Although we can’t travel internationally now, Charley and I are enjoying traveling at home through memorable meals. This is one of several ways we’re creating positive moments in this unexpected year of 2020.
In an alternate universe of pandemic-free 2020, I’d actually be at home right now, in between the spring/summer and autumn seasons of our European Experiences groups. I would have already enjoyed nine trips – in Cornwall, Provence, Tuscany, the Dordogne and the Cotswolds – and I’d be looking forward to five more groups in September and October, returning to Cornwall and Provence and welcoming two groups for our new Experience trip in Puglia.
During those first nine groups, I’d have enjoyed 66 bountiful breakfasts and almost 100 lunches and dinners with our groups at restaurants, cafes, private homes, and picnic spots, featuring local products and specialties. (Each trip usually includes three meals on your own.) Fortunately I’d also be walking several miles a day to help balance all that good eating!
Sadly, I’m not in Europe this year enjoying wonderful meals with our enthusiastic travelers, but grounded at home in Knoxville, Tennessee. Charley and I haven’t eaten in a restaurant since mid-March, and during the past five months we’ve only shared socially-distanced meals at home with a handful of friends.
Memorable meals are still part of my life, just in a very different way. I’ve watched countless hours of Food Network shows, Somebody Feed Phil, and The Great British Baking Show. I love to cook and I’m sure I’ve cooked more in the past five months than in the past 10 years. I’m having fun grocery shopping with Charley, planning menus, studying recipes, preparing interesting dishes, and savoring almost every meal. Many thanks to sweet Charley who handles the less-fun kitchen cleanup.
We especially enjoy meals that bring back memories of special places and people in Europe and enable us to have a travel experience. Every few weeks since late April we’ve planned and prepared a meal dedicated to the place we would have been with our groups. We haven’t been there in person, but through food and countless memories, we’ve traveled to Cornwall, Provence, Tuscany, the Dordogne, and the Cotswolds.
Meals featuring local cuisine and food specialties are always an important part of a European Experiences trip. Most of our trips involve a week in one place, an opportunity for an immersion in the local culture. Learning about local food and trying regional specialties is one part of that immersion. Everything about eating communicates something about culture: what people eat, how they acquire it, who prepares it, who’s at the table, the structure and timing of meals. The attitudes, practices, and rituals surrounding food offer a window into a culture.
Our groups share meals together in a variety of settings: fine restaurants, small cafés, tea rooms, private homes, and outdoor picnics. During our Experience weeks we learn about local products, farming, wines and beers, dining customs, and cooking. We visit farms and wineries and talk to the owners. Our meals in the homes of our local friends are always so appreciated and provide us a real window into the culture.
Food Tells Us About Culture
“Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
– Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1825)
Food represents tradition and heritage. Before food could be refrigerated and easily transported (and before some foods and restaurant chains became internationalized), people ate what they could grow locally. Traditional cuisine continues to be passed down from one generation to the next, an expression of cultural identity. So, for example, in the north of France – where there’s plenty of feed for cows – butter and cream are important in the cuisine. In the southwest, they cook with duck or goose fat. And in Provence, a Mediterranean climate, cooking is based around olive oil. There are similar examples all over Europe.
Since we started our European Experiences small group tours in 2006 (120 groups so far), Charley and I have shared over 2,000 meals with our groups in France, Italy, England, Austria and Germany: 950+ breakfasts and 1,150+ lunches and dinners. It’s a staggering number but represents so many truly memorable meals prepared for us with care and shared around the table with others.
So this year we’ve traveled at home, re-creating meals we’ve enjoyed and remembering special people and experiences in Europe. Whenever possible, we included products and recipes from the area, using many recipes shared with us by our local friends. We featured beverages we would have enjoyed in each place, including many wines we’ve brought home over the years. I decorated our table using linens and dishes that matched the meal, often treasured purchases from our travels.
Take a culinary journey with us as we enjoy traveling from home through memorable meals:
Traveling at Home through Memorable Meals in England
In April we celebrated Cornwall with a seafood meal of grilled prawns and scallops (using my favorite Cornish Sea Salt), served with almond rice and fresh asparagus. We began with a Gin and Tonic, using Brockman’s gin imported from England. For dessert we had fresh strawberries and cream.
For our anniversary on May 2 (which we had planned to celebrate in London, where we had our honeymoon), we enjoyed an English cream tea with homemade scones, strawberry jam, and clotted cream.
As a large farming area, the food in the Cotswolds is outstanding and most of it locally-sourced. Our favorite traditional British meal is Steak and Ale pie, and we love the Sticky Toffee Pudding from the Lygon Arms in Chipping Campden. But I had fixed that meal for Valentines Day and we decided to do something different for our Cotswolds meal in late July. Our Cotswolds meal was inspired by the great cooking at our much loved inn and pub, the Lygon Arms. We began with a Pimms cocktail and a starter of fried brie with cranberries. Our main course was cottage pie with honey-roasted carrots. And we finished with a traditional dessert of Eton Mess (strawberries, meringue and whipped cream).
Traveling at Home through Memorable Meals in France
Our first meal from the Luberon region of Provence was inspired by our good friend Pierre who has prepared more than 100 dinners for our groups at his lovely hotel in Bonnieux. Thanks to Pierre and his assistant Sophie for sharing some of his recipes. We began with my favorite aperitif of Provence, RinQuinQuin, a peach liquor. Our three-course meal was Pierre’s “Clos du Buis salade,” his filet mignon de porc (pork tenderloin) with roasted vegetables and a gratin dauphinois, and his “Mont Ventoux” cheesecake. We have quite a few bottles of wine from the Luberon in our home cellar, and we enjoyed a red from Château la Canorgue.
Two weeks later we enjoyed another Luberon meal, this one inspired by our close friend Janice. She’s hosted all our Luberon groups for dinner at her home. Janice shared her recipe for her wonderful “daube de bœuf,” a kind of beef stew from Provence, which we served with mashed potatoes. We began with gazpacho and I made a cherry clafoutis, a very typical dessert for that time of year. Charley selected another Château la Canorgue wine, Coin Perdu.
For our Périgord meal in late June, I found some excellent traditional recipes online. This was a five-course meal! We began with a tourain blanchi d’ail (garlic soup), then some Périgord pork pâté (found in a specialty supermarket here). Our main course was blanquette de veau (a veal stew) with white rice. We had a cheese course of brie with cherry jam. And I made a “charlotte fraise” for dessert, a type of strawberry mousse cake. We had a Monbazillac sweet wine with the pate and enjoyed a bottle of Château Terre Vielle from the Pécharmant wine region near Bergerac.
Traveling from Home through Memorable Meals in Italy
We really enjoyed meals highlighting the Chianti region of Tuscany, drawing on recipes from our good friends there. We used the structure of a traditional Italian meal with multiple courses.
Our first meal was inspired by the special meals hosted by our dear friends Rita and Rosita at their home Castello di Colognole. It was fun to use recipes from Rita’s cookbook. We fixed her fried artichokes, rosemary and sage for our antipasti. For the primi: tagliarelle with Rita’s roasted tomatoes. The secondi: veal with prosciutto and sage (saltimbocca) served with potatoes with herbs and garlic and sautéed spinach. For dolci: vin santo from Castello Sant’Andrea (a dessert wine) and catuccini almond biscuits (special small biscotti from this region). We drank prosecco as our aperitif and enjoyed a very special bottle of Chianti Classico riserva from Castello di Volpaia with our meal. (It was a good thing we didn’t need to drive, because we finished with limoncello!)
Our second Tuscan meal was inspired by our good friend Stefania, who leads wonderful cooking classes for our groups. We used Stefania’s cookbook and recipes, drawing on what we’ve learned observing her classes for ten years. We began with bruschetta. Our pasta was spinach and ricotta ravioli with butter and sage sauce. For our meat course I fixed Giulietta’s chicken with orange from her cookbook, served with colorful peperonata and Tuscan white beans. And for dessert – tiramisu made with vin santo. We enjoyed a bottle of Vernacia di San Gimignano from Castello Sant’Andrea (a white wine) for our first courses and then a bottle of Vallone di Cecione Chianti Classico from our friend Francesco’s winery with our meat. We visit both of these wineries with our groups.
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Since we’re now at home through the fall, we’ll be traveling at home through memorable meals again soon: another Cornwall meal, a Luberon meal or two, and an Italian meal from Puglia. And anticipating 2021, we’ll also make an Alsatian meal. It’s definitely not the same as being there… and we really miss sharing meals with a group of fellow-travelers in England, France or Italy… but this has been a fun project for this unexpected year at home.
Read more blog posts about memorable meals on our European Experiences trips:
Kathy and Charley Wood founded European Experiences in 2006 European Experiences, offering week-long “slow tours” in some of the most beautiful areas of Europe. They have personally hosted 124 Experience groups. Their trips include The Luberon Experience in Provence, France, named one of the top 50 tours in the world by National Geographic Traveler magazine.
Kathy hosts Experience weeks in the Luberon, the Chianti region of Tuscany, Puglia, Alsace, the Dordogne, and the Cotswolds. Charley is now mostly retired but continues to co-host two longer tours with Kathy: The European Christmas Experience (12 days) and The Cornwall Experience in southwest England (10 days).
Kathy has been traveling in Europe for 30 years and loves sharing her special places in Europe with other travelers. The Woods have a second home in their beloved village of Bonnieux in the Luberon. Read more about Kathy and Charley here.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.