Recent customer analysis by travel ecommerce company Booking.com revealed that seventy five per cent of global travellers would likely travel somewhere known for its food and drink when choosing their next destination.
Whether it is an itinerary of Michelin star restaurant bookings, street food tours or cuisine based cookery classes, it is clear many of us want to eat our way around the world.
Booking.com’s chief marketing officer, Pepijn Rijvers says that culinary travel is an ever-growing trend, with travellers planning trips centred on taste-inspired exploration and seeking to fully immerse themselves in the local culture of which food plays a huge part.
“Not only are people looking for luxury gastronomic experiences, but also to sampling local and street food,” Mr Rijvers said.
Athens ranked number four in the top foodie destinations globally according to Booking.com.
Australian cities Melbourne and Sydney ranked sixth and seventeenth respectively.
Owners of Athens-based cookery school and food tour company The Greek Kitchen, Stephen Akehurst and Nevyana Kolarova opened for business in February this year and have been pleasantly surprised at the demand in such a short space of time.
Akehurst and Kolarova have converted an old inventor’s laboratory, a stone’s throw from the Athens Central Market (Varvakios Agora) in Athinas Street, into their cookery school and offices.
It’s a part of the city that on first glance looks to have taken a beating courtesy of the financial situation. However the streets hum with activity and are saturated in the lively spirit that typifies the people of Athens.
“We were tour leaders for travel companies before we started this venture and we have continued to work at those jobs because we thought we might be quiet in our first season but to be honest there have been times when we were needed in the business. We have been that busy,” Akehurst said.
Stephen, who grew up in a vegan household in Brighton, England, and Nevyana who hails from Bulgaria, assure me the fact that they are not from Greek backgrounds has not presented any issues with authenticity.
“We have Vasia,” Stephen says with pride.
“Vasia is Greek and runs our cookery class and leads some of the tours. She is an Athenian and a great cook. Our class groups love her.”
“I show the cooking groups some tips and tricks but we believe it is more fun and beneficial if they do most of the work themselves,” Vasia says.
“We show that you can cook great dishes in a simple and easy way,” Kolarova adds.
“We opened a business to wash dishes and go food shopping pretty much,” Akehurst says with a laugh.
Akehurst was a frequent visitor to the Greek capital before deciding to settle permanently and says the food quality was a big factor behind his desire to keep returning.
One thing you can learn from a culture is their relationship with what they eat.
“To me the Mediterranean is the best place to eat in the world. It’s about long meal times and it’s a family thing.
“When I walk around London I see people eating sandwiches out of a plastic box from a chain store.
“Here the produce is centred around the markets and it’s seasonal. If you walk around the markets here at the moment the colours are amazing. You will see the different coloured peppers and four different colours of eggplant,” Akehurst said.
“We get a lot of people from North America and they really enjoy the classes and the flavour of the food they cook but then they say they are sad that they can’t get the same level of quality in ingredients when they get home,” Kolarova adds.
“The presentation of Greek food is so simple but also so photogenic,” said Akehurst.
“Another reason for the boom in food tourism might be the great Instagram photos you can take,” he adds with a smile.
On a recent sojourn to Italy from Athens, Neos Kosmos met with a thriving food tour operator with plans to expand.
Sicilian Marco Romeo started his business four years ago combining his ‘three passions’ of travelling, Palermo and food to form Streaty Tours – street food tours of Palermo (featuring the famous spleen sandwich) and Catania in 2015.
“Food tours are a growing business for two reasons. Firstly food is on trend. On TV, radio, and online it’s all about cooking, eating, tasting, or swallowing for a challenge,” Romeo said.
“The second reason is that thanks to the web people know everything about their next destination. But knowing is one thing and experiencing it first hand is another. Technology can’t replace the guiding hand of a local,” Romeo emphasises.
“We want travellers to enjoy Sicily and know that cannoli isn’t a 365-day a year dessert and that granita isn’t made all over the island.
“Food tours combined with history give a complete overview of local culture. Monuments tell one part of the story and food tells another. It’s a great mix, listening to some history, enjoying some tasting and interacting with the food vendors.”
While globalisation and franchise retail stores have taken the diversity out of shopping with the same products being available in Athens or Adelaide, Marco believes that there is good news for food.
“Street markets are suffering at the moment from the competition of air-conditioned shopping malls but we all know that sooner or later the trend will go back to small retailer as is happening now in the United States.
“Globalisation is expanding the horizons of local cuisine. Twenty years ago nobody would have ever thought of topping an arincina with swordfish. Now we do it,” Romeo says excitedly.
On a steamy hot Athens Saturday morning we are on the tour with Nevyana from the Greek Kitchen, being led through the lively streets of Monastiraki, multicultural Omonia and rejuvenated Psirri stopping along the way to sample classic Greek staples such as koulouri, cheese pies and meze plates.
There is an opportunity to taste Greek spirits and liqueurs and check out some of the city’s best providores supplying everything from olive products to spices and cakes.
Significant buildings are brought to our attention including one of Athens’ last remaining underground restaurants.
The bustling central market is where we pick up supplies for a post-tour brunch and share a plate of fresh seafood at a hole-in-the-wall market outlet.
Sitting at a table on the cookery school balcony we tuck into the array of fresh ingredients with fellow tour participants Sarah and Dom from Australia via London.
Fittingly we find common ground in food stories and we part acknowledging our shared love of Greek cuisine.