I few years ago friends invited me to visit the Brome—Missisquoi for a sybaritic weekend of dining and wine tasting along The Wine Route (La Route des Vins). Although I’ve lived in France and Italy—two countries celebrated for their gastronomic and oenological heritage—the concept of gastro tourism was new to me.
Since then I’ve rattled on about it whenever anyone would listen. More precisely, I’m fascinated with the possibility of Essex becoming a regional hub for gastro tourism in the Adirondacks’ Champlain Valley. And yet I’ve never posted about my gastro tourism pipe dream on the Essex blog. Consider it an act of omission, not an act of commission, and lend me a couple of minutes to correct the oversight now.
What is Gastro Tourism?
I’m an eager amateur when it comes to gastro tourism, so I’m going to rely on wiser resources and pundits to avoid leading you astray. In simplest terms gastro tourism (aka gastro-tourism or gastrotourism) refers to “recreational travel undertaken solely or primarily to experience the food and wine of a region“.
[Gastro tourism is] an interest in the culinary life of a city where food and drink, rather than museums and sights, represent an increasingly powerful tourist draw. (Financial Times)
The Adirondacks and Lake Champlain draw travelers in large part because of the pristine natural resources and abundant outdoor recreational opportunities they afford. And Essex often attracts visitors because of its well-preserved architectural heritage. But what if local food and drink began to attract tourists? I believe that it can. I believe that “astronauts” (gastrotourists) may already be drawn to Essex and environs in pursuit of organic, locally grown and produced victuals.
Gastronaut. One who travels primarily or exclusively to enjoy the restaurants and specialty foods of a region. (Travel Industry Dictionary)
Gastrotourists… [which] means that we will be eating a lot, and if we’re not eating, we will be thinking about food… (Consider Bardwell Farm)
Certainly a steady stream of visitors are drawn to Essex in response to The Dirty Life, Kristin Kimball‘s chronicle of CSA farming in Essex, NY. Full and By Farm, Reber Rock Farm, B&B Beef, and other nearby farms are contributing to recognition of our area as a local food mecca. This winter diners have been flocking to the Essex Inn to enjoy Keith Castro’s regional delicacies. The Old Dock House Restaurant and Chez Lin & Rays attract boaters from distant shores eager to enjoy seasonal waterfront dining. The Essex Ice Cream Cafe, Essex Provisions and The Pink Pig also offer visitors enticing treats.
And there are additional if less obvious culinary enterprises that may entice visitors including Flying Pancakes Catering, Farmstead Catering, DAK Bar, and the Grange Co-packer Cooperative. And Willsboro, Wadhams and Westport offer even more! (And I’ve undoubtedly overlooked some, so please add your suggestions in the comments below. Thanks.)
How and when all of these food oriented enterprises might begin collaborating toward offering a more integrated form of gastro tourism is anybody’s guess. But I’m going to keep urging and encouraging in the hopes that a shared vision might emerge. And another related on my gastro tourism wish list? Local wine. Local beer. Imagine a year-round “Spirited CSA” that offers members a weekly pickup ranging from various locally sourced beers, ciders, wines, meads, brandies, etc. Sign me up!
And given the relative success of producing local wines in the Brome—Missisquoi, I am optimistic that our more temperate shores could produce award-winning bacchanalian bottlings.
Beyond Farms and Restaurants
Envisioned through the eyes of gastro tourism, all sorts of exciting possibilities for sustainable year-round enterprise come to mind. Imagine a boutique cooking school with short courses on how to work with seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. And think of packaging a weekend stay at the Cupola House or the Essex Inn with a hands-on immersion class in maple sugaring. Or a foraging adventure harvesting wild ramps, fiddleheads or chanterelles a local guide… The options are endless. And exciting!
Travellers are looking for authentic cultural experiences through gastronomy, ditching the popular cooking school in favour of having a home-cooked feast with the locals… (Gastro tourism is all the go)
Essex offers authenticity in spades, and our blossoming local food movement might well represent the single most important economic opportunity to market our cultural authenticity in decades.
“Gastronomy extends beyond what we eat and drink – the actual products – to include how we eat, where and when we eat, and most importantly why we eat the foods – in the way we do… Gastro-tourism is a means by which visitors can begin to learn about and appreciate a different culture. Food tourism suggests a focus on cuisine and restaurants… emphasis on the products – gastro-tourism takes advantage of the wider scope of the term gastronomy, and therefore has the potential to capture a wider range of tourism activities as well as better describe the kinds of experience that travellers motivated by an interest in food and drink, eating and drinking, actually seek”. ~ Prof. Barbara Santich of Uni. Adelaide (KiwiWise)
Is Gastro Tourism a Golden Egg?
In some respects gastro tourism sounds like a panacea. I don’t mean to suggest that it offers a timely silver bullet for our somewhat anemic rural economy. But I do hope that as a community we can begin to explore ways to integrate the already abundant resources into a more cohesive and more marketable destination package. While the following example is not exactly analogous to Essex, it offers grounds for optimism.
Gastronomy has become the new ‘chicken that lays golden eggs’ of the Spanish economy, and hundreds of young chefs are filling cooking schools, turning gastronomy into a mainstay of the Spanish brand attracting 7.4 million international tourists in 2013 alone. This is 32% more, with an average per person spending of 1,170 euros, according to figures from Turespaña. (Tourism Review)
Food and drink are a powerful lure. And there’s no question that many of the ingredients are present for gastro tourism to flourish here. In closing, I’ll pass along one more provocative example of gastro tourism fueling economic recovery. Like the Spanish example above, the circumstances are not analogous, but there’s nevertheless a relevant hint of optimism.
Throughout their history of poverty and political turmoil, Peruvians have been fiercely proud of their elaborate, spicy food and new superstar chefs are now a magnet for culinary tourists.
Lima used to be no more than a one-night stopover for international tourists — many of them backpackers and budget travelers — flying into Peru to visit the ancient Inca ruins of Machu Picchu and the neighboring historic city of Cuzco.
But a culinary explosion, helped by the fame of some Peruvian chefs abroad, has made the Pacific coast capital city more attractive for visitors, especially after a leftist insurgency ended in the 1990s and was followed by economic growth and greater political stability. (Reuters)
I’ll wrap up before I stumble off the soap box. Perhaps I’ve already stumbled… But I would like to leave you with a few questions to ponder. Maybe even to augment. Or answer.
- Is gastro tourism already present in and around Essex?
- Is it conceivable that more cohesive collaboration between farms, restaurants, accommodation providers, etc. and a strategic marketing campaign specifically targeting gastrotourists might well profit Essex?
- Can you imagine other related businesses that might become tenable if gastro tourism flourished in our region of the Champlain Valley?
I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments below. Thank you.
- CATS Grand Hike Promotes Region (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Old Dock House Restaurant Reopens May 23 (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Recommend Essex Entrepreneurs for Small Business Week (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)