03 JAN 2019: While 2018 was a rather tumultuous year on the political front, for culinary tourism, it was again a boom year. There are ever more food and drink “routes” focusing on a region’s wine, craft beers or spirits, or particular culinary pride such as the apple pie, butter tart and cinnamon bun trails in Canada. It seems just about every major city now has walking food tours, food festivals and restaurant weeks. Here are some of my food and drink highlights from my travels last year.

Top Destination for Food

Almost a decade has passed since the end of Sri Lanka’s bitter civil war and tourism to the former British crown colony is growing rapidly. Figures from November of last year show the number of visitors from abroad to Sri Lanka jumped 16.8 percent year-on-year. Its fertile natural beauty is one reason to visit but for me the most compelling incentive is the food. The country has an abundance of all the things I love to eat: spices, curries, seafoods and fresh produce. Some of the spices, such as the real cinnamon, are special to the island. As to the curries, you can have them at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Ancient food habits in Sri Lanka emphasized the importance of taking a balanced and nutritious diet. The right kind of food to eat was derived from their study of Ayurveda. For example a health boosting food available at breakfast is the herbal soup kola kanda. Made from brown or red rice, coconut milk and herbal leaves such as gotukola, penela and hathawariya it’s taken on an empty stomach prior to tucking into a meal. (The herb, gotukola, is known for its healing and anti-inflammatory qualities and is also thought to improve memory, anxiety and depression.)

I was thrilled at the incredible array of fruits and vegetables, many of which I had not seen or eaten before. Among the tropical fruits were diul (wood apple), annona (sour sop), bael fruit, durian, goraka, Ceylon oak, tamarind and multiple varieties of bananas.  Vegetables included bitter gourd, snake gourd, breadfruit, tapioca root, grape sized thibbatu melon (tiny wild eggplant), kankun (Asian water spinach), plantain flower, and all kinds of herbal leaves considered to have medicinal properties.

This small Indian Ocean island just below the southeastern tip of India is also home to the finest black tea in the world. Tea cultivation underpinned much of Sri Lanka’s prosperity during its British Colonial period. Sri Lanka was once the world’s top tea exporter and is still among the top three with India and Kenya. Tea is serious business here and makes up around a quarter of the country’s export earnings. For the tea-loving tourist like me, there’s much to see, appreciate and taste as many plantations offer tours and tastes.

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka’s highest town perched amid green mountains under the gaze of the tallest peak, Pidurutalagala, is the prime tea growing district. The stylized landscape of the immaculately manicured plantations rising up steep slopes on rugged mountains was jaw dropping gorgeous. And it went on for miles and miles and miles. A tour of the Glenloch Tea Factory, a 155-year-old private estate, for example includes great in-depth information about tea production and a tasting of four types of tea.

Best New Whiskey Tours

A couple of decades ago there were only three Irish Whiskey brands generally consumed. Today if you visit the Jasmine Bar at Brooks hotel in Dublin, you’ll find 84 Irish whiskies on the list of Ireland’s first “Great Whiskey Bar of the World.” In 2013 there were just four distilleries in operation in the country, none of them in Dublin. Now there are 16 and a further 14 in the pipeline. Within walking distance of the Brooks is the historic Liberties, the location of Dublin’s three current distilleries: Pearse Lyons (in a converted church, the former St James’s), Teeling and Jameson. All offer tours and tastings.

The Teeling Distillery, which opened in 2015, was the first new distillery in Dublin in 125 years. It had 60,000 visitors in its first year. The Old Jameson Distillery on Bow Street off Smithfield Square reopened in March 2017 after a six-month’s closure for multi-million dollar refurbishment. (Visitor numbers had reached almost 300,000 in the year before the closure.)

Most Authentic Hotel Meals

The Trident Hotel in Port Antonio is an intimate place with only 13 oceanfront villas for guests. Owned by Toronto-based Jamaican born billionaire Michael Lee-Chin, this ultra-luxurious resort looks after its guests well. We were able to ask Chef Ricardo Allen, Chef of the Year in Jamaica in 2016, to make us different Jamaican specialty dishes every day. For breakfast we had the national dish ackee (a fruit that tastes like soft scrambled eggs) and saltfish, mackerel rundown (rundown is a dish cooked with coconut milk), beans and saltfish, escoveitched fish (fried fish in a pickling sauce of vinegar, pepper, onions and pimento) and other specialties served with starches such as plantain, boiled green bananas and breadfruit. At dinner we had such revered (and delicious) dishes as mannish water soup (considered an aphrodisiac) made from goat head, intestines and feet. (Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.)

Best Meal in an Historic Setting

Cliveden House, an iconic 17th century home, now a Relais & Chateaux hotel about a 20-minute drive from Windsor, was the place where Meghan Markle and her mother spend the night before the wedding. Cliveden’s story started with a scandal when in 1666 the Duke of Buckingham built the first great house here for his mistress and then fatally wounded her husband in a duel. Its intrigue ridden history is far too long to tell here. Better to go there, hear about the property’s colourful past and enjoy a tasting menu at the hotel’s André Garrett Restaurant. My meal there included Isle of Wight tomato gazpacho with burrata, Portland crab from the Dorset coast, foie gras au torchon, Cornish turbot with broccoli stalk fondant and olive tapenade, English veal loin with truffled curd, Barkham blue cheese, and banana mille-feuille with dark chocolate ganache.

Happy New Year. Here’s wishing all some tasty adventures in 2019.

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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