By Marsha Fottler –
It’s a fact, culinary destination travel is on the rise as more food and wine lovers realize that one of the best ways to discover and fully experience a country and its culture is through the pleasures of the table. Sharing food and wine in a convivial setting just naturally leads to international friendships, geographic knowledge and new insights, not to mention a collection of new recipes to try at home.
If you set out with an open mind and a curious palette, your trip will be a success, although a little research before packing can’t hurt, if only to determine the kind of travel you want – biking, boating, train or rented car. You may want lots of walking tours with an experienced guide. Or you may prefer to wander by yourself with just your favorite guidebook in hand and recommendations from your favorite food and wine writers.
Once in a strange land, the boldest cuisine risk taker will seek out street food. My brother wandered the streets of several cities in China last year and still has no idea what he ate, although he went back several times to the same vendor for a bowl of soupy gray breakfast-something that he was sure included entrails. He pronounced the concoction delish. My son swears by the street food of Rome and can now make several of those tasty bites himself. I’m working my way through a lovely cookbook I bought in Arles, although the measurements conversions and the translations from French to English are proving to be both amusing and challenging.
Last month four of us (two American married couples) booked a week-long wine and cuisine cruise down the Rhône River in France aboard Le Phénicien, a river boat-hotel that can accommodate a maximum of 18 passengers with a live-aboard French crew of six. While slowly floating down the Rhône and stopping at both small villages and larger towns where there are vineyards and wineries to experience, we travelers learned about the history, culture, food and wine of the area.
Leaving from Avignon, nine of us “culinary sailors” traveled through Provence to the wild and nationally protected region of the Camargue where the Rhône empties into the Mediterranean. We enjoyed three meals a day in the graciously appointed grand salon of
Le Phénicien. These meals (breakfast and lunch buffet and a served supper), were orchestrated by Chef Thierry Gustao and the dinner meals were organized to pair with the wines we tasted and evaluated during the day at the local vineyards.
Our guide through each vineyard wine tasting was acclaimed consultant Céline Viany. This was definitely a cruise structured specifically for passionate food and wine people and there was always a lot of talk and questions about terroir, weather (a rainy and cool spring has vineyard owners in that part of France apprehensive about the harvest this year), government regulations, oak barrels and such.
One of our group of nine explorers (we were all Americans) is a renowned gourmet cook in her hometown of Alabama. Another couple farm blueberries and make their own wine. Another was interested in recipes for culinary lavender. Bee-filled fields of fragrant lavender were in glorious bloom in Provence along with gigantic sunflowers. All of us were there to learn about regional food and wines in the most delightful way – seeing the countryside, exploring ancient cities, talking with experts, drinking wine at multiple vineyards every single day, and eating gourmet meals prepared with local fresh ingredients.
Bulls are raised in the Camargue and one evening we all ate bull shoulder in a full-bodied sauce. The wine was a hearty red. There was always a new cheese to try at breakfast, lunch and dinner. All of us took notes, swapped taste impressions, and took pictures with our phones. Chef Thierry supplied recipes when we asked. Boat Manager Michel Corbalan kept the party lively and the youngest crew member Julien Coulon did a daily chalk board of our land schedule and of the menus for the boat meals. Daily maid service for the nine cabins (which were surprisingly roomy and totally convenient) meant we were pampered. This was not a “roughing it” vacation but it certainly expanded our horizons and admittedly, a few waistlines too.
Le Phénicien offers many kinds of boat tours, but for travelers wanting authentic food and wine experiences, this week-long cruise yielded exactly what we nine travelers craved – education, new social connections, and a sublime time experiencing the pleasures of the table in gorgeous southern France.
Here are authentic recipes from Provence to inspire food and wine travel.
(a lovely little snack with a glass of wine and a dish of black olives. French happy hour!)
5 slices of bread of your choice
1 small jar of anchovy paste
Cover the slices of bread with the anchovy paste. Beat the eggs in a shallow dish. Dip the bread slices into the beaten eggs and then lay the bread slices onto a baking dish and dribble about ½ teaspoon of olive oil on each slice. Bake in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes. Serve at room temperature.
Quail With Figs
4 slices smoked bacon
salt and pepper
Wrap each quail with a piece of bacon. Season with the salt and pepper. Pour some olive oil to cover the bottom of a heavy and deep pan and sauté the quail for about 30 minutes over medium heat. Remove the quail, put aside and keep warm. Quarter the figs, without cutting through to their base, and place them in the pan with the quail juices and oil. Cook for 10 minutes. Remove the bacon from the quail and serve the birds surrounded by the sauce and the figs.
(great snack or serve with a big tossed salad for lunch)
2 cups and 2 tablespoons flour
6 ounces pitted rough-chopped olives (black, green or both)
8 ounces chopped ham
6 ounces chopped cooked bacon
1 ½ cups grated gruyere cheese
1 ½ tablespoons baking powder
½ cup white wine
½ cup olive oil
Pepper to taste
Mix the flour and baking powder, then add the eggs, the white wine and the olive oil. Mix until smooth. Then add the chopped ham, bacon, olives, grated cheese and pepper. Pour into a greased loaf pan and bake in a 350-degree oven for about an hour until a tester comes out clean. Cool, remove from pan, slice and enjoy.
Summer Vegetable Bake
(fresh from the garden or farmer’s market)
1 large eggplant
3 medium size potatoes
3 ripe tomatoes
2 sweet onions
1 small bunch of fresh thyme
salt and pepper to taste
Cut all the vegetables into thin rounds. Put 3 tablespoons olive oil into the bottom of a glass baking dish and start layering the vegetables, first the onions, then potatoes, eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes. Each layer should be lightly sprinkled with salt, pepper and crumbled thyme. Continue until you’ve no more vegetables, finishing with tomatoes and two tablespoons of olive oil. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 35-40 minutes. This is a great side dish to serve with grilled chicken, pork or fish.
Enjoy the complete photo gallery below:
Web sites to investigate if a French food and wine cruise is on your travel menu:
Le Phénicien Barge-Hotel
Céline Viany, wine consultant