By JOHN LEHNDORFF
(From Sensi magazine, 10/19)
The most influential Colorado foodie that nobody has heard of pulls up on an old bicycle at a French bakery near her home in Longmont. It’s a rare in-state sighting of the culinary travel pioneer who also helped introduce the Slow Food movement to the United States.
The patrons don’t notice but the gruff baker in his flour-dusted apron warmly greets Peggy Markel.
In an accent veering between Alabama drawl and Italian opera, Markel admits that when she comes home to Colorado, going out is the last thing on her mind.
“I just want to stop moving and eating. Friends will invite you to do something. ‘You ran all over the world but you can’t go out for dinner?’ Sometimes our spirits need to catch up before they can move again,” she says.
Peggy Markel Culinary Adventures encompasses eight current programs so she is gone six months of every year. “I started 2019 in India at Jaipur. Then to Morocco, then Spain and Portugal and then back to Italy. Then I came home in July,” she says.
She is set to return to Europe in September where she maintains a fourth floor walk-up in a 16th century palazzo in Florence.
“When I’m tired I have my sanctuary. That’s where I restore myself in between trips over there,” she says.
Markel has been going over there from here for 27 years, but becoming a travel entrepreneur was the farthest thing from her mind when she first went to Italy. She was there to study the art of mosaics. Instead, she ended up learning how to cook pasta with the brother of a friend at a 15th Century villa.
“I loved that experience of connecting with the food, the people and the place so much and I wanted others to share it with others,” she said.
Culinary travel may be a big business now – especially after the late. Anthony Bourdain made it cool, but it wasn’t a “thing” when Markel took the leap. She launched her initial adventure, La Cucina de Foccolare (Cooking by the Fireside) in Florence and the Tuscan hills in 1991.
Relationships are the Route She Follows
“It was all pretty magical. One connection led to another connection. That how I started new adventures to other countries. I wasn’t looking for them but someone would say ‘You have to go here and see my friend.’ So we would start a program there,” Markel says. Next on her agenda is visiting Mykonos, Greece, to starting an adventure there.
“I don’t ever market this business. Guests are almost always a friend or family member of someone who has gone on a trip. It’s by referral so you tend to get the right kind of traveler,” Markel says.
From the beginning she knew what her guided adventures wouldn’t include. Guests wouldn’t be at a Marriott that serves American-style breakfast and they wouldn’t spend the day on a bus. They wouldn’t be visiting the usual sights or the “English Spoken here” tourist traps.
Why Having a Guide Matters
There are tons of food and culture guide books, travel blogs and You Tube videos as well as organized culinary bus tours. “I do think there is something to having a guide, somebody who knows a place. People even try to follow my itineraries, but it’s not the same,” she says.
Markel famously functions almost as a travel therapist.
“I put my arms around the situation. It’s where guests sit at the table, what rooms they get. I think about the quality of the entire experience,” Markel says.
For a week, Markel’s adventurers do not have to decide anything. They are gently directed from one good thing to another. “There’s a rhythm to each day. It’s a very feminine touch, doing it my way,” Markel says.
Simple curiosity has been her travel guide. “I go into a bakery somewhere and I always poke my head in the back. What are you doing in there? Typically, the cooks and bakers never see anybody and they are thrilled to be asked,” Markel says.
The idea, Markel says, is for a small group to take a deep dive into a distinct culture’s relationship with food. “It’s an invitation. Let me introduce you some people I know,” Markel says. After almost three decades Markel knows the chefs, hoteliers, food artisans, artists and winemakers on a first name basis, as well as the boat captains on the islands off of Sicily.
“The skippers all call me ‘Peggy Peggy.’ I’ve met all their families,” she says.
Whether it’s Rajastan in India, Marrakesh in Morocco or Seville in Spain, her guest are tasting, meeting the makers, seeing the fields and fishing waters and also learning how to make the region’s defining dishes.
“We end up at the table at least three times a day and there is always wine. You sit, you eat, and you talk. Without the usual distractions you can regain your connection with yourself, your truth and your food,” Markel says.
Slow Food Came to Colorado First
While leading tours in Italy, Markel encountered a new and singular protest movement. “I remember sitting at a wine tasting listening to Carlo Petrini talk about Slow Food and why it was essential to reconnect people and food. He was like a preacher or a politician. I thought it was just like what I was doing,” Markel says.
Initially the movement was fueled by outrage that a McDonald’s was opening at the foot of Rome’s iconic Spanish Steps, Slow Food has grown into an international organization that stresses saving local food cultures and promoting sustainability.
Markel brought the novel Slow Food idea home to Boulder with her in 1995.
“The first official meeting of the Boulder Slow Food group was in a tipi with (American craft beer guru) Charlie Papazian,” Markel says. That toast with homebrew was one of the first Slow Food events ever in the United States.
Nearly 30 years later, Markel has proven to be prescient. The farm-to-table concept has become mainstream. Colorado is the epicenter of America’s Slow Food community and the site for the past three summers of Slow Food Nations, the organization’s premier gathering of American and international foodies.
The Pluses and Perils of Perpetual Travel
A life in constant motion have given Markel a certain clarity about the value of travel.
“I’ve learned that we all have a lot in common. We connect over food and family, even if we don’t speak the same language. We find we have more similarities than differences. In India you can see diverse religions living and working next to each other. There is always a common denominator,” Markel says.
However, she has noticed one significant difference.
“If you ask an American what the greatest value is, they will say ‘freedom.’ Ask almost any other culture in the world and their primary value is ‘family,’” she says.
Being a professional traveler is one of those jobs we all think must be fun but it is not without its occupational hazards. First and foremost is living life at home in absentia.
“I was out of the country when my home in Boulder got flooded in 2013. There are personal losses along the way and events you miss. I’ve had my ups and downs over the past 27 years with economic problems and terrorism,” Markel says.
“Travel brings out so many things in people. It exaggerates everything you’re going through and offers something beautiful and nourishing in return,” Markel says.
‘What is it With These Tomatoes?’
Looking back Markel now understands the origins of her passion for connecting with cuisine, culture and locale. She was born in Alabama and spent a lot of time on the farm near Albertville, the self-proclaimed “Fire Hydrant Capital of the World.”
“My grandparents lived in the countryside. I remember the trees, the whippoorwills, the smells and cooking with the season. It was very simple stuff,” she says of the original farm-to-table family cuisine.
“I go back and visit now and think ‘What is it with these tomatoes? Why do they taste so fantastic?’ I realized that this is what heirlooms seeds, old seeds saved year after year, really mean. It’s that red dirt clay, too. That’s terroir. The taste gives a sense of place,” Markel says.
John Lehndorff writes Nibbles for the Boulder Weekly and hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU (kgnu.org).
Peggy Markel’s Pasta con le Vongole Veraci
1 pound dry spaghetti or linguine
1 1/2 pounds fresh clams
1 bunch fresh Italian parsley, finely chopped (save stalks)
4 large garlic cloves, peeled
pinch of chile flakes
1/2 glass white wine
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt, fresh ground black pepper, to taste
Fresh lemon, zested
Clean the clams well to get rid of any sand and to make sure there are no dead ones. Put a heavy-bottomed pan on the heat and allow to get very hot. Add the clams directly into the pan and stir, allow to heat for a minute then add half a glass of white wine, 2 whole garlic cloves, and the parsley stalks, cover the pan with a lid and shake every now and again until all the clams are open.
Pour the clams and liquid into a sieve with a bowl underneath to collect the resulting stock. Boil the pasta in lots of lightly salted water (the liquid from the clams will be salty so it is important not to salt the pasta too much).
In a large pan gently heat a generous dose of extra-virgin olive oil with 2 whole garlic cloves and a small pinch of chili flakes.
When the pasta is half-cooked add to the pan with the oil and garlic and add the clam stock. Finish cooking the pasta in the stock. If it starts to dry out add some pasta cooking water.
When the pasta is properly al dente, reduce the liquid until there is little left, turn off heat, add a little pasta water and a drizzle of olive oil and toss until creamy. Add the clams and chopped parsley and toss again. Taste to check the seasoning. Serve with a little lemon zest grated over the top. Serves four to six people.
Peggy Markel Culinary Adventures: Markel’s 2020 culinary adventures include Spain in April, Sicily and Portugal in May, and the Amalfi Coast in June. peggymarkel.com
Slow Food in Colorado:
Slow Food Denver: slowfooddenver.org
Slow Food Boulder County: slowfoodboulder.org
Slow Food Colorado Springs: slowfoodcoloradosprings.org
Slow Food Western Slope: slowfoodwesternslope.org
“Without the usual distractions you can regain your connection with yourself, your truth and your food.” – Peggy Markel