Dining at a table with crisp white linen, candlelight and hushed voices is one of life's pleasures. A tasting menu, say, with seemingly endless plates of delicious morsels. Companionship while you eat through such a meal is not essential but, I think, desirable. I will leave to another entry the topic of solitary fine dining.
Instead, let me deal with another subject altogether: the thrill of finding good food in the most unlikely of surroundings. Elizabeth David has written some wonderful essays on the topic. Here is my own story which comes from Catalunya in Spain.
It began with a plan. I would get a bus from Besalu, where I had been staying, to Olot, at the end of the line. I would spend the day there before heading to Figueres and catching a train across the border to France.
Olot, the guidebook told me, was in the heart of Garotxa, a volcanic region near Girona. My map showed a number of (extinct) volcanoes within the bounds of the town itself. The guidebook had warned me that the approach to Olot by bus was unpromising: and so it proved. Although the landscape on the way had grown more rugged as we had wound into the hills, the outskirts of Olot were nondescript. The grey bus station itself did nothing even to hint of the natural wonders which, apparently, lay so close by.
I had no intention of dawdling in the bus station anyway: I wanted to go to one of the various restaurants in the town which offered "Cucina Vulcanica" - Volcanic Cooking. The restaurants which used this brand apparently served dishes containing some or all of nine regional specialities, including wild mushrooms and boar. Marketing ploy it may have been, but it appealed.
An enquiry at the ticket office scuppered my plans. The next bus to Figueres, I was told, was not until the evening: long after my train to France would have left. The only solution was to head south, back to Girona, which I had left several days before, never expecting to return, and pick up the train there. I hated the thought of turning back.
Perhaps it was a combination of my surroundings, my nearly missed train and the wrecked plan which persuaded me to leave Olot immediately. And a heavy rucksack. At all events, I decided to get some lunch to take with me on the bus to Girona.
In the bus station was a cafeteria, which promisingly displayed a menu from one of the "Cucina Vulcanica" restaurants in Olot. For a wild moment, I wondered if I was standing in the very restaurant.
But no. There was little on display in the cafeteria, but what was there looked good. I saw bread rolls where a paste made of tomatoes had been used instead of butter. The rolls were stuffed with Serrano ham. There was also a plate of tortilla - potato omelette. I decided to have both a Serrano ham roll AND a tortilla which caused a little confusion, as did my wish to take my lunch away. Did I want my tortilla in bread? That, too, caused confusion on both sides. A bystander helped to interpret my attempts at Spanish. No, I would have it without bread. The woman behind the counter wrapped up my purchases in foil, a reassuring touch.
About to leave, I saw a modest sign on a blackboard: Gazpacho. I asked about it tentatively and the woman reached into a fridge immediately and pulled out a half-full bottle with a murky label. In the presence of good food, my negative thoughts about Olot had shifted. This was clearly home made soup. The woman poured some into a glass: obviously I was expected to drink it there and then rather than take it away. It tasted just as Gazpacho should taste.
I sat at the back of the bus and unwrapped my lunch a little guiltily, with a feeling that eating food on board was not really allowed. As we headed towards Girona on the bus, the rain started to descend heavily. But my spirits rose with every mouthful. It was the best of picnic food.