If you travel a lot, you probably get tired of restaurant food, even if it is well prepared, not to mention the load on your budget. Why not add culinary adventure to your itinerary at any destination by tracking down the local farmers market or taking a culinary tour? From Mazatlán to Otavalo, Victoria to Turin, I find myself foraging for food at farmers markets or on culinary tours where the local products are exquisite, often unusual and guaranteed to be unavailable or expensive at home.
A few health and safety rules apply. The first rule of en route food safety is always wash produce thoroughly with safe water. Do not eat fresh salads in the market of a country whose water standards are questionable. And stall food, like quesadillas, tortillas and corn on the grill can be as safe as, and often healthier, than at home – no preservatives! Use your judgement – if the stall is clean, the food not overly exposed to open air, it is probably fine. If uncertain, ask other travelers where they like to eat in the market or watch where other travelers go.
Produce with rinds that must be peeled is always a safe bet. Bananas, (and the multiple varieties available are the best choice for market food in Ecuador) the sweet chiquitas, small as your index finger, are my favorite.
I mixed adventure travel and culinary joy with Yaca Amu Tours at the best market in Ecuador in the Andean city of Otavalo. Ask at the central textile market where the produce market is. “¿Donde esta el mercado de agricultura?” usually works for me. I have no idea if it is correct. If that doesn’t work, I usually add con carne, con frutas, con maiz…then they know what I am talking about. This market turned out to be about five blocks away.
This is truly where the locals shop, women sitting on sidewalks in traditional dress of ponchos and hats, grains and beans spilling out of sacks, naranjas (oranges) sweet as nectar, and bananas stacked a mile high. You may be the only gringo at the local market, so take a friend with you. The Otavalenos are the kindest people in the world but exercise your bargaining skills, it’s expected.
When traveling in Mexico, we stayed in old Mazatlán at the Siesta Hotel overlooking the ocean and Malecón, the famous walkway where from your balcony you can observe surfers, rock divers and the pulse of authentic life versus the artificial Gold Zone. Old Mazatlán is a myriad of streets with buildings dating back to the 16th century colonial era, with wrought iron balconies and shuttered windows alongside small plazas dotted about.
The biggest mercado in Mazatlán is a ten-minute walk from the Siesta. Straw hats are a specialty, but the produce and meat stretch forever. I do not buy raw meat en route – not only is it hard to prepare and store while traveling; the ever present flies at the markets are unappealing.
Avocados are pure magic in Mazatlán. We ate breakfast and lunch on market food – simple bread, cheeses (those in brine are safest) and fruits, and dined at good local restaurants in the evenings – fresh shrimp and other seafood. This meant ka-ching ka-ching in the savings department and every day was a fresh experience. Market vendors were calling me by name by the time we left!
A little known fact about Turin, Italy is that it is home to Europe’s largest outdoor market. From designer remainders to local prosciutto, cheeses, figs and all things Italiano. When I attended Slow Food International’s Terra Madre, an invitational gathering for farmers and foodies numbering 9,000, I found the on-site Salon del Gusto showcase of foods pricey and commercial.
Using a combination of basic Italian, Spanglish and hand gestures for directions, another delegate and I took a series of buses across town to the open-air market. Refreshing and the real thing, a good day was whiled away bargaining with vendors and sampling local fare. The sweet grapes were the size of golf balls, juice dribbling down my chin with every bite. The Piedmontese are very knowledgeable about all things food so take your phrase book but beware – watch your valuables. Someone tried to steal my bag on the bus. I was holding on tightly and felt her tug at it so I yelled, “Thief! Thief!” She quickly exited on the next stop. Another delegate had his passport and camera stolen on two different occasions. Pickpockets love crowds away and at home, so always be canny and aware.
Most cities and towns in North America seem to have at least one farmers market – they are so popular now for the food and the experience. Look up the local farmers’ market directory, usually available online. You will meet the people who grow your food, or at least your local food. If the food is not certified organic, ask how it was grown. If you are satisfied with the answer, then buy, buy, buy. Support the local economy, local culture and the essential ingredients to a good life at home or away.
Two of my favorite American markets are the Crescent City Market in New Orleans, a small but excellent market with fresh New Orleans crab, blueberries, watermelon and organic milk, within a few blocks of my favorite New Orleans stay – the W Hotel on Poydras Street, and Pike Place Market in Seattle, a lively seafront emporium that stretches for nine acres and was established in 1907. Sit with a mug of West Coast java and watch the ships roll by; enjoy fresh and cheap seafood, eateries, musicians and artists.
Culinary tours cut to the chase of regional cuisine and travel agents can link you up to one that suits your taste. In Victoria, BC local food expert Kathy McAree offers Travel with Taste tours of local hot spots. My favorite pitstop is Silk Road Teas in Chinatown. Owner Daniela Cubelic houses hundreds of teas and tea products for all occasions, including an exquisite certified organic Chai dark chocolate bar.
The Canadian Automobile Association is booking tours for Barcelona in October that includes local cooking classes. Harold Partain of epicopia offers culinary tours around the world.
I trust this small sampling of food adventures in the western world has whetted your appetite for more. You cannot truly experience a destination without experiencing the bread, butter and spice of the culture – its regional foods and cuisine.
Top photo: Plums at a market in NYC. Credit: See-ming Lee