How to Choose a Culinary Vacation, by Bryan Richards

Culinary tourism has become a growing trend in the travel industry, exploding to the $150 billion dollars annually. Travel companies are happy to accommodate this new hunger with options ranging from weeklong culinary excursions to daylong cooking classes to city food tours. As a seasoned traveler and foodie, I’ve attended tours of all three varieties across four continents. While most experiences have been positive, I’ve also witnessed the bad side of culinary tourism.

Like any growing trend, there are always a few opportunists waiting to swindle our tourist dollars. Nothing can ruin a vacation more than an experience that doesn’t live up to its cost or expectations. Here are some questions on how to choose a culinary vacation to ask your travel agent or tour operator to make sure you have a tasteful experience:

What’s the instructor’s credentials?

The popularity of culinary tourism has led to a lot of new cooking schools and classes. Many are led by professional chefs. Others aren’t. You want to search for a program led by a professional chef. They have years of experience and can give you a more in-depth culinary experience. They are also better equipped to answer questions beyond the recipe in front of them.

Please don’t be fooled by the recent phenomena of reality TV show contestants using their misguided celebrity status to lead culinary vacations or “chefs” who attended an online program for a cooking certification without ever stepping foot in a kitchen. Neither are professionally trained chefs, but amateur cooks with minimal cooking experience other than what they learned on the show or at home.

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Where is the program located?

Yes, the old saying, “Location! Location! Location!” applies to choosing a culinary program, too. Let’s use the example of choosing a French culinary vacation. It might seem logical to choose Paris as it’s France’s most well-traveled city. However, like most large tourist cities, the restaurants and cooking schools design their menus to generic ideas of a cuisine. To truly understand French cuisine you must get off the grid and look towards a region like the Loire Valley.

The Loire Valley is labelled the breadbasket of France for a reason. There’s no region in France that’s considered more French in terms of culture, food, and wine. It’s also one of the best regions in the world in terms of ingredients. It’s home to the finest goat cheeses in the world, France’s second largest truffle region, France’s largest supplier of fresh water fish, La Géline de Touraine chickens, and the largest wine region of France. By choosing an off-the-beaten path program in the Loire Valley, you’ll catch a better glimpse at the true French culinary traditions. It’s more than just a cuisine; it’s a way of life.

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From where are they sourcing the ingredients?

Just because the program is in a region rich with agriculture doesn’t necessarily mean the program is utilizing the best ingredients. I attended a school in Tuscany where I opened a package of bland looking chicken breasts direct from the grocery store, bar code and all. The program sourced the cheapest ingredients they could find. Their corner cutting resulted in a flavorless dish. It didn’t even “taste like chicken.” Ask specifically where they program buys their ingredients.

Will the chef have any distractions while leading your class?

Chef’s like to multi-task, often running cooking schools alongside bakeries, catering businesses, restaurants, etc. Those other lines of business can often pull him away from teaching the class you paid to participate in. Or, she’s constantly interrupted by staff members asking questions about tonight’s dinner prep. Your program should be the instructor’s main responsibility for the week.

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Ask whether classes are held in a restaurant, home, or teaching kitchen?

The equipment in restaurant kitchens are often vastly different from what you have at home making it difficult to replicate what you learned. On the contrary, home kitchens also might not be suitable for a true hands-on learning experience. Only so many people can gather around one stove. The ideal facility is a learning kitchen with multiple cooking stations.

Will I be gaining hands-on experience?

This may sound like an obvious question, but you’d be surprised how many cooking classes translate to a cooking demonstration. You can watch a cooking demonstration at home on TV. Make sure you get to roll up your sleeves and cook!

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How many students are in the class?

Remember, the larger the class, the less individual attention you’ll get. Also, the harder it will be to gather around the instructor’s cooking station. When it comes to a culinary vacation, smaller numbers aren’t a luxury but a necessity. It might also be a good idea to ask how many cooking stations there are versus students in the class.

What will you be cooking?

When we researched our Italian culinary program, I asked each tour operator what recipes we’d be learning. Many were just teaching pizza and handmade spaghetti with marinara sauce. I already have both of those dishes mastered, so I kept looking until I found a program that taught me something new.

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What other gourmand related activities are part of the culinary experience?

Much of learning a local cuisine occurs beyond the kitchen. Look for programs that visit farmers markets and food producers. Be sure to ask for specifics. One tour I attended promised a visit to a cheeserie. I was expecting a tour of the production facility. Instead, the itinerary allotted 30 minutes to shop the producer’s store.

Does the tour include the local wine or beer culture?

Food and drink develop together throughout a regions culinary history to enhance and complement each other. Ask if brewery, winery, or distillery visits are included in the agenda. You might also want to inquire about the instructor’s knowledge of local drink.

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Where will you be staying?

Accommodations for culinary programs range from five-star hotels to farmhouses to luxury chateaus. Some rooms have private bathrooms and some utilize shared bathrooms. Some programs may switch hotels if multiple regions are covered. Ask for specifics on where you’ll staying and look up online reviews.

I know these are a lot of questions to ask. Many may be covered through your travel agent or tour operator’s marketing materials. If not, be sure to ask. You aren’t being a nuisance. If they aren’t willing to answer your questions, then look elsewhere. As always, read online reviews on sites like TripAdvisor or search for blog posts written by some of my colleagues. Blog reviews often go deeper than online forums permit.

These questions should help ensure that you book a culinary excursion that is best suited for your needs. Eat well, drink well, and travel well! Let me know how it went!

Bryan Richards is a food, travel, and craft beer writer. He has a passion for exploring regional food and drink and enjoys encouraging readers to discover new places and tastes in a way that inspires curiosity and motivation. For more info, please visit The Wandering Gourmand.

A French Culinary Vacation with Le Calabash, by Bryan Richards

When I arrived in the Loire Valley, I was welcomed with what Chefs Sidney and Allison Bond described as a traditional French market dinner.

“It’s nothing fancy. Just stuff we picked up at the farmer’s market today. I hope it’s enough to eat. Are you hungry?” asked Sidney in his distinct South African accent.

I was famished. All I had eaten that day was a rather pathetic looking bocadillo jamón on the train from Barcelona. It did little to tide my hunger, but I wasn’t worried. Having traveled to Africa with the Bonds, I already knew that Sidney was being modest on our pending dinner. It was most likely a feast to acclimate us to the best of French Cuisine, and, in particular, the Loire Valley in which he is so proud to call home.

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Dinner would have to wait though until after a toast. We raised our glasses of 2010 Crémant de Loire, a sparkling white wine from the Loire Valley that could rival anything from the Champagne region, in a cheers to good friends. While we sipped, Sidney familiarized us with the teaching kitchen at Le Calabash Petit Conservatore de la Cuisine. Located in a small hamlet in the belly of the Loire Valley, the kitchen would be our home for the next 48 hours as he and Allison led us on a French Culinary Adventure.

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Bubbly in hand, Allison escorted us from the teaching kitchen to the dining room for our French market feast.

Spread out on the long wooden table was an assortment of local cheeses, rouillons (a Touraine slow cooked pork belly), duck rillettes with fig chutney, a local pork saucisson with chesnuts, and duck liver mousse with port jelly. As a self-proclaimed foodie, I’m ashamed to admit that I had heard of very few of these treats, but was eager to roll up my sleeves and dive in to the salty, savory, and sweet spreads and confits. Each was a new flavor adventure.

I had never tasted cheeses quite like the Camembert Normandie and Galette de Templiers. The Camembert Normandie, Napoleon’s favorite cheese, was rich, buttery, and runny with a slight funk from the rind. The Galette de Templiers, on the other hand, delivered a flavor that was sharp and intense that lingered in the mouth calling out for another bite. The Saint Maure’s Goat Cheese, with its ash and charcoal rind, highlighted why the Loire Valley is considered the world’s best producer of goat cheese.

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To supplement the heartier dishes, the Bonds served a farm fresh salad of lettuce, tomatoes, and radishes with a homemade raspberry vinaigrette alongside Allison’s sourdough bread. I’m a regular at my local farmer’s market, and still my mind was blown by the freshness of the vegetables. They didn’t even need the vinaigrette. I thought back to the green fields we passed on the way in and was reminded why many consider the Loire Valley to be the breadbasket of France.

For dessert, Allison prepared passionfruit crème brûlée. Little did she know that crème brûlée is one of my favorite desserts in the world, and I’m a sucker for anything passionfruit. Or did she? Sidney and Allison delight themselves in spoiling their guests. Perhaps she remembered from the African Culinary Adventure?

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This was anything but a humble farmer’s dinner.

Or maybe it was? Maybe this is the way we should be eating? Produce fresh from the farm next door. Cheese from a village that’s been producing it for over a thousand years to the point of perfection. Mushrooms that were foraged from the wild just yesterday. Wine from a vineyard passed weekly on the way to the market. Food that you know where it came from.

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I want to say that I came away from my experience with Le Calabash stocked with recipes which I was ready to impress friends and family and techniques to make me a better home chef. Instead, I came away with so much more.

The morning of our second day, the Bonds taught us how to make a Saint Maure’s Goat Cheese soufflé that I can’t wait to cook for my wife. The lesson wasn’t about the recipe and how to properly fold the cheese into the batter, but how to eat a dish as rich as a cheese soufflé. Our welcome dinner aside, the French believe in moderation. They wouldn’t pair a soufflé with rouillons and duck rillettes (as much as I was hoping for round two…). Instead, the hearty elegance was paired with a salad so as not to weigh us down for the rest of the day’s culinary adventure.

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After lunch, it was Allison’s turn to shine.

And my turn to be embarrassed. I’m not a pastry chef of any kind and admit to being quite intimidated as she described the dessert we were to prepare. Allison’s take on the palvova includes four layers – a spéculoos biscuit, white chocolate fondant, pear compote, and chocolate mousse. We were to prepare each layer individually and then assemble them for the evening dinner. While I can’t say that my attempt turned out as well as my partner’s, Suzanne Radford from Dubai Eye, it turned out better than I anticipated.

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I expected the lesson of such a complicated dessert to focus more on recipe and technique. Instead, I felt that I learned more about the importance of choosing the right ingredients. It’s knowing what variety of chocolate to pick out and what type of butter to use (never less than 80% fat) along with knowing which temperature to add hot and cold ingredients to the mousse.

All of these lessons are taught in the former stable of the country farmhouse that has been meticulously refurbished with modern cooking equipment while still maintaining the charm that comes with a 380-year-old building. The teaching kitchen has been retrofitted with enough cooking stations to allow up to eight guests to have a hands-on culinary experience. In the works is the conversion of the hamlet’s brick oven into a wine and cheese cellar.

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According to Sidney, a successful chef most possess two qualities.

First, cooking has to come from the heart. Second, a chef must always use the best ingredients. These two philosophies best summarize my experience at Le Calabash. You don’t attend a French Culinary Adventure to learn about cooking. You attend a French Culinary Adventure to learn about a way of life that has long since been forgotten in the United States to the detriment of our health and society.

You attend a French Culinary Adventure to return to the heart of cooking. To reinvigorate the creative passion of instilling soul into our daily meals. To focus dinner back to an experience of good food and wine to be shared with friends and family over the course of an evening. You attend a French Culinary Adventure to incorporate an old philosophy into your lifestyle. This isn’t a French culinary vacation, but the experience of a lifetime.

It what ways do you incorporate the philosophy of French cuisine into your lifestyle?

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Bryan Richards is a food, travel, and craft beer writer. He has a passion for exploring regional food and drink and enjoys encouraging readers to discover new places and tastes in a way that inspires curiosity and motivation.  For more info, please visit The Wandering Gourmand.

Le Calabash in Dubaï

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What a magical few days we had in Dubai with friends Jane Northcote and Mikko Polkki of ‘The World Trade Centre’ where with our friends Caroline and Alexander, Château Valcreuse owners we had the opportunity to present ‘A French Culinary Adventure’ at a dinner in the spectacular ‘World Trade Club’ Dubai.
Thank you Jane, Mikko and the most wonderful team at The World Trade Club.
We will miss you, until next time.

Pomegranate at Le Calabash

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Cultivated for thousands of years, the pomegranate fruit has the wind in its sails in Europe for its rich antioxidant content in hundreds of colour vermilion seeds that blend perfectly for creamy preparations. At ‘le Calabash’ we are presently working on three recipes using Pomegranate or Grenadine Syrup to add into and share with our ‘Culinary Adventurers’ here in The Loire Valley France in 2015, including Alison’s Grenadine Macaron. 

Origin

Originally from Asia but cultivated in many tropical countries, the pomegranate also grows in the south of France. Appreciated in the past by the great travelers for its storage capacity, the pomegranate was best known for its refreshing virtues of juicy and pulpy flesh that imprisons small seeds called arils.

Use

The seeds are used fresh; you shouldn’t in any case try to cook them. Besides the fruity tartness they bring to creamy desserts, seeds, by their color and texture, enhance and give the dish added texture. As for the pomegranate juice, it can be used to make sorbets, coulis or as a basis for a marinade of pineapple or mango.

Culinary Ideas

If you like tangy and colour to brighten up your winter desserts, then bet on the pomegranate. It is delicious with an exotic fruit salad after a dinner party, or to give pep to a good rice pudding in sauce to accompany a sponge cake or sorbet with roasted pineapple. My favorite is a Panna Cotta or a vanilla Tiramisu generously topped with red beans in the center and on top..  Smooth and crisp at the same time, a great explosion in your mouth! Favor it raw because it loses much of its goodness when cooked, just remove the seeds. To do this, remove the top of the fruit, then the white cone, then cut into quarters and drop the seeds on a plate or, better, in water to use as they are. Be careful not to stain yourself!

Yuzu at Le Calabash

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Around the size of a small grapefruit, recognized by its slightly bumpy skin, Yuzu citrus is the trendiest ingredient of these last five years. It’s extremely fragrant zest inspires chefs, pastry chefs and even chocolatiers. At this time of the year we all steam ahead in creating and working on new dishes, using exciting and exotic ingredients as part of our week long ‘French Culinary Adventure’ with ‘le Calabash’ and 2015 will see us introduce our ‘Culinary Adventurers’ to the Yuzu.

Origin

Mistakenly called the Japanese lemon, Yuzu is the fruit of the tree eponymous that only produces this citrus fruit at its eighteenth year. Cultivated in Korea and Japan on the island of Shikoku, Japan’s fresh Yuzu is almost impossible to find in France for certain health reasons. Fortunately, it grows in our latitudes, and can be found in specialized boutiques.

Use

Rich seeds, not so juicy, Yuzu is often used for its zest, but nothing is lost in this citrus fruit. Cooked initially for savoury dishes, Yuzu made ​​a sensational debut in baking and chocolate making. The marriage with chocolate is even more compelling – the number of chocolate bars with dark chocolate and Yuzu is proof of this.

Culinary Ideas

Yuzu goes perfectly well with other citrus, such as lime or yellow lemon, tangerine and grapefruit. It strengthens their flavor by providing a touch of exoticism. It is very easy to integrate it into all sorts of preparations: such as the juice to flavour ganache, a sorbet or simply mix it with maple syrup or honey citrus to finish a fruit salad; purée to make fruit jellies or apricot-yuzu/grapefruit-yuzu combinations; grated zest in a sponge cake or a citrus cake filled with a yuzu curd; adds a natural aroma to flavour whipped cream; flavours for cocktails or for finishing a verrine. One can imagine a tart on a shortbread base, with a half-sphere of creamy yuzu and mini Swiss meringues to counteract the acidity and some lime zest grated on top.

Take a Walk on the Wild Side at Le Calabash

His accent is familiar, distinctly South African, a definite tie to his roots on the plains of Zululand, and yet there is something unique about it. At moments you start to sense some interesting fusion that has taken place… British, maybe, through the influence of his wife and his time spent in culinary school and working professionally in the UK. Or French, possibly, from his time spent in France since relocating to the Loire Valley where he and his wife decided to raise their family and where, in 2006, they began offering cooking lessons at Le Calabash.

Sidney and Alison, herself a pastry chef, chose to settle down in the French countryside, and not a major tourist center, because they appreciated the quality of life, natural beauty and traditional lifestyle that it facilitated. Surrounded by river on one side and forest on the other, their small village and surrounding region is home to artisan cheese producers and winemakers who’s families have been practicing their craft for centuries. Yet traditional is precisely how Sidney would not describe the style of his cooking or the types of cooking classes that they offer.

Like his accent, Sidney’s culinary focus could be described as some sort of exotic fusion. In fact, the whole philosophy behind Le Calabash is “Balade Gormande sans Frontière”… or Cooking without boundaries. Sidney feels that this phrase encapsulates so much of what sets Le Calabash apart from other cooking schools in France. “You can go just about anywhere in France to learn how to prepare Tarte tatin” he says. Instead, it is their unique focus on combining traditional French cuisine with flavours from around the world that brings people to Le Calabash. Even some French restaurants have sent their chefs to Le Calabash to learn a few exotic tricks from India, Asia or the Middle East.

When asked if being outside of the major tourist zone of Paris was a problem for business, Sidney responded that his clientele was quite different from the average tourist who attends a half day cooking class in Paris. Those who visit the Loire Valley and spend one or more days following an intensive cooking course are those who are serious about cooking and who choose to make cooking a central component of their holiday. He enjoys teaching a clientele who bring real and diverse passion for cooking. Today, his clients tend to come from the US, UK, Holland, Belgium & Australia. Their ages typically range from 27 through 65. He’s been impressed with the number of young professionals who visit and attend his courses. In the future, he’s also considering adding mulit-day or multi-week courses that would appeal to those training to be professional chefs.

But unlike other cooking schools where the focus might often be on maximizing the number of students taught, Sidney and Alison are happy to focus on providing a highly personalized and attentive experience for each of their guests. “Were scaling our class size back from an average of 6 down to 4 per class” he tells me and explains that they felt they were not able to provide enough personalized attention and coaching to each of their students when there were 6 per class. Sidney and Alison teach every class themselves & they tend to form long lasting friendships with many of their students. At nearly 50%, the mix of their students who come from repeat or word-of-mouth business is extremely high. Sidney claims that a big chunk of his time online is simply spent corresponding with past clients who check-in with questions or general correspondence to keep in touch with the instructors whom they have befriended.

When asked for his thoughts about the future of the cooking tourism industry, Sidney has questions about what role France will play going forward. He sees the demand in Europe moving towards places like Spain that embrace innovation and can capture the imaginations and shifting tastes of a tourist base always looking for new exciting experiences. He also anticipates great things ahead for developing regions such as China, where chefs are beginning to emerge with distinctive styles and where there is a blank slate and amazing opportunity to offer tourists something completely new.

On the plus side, he hopes the developing world will open up a whole new market of potential students, for whom France will always have the cache of being one of the world’s great culinary capitals. In any case, Sidney isn’t obsessed with doubling or tripling his business. He says he is perfectly satisfied with the business he and his wife have built over the past 4 years. Because their cooking facilities on their own property, he feels fortunate not to worry about excessive overhead or paying rent in low season. He feels lucky to be doing something he loves, surrounded by his family in a beautiful part of the world. He genuinely enjoys cooking and interacting with people from around the world who come for training. At Le Calabash, the number one priority seems to be providing an exceptional (but un-traditional) experience to those serious about cooking and those lucky enough to spend a cooking holiday in this tranquil part of France.