Serving up culinary tourism in B.C.
It might be walking with "the seaweed lady" along a rocky beach on Vancouver Island, tasting winged kelp and then going back to a well-stocked restaurant kitchen to create and enjoy a salad featuring same. Or gathering stones to heat and steam pork and potatoes underground for a traditional Maori "hangi" after watching a ceremonial dance. Or harvesting a few handfuls of grapes, the purple fruit nestled like hidden treasures amongst the leaves, before enjoying a meal of perfectly paired offerings, featuring wines from the vineyard youve just "worked" and food from nearby farms.
Its called culinary tourism and its touted by its promoters as the latest, the sexiest, the hottest trend in food and tourism. In short, the answer to breathing new life into a tourism industrys battered profit margins since the world at least the fortunate members of the high-disposal-income-globe-trotting western world bunkered down post-9/11.
The first international conference on culinary tourism, held in Victoria last week, attracted about 100 participants from across North America to hear delegates, primarily from Canada and the US. This in itself was a bit ironic given that North America is a little behind in the culinary tourism department, while South Africa, Australia and New Zealand are considered leaders (some of the best info came from two well-informed Kiwi presenters).
While it was a real mixed bag of participants, some of us were there simply to see what this culinary tourism is all about ("experiential moments that build memories", "the five senses" and, what I consider to be foodism at its worst, "bragging rights" to hot new places, dishes, chefs). All this was backed up by, amongst other things, some pretty sound academic research including wine/food consumer demographics and specialized consumer needs, as well as one staccato presentation on how best to "build" a CT (culinary tourist) attraction to take advantage of all the above.
So is culinary tourism truly a hot new trend, or simply another tourism sub-industry/marketing tool to generate optimism amongst, not to mention membership fees from, chefs, tour agents and restaurant managers?
Erik Wolf, director and creator of the Portland-based International Culinary Tourism Association and the man behind the event, is honest enough to admit that the concept is not new. After all, people have been travelling, sampling novel cuisines and looking for memorable cultural/sensory experiences for centuries. Without calling it as much, Italy and France even cities like New Orleans, have long been exporting their considerable reputations as culinary tourism destinations. People literally go there just to eat or, more romantically, dine on the palate-pleasing offerings. Think exotic, if youre not a local, and erotic, either way.