Taste the place: 9 great flavors worth traveling for
Want to get to know another culture? Try biting into it. For travelers who pack plenty of curiosity, eating local food is often the fastest way to understanding a place and its culture. To help protect these culinary pathways, governments around the world have created special designations for products with particularly unique origins.
France’s AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or controlled designation of origin) label is probably the best known of these designations. The country’s modern AOC labeling laws officially hit the books in 1919 and specify that anything with this label must adhere to consistent and traditional production methods using ingredients from a designated geographical region.
The French system inspired other countries to follow suit, and today some of Europe’s oldest agricultural products are protected by similar designations. Balsamic vinegar and Parmesan cheese, among dozens more, boast DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) status in Italy. In Spain, a DOP (Denominación de Origen Protegida) label can be found on a myriad of products, such as Manchego cheese and Rioja wine.
Visiting these products at their source is like following a delectable roadmap to the world’s tastiest traditions. Here are a few worth traveling for.
1. Champagne (Champagne, France)
Perhaps the best known of all the AOC products, Champagne was the name of a region in northeastern France before it was ever associated with sparkling wine. After winemakers here perfected the Méthode Champenoise, a traditional way to make sparkling wine that requires a second fermentation in the bottle (along with dozens of manual manipulations), the area became eponymously linked to the bubbly beverage. The government made the connection official when it granted the territory AOC status in 1938, making it one of the oldest AOC products in the country and forever defining that only sparkling wine made in the region—and produced in the traditional manner—could put the name “Champagne” on its label.
2. Roquefort Cheese (Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, France)
According to local lore, a shepherd accidentally discovered the now famous cheese. While taking a break in a cave, the young man spied a beautiful maiden passing by and ran after her. When he returned alone and hungry to the cave days later, the sheep’s curd and rye bread sandwich that he’d left behind was flecked with a dark green mold. Starving, he bit down and discovered that the new ingredient was delicious. Today, cheese lovers can tour production facilities in the tiny town (population 600) of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon and visit underground caves where master ripeners tend to hundreds of thousands of maturing wheels of cheese.
3. Saffron (La Mancha, Spain)
La Mancha is home to cathedrals, castles, Don Quixote windmills, and saffron, the world’s costliest spice. Prices can range from $500 to as much as $4,500 per pound for these crimson threads. The fine spice is harvested from the stigmas of the lilac-colored Crocus Sativus, fields of which bloom throughout the region in the fall. Added to paella, it gives the dish its distinctively vibrant taste and color. In the town of Consuegra, near Camuñas, stop for lunch or dinner at Restaurant El Alfar, where you can savor such elegant dishes as hake in saffron sauce or order a plate of Manchego cheeses, one of the region’s other DOP products.
4. Martinique Rhum Agricole (Martinique)
Sitting between the Atlantic Ocean to its east and the Caribbean Sea to its west, the 425-square-mile island of Martinique is big on lush forests, black-sand beaches, tranquil turquoise bays, and rhum agricole. Unlike most rum, rhum agricole is made directly from sugarcane juice, rather than molasses (a byproduct of refined sugar). The tiny isle is dotted with 11 distilleries, including La Mauny, the largest rhum agricole distiller in the Caribbean. Founded in 1749, the distillery and surrounding sugarcane fields provide a glimpse into West Indies’ history, where rum production has been an integral part of the culture for hundreds of years.
5. Colombian Coffee (Colombia)
Colombia was off limits to all but the most fearless traveler for years, but tourism has recently perked up. A big draw is the verdant Zona Cafetera (coffee zone) in the central part of the country. The farms here, called fincas, produce 10 percent of the world’s Arabica coffee. Learn about the entire process—from growing, to roasting, to sipping the final brew—with a day trip from Bogotá to the colonial house and gardens of Hacienda Coloma, home to locally grown Coloma coffee.
6. Tequila (Jalisco, Mexico)
Some tequila memories are more vivid than others. Head south of the border to the elixir’s source, and the souvenirs might be a little less hazy. Just 40 miles northwest of Guadalajara is the town of Tequila. The spiky succulent known as Agave tequilana, or Blue Agave, grows here and in the surrounding highlands. It’s the key ingredient in the distillation of the liquor. Taste and tour Tequila Herradura in Amatitán and Jose Cuervo in Tequila.
7. Corsican Honey (Corisca)
Napoleon Bonaparte was born here, but these days, bees and their delicious honey are the real buzz of the island. Thanks to its isolation in the Mediterranean sea, Corsican honey is a sought after delicacy, with a breadth of flavors spanning the seasons as well as the vast variety of flowering trees and maquis shrubs that grow on the mountain sides. Taste it by the spoonful at the local farmers’ markets that unfurl each day across the island.
8. Melton Mowbray Pork Pie (Melton Mowbray, England)
For a taste of merry olde England head to Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. Meat pie is the main attraction in the 1,000-year-old town. According to the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association (yes, it exists), the town was once the fox hunting capital of England. The now eponymous pie was “discovered” in the 1780s by visiting hunters who saw their grooms and servants chowing down on it. Today, Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe still makes the real deal—a seasoned pork baked in a cylindrical pastry crust. The “olde” in the “shoppe’s” name is no joke. Pastry chefs here have been preparing pork pies since 1851.
9. Mortadella (Bologna, Italy)
Oscar Meyer sent a jingle across American airwaves during the 1960s declaring: “my bologna has a first name … ” and forever dubbed the pink, thick-cut lunch meat “baloney.” The real deal is actually called mortadella. Made of pork, usually thinly sliced, and flavored with fat and spices, mortadella has been made in the Italian city of Bologna (hence the American name) for nearly 500 years. Try it at one of the numerous daily food markets, or go to a tasting class on Monday or Tuesday morning with the butcher at Salumeria Simoni, where the mortadella is serious business, no baloney.