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ASK JOURNEYS: Culinary tourism big draw to modern traveller

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ALMOST from the first date I started writing this column, I have been inundated with requests for recommendations for specific restaurants I have visited in my travels.

Research reports over the years consistently report positive dining experiences are among the highest expectations travellers have when they explore different cities and countries.

While the other aspects of travel discovery are still important, they are most often also looking for local flavours in restaurants that capture the sense of the nation from that perspective.

Out of this expectation, there has emerged a trend that has taken on added dimension to the food-related experience in countries people love to visit. It is the inclusion of a culinary-focused program that involves the traveller in a more meaningful and interactive manner.

Culinary tourism, as the name suggests, is about learning how to cook with the local chefs of a country, and finding out what the secret ingredients are that create the unique tastes of a nation, as well as how to find them.

On each of the last three cruises I was on, one of the most popular 'excursions' offered were full-day cooking experiences.

In each of these, the day started with a shopping trip to the nearest market where the chef first defined the nature of herbs, spices and meats they were looking for. Then they demonstrated to the small group of participants how to delineate between the best and worst quality of the foodstuffs they were looking to take back to their kitchen.

While not a part of a cruise program, one of the more enjoyable experiences my wife and I had in Istanbul was a half-day culinary class that concluded with the group of us who were taking the course sharing in the lunch we had prepared over the previous four hours.

Tour operators, never ones to be left behind for long, have now jumped on the food wagon in a big way.

Wine-tasting tours through the vineyards of the world are common. But now the trend is to include a lunch or dinner after the tour with a sampling of a number of wines that suitably match with the delectable locally prepared meal that caps off the day perfectly.

While the interactive experience is not as complete as some would hope, the chefs are happy to explain how they achieved the taste quality that is being applauded.

Today's traveller is looking for experiential culinary travel that brings them closer to the land and the people who create the experience by being a significant part of the preparation.

They want authenticity, with the ability to go back home and prepare the same meal for friends and family.

As a result, tour operators are offering more and more culinary vacations that satisfy those desires.

For example, GoWay Travel has put together a series of what they call foodie tours.

They started these culinary experience tours in Morocco and have now expanded their offerings to include South Africa and Jordan, and will soon be introducing similar on-site experiences in Turkey as well.

A company called Travel Indochina, as well as others, has been offering small group tours of this nature to Vietnam, Cambodia and China.

Trafalgar has made space in its itineraries for cooking instruction with its Flavours of Italy programs that have been reconfigured this year to include more hands-on, behind-the-scenes culinary experiences.

As Gaven Tollman, a senior executive of Trafalgar stated recently "People are fascinated with food: chefs today are the new rock stars."

This may not be surprising given the number of 'star' chefs on The Food Channel, as well as in cooking shows that are part of the lineup on most television networks.

Similarly, there are few cities that have not seen the proliferation of ethnic grocery stores, which allow us to find those ingredients whose names we may have never heard of before.

Go to any one of these outlets and you will find an owner or clerk most willing to help you make your selection, while explaining to you the best way to go about preparing the ingredients to draw out the best flavours in the cooking process.

When we are on a foreign vacation, our taste senses are often opened to the ways of eating that are common only to the nation we are visiting. If we are satisfied with the experience, we search out more of the same.

And if individuals enjoy cooking for others, it becomes a mission to learn how to duplicate those sensations in their own kitchens. It is with all this as a backdrop that the new style of travel is often centred around the concept of culinary tourism.

It should be noted that in all of these tours, the operators have not forgotten the broader experiential desires of the traveller. They all include a balanced mix of visitations to the most popular sites of the region and country. Today's progressive tour operators and travel agencies can help facilitate specific programs that suit the needs of a culinary group that has a desire to travel together.

Forward your travel questions to askjourneys@journeystravel.com. Ron Pradinuk is president of Journeys Travel & Leisure SuperCentre and can be heard Sundays at noon on CJOB. Previous columns and tips can be found on www.journeystravelgear.com or read Ron's travel blog at www.thattravelguy.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 D2

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