NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Fine food has always been a prime reason to leave home. For many tourists, epicurean delights are a main ingredient in their recipes for vacation fun.
To sate Americans' hunger for all things gastronomic, food touring has grown apace.
Noelle Weyer, of Menlo Consulting Group, a market research firm for the travel industry, says her company found that 16.8 percent of Americans responded positively when asked whether they would be interested in journeying to a foreign country for a week or more on a food tour. That means more Americans would travel to get fine food than for fine culture; meat sauce trumps Mozart.
Linda Cabasin, of travel publisher Fodors, says there are several reasons for the current fascination with food travel:
- More Americans want authentic travel experiences, and sampling regional cheeses, beers, or pastas can be an important part of that. Special food can make great memories. Seeing a local food market or going to a food festival can be as enlightening as going to another museum.
- Blame it on the Food Channel or the deluge of celebrity chefs, but more people are food conscious.
- People also sense that good local food is "endangered," meaning that regional differences are becoming blurred. They're seeking out great southern specialties in the United States, for example, or the special ale in Britain's Lake District that they will find nowhere else.
- Tourism boards have made it easier to find more culinary experiences than ever. It's good business. And tour operators have created many new itineraries for food travel aficionados.
Catherine Merrill, founder of Epiculinary, a culinary travel agency in Lake Bluff, Illinois, started arranging food tours eight years ago after noticing that many of her clients were especially interested in that aspect of travel. She draws most of her clients from two main groups: young career women and baby-boomer couples. A typical tour includes visits to wineries and olive oil presses, lessons in cooking local cuisine, and shopping in farmer's markets.
Travel agent Marlene Iaciofano launched her culinary tour operation, Gourmet Getaways, after she herself enjoyed a culinary vacation. All of her tours involve cooking lessons from great regional chefs in Italy.
Most of Iaciofano's clients have already seen Rome, Florence, and Venice and are ready for something different. "People don't want to go on the normal tour," she says. "They want to get more into the heart of the country."
Culinary tours can get quite specialized. EuroAdventures has a six-day holiday called "The Route of the Spanish Iberico Ham," which takes pig-loving tourists to the home ground of Iberia's premier meat treats.
Two Bordelais, run by Denise and Jean-Pierre Moullé, a former chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, offers a week-long truffle tour to southern France. Visitors learn pretty much all they might want to know about black truffles.
Even more decadent is the chocolate-lovers tour recently started by Greta Inowlocki of inTrend International Travel. It's a seven-day immersion in the cacao culture of Belgium, a land that Inowlocki calls "paradise on earth for chocoholics." The trip includes gift-boxes of specialty candy, a three-course chocolate lunch, and visits to the kitchens of noted chocolatiers.
One of the most attractive aspects of many culinary tours is their intimacy. The Moullés, for example, offer dinners in private homes and chateaus. "We try to do things that travelers could not arrange themselves," says Denise.
After 18 years in the business, they have made many clients into friends, and Denise says the couple is often asked to design new itineraries so clients have new tours to take. They recently, for example, debuted an eating tour of South Africa.
Merrill began to book tours within the United States in 2001 and many quickly became popular. Her top domestic destinations include California's wine country, New York City, Santa Fe, and, for the Cajun cooking, Lafayette, Louisiana.
Of course, the United States has a rich diversity of ethnic and regional cuisines. Food festivals around the country -- shrimp gumbo in Rockport, Tex., crabs in Maryland, garlic in Gilroy, Calif. -- highlight these niche markets. Cabasin says festivals "whet the appetite," says Cabasin. "They're unique and quirky and fun."
Italy seems to be the foreign destination of choice. One reason is that "Italians started the cooking vacation craze," according to Merrill.
Many of these tours, especially the European ones are not cheap. They usually involve small groups, very comfortable, if not luxurious, accommodations, and, of course, excellent cooks.
Iaciofano's tours run from about $2,300 to $3,500 per person for a week. Seven days spent with the Moullés starts at about $3,800.
A true gourmet may call it money well spent.