When visiting a new place, the absolute worst thing I can do is get stuck in tourist traps, especially when it comes to eating out. Sure, I want to visit those “Top 10 places to see while in ______.” Who doesn’t? But for my food, give me authentic, all the way. I want to eat where the locals eat. I want to dine at those obscure places that have been passed down through the family for decades, even centuries, where they still make everything with their hands. The thing about these kinds of places, though, is that they don’t usually pop up on Google searches, have no Facebook page seeking your “Like,” or a TripAdvisor profile is nowhere to be found. What’s even more is that they are the kinds of places that are tucked away in small, hard to pronounce communities that you can only usually luck up on. For these reasons, I have come to depend on food tours to give me my food bearings when I visit a new city. With summer coming to an end, here are three reasons why you should make a food tour your top priority during your upcoming fall and winter holiday vacations.
Experience authentically prepared food
My very first food tour was a year ago during my visit to Rome, Italy. It was so amazing that I quickly regretted not being privy to this type of experience when I visited Paris and London years earlier. I was quite happy that I came across the food tour while preparing for my trip to Italy, though, as Italian food is probably the #1 replicated type of food that we have in the US. There is pizza, pasta dishes, bruschetta, gelato, tiramisu, and lasagna, to name a few. There are a number of American-made restaurants that have gained popularity by selling “Italian food,” although I will name no names. Sadly, for many, American-made Italian food and other types of food that the US has tried to replicate, will be as close as they get to the real thing. The Eating Italy Food Tour that I had the opportunity to be part of introduced me not only to authentic Italian food and off the beaten path restaurants, but I also had an opportunity to learn about the small Testaccio community, which is made up of hard working Italian families. Our group visited the local market where residents bought their meats, cheeses, fruits, and vegetables. It was the kind of place “where everyone knows your name.” I had al dente pasta for the first time, and was quite smitten. I now find it completely unforgivable to eat pasta cooked any other way. I had amazing fresh cannoli, and learned that the filling should only be added to the shell when it is ready to be served and eaten. Any other way is punishable by an eye roll. I didn’t understand why everyone loved bruschetta so much until I had it the Italian way: a fresh piece of garlic rubbed across the bread before topping it with the freshly made tomato topping. I saw tiramisu and lasagna in a new and tasty way. A way that I could have only been introduced to through a local or a really awesome food tour.
Learn the history behind the food
Cuatro Sombras Café is a family owned restaurant in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico that serves 100% Puerto Rican coffee that it produces from its very own coffee plantation. Years ago this would have been nothing major as there were 100s of coffee plantations around the island during that time, but now there are less than 40 of them. The coffee is brought to the café whole and is ground only after an order has been placed. This is to preserve the quality of the coffee. I’m sure that I could’ve found this little tidbit of information somewhere on the Internet after some intense research, but who has time for that? If it weren’t for the recent tour we took in Puerto Rico through the Old San Juan neighborhood, we probably would have never even come across this small coffee shop, and I’m pretty sure no one would have stopped to give us a history of not only Puerto Rican coffee but of the shop and its owners. During our time with the Flavors of San Juan Food Tour, we also learned that years ago black beans and rice was a dish for the economically advantaged because of the expense associated with importing the ingredients. We also got a lesson in the history of the piña colada and had a glass at the restaurant where it was created.
Get a good history lesson along with your food
While walking through Old San Juan headed to our next place to eat, we saw the narrowest house in the Western hemisphere and learned about the Good Health Chapel and took pictures of its residing altar made completely of silver. While waiting for our empanadas to come out, we were given a short history lesson about the colorful coconuts hanging on the wall that were carved into scary masks. We laughed upon learning that they were used to scare people into going to church. In between tastes of gelato and cornetti in Italy, we visited the The Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Testaccio where we saw the gravesites of Antonio Gramsci, of whom I had based one of my research papers on in years past, and the famous poet John Keats, to name a few. We learned the intricate and detailed way that Monte Testaccio was created and visited a restaurant that was built right into the mound where it housed its wine collection. As I’ve learned from the food tours that I’ve experienced, a good tour should also include historical information of the city that you are eating your way through.
Food tours have become my go-to excursion when visiting a new city. Food is probably the best way to learn about a culture. It is where a culture’s personality, character, and history come shining through. Whatever trip you have planned, I recommend finding a food tour that can give you a good overview of all the city has to offer. Even more so, I recommend scheduling the tour within the first couple of days of arriving at your destination. This will give you the opportunity to see what you like then keep going back for more until its time to depart. Not planning a vacation anytime soon? Take a food tour in your very own city! It will introduce you to a side of your hometown that you’ve never seen before.