Alan Muskat, foraging owner of No Taste Like Home Wild Food Adventures, is digging dandelion roots destined for a batch of winter wine. Muskat is known for his out-of-the-box food tours, leading amateur foragers through the woods in search of wild edibles like these dandelions — and sometimes even insects. But this outing is for his personal stash.
Culinary tourism is booming everywhere, with the first Global Food Tourism Conference held in Chicago last year. But Asheville seems particularly well stocked, catering to the many tourists who flock to the area for its culture.
Many simply use the tours to take small sips of the vast brewery and restaurant scene. But if they want something out of the ordinary?
or the adventurous or curious, there are Brew-Ed’s educational beer tours, which take guests beyond the bar to explore the science of beer and the history of Asheville and its breweries. There are long-distance cheese tours done by the seat of a bike, brunch tours and tours made specifically for vegetarians.
And then there’s Muskat, who once led Karl Pilkington, host of the British travel documentary “The Moaning of Life,” through a roadkill-harvesting venture. That’s the first, and last, time Muskat’s led such a tour. “Well, no one’s asked,” Muskat acknowledged.
But Muskat’s regular No Taste Like Home foraging tours are always an adventure. He recently led 45 Michelin tire employees through a romp in the woods near the Grove Park Inn as part of a team-building exercise for the company. The workers split into three groups and dug up more than 50 edibles within a quarter-mile radius, Muskat said.
They found Kousa Dogwood, which boasts an edible knobbly red berry. “And more wild yam there than I’ve ever seen,” said Muskat. But the best find for the Michelin group? Black cohosh. “The classic way to tell what it is is to rub it, and it smells like tires,” said the forager.
Muskat leads similar tours at the Inn Thursday and Friday. What can be found on the property in the winter? Apparently plenty, or at least enough for property chefs to cook up a round of appetizers using whatever tour groups manage to dig up.
Muskat offers custom tours, a fact to which Pilkington could attest. Custom tours are also a major specialty of Velo Girl Rides, a locally run company that leads cycling explorations of the Blue Ridge Parkway and other highlights of the Asheville area.
“Many times, what people are looking for is a unique way to experience Western North Carolina food, farms, beer and wine,” said owner Jennifer Billstrom.
Bike tours often breeze through Sandy Mush, where Velo clients visit Matt Jones Pottery studio, followed by lunch and wine tasting at Addison Farms Vineyard.
“Hickory Nut Gap Farm is also a popular place to start and finish a custom day tour,” she said. “The climbing in Fairview is challenging and rewarding and the perfect end is a table-on-the-farm meal with local craft brews.”
Tours incorporating local brews abound in Asheville, of course, which is why Cliff Mori has worked to stand out from the crowd.
Mori, who’s worked with breweries and bars in Asheville since 2009, decided to step out from behind the bar to take people behind the scenes of the industry instead. His first step was to become the first certified cicerone in Western North Carolina. Then he launched the beer education program at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.
Needless to say, he’s qualified.
Imparting some of that know-how is the real treat for the the right kind of consumer, Mori said. “Personally, I know nothing about wine, and if I travel to California and do a winery tour, I want to get more than drunk. I can do that on my couch.”
Mori’s behind-the-scenes tours cover the brewing process, critically examine the beer industry, and expose people to a variety of beer styles along the way, he said. “It’s showing off the local breweries and telling stories as well. It’s a departure from what people expect.”
Food and brewery tours tap into a growing interest in food culture, coupled with a desire for individualized behind-the-scene experiences, Mori said.
They’re also part of a trend that stands to keep growing as people move to tourist-jammed Asheville, with its BYOJ — that’s bring your own job — culture.
“The downtown area is a completely different environment than it was 10 years ago and we are hitting a point where people are showing up to Asheville wanting to live here and trying to figure out to make it work,” Mori said.
The tours that provide a quality, original product will thrive, he said. “But those who are in it to make a quick buck and move on won’t last. That’s true of everything in town.”
Check out Mori’s Brew-Ed winter series, Beer Class with Cliff, which takes place the second Monday of each month at Hi-Wire Brewing’s Big Top (2 Huntsman Place) through March. Classes start at 7 p.m. and are free and open to the public.
Learn about Brew-Ed classes and tours at brew-ed.com.
Learn about No Taste Like Home tours at notastelikehome.org
Learn more about Velo Girl Rides at velogirlrides.com.
Asheville Food Tours’ brunch tour: This approximately 3.5-hour tour visits a sometimes-changing roster of Asheville restaurants,including Chestnut, Strada, The Blackbird, Blue Dream Curry House and The Chocolate Fetish. Besides sweets and tastes of brunch dishes, guests get two full-size mimosas, plus beer and wine samples along the way. The tour starts at 10:30 a.m. and ends around 2 p.m., so if that sounds like a lot of booze that early, food tour guide Paddy Riels said nonalcoholic options are available.” Although, I do go better with alcohol: the more you drink the funnier I’ve become,” he said. Find out more about AFT’s full roster of tours at ashevillefoodtours.com.
Asheville Farm to Table Tours’ vegetarian experience: This tour developed out of requests from vegetarians, said tour owner Ann D. Stauss, who leads her meat-free tours to local farms and dairies including Round Mountain Creamery. At the Black Mountain dairy, participants get to tour the milking facility and meet the goats. “Everyone enjoys that because they’re such wonderful animals,” said Stauss. “I call it a food tour but it’s as much a farm-food tour.” Vegetarian tours culminate with a vegetarian lunch. Not all tours are geared toward vegetarians. Discover other options at www.ashevillefarmtotabletours.com, or call (828) 606-9553 to book a custom tour.
Brevard Bites Food Tours: This tour offers a guided culinary sampling of downtown Brevard, 45 minutes from Asheville. The tours include tapas-sized portions of house specialties and drink pairings at a half-dozen restaurants, with a side dish of history. What makes these tours so unique? They’re led by 16-year-old owner Matthew Sharpsteen. “My goal is to introduce the amazing cuisine we have here to both locals and visitors alike, and encourage guests to slow down and truly enjoy the charm of downtown while learning about Brevard’s fun and entertaining history and culture,” said the preternaturally eloquent teen. Book your tour by contacting Matthew Sharpsteen at 828-565-2483.
Eating Asheville’s High Roller Tour: Take a whirlwind tour of Asheville with seven culinary stops and at least five drink pairings, plus a grand finale dessert. The walking tours also highlight the history of Asheville and its food culture. The High Roller Tour stops by at least one James Beard restaurant. More about Eating Asheville at eatingasheville.com.