Before I even embark on Intrepid Travel’s Real Food Adventure I realise the tour is a little atypical.
Like many other Intrepid clients I arrive at the trip’s starting point, Istanbul, several days prior to the tour starting. One night at a local restaurant I chat to a Turkish family. I explain I will be touring Turkey, and reveal the cities
I’ll be visiting.
“These are some of the best places!” the son exclaims, his eyes widening in excitement, his mother nodding in agreement.
Visiting off the radar destinations that Turks themselves genuinely like and sampling the food that glues modern-day Turkey together is all part of the attraction for my group of nine, who hail from Australia, South Africa and
Denmark, and are aged 30-70. Together we explore six Turkish towns and cities, from the heaving metropolis that is Istanbul to the small seaside town of Ayvalik.
Our tour leader Burak is the youngest of the group at 25, but he is much wiser and knowledgeable than his years. At times he can be quite philosophical: “You can forget what you see but you don’t forget what you eat,” he explains on our first day as we cross the Bosphorus. And given the amount we consume, it is not an experience my waistline will be forgetting anytime soon.
Ahead of our scheduled kebab crawl in Istanbul Burak recommends we come “really hungry”. For our meat odyssey he leads us far from the tourist confines of the Old City to a residential neighbourhood. In the hot, pinky dusk, we settle into a hole-in-the-wall eatery, just as the first cries from the call to prayer echo through the streets.
Here we devour lahmacun - a kind of Turkish pizza, topped with minced meat, onion and spices, on which we squeeze lemon juice and shred fresh mint, before rolling it up like a burrito. All washed down with a glass of ayran - a frothy, cold and sour yoghurt drink. It’s incredibly moreish, and what’s more there’s not another tourist in sight. In fact, such rarities are foreigners in these parts that we find ourselves the subject of surreptitious iPhone cameras.
The next stop is a Turkish grill. Two silver platters of assorted kebabs arrive at our table; some studded with pistachios, others flecked with red chilli, served on bulgur wheat.
Our final stop is for Levantine dessert kunefe - a semi-soft cheese sandwiched between two layers of golden brown shredded pastry. It is wheeled to our table on a wooden trolley before being set alight and doused in sugar syrup. We sprinkle pistachios over the top and savour with a short glass of milk.
For clients with food intolerances or allergies, or those who are just plain fussy eaters, this trip isn’t ideal. Meals are largely shared and there are often minimal meal choices.
It’s also worth advising prospective clients that all of Intrepid’s food tours are Original, rather than Comfort level, meaning that clients should be prepared for a range of accommodation, which are typically small, authentic and Spartan: from family-owned guesthouses with shared bathrooms, to local independent hotels, to bedding down in your seat on an overnight bus journey.
The leisurely meals form a large part of the timetable. “This tour reminds me of Christmas; you eat, sleep and then eat again,” remarked one of our group. There are also walking tour pit stops, visits to food producers, such as olive oil factories, cookery classes and market tours.
In Ayvalik we wander the stalls before scoffing figs so fresh they’re bursting at the seams and peaches so plump they look botoxed; all the while Burak explains where the produce comes from, how it’s prepared and why it’s important in Turkish culture.
However, the trip is not solely food-focused - we explore the ancient site of Ephesus where Burak provides a comprehensive overview of life under Greek rule from the 10th century BC onwards; we witness a Whirling Dervish ceremony shoulder to shoulder with locals; and we learn the secrets of weaving in a women’s cooperative in Pergamon.
Here several members of our group purchase hand-woven carpets, and on excursions like these it is particularly reassuring to have Intrepid’s support. “Intrepid are very fussy about this [which companies to buy carpets from],” explains Burak. “I guarantee there will be no hassling. If there is then you tell me. If there is a problem [when your carpet is delivered] you can contact us.”
For customers who relish immersing themselves in local culture yet don’t always have the time to meticulously plan holidays, Intrepid is ideal. One half of a young professional couple in our party tells me: “I find it hard time-wise to organise a holiday. We’re so busy. Travelling with a company like Intrepid takes the stress out of things. You could take a chance on a restaurant for example, and it might be good, or it might not be. It’s nice to have a knowledgeable guide.”
And while the itinerary for the food-centric tour may not be dissimilar to Intrepid’s other Turkish circuits, the Real Food Adventure does offer clients the opportunity to holiday with other like-minded gourmands. Like Burak.”From this trip the best gift you will take home is some extra kilos,” he tells us. But I think that’s an underestimate.
Book it: Intrepid Travel’s 13-day Real Food Adventure in Turkey leads in from £1,255pp, based on an April 26, 2015 departure. The price includes all accommodation, all breakfasts and selected other meals, activities, transport and a local guide. intrepidtravel.com/uk
What’s the average demographic on a Real Food Adventure?
The average age is 45-50, and around 95% are Australians, while the other 5% are usually from the UK, the US, Canada and New Zealand. On other Intrepid tours the average customer is twenty-something.
Why do customers choose these food-centric trips?
Food is the biggest part of culture. What they most enjoy is not the taste, but trying unusual foods. When they go back to their country I’m sure they’re talking about it, saying: “Ah I tried this and it’s disgusting!” Trying something you’ve never tasted before makes travelling more fun.
What do you enjoy most about being a tour leader?
When they come here I can change their perceptions of Turkey. They’re surprised when I drink alcohol, for example; they expect us all to be strict Muslims. I get lots of questions about Turkish culture.
What is the best aspect of working for Intrepid?
The small group size. It gives you more freedom, not just to show the group Turkey, but to give them a chance to live it. In other tours it’s like going to the zoo to see the animals, but here you’re eating the same food, using the same transport. We are trying to do something off the beaten track.