These days seeking authentic travel experiences and the importance food plays in these adventures have become central themes for most of us when we plan a trip, but they are something Peggy Markel has been bringing to a discerning group of travelers for decades. If learning to make pasta with a Michelin-star chef in Sicily, hiking to villages in Morocco’s Atlas mountains to visit artisans or sleeping in 17th-century homes in India while you develop a knack for crafting Indian cuisine, sounds appealing, Peggy has an adventure ready and waiting for you. And it is her years of experience and the deep connections in different countries with chefs, family-run businesses and local artisans she has fostered that make these trips so memorable on many different levels. It’s the kind of adventure you won’t get if you book a room at a Four Seasons. I wish I could speak from experience, not yet. I imagine a trip with Peggy to be the kind of life-changing experience we all seek more and more. She has the kind of adventurous-yet-zen spirit that allows it to happen.
You launched your culinary adventures and got involved in the Slow Food movement in 92….what led you to create this program? Why did you think it was important at the time? I had an immense passion for food and travel and had traveled quite a bit, and discovered first hand the connection between food and culture and that people eat what grows around them. It’s a reflection of where they live, what they have, their climate and history. This was before the farm to table movement. I felt we were not making a clear enough connection in the US to where food comes from. I felt we had lost something as fundamental as just sitting around a table to enjoy a home cooked meal. People weren’t cooking as it seemed like too much work and we had other things on our minds.
Whereas in Italy, where I began, meals were and are still the organizing principle. It’s what they live for. There is an art to it. Flavor is important and dishes are regional and a part of their identity. Even in times of crisis or war, they found a way to make something delicious. Food traditions were passed down and kept alive and if you didn’t know how to make good pasta, you might not get married.
The idea of a culinary adventure was to explore another cultures relationship to food, what was unique about the area and to learn how to make some of the more beloved dishes. It was not a cooking school per se, it was about food culture and let’s dive into it from the ground up. That was missing in our culture at the time. In doing so, we learned The Art of Eating Well in the order of courses, what were first plates, second plates, etc, it was also about the culture of the table, how to relax and enjoy the dishes being put in front of you and talk to each other about life, politics and what was on your mind. It was also a way chefs and cooks could tell their stories. There was a lineage. In Tuscany we’re in Chianti Classico wine country, so the relationship between wine and food became another departure that completed this overall aesthetic picture of beauty and taste and how it’s woven into the rhythm of everyday life.
I was introduced to Slow Food in ’93 after I had started my programs. I realized that I was already practicing what they were preaching and became a fast friend of the movement. “In protection of our rights to pleasure” used to be their byline and yet it was about so much more, it was political as well. It was also about preserving food traditions, and supporting the farmers and producers and acknowledging the time it takes to do something well and care about it. It was a total dovetail with my philosophy. The industrial revolution had already taken place and fast food was rampant. The idea of Slow Food was not only against fast food, industrial food preparations, and fake food so to speak, but actually slowing down to enjoy your life, your family and your friends around the table. That’s where the word “convivium” came from.
How has your business evolved over time? How is it different today? We still operate La Cucina al Focolare- Cooking by the Fireside, 27 years later. It’s a classic. I then went on to create several different programs with different chefs in other regions of Italy and have stretched into several other countries. There is a recognizable thread that runs through, but they are all very different. I like off the beaten path places and people to work with.
I started going to Sicily to work with the great food historian Marchesa Anna Tasca Lanza in 1998. I now work with her daughter, cookbook writer and friend, Fabrizia Lanza. I have also developed a trip specifically focused on Malvasia wine and food of Salina with two different young chefs, one Michelin star, in the Aeolians Islands northwest of Sicily.
I include a Sailing and Savoring trip in the Campanian Archipelago sailing from Procida, Ischia and Capri and along the Amalfi Coast provisioning with fresh ingredients and fish from the markets as we sail along, featuring the fabulous wines of Campania.
I’ve been going to Morocco now for 18 years and have seen tremendous change there. I do a trip in Rajasthan, India. The food scene is blowing up and more accessible. I have a great partner in Seville, Spain and have Andalucia by the horns. And Portugal is my latest conquest and love.
I am constantly evolving my programs to reflect new discoveries, while maintaining my connection to the ground. As I evolve, my programs evolve. I have to entertain myself as well. I have also added morning meditation and yoga to some programs where appropriate and we take a deeper dive into what brought you on this trip. It goes beyond where we are as in place, and invites us to use the table as a platform for transformational conversation, the risky kind, where we share where we are in our lives, and what’s the next step. We can use the trip as an introspective journey, nourishing ourselves on good food, friendship, a chance to be away and reflect, open up to insight. It’s like bringing your whole self to the program with allowances. There’s wisdom there.
And yet, this is not a “self help” trip and not designed for that. It’s designed to be real. Like let’s get real in a real place with real food. That’s authenticity.
Why do think a connection with food is so important? What’s more important? Love. But love is associated with food. It’s primitive. I could go deeper into it, but it’s like nourishing yourself, emotionally as well as physically, nurtures empathy and that desire to feed others or at least care about them and the greater community.
How is a food-focused travel adventure different than your typical vacation? The food is better! No joke. I suppose you could say that this type of travel has a purpose–something to focus on. But, my trips are not just food-focused. It drops you beneath the surface. You meet locals who are passionate about their homeland on something as simple as food. I’m also an aesthete. I care not only about the food, but every aspect of the journey; the accommodations, the experiences, the rhythm of the day and especially my guests. If I am going to care about the quality of the food, I am going to care about the quality of everything we do. You end up working too hard sometimes on a typical vacation, trying to find the best restaurants, hotels, where to go. I don’t only know where to go, I have relationships everywhere we go and that is the gold. We feel welcomed as friends of a friend.
What do you think the travelers who come on your adventures are looking to experience? I think mostly to relax in a beautiful place, eat good food, learn something new and get out of the box. It’s full of experiences to enrich one’s life. They want to be fed. Its like a different kind of food. It nourishes us. Travel takes us out of the norm where we can take a deep breath. I think we are all looking for a greater connection to ourselves ultimately and to be cared for.
What do you hope they take away from a trip? A sense of being nourished–body, mind and soul.
Do you continue to discover new adventures? Oh yes. After all these years, I have a sixth sense on what would make a new adventure. I get excited easily. I have the opportunity to travel often, so I scan the place for depth, for beauty, for the right mix of elements–people, food, culture.
Are you ever surprised by something new on a trip? All the time. Nothing is ever perfect, but it’s like water flowing over a rock. We know how to move. I have a schedule obviously, but I liken it to Improvisational Theatre. You have to be flexible in a world that’s always changing. I learn a lot from surprises. They keep me on my feet.
Any dream destinations you haven’t tackled yet? Japan. I’ve been to Japan several times. Organizing it remains challenging. If I am able to design it like I want to, it would be a dream come true and probably very expensive.
Three words that describe your work: Relevant, timeless, connected.
Three words that describe you: Curious, generous, soulful.
One of your attributes that helps you succeed: Curiosity.
Women you admire: I admire women who took risks early on. My childhood hero was Beryl Markham, who wrote West with the Night. She hung out with the Masai tribes in Africa and learned how to fly at 15. I also have a long list of women that inspire me creatively and mindfully.
What has been your biggest success? The New York Times article in 1995. It was the biggest because it was the most surprising. I had only been in business a year or so and I was no one and then all of a sudden I have a full page article in the Wednesday food section.
What has been your biggest dud? A trip in Thailand working with another company many years ago.
What did you learn from it? That I have a particular style and I need to stick to it and do my own trips. Listen to my own voice. In other difficult losses it was the same lesson.
What motivates you? I’m motivated to try and bring more beauty and authenticity into the world, to open doors and people’s eyes to what they are not seeing as well as my own inquiry to what’s unworked in me.
What inspires you? Nature. It’s silent and potent. People with bright eyes that struggle every day. Beautiful music.
Life goals: To have an awakened heart and write a book, maybe two. To be able to navigate life with openness and humility.
Daily goals: I’m not very goal oriented, but at least to work with my mind, exercise my body and write something every day. To remember to count my blessings. I read recently just thinking about what you might be grateful for increases your happiness.
Favorite inspirational/motivational read: Pema Chodrön’s When Things Fall Apart. It is actually a very candid read and helps to relax with the way things are and see the moment as the perfect teacher. It’s a tall order, but I traveled with it for around 8 years when I was going through some difficult transitions. I still find it comforting. I love poetry as well, Mary Oliver, David Whyte.
Favorite sites/people you follow: Beth Kirby, Local Milk. She has been fearless in her ability to change as she evolves and keep a creative edge; Emma Louise Sophia, intrepid traveler, photographer and mindset coach; Vanessa Reid Official, out of the box fashion stylist; Andrea Gentl, food and travel photographer; Travel sites like Suitcase.
Daily rituals: I’m not very disciplined, but I do have a meditation practice and I love yoga. I have to take it on the road, so it becomes meditation in action! I love to make tea and wake up slowly. I also love to go to the market when I’m in Florence. It’s one of the great pleasures of my life.
How do you unplug: I love to take walks, but my number one thing is taking a bath. I love baths and I know this sounds indulgent but I take them all over the world. I should have a poster of all the bathtubs, hot springs and onsens I’ve been in, like those posters of doors.
Hidden talent/hobby: I illustrate in pen and ink and draw, but I don’t do it often enough. I illustrated a book called The New Encyclopedia of Natural Foods, by Rebecca Wood. I also like to write poetry, sing sultry songs and take pictures.
Favorite charity: I’ve been a long time contributor to the Global Diversity Foundation, a non-profit that works to protect bio-cultural diversity and enhance socioecological wellbeing, specifically to Dar Taliba, a girls’ school in Morocco.
Do you collect anything? I can’t help but collect textiles and pashminas when in India. They just grab my soul. I also have a collection of vintage Berber tribal rugs, because they may soon disappear. The work is breathtaking. There’s no patience for that kind of detail anymore. I also collect kitchen items that I find interesting in wood or ceramic. I replenish spices, cosmetic argan oil, vintage sherry, extra virgin olive oil and salts from various travels taking them at the source.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: My apartment in Florence. It has seen me through think and thin. It’s like a refuge in the center of town. I don’t own it but I might as well. I’ve have had it as a pied-a-terre for 14 years.
Favorite small indulgence: Gyokuro green tea. It’s like $15 for 50 grams.
Album currently on repeat: I’m a bit in love with Portuguese right now and love the music of Seu Jorge.
Scent that brings back memories: Freshly baked cornbread, biscuits and sorghum syrup.
Lucky charm: A thin gold coin that I got in Rajasthan that I wear on a gold chain that my boyfriend gave me.
Favorite hour of the day: Aperitivo time. I love to gather at my favorite cafe in Florence at the end of the day and have a glass of wine or a cocktail. It’s so civilized. I remember the old days, men were dressed in suits, smoked Toscano’s and wore loafers without socks. Women were chic and understated. They had Flair.
5 Travel Essentials: 1) Rose Argan Oil. My skin loves it and it has an aromatherapy benefit. 2) A pashmina or two. Really nice ones. 3) My Sony 6000 camera. 4) Supplements, C, E, + and a little kit with homeopathic medicines and essential oils. 5) Three pairs of reading glasses (they break and are hard to replace) and two pairs of sunglasses.
Follow Peggy: Instagram.