“How much of myself and my own story should I include on my new food tour?” This is the question put to me by a lady at a tourism industry event this week. The lady in question was a professional tour guide who had successfully been offering a heritage tour of her area for a couple of years. Now diversifying into food, she said “I cover a lot of culture and heritage about the place on my heritage tour. I’ve decided to concentrate purely on food in my food tour. That’s what people want from a food tour, isn’t it?”
I didn’t have a short answer to give to this question. Instead, I shared with her the story of my own recent experience of taking a food tour in Lisbon, Portugal - I’ll share it with you now also.
Our first stop on the tour was under a little archway where we were invited to study a mural depicting the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. The quake happened on 1st November, All Saints Day. To mark the religious occasion, the largely Catholic population had candles lighting in their windows. The combination of earthquake and candles led to huge fires which devastated the city. This was exacerbated by a tsunami meaning that Lisbon was destroyed, up to 100,000 were dead were dead and there were enormous social and political repercussions.
In the rebuilding of the city, a decision was taken to clad buildings in oven-baked tiles as a precautionary measure to protect them against future fires. That’s why the city is now recognized for the brightly-coloured, hand-painted tiles still to be seen on many of its own buildings. The mural and the story told us that we were in a city with a traumatic history that had been resilient and creative in the face of great tragedy. Now Lisbon had a personality and the tiles provided a poignant backdrop to the rest of the tour.
We learned that Lisbon was built on a series of hills and we felt this as we strolled up and down little winding laneways between the densely-packed houses of Alfama, the oldest district in Lisbon. The voices of local women, busy in their kitchens and homes, floated out over our heads as we wandered the lanes beneath their open windows. We realized it was a neighbourhood conversation with everyone on the street loudly checking in with each other for the day.
We rounded a winding tiny street to be met with a surprise tray of warm custard pies, Pasteis de Nata, the signature food of Lisbon. The warmth and the aroma of fresh baking awakened the senses and it was a pure treat. We then moved from one little eatery to another, at each one learning why the tour guide had chosen this place, why the food was special or particularly relevant to Lisbon, why the producer had chosen this food and this place. We lingered in a little café where we heard how the sardines we were eating were hand-packed by the owner’s mother in her little artisan workshop in the Portuguese countryside. I bought a few little tins as gifts for my own mother-in-law who likes sardines (I think!).
We chatted a lot with Ruthie, the owner and tour guide of Treasures of Lisboa Food Tours. We all remarked on her high levels of passion and enthusiasm, given that she must be hosting groups like us every day of the week. We learned that she was French, how she had met her Portuguese fiancé, how they had decided to set up her food tourism business in Lisbon to share its story and culture which she had found captivating. We bumped into her fiancé along the way (he was helping behind the scenes, advance preparing each stop). We learned about their wedding plans, that it was his birthday that day, that she had a surprise dinner planned for him that evening.
The truth is that I was able to recount the details of my tour as if it had just happened. Ruthie had created a memory, a connection between herself, me and the wider group. As I told the story, I felt like I had had a privileged look inside the true Lisbon. I found myself wondering how their surprise dinner had worked out and how their wedding plans are coming along.
And so, I got to analysing what Ruthie and her fiancé had done that made this such a vivid memory and that could perhaps be replicated by the lady posing the question as well as anybody involved in an experience that includes food. My conclusion was that Ruthie had used the food and drink as the vehicle for telling stories – stories about Lisbon, its history and people, about herself and about the people involved in preparing and serving the food we sampled. She not only shared the story of the food and drinks but also the human story behind them. She brought to live the saying I had once heard: “every dish has a history and every drink has a past”.
The very long answer to my lady’s question was share as much of the story of yourself and your place as you can. The most memorable part of the tour might just be you. Your own story is very important, and you are the tangible expression of it. People are still the most accessible, engaging and enjoyable way to share a story. Food stories inspire, motivate and trigger all sorts of emotions – and they create memories that are easily relatable.
Walking tours promise visitors that precious contact with locals and an insight into the genuine character of the place. Each stop on the tour is like a chapter of the story. In linking many elements together, food tours can really deliver ‘the bigger picture’, the wider story of the region and place. What makes it memorable and touches our emotions is the guide – the curator, the narrator, our companion on the trip. In a crowded market, people need an emotional reason to connect with a food or a drink. In the delivery of the visitor experience, this happens best through story-telling.
Here are 5 areas of focus on for anyone wishing to create great holiday memories for their visitors through food and drink stories:
Food and drink visitor experiences are not limited just to the food and drink itself – while this does engage the senses, it does not sufficiently engage the emotions. What Ruthie had realised was the importance of the narrative. As a result, she had delivered an authentic, unique and emotional experience which had people at is centre and which was a memorable reflection of the region.