I am one of those people who plans entire trips, not just single trips but year long journeys, around food. Street food, my favorite noodles, food I have never tasted, you name it. I can spend an entire travel day around finding a particular street stall or hailed food destination and skip a museum any time. So, when I started doing this while I travel, everything went up a notch.
Why not learn how to make your favorite foods of a region and savor your travel experience at home in your own kitchen? It was a tremendous start to a new kind of gratitude for travel. But last week, I came back from a trip that was unusually NOT centered around food but that confirmed for me once and for all, cooking classes are the best way to experience a country.
My family and I were in Croatia. Now mind you, this happens to be one of those rare times where I went to a country for something other than their food. Nothing against Croatia but I had heard food was just okay and It's not like I am looking up Croatian recipes on the weekends.
But I have done 11 cooking classes in 11 different countries so when it comes to traveling somewhere, I still think of it as one of my to-dos. I did find a cooking experience in the countryside with a Croatian family but wondered if it would really be that fun for us given that the menu didn't seem that spectacular or unique (especially for the two of us vegetarians in the family).
But kudos to my kids who were the ones who thought we should do it for sure as they have gotten so used to experiencing a new land this way. So we said what the heck, and went for it.
We drove out in the morning about 40 minutes into the Croatian countryside to a family's home on their own small working farm. The family consists of three brothers who all still live together with their wives and eight children between them and their mother, the sweetest and busiest grandmother you will meet. She cooks every meal for all fifteen of the household in shifts all day so the kitchen is her place of power.
We were greeted with some of their own homemade liqeur, fresh fruit candies made from their trees, and dried figs, of course from their own trees as well. After sitting for a while with one of the daughter-in-laws and talking, we went up to the kitchen and started making fresh bread with the grandmother. She spoke no English but between the daughter's English and the aid of pointing and gesturing, all five of us made our own fresh bread loaves with her in what seemed to be no time at all. (which of course left me wondering why it is a big affair for us to make fresh bread!)
Afterwards, we went out into their farm and picked the vegetables for the day, Tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, chicory, all while picking fresh figs along the way. We picked fresh eggs for the pasta we would make and all the while heard stories of what it was like to live through the war in the 1990's, what their life is like now, and how Croatia has recovered and still tries to recover from the past.
We made fresh pasta (again, lickety split!), vegetable soup, lamb skewers for the carnivores in our family (grilled of course on bay leaf skewers from their bushes and the meat from their farm), grilled vegetables, a divine plum and fig cake. We feasted with them on the food married with wine and olive oil from their own hands of course and this simple but fresh meal was stupendous.
But it wasn't the actual meal that confirmed for me that cooking classes are the way to go when you travel. It was the fact that this cooking class was the first of 12 I have taken where I had no goal of recreating the food (which doesn't mean that I didn't learn some great things in the kitchen we will recreate!). And yet, it was one of the best days of our trip.
Food is the absolute best way to connect to a new land and its people.
Food is the absolute best way to connect to EACH OTHER.
That day was a day of not just cooking.
It was a day of connection to the earth, to the food it produces, to people and how they live in a different region, to their history and their present, to my family around a new table of new offerings.
I am truly grateful for this way of traveling and highly recommend it on any next journey you take. Even if you think you don't need to learn the food...maybe there's something else you need to learn along the way.
Live (and cook) well,