Image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 (Jenny Mealing, 2005)
Food, is a topic that unites and divides. It gives rise to the most animated discussions and fiery debates; it is a symbol of pride around the world.
And it has grown from a mere tummy filler or mileage to cover more sights, to become an important element of any holiday — providing the opportunity to unmask celebrated local culinary traditions, pay homage to complex gastronomic innovation or edible, and appreciate the spoils of the lands and seas.
A food escapade in a foreign land, then, must emphasise the what and how of eating, as much as — if not more than — the what and why of sightseeing. That’s still a huge challenge, so here are some ideas to kick-start that double lust — gluttony and wanderlust.
FEBRUARY/MARCH: Laotian caffeine charisma
I have decided that it’s not enough to just love that magical brew that transforms me every morning from a grouchy, sluggish plebeian to an energetic researcher-writer effortlessly switching between 79 browser tabs. There is much to learn and understand about why coffee is so fascinating and Laos is where I’d kick off my java discoveries. While Laos is likely not the first country — even in Southeast Asia — that comes to mind when you think about coffee, there are some interesting facts about its homegrown product, one of the country’s top exports.
For a start, nearly all of its coffee is produced at the Bolaven Plateau in Paksong, which is a fertile, luxuriant area rich in volcanic soils. The abundant minerals in the ground yield great Arabica and Robusta coffee. The plateau also sits at an elevation of 800 to 1,300 metres, which not only avails cool climate but also Robusta (the one that goes well with condensed milk) grown at some of the highest altitudes in the world.
But the best part is, there is an opportunity to fully immerse in a community that lives and breathes coffee — some 5,000 families are engaged in coffee farming — through special experiences such as the Koffie’s Coffee Workshop, where participants not only visit organic coffee plantations but also learn to roast the beans and make their own brew.
Easily work off the caffeine boost by visiting the local market, which is a kaleidoscope of local produce and includes products from the neighbouring hilltop tribes. Lovely waterfalls can be visited, some of which are just 15 minutes by road. Overnight trekking options are also available, another plus for me.
MAY/JUNE: Produce to seduce
As I’m gaining momentum in my new diet — cutting out all meat in meals except fish and seafood and incorporating more juices — I’ve been reading up on beneficial foods such as fruits rich in antioxidants and humble root vegetables such as purple sweet potato. My destination of choice to fuel this dietary direction is South America and in particular, Peru.
With a stake in the Amazonia and home to a host of tourism delights such as Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, Peru also boasts the concept of eating well, thanks to its incredible biodiversity that supports an astounding array of dishes. Andean and Incan appetisers aside, there’s plenty of offerings from high plains, lowlands and the seas to slowly relish, from humble grains to exotic meats to native berries.
Top on my list are camu camu, a sour fruit said to contain the highest concentration of vitamin C, and kiwicha, a supergrain nicknamed mini-quinoa. Ceviche is but a tick off a long checklist, though I do foresee an urge to wash everything down with pisco, the national drink. Its easily a meat paradise too — think cuy and lomo saltado. And the fact that the No. 1 restaurant in Latin America for 2013, Astrid Y Gastón, is in Lima? Sweet.
To spice up my trip to this faraway land, I’ll make sure to also spend a few days at one of my favorite cities in the world — San Francisco. There’s plenty of great farm-to-fork action going on in the ranches and restaurants around the area, not to mention a dedicated cheese school to up the ante in cheese tasting or mould me into a cheesemonger!
AUGUST: Free fish in Iceland
Yes, you read that right. It’s not the freedom to get catch, it’s consuming fish without having to pay. Once a year, on the second Saturday of August (9th August 2014), the Fiskidagurinn Mikli or Great Fish Day is held in Dalvik in the northern Iceland municipality of Dalvikurbyggð, where the public is invited to a seafood buffet feast between 11am and 5pm. More than that, the organisers consciously make the effort to introduce new dishes alongside traditional ones and there’s also entertainment — fish exhibitions, street theatre, music and more — to accompany your culinary enjoyment. Also, the day before, it is common for the locals to invite strangers into their homes for fish soup.
And really, we are just about looking for any excuse to go Iceland, aren’t we? This gorgeous Nordic nation with incredible landscapes and pristine nature is those who love to explore the outdoors and value the opportunity to engage in a variety of active pursuits. Just be prepared to jostle somewhat with a unusually large Icelandic and foreigner population at Dalvik — at least 40,000 descend upon this town of 2,000 for the festivities every year.
OCTOBER/NOVEMBER: Nothing trifling about truffles
Mushroom is an ingredient that fascinates me to no end. Strangely, I cannot quite wrap my mind around the enjoyment of truffles, so perhaps a trip to the most famous funghi festival in the world is obligatory. Held annually from mid-October to mid-November on weekends, the Fiera del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba or Alba White Truffle Fair draws traders, connoisseurs and casual foodies for its celebration of the prized mushroom.
Held in conjunction with the fair is the AlbaQualità, a food and wine exhibition with over 100 stalls to enjoy flavours from the region or buy handcrafted foods such as cheeses and cured meats. During these few weeks, the spotlight will invariably also fall on Piedmont’s three typical products — hazelnut, chocolate and cheese — paired with either wines or, in the case of chocolate, grappa.
Towards the end of the fair, on the second Sunday of November, the revered Worldwide Auction Sale of the White Truffles of Alba takes place at the Hall of Masks in the Castle of Grinzane, where the finest white truffles are sold to the highest bidders and proceeds go to charity. Last year, the auction fetched 230,000 euros from 11 specimens, with the best two accounting for 90,000 euros, which works out to be nearly 95 euros per gram!
The trip — and gastronomic pleasures — certainly does not stop there. The Piedmont region is truly where you can take your time to eat, drink and be merry. Bra, in the Cuneo province just 16km west of Alba, is the proud home of the Slow Food movement and renowned for its cheese; Barolo, Barbaresco and Moscato wines reign in the intimate villages of Italy’s Bordeaux. On top of that, risotto originated around the region’s eastern border with Lombardy, making Piedmont a prime location to taste Italian comfort food. Michelin-starred restaurants are highly accessible or just a short drive away.
Another Piedmontese highlight for me would be the Salone del Gusto in its capital Turin (Turin province), which showcases gourmet indulgences and specialties from over 300 producers representing more than 50 countries. Its hook-up with the Terra Madre, a Slow Food network, two years ago has advanced its reach and boosted attendance significantly. Held every two years, this year’s edition is slated for 23rd to 27th October and a one-day ticket costs around 20 euros.
Dominate your travel appetite, they must, but don’t let epicurean adventures monopolise your time in Piedmont. The region’s north is mountainous with spectacular scenery and dramatic valleys, and I’m personally excited to visit Sacro Monte di Varallo (Sacred Mountain of Varallo) with its collection of a basilica and 45 frescoed chapels with beautifully-painted albeit strong scenes from the life of Christ and over 800 statues. And I must say I’m warming up to the idea of a good soak in the thermal baths of Acqui Terme in the south-eastern part of Piedmont.
Oh, beam me there already!