's "a very exciting place to be" right now, he says, with a cuisine that's a mélange of Dutch, Indian, African and other influences and some fast-rising vintages of note.
Klauber helped us stage an authentic South African barbecue in the bush, with Myakka State Park standing in for the veldt, and a host of colorful dishes on display-Peri-Peri chicken, biltong (spiced beef filet) with kumquat compote, chukka (spicy grouper) with squash medley and more.
Airline food, indeed!