Around the World in Eighty Condiments

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One afternoon last fall, I found myself sweet-talking a French customs official, trying to persuade him not to confiscate a semi-liquid souvenir I’d bought for my collection. No, it wasn’t perfume or wine. It was a jar of pickles.

Unusual condiments have become my travel souvenirs of choice. They’re usually small and easy to pack. They’re things you can’t find back home. And finding them is often one of the most fun and locally unique experiences of a trip. Browsing through a specialty food store or even a regular neighborhood grocer’s along with the locals is a terrific “slice of life” moment. What you find in the stalls or on the shelves can be mouthwatering or eyebrow-raising—what does the Pokari Sweat drink taste like? While clothing and music stores get more globally homogenous, it’s still easy to make cool, purely local discoveries in a market or grocery.

My collection fills up a special cupboard shelf with eye-catching labels, funny packaging, and odd or tempting treats. A dapper black-and-white tin of “gentleman’s relish” from London. (Something to do with anchovy paste.) A tiny jar of honey gathered from a beehive perched on the top of the Opéra Garnier in Paris, the hand-drawn label showing the bees’ glamorous home. Glittering, pungent, smoked salt from Scandinavia. Chocolate bars from Spain with punchy, high-design wrappers. (OK, chocolate’s not technically a condiment but in my book, it’s every food group at once.)

Most of my collection isn’t too perishable, and the jars and bottles remain conversation pieces and memory-inducers for a year or two. Then again, you never know when you’ll have a craving for gentleman’s relish.


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