If I ever win lottery, I will spend the rest of my life traveling. That is, after I donate a large sum to juvenile diabetes research, fight against cancer, eradication of hunger, and education. And after I help some of my family and friends better their existence. And after I secure a substantial amount for my daughters’ college tuitions. As I don’t have to stay in four star hotels and I don’t have to travel first class, I believe that there will still be plenty left for my traveling budget.
I am not a great fit with guided tours, preferring to explore the unknown places on my own, following my curiosity and interests, rather than bowing to the general assumptions of what needs to be seen. I carefully plan my vacations doing a lot of research, reading comments and recommendations, and bothering friends and family who ventured in the the area before me.
I like to book rooms in small, un-glamorous hotels which sometimes do not offer AC and definitely do not have every cable channel available on TV, providing there even is a TV set in the room. I like to be on the first name basis with the receptionists/owners and get their input on the best-ofs in their area. I like to ride buses with the locals across towns and get lost in small village farmers markets.
On a few occasions in the past I was pleasantly surprised to discover small tourist agencies that cater to unorthodox tourists like me who remain behind, hidden under huge, floppy hats and Victoria Beckham-sized sunglasses as their group herds after a guide carrying a flag and talking in a condescending kindergarten-teacher manner.
Therefore, I was thrilled to meet Erika Suhr and Suzie Agelopoulos, the founders of Vamoos Travel, a small company that promises to take you off the beaten path and let you immerse yourself in the real life just waiting to be explored behind the glossy posters adorning the glass walls of most travel agencies. These two long-time friends hail from Seattle, where they dabbled in different careers before discovering their true passion: Erika sold pharmaceuticals and Suzie ran a Greek restaurant. Sensing that there is so much more out there, they embarked on an adventure and spent more than a year traveling the world and managing to feel at home at most places they visited.
Passionate and vivacious, they befriended locals wherever they went and spent many hours experiencing their day-to-day existence. People they met opened their hearts and their homes to them, eager to share their hospitality, and in no time they learned that they were the happiest when sitting down at the family table, sharing food and wine with strangers who became fast friends before the first glass was empty. The seed of an idea was planted, and shortly after they returned to the US and relocated to Los Angeles, they started Vamoos Travel.
Their first destination for the culinary travel tour is Emilia-Romagna, a northern province of Italy rich with traditions, culture, and history, and home to some of the best regional cuisines. Small groups (not more than ten people) would visit family-run factories that make Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, and aceto balsamico the old, traditional way; they would watch some of Bologna’s most acclaimed chefs prepare their dinner and learn how to roll pasta in some nonna’s small kitchen; they would ride in the pick-up truck to forage for truffles, and taste wine produced in small countryside vineries.
I cannot imagine better way to spend a week. If that winning lotto ticket would somehow materialize in my hands, I would book this November tour for me and nine of my friends without blinking. In the meantime, I can keep this dream alive by practicing my Italian with my friends Barbara and Christina and eating simple, but flavorful foods that are the essence of Italian regional cooking. I offer you a recipe for baked vegetables, one of the quintesential Italian dishes our Food Bloggers of LA group sampled several days ago at home of Erika Kerekes in Santa Monica (whose kitchen I covet with every ounce of my being – when I get my own house, can I borrow Michael to help me with design of the kitchen, pretty please?)
- 3 large, ripe, round tomatoes
- 1 eggplant
- 1 yellow pepper
- 1 red pepper
- 3 zucchini
- 150 gr./ 3.5 oz. bread crumbs
- 4 or 5 garlic cloves
- a little bunch of parsley
- 4-5 spoons olive oil
- salt and pepper as you like
- Cut the tomatoes in halves and squeeze them a bit to get some water and the seeds out.
- Slice the eggplant and zucchini ½ cm thick, take away the seeds and the white internal part of the peppers and slice in 6 parts.
- Prepare a large baking tin, cover it with parchment paper, and spread vegetables in one layer.
- Mix the bread crumbs, garlic, minced parsley, salt, pepper
- and oil.
- Fill each tomato half with this mixture and sprinkle all the other mixture over each piece of vegetable, pour a thin thread of oil on top and cook for about ½ hour at 180-200 degrees C. (about 350-400 degrees F).
Please visit Vamoos Travel site and look at the photos. These girls will fulfill their dreams and make dreams come true for so many of us. I wish them all the luck in the world. Arrivederci a Bologna, amiche mie!
Thanks, Erika, for your hospitality, for preparing those fabulous Italian dishes and for introducing us to Erika and Suzie.