Finding a country's heart through its stomach

Words: Lee Tulloch

I like the idea of taking a ‘foodcation.’ In fact, almost every trip I take is a foodcation of some sort. I find that the best way to experience a country’s heart is through its stomach – and through my stomach.

Whether I’m travelling to Hong Kong, Italy, Morocco, Turkey or Tasmania, it’s the thought of what I’m about to eat that stirs my anticipation, from the former King’s favourite hot chocolate churros in Seville to something as simple as crusty bread with salty butter in Paris.

I get less excited about three-star Michelin meals than I do about little noodle shops, family-run trattorias, fisherman’s shacks, food carts and the produce in supermarkets and farmer’s markets. This is where I find the genuine spirit of a place and have the opportunity to interact with locals away from the packaged unreality of the tourist trail.

I’m no foodie, just a food eater who occasionally bakes, but these days I’m increasingly drawn to food-focussed tours and excursions, travelling with small groups.  Frankly, much of this is about pleasure – I want know the best places to eat great pasta and delicious pastries and wash it all down with a fabulous local red – but I also know I’m going to get a more intimate glimpse of a society through the food it values, and it helps to be guided by someone who is of the place, who can draw together the strings of food and culture and history.

I’ve just returned from an outstanding food tour of Sicily with chef Alfredo La Spina and his wife Lisa, who own Bar Idda, a popular Sicilian restaurant in Melbourne. I want to give this young couple and their Savour Sicily Culinary Tours a shout out, not only because we had a rollicking good time over ten days, but because, through Sicily’s amazing food, Alfredo and Lisa gave me a far better understanding of the region and its complicated history than I might have if I’d gone alone with a guide book or toured with a historian.

The first question Mr Amos asks when we arrive at a destination is: where is the farmer’s market?

The southeastern city of Siracusa, for instance, was once the most important Greek city in the world (Archimedes was born there and it’s where Aristophanes wrote his plays) and has been at one time, over centuries, ruled by Romans, Arabs, Normans and the Spanish aristocracy. In the produce market in Siracusa’s historical district, Ortigia, past and present blend in the influences the different conquerors brought to the food, such the mozzarella smoked with almond skin that show the Arabic influence and the vine leaves from the Greek.

Travelling with a chef meant that the sellers were engaged in conversation about the region’s products and lots of samples were eagerly offered, from artisanal cheeses and sausages to local olive oils and wines. I always find there’s such a tremendous pride in their produce from merchants, especially when you have a chef like Alfredo on hand who speaks the language of food as well as place.

You don’t need to be especially interested in cooking to get a rich experience from a market tour. I love all the cooking tips the providores always seem keen to offer, but markets are also vibrant places and provide wonderful opportunities for photos, not just of stalls bursting with colourful vegetables but of colourful local people in candid situations. The first question my photographer husband, Mr Amos, asks when we arrive at a destination is: where is the farmer’s market?

Last year, we toured the Istanbul produce markets with Megan, an American cook who has lived in Istanbul for many years and who is a guide with Culinary Backstreets, which specialises in local food experiences.  While the Spice Market is an essential stop on most tourist itineraries, Megan took us on a ferry across to Kadiköy, to the lesser-known market on the cosmopolitan, Asian side of the city.

There, we sampled the best kebab in the city, and tasted meltingly sublime baklava from Bilgeoglu, one of Istanbul’s rival best pastry makers. Stopping at various stalls, we sampled amazing pickles, mezze and bonito. It was meeting all the local characters, including a jovial Shenol, a famous kebab maker who diligently tended his spike of layered meats and vegetables, that has really stayed with me.

Food starts conversations and breaks down the barriers of language. If you really want to know a place, take a tour with a chef or cook.

Lee Tulloch toured Sicily as a guest of Savour Sicily Culinary Tours and visited Istanbul’s markets as a guest of Culinary Backstreets.

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