To read the full version of this story on our Food & Wine site, click here.
Over Yom Kippur in Florence in 1994, Ralph Slone had an epiphany. Two years earlier, the New York financier had begun organizing culinary tours of Tuscany, and realized a kosher version could have mass appeal. He reached out to “the authority on Italian Jewish cooking,” Edda Servi Machlin, a Tuscan Holocaust survivor living in New York, and in the fall of 1995 they launched their first kosher cooking tour of Tuscany.
The partnership fizzled but the tours thrived, spawning two more — to Emilia Romagna and Provence, France — and marked the start of a burgeoning culture of hands-on Jewish food tourism.
Today, as kosher travel opportunities become more far-reaching and luxurious, and the horizons of domestic kosher cuisine expand, tour operators are launching ever more specialized cooking vacations to connect Jewish foodies to the flavors of their heritage. Programs focus mainly on the culinary meccas of Western Europe and Israel.
“I have always loved cooking and always loved Israel,” says Randi Silvermintz, 51, who participated in kosher cookbook author Susie Fishbein’s first annual culinary tour of Israel two years ago with friends. “What could be better than pairing the two together!”
On Fishbein’s next weeklong celebration of Israeli cuisine, in February, participants will learn to make falafel, bread and pretzels — the pretzels will be given to soldiers — tour Machane Yehuda’s graffiti art, taste the beer at Jerusalem’s boutique Herzl brewery and dine in the dark at BlackOut Restaurant in Tel Aviv ($3,875).
Feeling adventurous? Gibraltar-based Yaya Food & Travel Group is launching cooking tours of Jewish Sicily. In coastal Catania, groups learn about Jewish and Moorish influences on Sicilian cuisine. A highlight will be a visit to the oldest mikvah in Europe, dating to the Byzantine era, in nearby Siracusa. The town boasted 12 synagogues before the Jews were driven out by Spain, which ruled Sicily during the Inquisition.
Yaya also offers a weeklong kosher cooking tour in northern Spain, where locals from the Pyrenees join the group for evenings of food, singing and dancing. The brainchild of husband-and-wife team Aya Massias, an Israeli, and eighth-generation Gibraltarian Isaac Massias, Yaya also offers Jewish heritage tours to Andalusia, Provence, Portugal and Morocco (Private groups only. Prices vary).
Adventurous foodies can also go truffle hunting in Tuscany with Chef Avicam Gitlin ($3,065), or tour France’s Jewish community’s historic highlights with food historian Joan Nathan ($7,995).Alums agree that a perk of joining a culinary tour is the chance to make friends with likeminded people. “It was just a lot of fun to be with company that also liked to cook,” says Esther Cohen, a retired middle school dean from Brooklyn, who cooked in Florence with Slone two winters ago. She and Silvermintz say they have added recipes from their respective trips to their home repertoires. Silvermintz now makes hummus and tehina weekly, and regularly cooks lamb sineya — roasted eggplant stuffed with ground lamb and topped with her homemade tehina — to the delight of her family.