Thailand is known for its affordable cuisine. // © 2017 iStock
Feature image (above): Shared meals provide an intergenerational bridge for travelers. // © 2017 iStock
“No, no,” Patrizia Cantini clucked gently, fretting over the doughy mess in my hands. “Not like that. Like this.”
I stepped aside. Within moments, she had flattened and kneaded the dough with surprising force, considering her petite frame, before carefully feeding it through the pasta maker to form long strands of fresh pappardelle.
Cantini was in her element. Born and raised in Florence, Italy, she had learned how to make pasta by hand as a young child. She, my partner and I stood together in the modest kitchen of her apartment, situated around the corner from the Duomo. Colorful tiles collected from her travels adorned the walls, and a tomato and basil sauce was simmering on the stove.
When Cantini isn’t whipping up concoctions in her Florentine kitchen or tending to the herb garden at her countryside home on Italy’s Apennine mountain range, she switches out her chef hat for several others. She’s a food and wine journalist and a cookbook author, as well as a cooking instructor with Context, which specializes in educational tours — the reason why my partner and I had struck up a friendship with the warm-hearted Italian woman.
“Inviting someone into your home allows for a more relaxed, real and authentic conversation, and it connects food with life,” said Paul Bennett, co-founder of Context. “It dives deep into the locality of a place and a person.”
Today’s travelers tend to categorize why they travel. Fond of cooking up memories like the above, I usually catch a plane to discover the soul of a destination: its gastronomy. And I’m far from the only one. According to nonprofit organization World Food Travel Association’s (WFTA) “2016 Food Travel Monitor Report,” more than 75 percent of American leisure travelers consider a culinary activity to be a motivation for visiting a destination.
The demand for culinary travel is alive and well. The real challenge, however, lies in satisfying the appetites of increasingly savvy clients.
Identifying the Culinary Traveler
Who exactly is the ideal foodie traveler?
Open any social media app, and there it is: the artfully arranged meal of someone who is currently across the globe. Now that real-life experiences and digital platforms have blurred, travelers are sharing everything, and you can bet that counts photogenic, envy-inducing dishes.
Add the onslaught of food and travel blogs and culinary-travel television series — from the pioneering “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” to the present-day Netflix documentary series “Chef’s Table” — and it’s easy to see how food has transformed from mere sustenance to an obsessive priority, or even the reason, for a trip.
In fact, 61 percent of the generation leading social media use — millennials, who have overtaken baby boomers as America’s largest generation — say food and culinary experiences are most important to them in general, according to a recent survey conducted by Contiki, a tour operator for millennial travelers. And more than half (52 percent) list that having food experiences is the top reason motivating them to travel.
Taking this into account, Contiki recently launched Munch, a limited-edition, culinary-focused product, starting with two nine-day departures this summer through France, Spain and Italy.
Toni Ambler, global brand strategy director for Contiki, says food serves as the “original social networking experience.”
“It’s sitting around a table, enjoying food experiences with other people and getting to know each other over tapas,” Ambler said. “Interestingly, when everything around millennials is becoming digitized, food remains stubbornly analog. Food is a rich tapestry to define your social experiences and your knowledge.”
But other age groups are lining up for a slice of the pie, too. When launching Real Food Adventures in 2013, adventure travel tour operator Intrepid Travel expected the program to appeal to clients in their 30s who were looking for food-focused experiences without the five-star frills. However, the company learned that 35 percent of these guests were actually between 50 and 69 years old — a figure surprisingly close to the 40 percent of those between 20 and 39.
“No matter the age difference of travelers, the common interest in food provides a great intergenerational bridge,” said Erica Kritikides, food product manager for Intrepid. “They find common ground talking about what they ate for breakfast, their favorite meal of all time or what’s growing in the vegetable patch at home.”
WFTA also reports that 93 percent of respondents engage in a food or beverage experience other than dining. For example, once considered a premier culinary activity gracing any itinerary, snagging a reservation at a Michelin-starred restaurant has lost much of its former allure.
Judith von Prockl, Gourmet on Tour’s managing director, founded the high-end culinary travel company 17 years ago. She says that, at the time, culinary tourism was a small niche still in its infancy and generally upscale. Since then, however, it has progressed at a pace similar to that of adventure travel or ecotourism.
“Experiential travel has evolved into storytelling,” von Prockl said. “And luxury is now local, authentic, involved and natural.”
Indeed, the travel industry’s enduring buzzword — experiential travel — has taken center stage even on the gastronomic front. And exclusivity in food travel has turned on its head: Travelers would rather get their own hands dirty, sharing cooking duties with locals before sitting at the same dinner table. And an agent, or a tour operator, is much better suited to arrange the complex logistics required.
Robert Drumm, president of luxury tour operator Alexander + Roberts, predicts that actively participating in food sourcing — typically a premium-priced activity — will continue to surge in popularity.
“We’ve already done the truffle hunting and market tours,” Drumm said. “Now, we’re being asked for trips that include a half-day working in a vineyard at harvest time, gathering white asparagus in Germany or planting rice with a water buffalo. How things are made and how they are grown in historical terms contrasts dramatically to today’s automated world. People want to experience it for themselves.”
Like the rise of new epicurean experiences, secondary or even tertiary destinations are edging into the gastronomic limelight.
Judi Walker, owner of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance Travel Partners, an affiliate of Montecito Village Travel, a Virtuoso agency, arranged her first-ever culinary trip in 2005 to Italy for the picking, pressing and tasting of olives, along with a generous helping of wine, truffles and the like. Twelve years later, she has found that clients are still requesting culinary adventures, but also frequently in places outside of classic food destinations such as Italy or France.
“As travel changes, the world keeps getting smaller and smaller,” Walker said. “And in ‘exotic’ places, such as Iceland or Scandinavia, having culinary experiences make an overall experience feel genuine and not as touristy.”
Culinary tour operator Access Trips excludes Europe from its offerings altogether. Instead, guests choose from destinations including Morocco, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Peru and Cuba. Offered weekly, Access Trips’ popular Cuba itineraries are currently sold out until May.
“Cuba is a hot spot in general, but guests are especially attracted to exploring through the lens of food,” said Tamar Lowell, CEO of Access Trips. “With us, they can get up close and personal in a way that other tour companies aren’t necessarily offering, despite using the term ‘people-to-people’ in their itineraries.”
Highlights include a sustainable farm tour led by its owner, followed by a farm-to-table meal; tapas at the home of Access Trips’ Cuba operations manager; and a daiquiri-making lesson taught by the former bartender of El Floridita, the drink’s location of origin and the former stomping grounds of writer Ernest Hemingway — which, Lowell says, “usually just turns into a fun dance party.”
For Intrepid, the most popular Real Food Adventures destinations for the North American market are, in order, India, Morocco, Vietnam and Mexico. However, the tour operator has seen a significant uptick in Sri Lanka bookings. Intrepid also anticipates underrated foodie destinations such as the Balkans — with its fascinating mix of Mediterranean and Eastern European flavors, and activities including savoring honey straight from beehives and slow-roasting lamb under a peka (Croatian cast-iron bell) — to grow in popularity, as well.
“The quality of wine, food, restaurants and so on has really increased worldwide over recent years, creating further opportunities for great culinary experiences,” said John McGee, research and content manager for boutique tour operator Artisans of Leisure, which offers customized, private trips. “However, this profusion of options can overwhelm many travelers. That’s why they turn to us — we’ve arranged visits to a traditional estancia (ranch) in the pampas of Argentina for barbecues; picnics in the Patagonian wilderness; and visits to our favorite cafes in Tallinn, Estonia.”
Destinations closer to home have also adapted to the fluctuating landscape of culinary travel.
Northern California’s wine country, for example, has much more than wine up its sleeve, says Robin Hawkey, owner of Sonoma, Calif.-based Virtual Honeymoon, a Virtuoso agency.
Her travel packages in Sonoma range from intimate meals served in wine caves to gourmet picnics enjoyed on vineyard grounds — all cooked by top local chefs.
“Eight to 10 years ago, it used to be more about the wine tasting, and guests maybe got a little cheese with their wine,” Hawkey said. “But now, I’m seeing wine and food ranking as 50-50 in importance thanks to the rise of Californian farm-to-table cuisine.”
Destinations are taking matters into their own hands, too. This includes Quito Tourism Board, which is ramping up efforts to establish Ecuador’s capital city as a food-focused destination by promoting coffee and cacao tours, microbreweries, local delicacies such as cuy (guinea pig) and more.
Patricio Gaybor, general director for Quito Tourism Board, says that the city’s unique gastronomy scene is due to its blended culture of pre-Columbian and Spanish customs.
“We’ve seen an increased interest in food tours and cooking classes, which allows travelers to delve deeper into the traditions of the cuisine,” Gaybor said. “The tendency of travelers has shifted from simply checking another country off a bucket list to the desire of having a cultural, interactive experience.”
Erik Wolf, founder of WFTA, says that besides foodies traveling farther afield to discover underrated destinations, there will be a heightened effort to provide specialized culinary tours, such as those catering to gluten-free or vegan diets.
“There’s still plenty of room in many cities for quality food tour operators that understand how to deliver a memorable visitor experience,” Wolf said.
Contiki’s Ambler agrees.
“As millennials continue to focus on health and treating their bodies with respect, there will be a shift in better understanding the ingredients they are eating, the origins and the benefits,” she said. “Also, it will put pressure on the culinary industry to meet certain dietary requirements.”
Archetypal millennials ourselves, my partner and I appreciated the opportunity to shop for ingredients alongside Cantini at Sant’Ambrogio Market the morning of our cooking lesson. Lively snippets of Italian drifted in and out of earshot as we exchanged cheek kisses with Cantini’s favorite vendors, all before peppering them with questions regarding the best, freshest produce.
Hours later, we finally gathered at Cantini’s dining table, where a lavish spread of pasta, rabbit stew, macedonia di frutta (fruit salad) and fried squash blossoms awaited. As we clinked glasses of red Chianti wine from Cantini’s personal collection, I felt we had gone beyond simply crossing the threshold of our new friend’s home — rather, we had stepped into the shoes of a true Florentine cook.