A Taste For Adventure
Top: Courtesy Cook Euro, Cooking Vacations, Susie Fishbein
Exploring The Jewish Culinary Travel Boom
Exploring The Jewish Culinary Travel Boom
Over Yom Kippur in Florence in 1994, Ralph Slone had an epiphany. Two years earlier, the New York financier had begun organizing culinary tours of Tuscany, and realized a kosher version could have mass appeal. He reached out to “the authority on Italian Jewish cooking,” Edda Servi Machlin, a Tuscan Holocaust survivor living in New York, and in the fall of 1995 they launched their first kosher cooking tour of Tuscany.
The partnership fizzled but the tours thrived, spawning two more - to Emilia Romagna and Provence, France - and marked the start of a burgeoning culture of hands-on Jewish food tourism.
Today, as kosher travel opportunities become more far-reaching and luxurious, and the horizons of domestic kosher cuisine expand, tour operators are launching ever more specialized cooking vacations to connect Jewish foodies to the flavors they love as well as to their heritage. Programs focus mainly on the culinary meccas of Western Europe and Israel.
“I have always loved cooking and always loved Israel,” says Randi Silvermintz, 51, who participated in kosher cookbook author Susie Fishbein’s first annual culinary tour of Israel two years ago with friends. “What could be better than pairing the two together!”
On Fishbein’s next weeklong celebration of Israeli cuisine, in February, participants will learn to make falafel, bread, and pretzels - the pretzels will be given to soldiers - and take a class with star chef Meir Adoni, who plans to open Nur, his first restaurant in the States, in New York this year. (His gefilte shrimp will not be on the curriculum.) Other highlights include a tour of Machane Yehuda’s graffiti art, beer tasting at Jerusalem’s boutique Herzl brewery, and the chance to dine in the dark at BlackOut Restaurant in Tel Aviv. ($3,875;
Feeling adventurous? Gibraltar-based Yaya Food & Travel Group is launching cooking tours of Jewish Sicily this year. In a kosher kitchen in the coastal city of Catania, groups will learn about the Jewish and Moorish influences on Sicilian cuisine. A highlight of the trip will be a visit to the oldest mikveh in Europe, dating to the Byzantine era, in nearby Siracusa. The town boasted 12 synagogues before the Jews were driven out by Spain, which ruled Sicily during the Inquisition.
Courtesy Susie Fishbein
Yaya also offers a weeklong kosher cooking tour in northern Spain, focusing on tapas and pinchos, or snacks. The company typically rents a farm on the outskirts of San Sebastian or Barcelona and kashers the kitchen. Groups source local markets for ingredients and invite locals from the Pyrenees for evenings of food, singing, and dancing. The brainchild of husband-and-wife team Aya Massias, an Israeli, and eighth generation Gibraltarian Isaac Massias, Yaya also offers Jewish heritage tours to Andalusia, Provence, Portugal, and Morocco, all with a day or two devoted to cooking local dishes. (Private groups only. Prices vary)
Chef Avicam Gitlin upped the ante last year with a new annual fall trip to Tuscany that included truffle hunting, pasta making, and Limoncello brewing. Traveling in the off-season rather than the crowded summer months has an added benefit: “You get to see the real Tuscany as the locals see it,” he says. “It gives you a sense of how people really live there and the people’s respect for their agriculture, their wines and their truffles.” Trip dates straddle the end of the grape and olive harvests and the start of truffle season, so participants can witness wine barreling, olive pressing, and other seasonal delights. (3,750 euros, $3,965)
Boston-based Cooking Vacations offers multi-day Jewish cooking trips in Florence, Lucca, Bologna, and Rome. For travelers on a tight schedule, the company offers daylong options of all tours. The newest, in Florence, is kosher; the others are kosher style, with the option to hire a mashgiach. Itineraries include a tour of a kosher Tuscan winery, visits to local synagogues and Jewish museums and food shopping at local markets. Menus change seasonally; participants may choose to make a complete Italian Shabbat dinner with challah. ($1,295 to $2,795)
Slone’s kosher tours follow a similar format. Classes are held at the Cordon Bleu in Florence, a farm house outside Bologna, and an estate in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, one of four towns where Jews were allowed to live in the 14th century, when popes resided in Avignon. (The others were nearby Avignon, Cavaillon, and Carpentras.) His web site lists official dates, but he can arrange the Italian itinerary year-round and the Provence program in the spring and fall. ($3,875)
For history buffs, Jewish food historian Joan Nathan will be leading an eight-day, non-kosher Jewish culinary tour of France in October with New York Times Journeys. American Jewish chef Daniel Rose of Le Coucou in New York and Spring Restaurant in Paris will introduce visitors to his newer Parisian eatery, La Bourse et La Vie, which opened in September 2015, as well as old Jewish recipes. Itinerary highlights include the medieval Jewish quarter of Avignon; the 14th-century Carpentras Synagogue; and a home-cooked Provencal Shabbat dinner in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, hometown of Jewish-born Nostradamus. ($7,995)
Alums agree that a perk of joining a culinary tour is the chance to make friends with likeminded people. “It was just a lot of fun to be with company that also liked to cook,” says Esther Cohen, a retired middle school dean from Brooklyn, who cooked in Florence with Slone two winters ago. She and Silvermintz say they have added recipes from their respective trips to their home repertoires. Silvermintz now makes hummus and tehina weekly, and regularly cooks lamb sineya - roasted eggplants stuffed with ground lamb and topped with her homemade tehina - to the delight of her family.
Travelers sign up at their own risk - of getting hooked. Silvermintz plans to join Fishbein’s tour again next month, along with her sister, sister-in-law, and daughter, who is studying in Israel.
“They are excited to see what I bragged about after the trip,” Silvermintz says. Next up, she hopes, is a cooking tour of Italy.