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Globetrotting for Gourmets

Where most Brits once travelled simply for sunshine, now we’re increasingly travelling for food. Award-winning food writer Clare Finney looks at the rise of the culinary tourist.

 
We’d booked the seafood restaurant before we booked anything else. Flights, trains, accommodation – all were immaterial, if we could not have that table by the sea wall in that restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Our whole trip revolved around it; that and the tapas joint in Seville recommended to us by acclaimed Spanish chef Jose Pizarro. Only with those two culinary lines drawn did we bother colouring in the rest of the holiday.

This is no longer unusual. When Explore looked into launching a collection of gastronomic tours, 50% of people say local cuisine is influential in their holiday destination booking. We’re travelling for street food: for pad Thai, masala chai and South Korea’s bibimbap. We’re travelling for pastries. We know that croissants and madeleines taste different when enjoyed with strong coffee on a cobbled street outside a Parisian café.

Though Britain – and particularly London – has never had such a diversity of restaurants and street food stalls, these seem only to have whetted our appetite for the real thing. 76% of people say they’re more adventurous when it comes to cuisine on holiday, compared to 66% when at a restaurant. 48% say eating local cuisine helps them better understand their travel destination’s culture. We are fast becoming culinary tourists: the people for whom proximity to the beach, museums or cathedrals all come secondary to the food.
But how has this happened? How have we gone from a people geared towards all-inclusive hotels, Irish pubs and restaurants serving ‘Western-friendly’ dishes like omelettes, to travelling for tiraditos? In part, it’s because our culinary culture has changed. We’re more exposed to food from different cultures and styles of eating – sharing plates, tapas, thalis – and we’re more aware of where our food comes from. We’re more foodie: a result of cultural change and the rise of social media, which has shrunk the world and made its food more visible.

“I think food has always mattered for a lot of people. I remember going to France with my family 40 years ago, and my mum and dad talking about where we’d go to eat mussels and having French bread and Orangina and it would be so exciting,” says food writer Rachel Roddy. “But now all these things we would have in our heads as strong symbols are out there as visual reminders, thanks to social media.”

Prior to the advent of social media, food loving tourists relied on the Good Food Guide and Michelin Guide to light their culinary travels: solid and reliable books, which were minimally illustrated and inevitably geared toward middle class westerners. They were not a TikTok of the ‘cheese pull’ on a Korean Hot Dog or an Instagram series on Nonna’s hand-rolling tortellini.
“Food focused TV shows have also had a huge part to play in the popularity of culinary tourism,” says Shokofeh Hejazi, head of insight at The Food People, a food trends agency. “Series like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, or Netflix’s Chef’s Table take people on a journey through food – they make cult destinations of the places they visit.”

Stephen Lironi is a restauranteur in London, bringing back the seafood tapas he grew up eating on family holidays in Spain. He has travelled his whole life for food: for tiny cafes and seafood shacks as well as Michelin star restaurants with tasting menus that “feel more like theatre than a meal.” Such restaurants “shine a spotlight on a town. People come from all over the world to visit it,” he says, citing three-starred Aponiente in Cadiz in Spain as an example. “It’s a cultural jewel for Cadiz.”

It is the inextricability of food and place that makes travelling for food such a powerful experience: culturally, intellectually, and of course, for the senses. “I remember being told that eating is the most intimate thing you can do next to having sex,” Roddy recalls – “and it’s true. When you consume a local food, you are consuming the place.”
Being in Provence, with the aroma of lavender wafting from the fields and the feel of salt on your skin will make a glass of local rosé a completely different experience to a pink in your local pub. “Your senses are more open and tuned in, and you get sensations you don’t get back home, that all come together in food and drink,” says Lironi. It enhances your experience of whatever you’re eating or drinking – but it also enables a cultural exchange with your hosts or dining companions. “Food is integral to local cultures and traditions,” continues Hejazi – “but eating is a universal language! So, what better way to immerse yourself in a new place, than to eat as the locals do.” There’s the thrill of the new, of course, but there’s also the wonder of discovering something familiar, seemingly transplanted from home. I remember sampling Salers cheese in a tiny fromagerie in France’s Auvergne region and remarking on its similarity to cheddar – only to learn that there’s a theory that cheddar was inspired by Salers, centuries ago.
“Eat local and you’ll find foods which are never exported,” enthuses Lironi. “You’ll find foods which are only made in that region. If you aren’t buying from supermarkets, but from market stalls or local shops, you’re going to get food from sea or fields within just a few kilometres.” The fresher the mozzarella, the better – so mozzarella is always better in Italy than in the UK, three days after making. Ditto Scottish scallops, say, or Fin de Claire oysters shucked at a shack in Marennes.

In a material and increasingly digital world, we’re learning to value experiences as much if not more than possessions. Meals make memories – not just of food, but of our companions and our conversations whose recollection may one day be rekindled via that same flavour or smell. We want memories, not cheap souvenirs. We want to feel connected; not through an app or an algorithm, but through breaking bread, clinking our glasses together – and being immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of being abroad.

The Female Chef by Clare Finney won Fortnum and
Mason’s Debut Book Award last year. Her next book
Hungry Heart, an exploration of food and love, was
shortlisted for the Jane Grigson Award and is published
by Quarto in June 2023.

 

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