By: Becca Bergman
Everyone knows that one of the best ways to explore a destination is with a knife and fork. While it’s easy to visit fine restaurants or attend a cooking class, these culinary tours offer rarified experiences that simply cannot be had on one’s own. From feasting on vegetarian food in a Japanese monastery to foraging for mushrooms in Alsace, these trips provide the ingredients for an unforgettable adventure.
When asked to sniff out a foodie’s dream itinerary in France (the company also has a Paris office) Trufflepig’s Jack Dancy suggested a high-low theme because “the most wonderful thing about French cuisine is its ability to scale the heights of gastronomy and plumb the very depths of simple, rustic fare.” Thus the eight-day culinary tour starts in Paris and moves southeast by train through the regions of Burgundy and Alsace. The base camp in Paris is Le Relais St. Germain (www.hotel-paris-relais-saint-germain.com), which is owned by bad boy chef Yves Camdeborde. “We stay here because he serves pata negra ham for breakfast. For breakfast!” says Dancy. Indeed, the hotel sits alongside Le Comptoir, Camdeborde’s wildly popular bistro. On the urban agenda: strolling the food stores of Rue de Bac with a local food writer, a cheese class at a fromagerie, and a lesson on the history of French restaurants. This prepares participants for an haute pastry-making class at the Ritz’s renowned cooking school, followed by dinner at the inimitable L’Astrance.
Next it’s on to Beaune, in the heart of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, where participants soak up some of the world’s finest wines and rustic cooking. Finally, it’s off to Colmar in fairy-tale beautiful Alsace: There, visitors forage for wild greens, edible flowers, and mushrooms, learn roughly 150 recipes in a sauce class, and partake in the meal of a lifetime at the L’Auberge de L’Ill (www.auberge-de-l-ill.com/V2/index.html), a family-run bistro that’s kept its three Michelin stars for 42 years in a row.
The eight-day trip starts around $5,500 a person, all inclusive.
For more trip-planning information, see our France Travel Guide.
A pristine Tuscan villa Seliano (www.agriturismoseliano.it) is not. Situated about 50 miles south of Naples, near the famous Greek ruins of Paestum, Seliano is a working farm and inn run by Baronessa Cecilia Bellelli Baratta and her two sons, Ettore and Massimino. The baronessa’s claims to fame include her prize herd of water buffalo and a portrait of the Bellelli clan circa 1860 painted by Degas. While the painting hangs in the Musée d’Orsay, the buffalo live right across the road, and as a result, Seliano’s guests are privy to some of the freshest, tastiest ricotta and mozzarella in all of Italy.
The farm and inn is also the base camp for Arthur Schwartz’s Cook at Seliano culinary tour (www.thefoodmaven.com/seliano/index.html). Schwartz is a New York-based cookbook author also known as the Food Maven. The New York Times Magazine once called him a “walking Google of food and restaurant knowledge.” He’s been leading several trips a year to Seliano since 2001. This October’s weeklong jaunt focuses on olive oil. This entails olive picking, observing oil production, oil-centric cooking classes, and plenty of tastings. A typical Schwartz schedule involves three days of morning cooking classes (with 11 a.m. wine and cheese breaks) and two days of excursions. Incidentally, Schwartz’s partner, Bob Harned, is an archaeologist, which comes in handy on the group excursions to Stabia, an ancient city buried by Vesuvius’s ash (but less famous than Pompeii), and to the 2,600-year-old old Greek temples of Paestum. “Bob is the knowledgeable guide and I am merely the kibitzer,” Schwartz says.
But lest anyone doubt the Food Maven’s legitimacy, Lou DiPalo, owner of one of Manhattan’s best speciality food shops, says that Schwartz’s Naples at Table is the most authentic Neapolitan cookbook that he knows of.
Upcoming trips: September 26 to October 2 and October 17 to 23, 2010; the seven-day trip costs $3,650 a person, all inclusive.
For more trip-planning information, see our Italy Travel Guide.
Tokyo boasts nine restaurants each bearing three Michelin stars apiece, but Intrepid Travel’s Food Lover’s Japan (www.intrepidtravel.com/trips/jkt) trip doesn’t visit any of those.
Rather, participants – usually about 10 in a group – rise early to visit the frenetic Tsukiji Fish Market and learn to make soba noodles by hand. During the 14-day culinary tour, participants frequently stay at small hotels and ryokans, family-run inns with tatami mats for beds and traditional multi-course meals.
Indeed, this hands-on, immersive style of traveling is what Intrepid is known for. In Hiroshima, for example, the group will dine on the local delicacy okonomiyaki (savory pancakes) and slurp smoked oysters on the nearby island of Miyajima, as well as meet with a survivor of the World War II atomic bombing, always a moving highlight according to trip leader Annamarie Ruelle. In the mystical mountaintop town of Koya-san, travelers will not only bed down at a monastery and consume exceptional shojin-ryori (strictly vegetarian) food, but also meditate alongside Shingon Buddhist monks each morning.
Another stop on the journey, which goes from Tokyo to Kyoto, is the exquisitely preserved town of Takayama, high in the “Japanese Alps” in the northern Gifu prefecture, where the group will visit a 600-year-old market, tour sake breweries, and indulge in local specialties like Hidu beef. Participants will also have the chance to test their mettle by trying fugu (pufferfish, which is lethally poisonous if prepared incorrectly) in Osaka or summoning the courage to sing karaoke in Kyoto.
Various dates in April, September, and October; the 14-day trip starts at $3,555 a person, all inclusive with the exception of some meals.
For more trip-planning information, see our Japan Travel Guide.
When Marilyn Tausend was growing up, her father worked as a traveling buyer of wholesale produce and she tagged along with him on trips through California, Idaho, and Texas. As a result, the Mexican and Mexican-American migrant field workers with whom Tausend passed much of her childhood wound up shaping her palate.
Today Tausend is considered an expert on authentic Mexican cuisine (she’s written four cookbooks on the topic) and she has been leading food-focused culinary tours through Mexico for more than two decades (www.marilyntausend.com). Tausend’s reputation is surpassed only by those of the guests she brings along on the trips, who always include, in some combination, Diana Kennedy, Rick Bayless, Roberto Santibañez, and Ricardo Muñoz Zurita. (If these names don’t ring a bell, think of it as akin to taking music lessons from The Beatles.)
Each trip spotlights a different region; next February’s tour will be of the Yucatán. That trip will begin in Mérida where participants will shop the markets, sup on regional specialties such as papadzules (tortillas filled with chopped hard boiled eggs and covered in a pumpkin seed and tomato sauce), and attend cooking classes with the two accompanying chefs, Bayless and Zurita. The travelers will also take in the ruins of Chichen Itza, the flamingos of Rio Lagartos, and enjoy a feast of cochinita pibil (pit-roasted pork).
Upcoming trip: February 5 to 13, 2011; the nine-day trip costs $4,000 a person, all inclusive.
For more trip-planning information, see our Mexico Travel Guide.
Morocco – the land of camel caravans and steaming tagines; of “Here’s looking at you, kid” and mazelike medinas – has recently shot up in travel popularity, thanks in part to a bevy of fashionable new and redone hotels. Yet for all the buzz, the logistics of getting around this North Africa nation remain somewhat challenging for visitors, especially if one desires to dig below the surface.
Peggy Markel (www.peggymarkel.com) has been leading culinary tours to Morocco since 2002. Her biannual trips mix luxury and rustic authenticity and pair cooking with observation and history lessons with hammam visits. Recently Markel led Gourmet‘s Ruth Reichl and actress Lorraine Bracco around Morocco for PBS’s Gourmet’s Adventures with Ruth, as the women hand-rolled couscous and extolled the virtues of a cuisine whose origins are Berber, Middle Eastern, French, and Moorish.
Participants on Markel’s trips can expect to do the same on her 10-day ventures, which start and end in Marrakech and include side trips to the High Atlas mountains and the seaside town of Essaouira. The home base in Marrakech is the exquisite Jnane Tamsna hotel (www.jnanetamsna.com), run by French designer Meryanne Loum-Martin and her husband, Gary Martin, an ethnobotanist who guides guests through his herb garden. The resident chef Baija Lafredi leads cooking lessons on the roof, where guests will create, say, a chicken and-pear stew in a tagine and caviar d’aubergine.
The group will also bake bread in traditional wood-fired clay ovens, watch Berber women harvest and crack argan nuts for oil, munch on fresh figs in the mountains, and ride camels on the deserted beaches of Sidi Kaouki.
Upcoming trips: April 18 to 27 and October 31 to November 9, 2010; private trips are available upon request. The 10-day trip starts at $4,595 a person, all inclusive.
For more trip-planning information, see our Morocco Travel Guide.
New Orleans is not in a foreign country but one look at a typical restaurant menu’s offerings suggests otherwise: boudin, etouffée, mirliton, beignet. Like the soul of the city itself, New Orleans cuisine is a blend of French, Spanish, Italian, African, Native American, Cajun, Creole, and Cuban flavors. It draws heavily from local ingredients, including crawfish (“mudbugs”), pompano and black drum fish, plump shrimp and blue crab, sweet pecans and Gulf oysters. And the local restaurant scene, from po’boy counters to white tablecloth establishments, is booming.
“It should be on the must-visit list of all foodies,” says Connie Walsh of New York-based travel company Tour de Forks (www.tourdeforks.com), whose five-day A Taste of New Orleans culinary tour subtracts any guesswork and promises to feed visitors’ minds as well as stomachs.
This year’s trip in November mixes stops at in-demand restaurants such as Commander’s Palace (www.commanderspalace.com) with a Creole cooking class at Savvy Gourmet (www.savvygourmet.com) and an exclusive tour of the Alice Waters–inspired Edible Schoolyard of New Orleans (www.esynola.org), launched in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. At pork-happy Cochon (www.cochonrestaurant.com), the group will visit the in-house butcher shop before dinner. Participants will bed down at the French Quarter’s tranquil Dauphine Orleans Hotel (www.dauphineorleans.com), whose main building dates from 1834. By the end of the trip, visitors will know the difference between Creole and Cajun cuisine and – thanks to in-the-know guide Chantel Martineau – where to find the city’s finest sazerac.
Upcoming trip: November 5 to 9, 2010; from $1,600 a person, all inclusive except for several meals.
For more trip-planning information, see our New Orleans Travel Guide.
Singapore’s food culture is distinguished by its unique blend of Chinese, Indian, and Malay flavors as well as the popularity and high quality of its street cart eats. Some 40 years ago government officials literally moved all the food vendors off the street and into regulated, sanitary hawker centers. Today there are over 120 such stations, each containing about 150 stalls. Each stall specializes in just one or two dishes, such as fish-head curry, grilled stingray, or spring rolls of stewed turnips. In turn, every Singaporean approaches eating with a sports fan’s fanaticism, each pledging fierce allegiance to this stand or that vendor.
Yet there is one person’s opinion that carries more sway than others’ and that is K.F. Seetoh. Seetoh has addressed the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley and gorged on shark heads with Anthony Bourdain. He’s taught Martha Stewart how to prepare laksa and breakfasted on pork rib soup with The New Yorker’s Calvin Trillin. He’s also the founder of Makansutra (www.makansutra.com), Singapore’s street food and restaurant bible.
On the side, he organizes culinary tours of the city’s top hawker stands. Even with a guidebook, finding these spots would be near impossible since many lack official names and clear addresses. “This culinary tour is about an experience that the uninitiated would otherwise find hard to put together,” says Seetoh. On top of the eating fest, his company can arrange market tours, lessons on the country’s cultural heritage, and cooking classes.
A three-hour tour costs $150 a person or more, including food and transportation.
For more trip-planning information, see our Singapore Travel Guide.
It’s a given that one will eat well in Sonoma Valley, where even a simple picnic involves locally made cheese, dewy grapes, and the finest pâté this side of Paris. Yet why not spend a few days inside a top Sonoma kitchen?
Half the beauty of Gourmet on Tour’s Cuisine & Spa trip (www.gourmetontour.com) in Sonoma is the flexibility: Participants can sign up for two- to five-night culinary tours, at any time of year, and largely mold their itinerary as they please. Accommodations are at MacArthur’s Place (www.macarthurplace.com), a 19th-century estate turned inn and spa several blocks from Sonoma’s center. Each morning a cooking class (with no more than 12 pupils) is led by a rotating cast of chefs. The caliber of the instructors is the other half of the trip’s appeal: They’ve included Thomas Keller, Linda Carucci, Jacques Torres, Paula Wolfert, Ming Tsai, and Joanne Weir.
The teacher lineup is usually confirmed three months ahead, says Judith von Prockl, the managing director of Gourmet on Tour, so participants can plan accordingly. While mornings are spent dicing, flambéing, and nibbling, afternoons are left open. Then participants can embark on an insider’s wine tour arranged by von Prockl and her colleagues, check out the local restaurants, or relax with the massage at the hotel’s Garden Spa that comes with the trip.
From $890 a person for two nights, including accommodations, breakfast, daily classes, and a massage.
For more trip-planning information, see our Sonoma Travel Guide.
Syria’s cuisine is often lumped in with that of its fellow Middle Eastern countries, and there are similarities. Yet as Syrian-Lebanese cookbook author Anissa Helou (www.anissahelou.com) points out, it has several distinctive touches – like the use of pomegranate molasses to impart a sweet-savory flavor and kebabs of dried fruit and tiny meatballs. Also, like Lebanon, Syria has ice cream that uses dried, powdered orchid tubers (salep) to create a special chewy texture.
Over the years, the Beiruit-born Helou has run an antiques shop in Paris, advised members of Kuwait’s ruling family about buying art, and written six cookbooks. Her latest endeavor is running a cooking school out of her London loft and leading culinary tours to Turkey, Morocco, and Syria. October’s eight-day Syria trip begins in Damascus where the group will taste flaky baklava made by the city’s best sweet maker and swing through the souk al-Tanabel, where, Helou says, the “lazy bourgeoisie of Damascus buy their vegetables ready peeled, chopped, or cored.”
From there, the group will spend one night enjoying a Bedouin dinner overlooking the ruins of Palmyra in the desert. The last few days are spent in Aleppo, “the gastronomic capital of the Middle East,” according to Helou, where the cuisine is flecked with Turkish and Armenian flavors.
Upcoming trip: October 15 to 23, 2010; from $3,500 a person, all inclusive.
Over the past few years, certain dishes from Vietnam have woven themselves into America’s food canon: Fresh spring rolls show up at farmers’ markets, U.S. chefs are reconstructing the banh mi sandwich using regional ingredients (Polish sausage, grilled catfish), and legions worship at the altar of the herbaceous beef-and-noodle soup pho.
Illinois-based Epiculinary’s (www.epiculinary.com) seven-day Taste of Vietnam trip encompasses both the country’s sites and its cuisine, which snaps with fresh herbs and hints at French influence. The culinary tour, available anytime for groups of two or more people, is led by a string of local guides.
Travelers spend the first two days at the historic Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi (www.sofitel.com), a 2008 Smart Luxury Award winner. There the chef of the hotel’s Vietnamese restaurant will lead participants through the local market and then whip up a lunch demonstration. After Hanoi, travelers move onto picturesque Halong Bay where they dine and sleep aboard a traditional Vietnamese junk. A highlight of the trip is a pilgrimage to Hoi An, a city known for its pork dish, cau lau. Participants will also spend a day in the neighboring village of Tra Que, where local “artisans” (as they are called there) grow famously tasty vegetables. Visitors will tour the fields, partake in a cooking lesson, and enjoy a veggie-filled lunch in the home of a local family.
The seven-day trip costs $2,395 a person, all inclusive.
For more trip-planning information, see our Vietnam Travel Guide.