Thursday, 8 August 2013

Culinary travel: the how and why from an Australian food writer and chef

As a chef, cooking teacher and food and travel writer, I believe one of the most important things in life is to get out and experience different cuisines, ingredients and cultures. Travel, to quote the old adage, broadens your horizons – but not only in the traditional sense. Culinary travel lets you become a cultural anthropologist of sorts. People you meet along the way share ingredients, food, meals, and the community or family history tied to those things. Trying sheep pancreas in Argentina, liver soup in China or Umbrian wild boar sausages in Italy changes you more than you would think.

As a home cook and a professional chef, one of the most exciting things to do when first landing in a foreign country is to get to a local farmers market. I’ve just returned from New Zealand, and as soon as stepping off the plane I was in a fruit and vegetable store. I loaded my basket with bright purple and yellow kumara (a type of sweet potato), pale yellow local limes and small and gnarly orange ‘yams’, known as oca in the Andes where they were originally cultivated. In Italy, it is so easy to find fresh produce or homemade goods, sold by vendors in open-air markets or in little corner stores (alimentari). 

Don’t just eat out at restaurants, cook for yourself or with locals, try all the fresh produce you can and make hearty, homecooked meals. Italy is so conducive to an immersive culinary holiday – try a freshly made warm zeppola (filled donut); mozzarella made seconds before right in front of your eyes; or make a panino with handmade ciabatta, fill with freshly sliced prosciutto.

From a foodie and journalistic point of view, deciding to travel to a place is easy. Does it have a rich culinary heritage? Are there dishes and ingredients to try that are rare or not found elsewhere? Are there restaurants, chefs or experiences that I am keen to try? There aren’t many places in the world that don’t fit into these criteria. So from a culinary viewpoint, the world is our literal oyster.  Speaking of oysters, have you been to Wineglass Bay in Australia? You can wade out to a table in the water, drink wine, and pick your meal from the estuary below your feet.

Working this past year as head pastry chef at a restaurant run and staffed by a large group of Italians has instilled within me a passion to travel to Italy. Every night was a celebration of food and wine. We were fed from pots of ragu, bubbling on the stove for days, handed forkfuls of freshly made tagliatelle with just a drizzle of fine olive oil as we passed by the kitchen, and could be found ripping soft chunks of slow roasted pork off the bone after service at midnight, fat dripping down to our elbows onto the kitchen bench below. 
The Italian passion for food, fine produce, and quality was invigorating. There seems to be so much to discover – I couldn’t help myself - it is now booked in as my next travel destination. I can’t wait to learn new dishes, try new ingredients, and eat meals made with the actual produce they were invented to highlight. 

Lani is a pastry chef and media professional based in Melbourne, Australia. She is the creator of food and travel blog Fig & Walnut (, a published food journalist, and was a production coordinator and writer on culture and culinary history documentaries for Australian television station SBS.

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