FOOD TOURS, CLASSES OFFER TRAVELERS A TASTE OF LOCAL FLAVOR AND CULTURE
In a room overlooking the bustling boulevard of Las Ramblas, shrimp as big as my fist sizzled in olive oil.
My husband and I stood around the stove with a dozen tourists also visiting Barcelona, learning to cook paella from a charming Spanish chef named Llalo, who prefers to be called by one name —
Llalo taught us to grate tomatoes into the gazpacho instead of chopping them. He showed us how easy it is to clean shrimp by punching a hole in the shell and extracting the vein with a toothpick. He squeezed the goopy innards of a cuttlefish into the pan and proclaimed it the secret to paella bursting
Llalo led us through the tourists thronging the central boulevard of La Ramblas to the venerable La Boqueria. This central market already was on my must-see list, but Llalo provided an insider’s introduction while picking up the ingredients for the paella, gazpacho and garlicky tomato bread we were about to cook. He led us to the best kiosks where we chatted with the proprietors and bought giant tins of fruity olive oil and smoky pimentón paprika to bring home.
The array of sea creatures glistening on piles of ice were amazing. There were ostrich eggs and unfamiliar wild mushrooms, row upon row of freshly pressed tropical juices, hams from hogs that fed on oak acorns, and almonds everywhere. I couldn’t resist snacking on a paper cone filled with various sausages, cut into bite-size pieces and mixed with cubes of cheese. My espresso was served by a dapper octogenarian wearing a satin vest who’s known for spiking the coffee with brandy if he takes a liking to you.
Llalo’s market and kitchen tips were definitely useful but what was most valuable was the window that his class and market tour provided into the extroverted soul and culture of Barcelona.
On previous trips, I had avoided organized tours or even the audio guides available at museums, preferring to wander and discover on my own. Unable to travel much during my years raising three children, I finally had the opportunity to visit cities I had yearned to see, and wanted to make the most of my time and travel budget.
So on trips to Italy and Spain, I tracked down food-related tours that deepened my appreciation of how locals shop, cook and eat. I met people eager to share what they loved best about the cities where they lived. Their advice about where to eat and what to do helped me find more authentic and cost-effective experiences.
In Florence, an expatriate who had lived in Italy for many years took my husband and me for a progressive dinner, stopping for each course in a different nightspot, beginning with aperitifs and ending with gelato. Our guide, Coral Sisk, was so knowledgeable that her suggestions not only influenced our meal choices in Florence but in Venice and Bologna as well.
She talked about what it was like to try to assimilate among Italians. She taught me to take my morning espresso standing at the counter, bantering with the barista, and avoiding the additional charge to sit at a table. Coral helped me understand that restaurateurs who turned us away when we showed up without a reservation felt disrespected and that’s why they wouldn’t seat us, even though they had empty tables.
She also talked me into sampling a local delicacy, lampredotto, a sandwich that resembles roast beef and comes from the fourth stomach of a cow. I enjoyed the experience — although I much preferred the gelato.
While I learned my lesson late in life, hopefully others can reap the benefits earlier: Food tours and classes can provide a deeper appreciation of different cultures and a wonderful way to mingle with locals. Show genuine interest in what their lives are like, attempt to speak the language and share that most common of experiences — eating delicious and satisfying food together.