One of the biggest joys of travelling for me is finding souvenirs: a souvenir is a piece of the place visited, brought back home to share the experience with our loved ones. Walking around a town or a market in a place you hardly know, discovering new flavours or searching for the holy grail you came to this place to taste, imagining the surprise on the faces of your loved ones upon receiving the bespoke gift – shopping for souvenirs is one of my favourite parts of the journey. And there’s no better souvenir than an edible one, in my universe at least: one can instantly transfer oneself to a place hitherto unknown by having a taste of the local speciality. And with food comes stories: those of people, new flavours and customs that are different from ours. Food becomes an entryway into the cultures we know little about, it sparks conversations and can even feel like travelling in itself. Culinary tourism is a term coined to describe such endeavours, and, as the anthropologist, Lucy M. Long claims, to embark on a culinary voyage one doesn’t always have to leave home.
“Food is central to travelling and is a vivid entryway into another culture, but we do not have to leave home to “travel”. Movies, books, postcards, memories all take us, emotionally if not physically, to other places.”Lucy M. Long, Culinary Tourism (2003)
Enter souvenirs: things we tend to bring back home from our travels, to share experiences and stories of the faraway places we visited. Over the years, I found that buying yet another magnet or a keychain seemed pretty futile: how many keychains does a person need? And as cute as these tiny things from souvenir shops can be, they often have a less cute end: as junk, moved around from one drawer to another, to be eventually discarded as no longer needed.
It occurred to me, that sharing the flavours of a place with people back home extends the journey, and creates an opportunity for socialising when souvenirs are distributed upon arrival. Simple handing over of the things we brought back doesn’t suffice when it comes to edibles, as questions around the items arise: how to eat it? what is it made of? how can I incorporate it into my home cooking? A souvenir often transforms into a social event: eating or cooking together, when stories can be shared and adventures discussed.
My kitchen is filled with such edible souvenirs: spices from India, dried kaffir lime leaves from Thailand, furikake from Japan, English mustard, Limoncello from Italy, olive oil from Istria. And every time I reach for one of them, the memories of the people and places come rushing back, they come alive with the smells and flavours. As chef Daniel Patterson once said, all food is about memory after all.
More often than not, the delicacies from travels can be put into the category of an ‘acquired taste’, especially if we deliberately choose treats that might be a surprise for a palate. I don’t think I will ever forget the look on my then 5-year-old niece’s face upon tasting a durian candy that I brought back from Malaysia. Nor will I forget the reaction of some of my friends to the smell (and taste, for those who were brave enough to try) of the Polish speciality: soured cucumbers. You see, pickled gherkins have an established position on the market, and they are – although pungent – tolerable to most. Soured cucumbers, however, fermented in the same manner as sauerkraut, are something else altogether, and there isn’t a drop of vinegar in them. They stink, sure, but so does kimchi or sauerkraut, but they are all utterly delicious.
If we tap a bit deeper into what bringing an edible souvenir means, we unravel the multilayered role that food plays in the culture at large. From tradition and history, through its connection to the place, local pride, craftsmanship, artistry, and finally – terroir. The concept of terroir is a problematic one, and one that has historically been used to make claims to foods that supposedly belong in one place, and not another. With an emergence of such certificates as PGI (Protected Geographical Indication), PDO (Protected Destination of Origin) or Intangible Heritage List (UNESCO), it became even more difficult to establish what exactly does terroir mean, and if it can be used to fortify the claims for local/traditional foods by being strictly related to the place of origin. According to Wikipedia, terroir is:
‘The set of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype, including unique environment contexts, farming practices and a crop’s specific growth habitat. Collectively, these contextual characteristics are said to have a character; terroir also refers to this character.’
In broader understanding, however, terroir can be seen as the canvas, of which certain foods are an intrinsic part. Hungarian goulash won’t taste the same in my kitchen, even if made with paprika I brought back from Budapest. And I never seem to be able to produce a perfect bigos or uszka filling whenever I am abroad – the dried, shop-bought mushrooms are bland, the cabbage tastes sweeter, and the flour used for making the uszka dough feels completely different to the one I am used to in Poland. For me, then, terroir taps into something more than soil and climate that surrounds the production of particular vine or coffee crop. It encapsulates the environment at large, understood not only within the realm of climate but also culture, people, eating customs and the atmosphere of the place. Amy B. Trubek, a nutritionist and food scientist also sees terroir within a wider context, not only defined by agriculture:
‘The natural environment influences the flavours of food and beverages, but ultimately the cultural domain, the foodview, creates the goût du terroir. (…) Terroir has been used to explain agriculture for centuries, but its association with taste, place, and quality is more recent, a reaction to changing markets, the changing organization of farming, and changing politics.’Amy B. Trubek, The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey Into Terroir (2008)
Bringing an edible souvenir gives one a chance to share a little bit of this canvas, allows one to paint a picture of the place and reinforce it with the flavour and a story.
Last week, I was kindly presented with an edible souvenir from a country I have yet not visited, Lithuania, by my aunt, Basia. She brought cheese, which is something of a Lithuanian treasure and much-loved treat, it turns out. It’s called Džiugas, and to tell you the truth – I felt a bit embarrassed that, being a big cheese lover, I have never heard about it before.
Here’s how Alina, my auntie’s friend from Lithuania describes the cheese:
“Džiugas is a cheese with unique, patented technology. It’s available in five different flavours, and its maturing time can vary from 12 to 48 months. The first one – Mild matures for 12 months, and can be used for pizza, sandwiches or with pasta. The second one – Piquant matures for 18 months, and can be eaten as a snack, with honey, grapes, olives or nuts, but can also be eaten with dumplings, chicken, duck or beef. The third one – Delicate matures for 24 months, and is usually enjoyed with jams, relishes made from dried fruit, and wine. The fourth – Gourmet matures for 36 months and tastes great with cappuccino, figs or nuts. The last one – Luxurious matures for 48 months and can surprise experts and gourmands.”Alina Kostiuseviene
As my knowledge of Džiugas did not extend beyond the above quotation, received in a Facebook message by my aunt, I conducted research and stumbled upon a legend.
There once was a fearless knight named Džiugas Telsys, whom people admired for defeating Teutonic knights without a sweat. He was tall, strong and looked like a giant (in some versions of the legend Džiugas is introduced as people-friendly giant). He fell in love with a girl called Austele, and they both lived happily on the hill. When she died, Džiugas decided to fall asleep next to her forever, not being able to bear the sadness that came with the loss. With time, the hill on which they both used to live was named after the knight, and a nearby village – that soon grew into a town – was called Telšiai.
As for history, Telšiai is indeed one of the oldest towns in Lithuania. The first mention of the town can be found in written sources around 1450, but archaeological findings in the area suggest that the history of the place reaches as far back as the Stone Age. The city lies on the shores of Lake Mastis, mentioned in many legend and myths. Telšiai was named after the small rivulet that ends its journey in the lake Mastis. According to the legend, however, it was Džiugas, the legendary knight, who founded the city (some legends have it that he also dug out the lake).
Telšiai is located in the Samogitia region (Žemaitija in Lithuanian), famous for the food and culinary traditions. Some of the most prominent Samogitian foods include pancakes made from coarsely grated potatoes and filled with ground meat (Žemaičių blynai), sour cream ‘butter’ (Kastinys), and hard cheese, that have been produced in the region since at least 16th century.
Džiugas, now the most celebrated and well-known hard cheese from Lithuania, has been produced in Samogitia since 1924. It is a hard, cow’s milk cheese available in five varieties (depending on the time of maturation). Interestingly, the cheese is lactose-free (during its long ageing process, lactose affected by the yeast cultures added into the cheese-maker is decomposed into lactic acid. The small, white and crisp grains found in the cheese are lactic acid salts, also referred to as ‘calcium lactate’), and suitable for vegetarians as the rennet used to activate fermentation is not of animal origin.
As for culinary uses, the sky is the limit. Similarily to Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, or even long-matured gouda (that in texture and flavour is very much like hard cheese), Džiugas can be used in a myriad of ways: adding an extra umami kick to whatever you’re cooking, enjoyed on its own with a bit of honey, or – as is the case in Lithuania – added to ice cream or cappuccino.
I had mine two ways: with a bit of honey and rye bread, and with pasta arrabbiata, sprinkled on top of the steaming sauce (it did melt nicely!). And it was delicious, I tell you that! Tasting Džiugas made me want to visit Lithuania even more, especially that there are places called the House of Džiugas (among others, in Vilnius, Klaipeda and Telšiai), where one can taste the cheese in different stages of maturation, or have a cappuccino with it. I gotta say, the latter got me pretty intrigued. Has anyone tried?
Tasty travels, everyone!