Have Taste, Will Travel: For some St. Louisans, vacation plans start with the food

St. Louisans can be a pretty worldly bunch when it comes to their cuisine. But a few local jetsetters are really putting the "ciao" back in their "chow," traveling to the farthest reaches of the planet for food and drink.

The spice of life

In stocking his eclectic kitchen pantry, Allan Cohen believes in cutting out the middleman. And, heck, why not bridge all that physical distance while we're at it?

Cohen, president and general manager at KMOV Channel 4, and his wife Roberta have spent the past 20 years casting about the globe for the best bites and bringing as much home as their luggage will accommodate: saffron from Spain, olive oil and sun-dried tomatoes from Italy, vanilla from Tahiti. "I'm just fascinated by it. Food is pretty much the reason we travel," Cohen said. "We go to Spain at least once a year, and Paris at least once a year."

Cohen thrills in seeing tracts of precious saffron at its source in La Mancha. "As far as the eye can see, just saffron fields," he said. "It's about half the price, and the taste is just phenomenal. It's richer and bolder, and there's a certain amount of pride."

And almost nothing is closer to heaven than to stand in the midst of a vast vanilla field in Tahaa, Tahiti. The Cohens have brought home the fresh, fragrant beans and soaked them in rum or vodka, or used them to infuse flavor and aroma into table sugar for flavoring tea and coffee.

"When we go to an area, we think, "Well, what are they known for?"" Cohen said. Then the couple stocks up on spices, oils and other foodstuffs to add to their kitchen supplies.

And the Cohens can be dogged in their pursuit of the local specialties. Once, they queried a helpful hotel employee in France for advice on snatching up the finest regional olive oil. The woman directed the Cohens to a vendor in Arles named Carmen. "We went to the street market the next day to look for Carmen " and it took us two hours to find her " and then when we got to her she was selling the last of it. She sold the last bottle right in front of us." Undeterred, the couple negotiated an exclusive meeting with Carmen for a bottle of her best.

Other times, the Cohens have gamely attempted to re-create entire recipes they sampled overseas. "There was this restaurant in Paris that made the best cake I"ve ever had in my life," Cohen said. "I told Roberta I could not conceive living the rest of my life without having this cake." The Cohens and a few comrades took a crack at deconstructing and reconstructing the pastry at home, to no avail.

"We couldn"t quite get it there."

Cooks abroad

Boo Cook may conduct private cooking classes in her Clayton home, but she still delights in discovering new tastes and cooking methods from the regions that gave birth to them.

"You always learn a new technique," she said. "You always learn a new way to look at ingredients. I don"t think I ever cook without learning something. If you"re really interested in food, you always come away with something you never thought of before."

It was her quest for knowledge that took Cook and her daughter, Wendy Cook, to Toscana in Bocca cooking school in Florence last year for a five-day crash course in authentic Italian food. There, sisters-in-law Anna and Gloria Martinelli tutored students on the national cuisine from the comfort of a renovated 16th-century home nestled in a private olive grove.

"It was just like meeting up with two old friends," Boo Cook said of the Martinellis, who peppered the course syllabus with art and history lessons, and tours of the Central Food Market (Mercato di San Lorenzo) and the Chianti region.

Focusing on seasonal fare, the Martinellis taught the Cooks to use ripe tomatoes for a fresh soup, and walked them through dishes such as veal rolls with sage; sauteed peppers; fresh ravioli with spinach, ricotta and pine nuts; chicken fricassee with lemon; and an unforgettable chocolate-pear tart. "I hoped to get a more authentic experience of Italian cooking," said Wendy Cook, who now lives in California. "My mom and I had taken classes in San Francisco, based on Italian cooking, that were wonderful. But there's nothing like being in someone's home in Italy and working with the ingredients they have at hand."

Branching out

What's a meal abroad without a notable potable with which to wash it all down? That's the question that has driven Frank and Jane Ollendorff deep into the caves and cellars beneath some of the most fruitful wine regions in the world. Although food plays a major role in the Ollendorffs' travels, it is the libations that inspire their wanderlust.

Frank, a former University City administrator, and Jane, a retired health care administrator, made their first winery trip to Napa Valley in 1992 on the recommendations of a former St. Louis chef who had relocated there to open his own restaurant. Since then, they've journeyed back to California and on to France and Italy a number of times to embellish their wine collection with a few bottles of the swankiest swill. One overseas expedition took them to Italy's Piedmont region, where they built the itinerary around each winery's hours of operation. And last year, the two flew to France and rented a car just to tour the Burgundy, Riesling and Chablis regions.

Frank Ollendorff still chuckles over the time he and Jane picked up some three dozen assorted wines throughout France and Italy with the intention of shipping their finds home. "We found out we couldn"t ship to the United States from France," he said. "So we had 36 bottles to bring home and nowhere to put it. We went Dumpster diving for a box to pack it all in." The rest was wrapped in clothing and stuffed into the luggage, and all of it was checked into baggage.

"We only lost one bottle," he said.

Their next stop is a spring holiday in the Loire Valley and Troyes, France, where the Ollendorffs will follow the lead of two French friends on an eight-day meandering through wine and Champagne country. From there, they'll jet off to Marrakesh, where a Moroccan friend will guide the party. Frank and Jane expect that leg of the journey to be a drier outing. "I don"t know if there's much wine there," Frank said skeptically. "[Our friend] has been telling us about the food - he hasn"t mentioned the wine."

The Cooks, Cohens and Ollendorffs all say they research their destinations ahead of time with travel books, Internet searches and feedback from fellow travelers. But according to Allan Cohen, there's no better source of intelligence once you"re there than the locals. "You've got to just ask regular people. Most people will send you to the place they think you want to go. I ask people, "Where do you buy?"