Eating while on vacation is an art well trained

It’s summertime and I am thinking about going away. I’m trying to think of a place where the local food is amazing, one thing leads to another and here I am, writing about food tourism and culinary travelers. I have had so many good and so many laughable experiences with food while on vacation myself, so this seems a topic worthy of the following dissection.

WHO IS THE FOOD TOURIST OR CULINARY TRAVELER?

For some people food is the most important part of the overall holiday experience. Not really a surprising fact, we are conditioned to think of certain foods when we think of a country. Think of wine and it won’t take long for your thoughts to turn to France. Seafood goes hand in hand with the Mediterranean and Switzerland is eternally intertwined with cheese. To me, the urge to hunt for authentic flavour experiences while abroad is necessary yet somewhat ambivalent. It has become another commercialised interest, a matter of-course that has spawned a whole new industry which wraps itself around food. But then, traveling should be as much about the food as it is about the places you’re visiting.. With food tourism it’s like with much else, once the masses take to it, you have to figure out another way of doing it right.

BEACH - SOUTHEND, UK

Culinary travelers are probably more educated and well-off than the standard socks-in-sandals, all-inclusive-deal vacationer. This is a dangerous statement, but I am sure it is true. I know that some foodies are happy enough to eat the cheap street food in some countries, but most people who make food a focus point while on holiday want to be able to chose, which also means a greater disposable income must be at hand…
A food tourist will shudder at the thought of being confronted with anything unauthentic. With good intentions the culinary traveler follows the paths off the beaten track without realising that more and more often they’re treading down carefully constructed passageways into a world that still only exists for tourists. The difference is that our food tourist won’t notice any of that. He will feel thrilled by the prospect of eating his Paella a stone’s throw from the seashore or splurge on the local, ‘freshly’ caught fish.

The tragedy and reality for most culinary travelers is that only seasoned professionals really excel at food tourism. A certain dedication to the subject is needed. Eating well and the way you hope to while on holiday means taking matters into your own hands and not let the holiday-makers take over for you. Let’s see how you can avoid the feeling of going straight back home to cook the meal you want so badly yourself.

DON’T STAY IN A BIG HOTEL OR DO ALL-INCLUSIVE

When I recently spent a week in a hotel on the Island of Gran Canaria, I realised that the most dangerous places when it comes to making terrible food experiences are the ones brimming with tourism. Now this is an obvious observation, but these places won’t allow you to really get to know the local food, so it is best to avoid any kind of holiday resort, areas with hotels, harbour promenades and so on…. Most modern hotels on islands like Gran Canaria offer all inclusive deals, which will inevitably involve a three-times-a-day buffet in the hotel dining room. A foodie’s worst nightmare. Attentive observers will see the dishes rotate and mutate. Roast Chicken legs from Tuesday’s dinner will turn into a chicken pasta salad for Wednesday’s lunch. A food tourist should under no circumstances pay for such accommodation and make sure this isn’t even an option when researching the upcoming holiday. The problem with buffets is, even a foodie will at least try the food once. It is a convenient option and the immense variety of dishes is promising. Plates get loaded with ‘tasters’ of everything, just to see what is best. If  you are lucky (and near the seaside), the hotel serves fresh fish. You end up filling your stomach with food that is unworthy of the local culture, history, soil and hard working people. It is a waste of calories lost on saltless, flavourless, digestible-for-everyone caricatures of  proper dishes.
On islands, you have to move away from the sea and hotels and go towards the center, a mountainous area would be ideal. Most often, you’ll find small places tucked away somewhere, rarely ever visited by the oh-so dreaded tourist (for some reason, foodies never feel like tourists themselves, I think it might have something to do with the intention…).
In Italy you can find so-called Agriturismos, farms houses away from the hustle and bustle, with accommodation. They also serve their homegrown produce and cook for guests. A foodie heaven, you’ll get nothing but the most robust, seasonal and authentic Italian food. Try this next time!

THE SELF CATERING OPTION

In order to live in a self catering apartment while on vacation you have to be equipped to your standards. This does especially include knifes with sharp blades. If you have arrived by plane or simply without anything other than your clothes, you will have to acquire all the basic items you normally have ready at hand: salt, oil, butter, flour, pepper etc.. In a foreign country, this could either mean a fun day spent in a local supermarket, delicatessen or market, or, a stressful day that concludes with you bringing home only half the stuff you need or substitutes that aren’t any. In both cases, it will cost you some money. Even though self-catering involves a fair amount of preparation and effort, this is the best option. This way you get to participate in being a ‘local’ even if it lasts only a few days.. Once you’ve organised your equipment and basic ingredients, your next destination should be a local fish-, fruit- and veg-, or meat-market. In Southern Europe these markets can be spectacular.

Make sure you buy sustainably, but go ahead and splurge. In France you can find wine shops that sell a house red or white by the liter from big barrels and you can bring your own bottles. The wine is almost always good, local and probably the best option for you out there.
The markets will no longer withhold their delicacies from you and every clove of garlic you purchase will find its way in to your mouth, this much is guaranteed.

CAMPING

Camping is the option that makes me laugh the most when thinking about it. In recent years I have gone camping with as little as a one-burner gas cooker that produced pretty disgusting food. We were terribly equipped and immensely frustrated by constantly looking at the most wonderful foods in Italy and not being able to make a decent meal from what we purchased. I never forget cooking fish (pictured below) in a tiny pan that kept falling on the ground. The fish ended up covered in pine needles and we had to throw it out. Camping involves getting a bit dirty, so this is not an option for foodies who normally go on wine-tasting holidays.

Cooking and being a culinary camper can work out though. What you need is good equipment and good organisation. A charcoal barbecue is pretty important but almost impossible to use in hot, dry countries. Either way, a proper camping gas stove will also do a good job. Eating outdoors is as close as you can get to a country. You can smell the air and hear the foreign sounding birds and crickets. Buying simple food is key to camping successfully. There will be neither enough space nor equipment to make a proper 3 course dinner, but there are plenty of options to create an awesome camping-meal.

I admit, camping is not for everyone, but it is my preferred choice of enjoying food abroad. I also admit this is probably more fun when you live in Europe but I’d go insane to have a stab at doing this somewhere overseas. I’ll leave you with some more impressions on how this can be done and the offer to contact me for a list of camping cooking equipment for your next culinary camping trip.

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