The Allure of Culinary Tourism

Editorial Feature

By Google Arts & Culture

Bar in San SebastianReal Academia de Gastronomía

Journalist Marta Fernández Guadaño on how culinary tourism has evolved in Spain

Some of the architects of the "New Basque Cuisine" movement, which began in the late 1970s, recall how more and more French, American, British, and Scandinavian tourists gradually started to visit restaurants such as Arzak and Akelarre in San Sebastian. People even came from as far away as Asia and Australia to take a seat at one of its tables, and these three-Michelin-starred restaurants continue to welcome these guests regularly today.

Bar in San Sebastian, high touristic place for gastronomy (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomia)

Ferran Adrià tells a similar tale. He went from welcoming international tourists and culinary enthusiasts to his restaurant El Bulli, on the Costa Brava, to more resounding success: guests would travel the globe after spending months, or even over a year, on a waiting list to enjoy the "crazy," vibrant, avant-garde cuisine on offer in his restaurant in Cala Montjoi.

This is just a small snapshot of how culinary tourism has evolved in Spain in recent years. But one thing is clear: although tourism developed on the back of mass travel, bringing with it all the faults and flaws that now affect some of Spain's coastal regions, Spain's culinary draw for overseas visitors could now be changing. It is shifting from pseudo-paellas and poorly thought-out tapas (sadly still served in some tourist hotspots) to El Bulli-style creations; "spherified" foods; the best of Spanish produce, such as "jamón ibérico" ham; and local recipes now made famous, including "pulpo à feira" (Galician-style octopus), cocido madrileño (traditional Madrid stew), "pescaíto frito" (fried fish), and authentic paella. This apparent "hodgepodge" holds the key to culinary tourism in 2018. Original one-off initiatives are spreading, including the many wine cellars that have been transformed into culinary destinations, or spaces such as Mimo, with branches in San Sebastian, Mallorca, and Seville, which organizes foodie tours and courses. A range of regional tourism strategies now also exist in areas as diverse as Madrid and the Costa Brava.

Data is rarely 100% reliable, but studies published in recent years have offered some insights into the strength of this industry. It is estimated that 15% of people who visit Spain do so with "eating" as their main motivation, with around 9.5 million tourists taking part in food-based activities. The Spanish tourism institute Turespaña states that gastronomy has become the "mainstay of the Spanish brand." Faced with this "purist" approach, the consultancy Dinamiza, in collaboration with Madrid's Directorate General for Tourism and the González Byass wineries group, published a study on the demand for culinary tourism in late 2017. It looks at domestic travelers, and the conclusions are fascinating: 76.2% of Spaniards have gone on a trip or getaway with the intention of enjoying the local cuisine in the last two years, while 28.7% of the total demand comes from "pure" culinary tourists.

Extebarri's angulas (2017)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Grilled elvers at Etxebarri in Atxondo (Biscay province) (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomia)

Today, it is clear that a new profile of both foreign and domestic culinary tourists has emerged in Spain. In fact, there is not just one profile, but several. The Dinamiza study supports this long list of identities: gourmet or gastronome, foodie, "responsible" culinary tourist, amateur chef, wine-lover, gourmand, epicurean, and cosmopolitan urbanite—to name but a few. But no matter the label, there are now people who are prepared to travel a few thousand miles to eat elvers, octopus, peas, beef, or goose barnacles cooked on the world's most famous grill at Asador Etxebarri, Bittor Arginzoniz's restaurant in Atxondo. It is ranked 10th on the 2018 list of "The World’s 50 Best Restaurants," which also includes the Spanish restaurant El Celler de Can Roca in second place. The ever-changing and unpredictable "50 Best" list (which is "ruthless" according to Ferran Adrià) includes six Spanish restaurants: Mugaritz at No. 9, Disfrutar at 18, Tickets at 32, Arzak at 31, and Azurmendi at 43. There are another 13 between places 50 and 100: Nerua at 57, the Quique Dacosta and Martín Berasategui restaurants at 68 and 76 respectively, Elkano at 77, Enigma at 95, and DiverXO at 96.

Carme Ruscalleda in Sant PauReal Academia de Gastronomía

Carme Ruscalleda in the kitchen at Sant Pau, in Sant Pol de Mar (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomia)

These 13 restaurants are a magnet for elite culinary tourists, as are the almost 200 restaurants in Spain that boast either one, two, or three Michelin stars. Of these, the Basque region's Martín Berasategui has beaten the national record, with a total of eight stars between his restaurants in Lasarte-Oria, Barcelona, and Tenerife. One woman in the culinary world who has claimed the highest number of awards, Catalan chef Carme Ruscalleda, has decided to close her three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Sant Pau, just as it is celebrating its 30th anniversary. She continues to run two other restaurants – Moments in Barcelona and Sant Pau in Tokyo – both of which have two Michelin stars.

Central Market of Valencia (1914/1928)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Central Market of Valencia (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomia)

But beyond these high-end restaurants, Spanish gastronomy holds an allure for tourists who wander between bars— both old and authentic or revamped and modern— and traditional and regenerated markets. Must-see places for the culinary tourist include Bodega de la Ardosa (Madrid) for its omelets; Quimet & Quimet (Barcelona) for its dressed preserves; Pinotxo, for lunch in the Mercado de la Boquería; Central Bar by Ricard Camarena, in Valencia's Mercado Central, for its diced vegetable salad and rabbit cooked in garlic; and Abastos 2.0 for its "puñados" (handfuls) of the seafood catch of the day at the Mercado de Abastos in Santiago de Compostela. All sorts of different businesses can be found side by side, attracting tourists with their upkeep of tradition or their reinventions.

Central Bar by Ricard CamarenaReal Academia de Gastronomía

Central Bar by Ricard Camarena, owned by the Valencian chef and located in Valencia's Mercado Central (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomia)

In today’s world, however, it sometimes feels like authentic food alone isn’t enough. "Octopus to the party" might be an ingenious way of describing the famous "pulpo á feira" (Galician-style octopus), but the menus and staff now need to work in different languages, or at least have a grasp of English culinary terminology in order to keep the tourists coming. Another consequence of this quest for Spanish cuisine is the fact that many travelers now want to go home with their suitcases packed full of Iberian cured meats, tinned fish, extra virgin olive oil, wine, and "turrón" (nougat). For this reason, there are increasing numbers of shops selling authentic Spanish culinary produce in Spanish airports.

So it seems Spain cannot rest on its laurels. Powerhouses of culinary tourism are growing around the world, especially in Peru, Japan, and Scandinavia, and opportunities should not be wasted. Spain has it all: climate, personality, character, produce, diverse regional cuisines, culinary creativity, and a universal language. Even monolingual visitors understand the meaning of the word "tapas," which is understood and admired across the globe. It is the very definition of "Made in Spain," and keeping these origins alive seems a key part of maintaining the fervor people all over the world have for Spanish cuisine.

Marta Fernandez Guadaño is the creator of Gastroeconomy, an information portal on gastronomy with an economic-business focus and trends for 'foodies'.

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