Illustration: Michael Mucci.

Illustration: Michael Mucci.

As appreciation for good food and wine continues to grow, Australians are pursuing gourmet pleasures in unexpected destinations.

THE hype about that cooking show might have died down but Aussie travellers retain a voracious appetite for all things food.

From celebrity chef encounters to hunting for your own produce, food and wine tours are exploding on to the market.

The Tuscan cooking school is old news, sure, but what about wine tasting in Thailand, becoming a sake connoisseur in Japan or learning to preserve fish in Iceland?

Karen Ridge, the owner of Food and Wine Travel, says she started her business two years ago thinking it would be "a nice little niche" but she underestimated the size and growth of the market.

"It's not a little niche, it's a mile deep," she says. "Everybody's into food these days."

Ridge says she is seeing a new wave of "foodie" travellers, alongside the traditional market.

"These people are looking for experiences such as a freshly caught lobster grilled on a barbecue on the beach," she says. "They're forgoing expense in accommodation and restaurants and seeking out those sorts of experiences.

"They're MasterChef foodies, they're not necessarily into wine; it's a very different market from the well-heeled gourmet food and wine lovers."

Ridge says she receives many requests from people who have done the obvious food and wine destinations and are looking for something different.

Spain is particularly hot, with people getting out into regional areas such as the Priorat in Catalonia. There is also demand for lesser-known parts of France and Italy, such as Tarn-et-Garonne, Veneto and Sardinia.

The French-influenced Montreal is starting to put Canada on the food map, while there is plenty of interest in Chile and Argentina.

Ridge says regional areas of Japan and India have been popular and people are starting to ask about options in Korea.

The most surprising product to emerge in recent times is a wine trail in northern Thailand.

"The vines actually came from Bordeaux, I believe," Ridge says. "You just don't expect that sort of thing to go on in Thailand."

Seeking out the unusual has become a selling point for many tour operators.

The Biznaga Travel Company is promoting a two-week trip to Spain that includes tastings of "the world's only ecologically certified caviar" and an outdoor cooking class at a "dehesa" woodland - a sparse, managed pasture parkland - that is home to acorn-fattened black Iberico pigs, along with visits to paprika farms and age-old sherry bodegas.

"Most of the places we visit on this trip are not open to the general public," says the managing director of Biznaga, Casey Death.

As the food and wine tourism market has evolved, there has also been more emphasis on sourcing produce, rather than just learning to cook it.

The Nam Hai Resort & Spa in Vietnam, for example, has a Day with a Local Fisherman tour, during which guests go out and catch their own seafood using traditional Vietnamese methods, then learn how to prepare it, with the resort's executive chef.

Tour operators are also upping the ante on how tours are packaged and marketed.

Outback Encounter in South Australia is promoting a flying safari that allows people to discover several of the state's food and wine regions in one trip. Passengers travel by charter flight, taking in the artisan producers of Kangaroo Island, the seafood of the Eyre Peninsula and the wine and food of the Barossa Valley in the course of a week.

The Akaroa Cooking School in New Zealand targets a different market, with Single and Starving classes for singles hoping to meet someone or to learn some dishes to impress a future date.

Karen Ridge expects Austria, Switzerland, Croatia, Hungary, Turkey and Greece to emerge as the new food destinations of Europe.

Hungary and Croatia are "really opening up with wine" and Greece has a much underrated wine industry, with very different varieties from Australia.

In the US, Ridge predicts Iowa and Illinois will start to compete with California's well-trodden wine trails. In northern Africa, Tunisia and Libya will surface as alternatives for those who have already experienced Morocco.

Ridge says she is also starting to hear talk about Nordic countries, such as Denmark and Iceland.

"I don't think Iceland is overly sophisticated; it's more of a rustic experience," she says. "I guess for someone who has done everything, it could be a real adventure."

No need to pack the kitchen sink

THE prize for the most creative food and wine trip goes to STA Travel, which has released a round-the-world package including cooking classes in five countries. The fare includes stops in Thailand, India, France, Italy and Spain, with one-day cooking classes in Chiang Mai, Delhi, Tuscany, Paris and Barcelona. It sounds far-fetched but is surprisingly affordable at $2999 for students and youths, $3479 for others, with the price including all flights and cooking classes. And bragging rights would be priceless.

jane@janeefraser.com.au