We all have to eat, and one of the great things about travel is that we all eat differently. While globalization has been the death knell to many forms of local shopping—that Scottish cashmere sweater is cheaper in New York than Edinburgh and every Armani boutique from Vegas to Dubai looks the same—food remains highly localized.
This is especially true with the recent “farm to table” and “locavore” movements, which put an added emphasis on obtaining quality ingredients from the source. At the same time, many of the world’s best specialty food products, like Parisian pastries, do not travel well, while others, like most cured meats, cannot be legally obtained in the United States.
Art fans head to museums when traveling, fashonistas to boutiques, and foodies to markets and gourmet stores. The appeal is threefold: You can usually eat, and eat very well, wherever the best ingredients are sold, often indulging in local comfort foods that would never show up on a fine restaurant menu; you can see local culinary culture in action and get in some great people watching; and best of all, you can take home edible souvenirs chosen from a level of variety and quality you simply will not find at home, no matter how good your local grocer is.
At a fancy kitchen store in any major U.S. city, you can pay $30 for a bottle of Italian olive oil and hope it is good. At a market in Italy, you sample dozens of different producers and regions before making your choice. Love foie gras? A good Parisian shop will offer dozens of varieties, fresh, canned, jarred, packed in wine, flavored, etc, while you would be lucky to find more than one choice at home. When you try to rediscover your Scottish roots on this side of the pond, good luck finding haggis.
If you love ham, you probably love Prosciutto di Parma, known as the King of Hams. But around Parma, the real deal is culatello, the tenderloin of the ham so precious that removing this delicate cut makes the rest of the leg unusable for prosciutto, thus keeping culatello both rare and pricey. It is also impossible to buy in the United States, where it cannot be legally imported. Culatello is to Prosciutto di Parma what Prosciutto di Parma is to Oscar Meyer, and it is just one of hundreds of local artisan products you can only get by going to the place where it is made, and for many foodies, that is reason enough for a trip.
Likewise, the long ban on importing Japanese Kobe beef into the U.S. has finally been lifted, but Japanese beef fans know that even better than Kobe are local varieties such as Hokkaido, Sendai, Matsuzaka and the exquisite Kumamoto Red Beef. You won’t find these at a Wall Street steakhouse, and you won’t find them at your butcher, but you will find them at many of Tokyo’s jaw-droppingly fantastic department store food halls. So what are you waiting for? Any of the world’s great food stores and markets will offer an array of products that will make you—and your stomach—glad you came.