Sure… you could visit Rome on a tour bus or spend a weekend in Paris in line at the Eiffel Tower. (You think I’m exaggerating!) You could cruise the Mediterranean, spending a few hours in a few cities for a few days. Or… you could get to know a city and experience a foreign culture from the inside out, from the crème filling to the flaky pastry crust. That’s where culinary tours come in.
WHAT ARE CULINARY TOURS?
Culinary tours are food- and drink-centric trips that emphasize a destination’s culinary offerings. They range from casual to formal and from afternoon walking tours to multi-day/week dedicated culinary vacations. Want to learn the art of pasta-making in the hills of Tuscany? Want to shop fish markets with local chefs in Tokyo? How about experiencing the world’s largest beer festival in the heart of Bavaria? There’s a culinary tour for that!
BUT CAN’T I JUST VISIT THESE PLACES ON MY OWN?
Of course you can! You can visit all the restaurants your hotel concierge was paid to suggest to you. You can walk across the street from the Eiffel Tower and have dinner at the first (overpriced and undercooked) place that looks decent. You can even learn how to make pasta by watching YouTube videos if you really want to. But… no thank you, gross, and yeah right!
Culinary tours are more than just an introduction to great food and drink—they’re a way to experience local culture from a local angle. Why learn the process of hand-making raviolis from the YouTube video of a guy in New Jersey (or, if you’re me, just buying frozen raviolis from the store), when you can learn in the kitchen of a Tuscan villa from someone’s actual grandmother? You can’t appreciate shrimp until you’ve gone indoor, urban shrimp fishing in Taiwan. You haven’t had Swiss cheese until you’ve had it in the Alps at 4,000 feet and German beer will never taste the same after it’s been served to you by the litre straight from a wooden keg (and at your reserved Oktoberfest table).
WHY SHOULD YOU TAKE A CULINARY TOUR?
For starters, culinary tours offer you a deeper look into a destination and culture. Sadly, the most popular restaurants in an area aren’t always the most authentic. Culinary trips offer the chance to see exactly what makes a destination’s cuisine world famous and from the most authentic sources.
Some places are known for their cuisine: Tuscany, Spain, Thailand, Mexico, Paris, Japan… but brief visitors don’t always know where to find the best stuff. Why not experience these places with people who really know their shitake?
Culinary tours are led by top chefs, experienced locals and others with a serious drive to help you experience their culinary culture. You can learn the history of and interesting facts about a particular food or drink, something you’d never get from the part-time server at the joint your hotel recommended. You’re often taken where you wouldn’t be able to go on your own—be it the kitchen of a trendy bistro or a cheese-maker’s mountain shed. You may even be invited to your local guide’s home to learn techniques in his or her very own kitchen (don’t forget to wipe your feet).
Another great thing about culinary tours is that there is something for everyone and they can be whatever you want them to be. Culinary tours come in all shapes, sizes and flavours. You can take afternoon food tours that last just a couple of hours each, making any number of stops along the way. Some examples being a tour of Chicago pizzerias or a food + beer tasting tour in Prague.
Some companies offer week-long (and even longer) dedicated culinary vacations. Fancy a week touring the vineyards of France or hiking the Spanish countryside, sampling wine and preparing your own meals in rustic cottages? Your culinary vacation options are as endless as my tiramisu cravings.
SO WHAT MAKES FOR A GOOD CULINARY TOUR?
While culinary tours vary wildly, there are still some standards you should consider.
Stick to what you like. As an advocate for escaping your comfort zone, it pains me to say this–but if the thought of eating slimy, raw fish gives you the heebie jeebies, don’t take a sushi-tasting tour. If you know you like wine and pasta, there’s just no possible way on our planet Earth that you won’t enjoy a Tuscan culinary tour.
However, keep an open mind and be adventurous. Just because you know you like wine and pasta doesn’t mean you should stick to wine and pasta. Don’t be afraid to use your current preferences as a jumping-off point for something a little more adventurous. Traveling is all about amassing new cultural experiences, after all.
Use a culinary tour as an introduction to a new destination. So you’re visiting Poland for the first time and you have no idea what Polish food is like? Schedule a culinary tour for your first day there to get a good grasp on what (and where) you should eat for the rest of your trip. (And save me some pierogis!)
Don’t forget about food allergies. That French pastry tour sounds amazing but for someone with nut allergies (like myself, wah-wahhh) it could prove a real disaster. Your culinary tour should end at a pub—not a hospital. Most culinary trips offer a listing of foods that will be prepared/consumed/offered on your tour so it shouldn’t be hard to plan ahead but consult your tour guide if you have any specific questions or concerns. (For real though, what do macarons taste like?)
Go small. The smaller the group in your culinary tour, the more personalized experience you’ll have. Sharing platters of food and squeezing into tiny restaurants is much more fun when there are fewer mouths to hog all the prosciutto.
Go crazy. Food and drink are often celebrated cultural aspects so don’t forget about festival-based culinary tours. Take the Melbourne, Australia Food & Wine Festival, the Salon du Chocolat Festival in Paris, and, of course, the largest culinary festival of them all and my personal favourite—Oktoberfest–for example. You can even count the La Tomatina festival in Spain if you’re willing to keep your mouth open the entire time.
And, most importantly, don’t forget that a culinary tour is about the culture as much as it is about the food. Culinary tourism is just another, unique way to experience a destination and at it’s deepest level and there’s a tour out there for everyone. That means there’s probably a Kool-Aid and potato chip tasting out there somewhere for me… I’ll report back.