On Europe’s food trail
When in Europe, take time to enjoy the myriad local cuisines.
F ANCY French foie gras, Spanish jambon, German bratwurst, Italian gnocchi or Dutch poffertjes? One of the greatest joys of travelling is savouring local cuisines, and Europe has a smorgasbord to offer.
Undoubtedly the most sought after European travel destination, France is a beautiful madame indeed. And this madame certainly has exceptional culinary skills.
Long known worldwide for its fine dining and Michelin-star chefs, French cuisine doesn’t have to bleed you dry. Granted, it’s pricey compared to Malaysian food (then again, we have the cheapest, most delicious, and greatest variety of food in the world).
Lyon is France’s gastronomical capital. Michelin-star restaurants aside, there is good street food to enjoy here. At the Presqu’île market by the River Saône, you’ll find an elderly lady at her humble stall Cuisine Maison (Home-cooked Food). Her homemade sausages steamed over grapevine and topped with reduced red wine onion sauce are the most uniquely delicious sausages I’ve tasted. At €8 (RM36) a plate, it’s worth every rich, juicy bite.
Stroll further down Quai St Antoine and you’ll reach a no-frills oyster shack (open only in winter and early spring). Sitting by the picturesque river bank watching people is great for slurping down live oysters with white wine. Never insult the French by asking for Tobasco sauce for your oysters!
Over at Les Halles de Lyon, a classy indoor food market, you’ll find traditional French cuisine with a twist of modern presentation. Take your pick of dried, salted, smoked or fresh saucisson (sausage), all manner of pâtés (made from every imaginable internal organ) and, of course, foie gras (duck or goose fatty liver). If you’re squeamish about eating the insides of an animal, then let the feast be for the eyes only.
In Paris, it can be difficult to find good French fare other than in upmarket restaurants – which cost at least €40 (RM180) per person. Many tourists head to St Germain or the Latin Quarter for reasonably priced food, but you won’t find authentic French cuisine there, just an array of international food. Try Léon near Les Halles. They’re the experts at les moules en cocotte (mussels in casserole) and have a number of stores nationwide. The mussels cooked in white wine will have you licking every last drop. Because of its high turnover, the mussels are fresh, sweet and succulent.
Down south in Provence, one shouldn’t miss Marseille’s bouillabaisse. Like so many wonderful foods today, bouillabaisse started as a poor man’s food. People who could only afford leftovers at the fish market, threw a mix of seafood into the pot and voila, out came this thick delectable fish broth, Provence’s classic signature dish. You can find it at any restaurant by the pretty port or even in other Provence towns. It’s an unusually large serving, considering most food in France comes petite.
Like its flamenco dance, Spanish cuisine is feisty, full-bodied and typically Mediterranean. For foodies, head over to Barcelona which is rich not only in food, but sights and activities as well. Top of the food list is jambon, tapas and paella.
Jambon is cured pork leg (or what is commonly known as ham). It’s eaten as paperthin slices by itself; with fruits such as melon or figs; or in sandwiches. Undeniably Spain’s most popular food, it’s also very old, with a history of close to 2,000 years. At Mercat Bouquera, local vendors conveniently put slices of different types of jambon on sticks, which are sold at €1 (RM4.50). By buying a few different sticks, you get to try four to eight varieties, and decide which really excites you. Jambon ibérico, priced above €10 (RM45) per 100g, is top of the range and often served in restaurants. Because the deep meaty flavour is so intense and lingers in your mouth, all you need is 100g or less. Bread and red wine complement it perfectly.
Tapas bars dot the country. Spaniards frequent them after work to de-stress. Originally, tapas was introduced to reduce the effects of alcohol on an empty stomach. Whatever was available was whipped into small portions. Today, it’s a veritable smorgasbord at the bar, often with over 20 varieties – ranging from simple olives to blood sausages to deep-fried calamari. Most are rather salty to counter alcohol intake. Because it’s essentially finger food, it has become popular with tourists to have tapas bar crawls. This allows you to try a large variety of food and consume alcohol without getting bloated and drunk. After their tapas and drinks at 6pm, Spaniards have their dinner at 9pm. However, it’s pretty standard
for tourists to have tapas for dinner since a little of everything quickly becomes a full meal.
Paella was originally a poor man’s food, with leftovers thrown into a shallow pan and cooked with rice. Today, it’s a Spanish favourite amongst travellers. You can get some for €5 (RM22.50) at a market stall or €70 (RM315) at a three-star Michelin restaurant where authentic saffron is used. For authentic paella, you’ll have to go to Valencia, its birthplace. The original version, paella valenciana, is partially submerged in soup. Personally, I prefer the drier version with a mixture of seafood and meat; this combination gives it a stronger and heartier taste. Don’t forget to have your paella with ice-cold sangria, red wine sweetened with chopped fruits and dash of brandy.
Where else can you get better bratwurst (sausages), pork knuckle, sauerkraut (sour cabbage), pretzels and beer? Bratwurst is actually a traditional food that dates back to the 14th century. It is widely available but the best-tasting ones are cooked over a coal or wood fire grill; they taste superior to those cooked on electric grills. I stumbled onto one in Offenbach, Frankfurt, named King of Grill at the car park of Ring Centre shopping mall. You bet it’s good when my daughter exclaims, “This is better than McDonalds!” At €2.50 (RM11.30), it’s a superb yet cheap food.
The unofficial national bratwurst is the currywurst, created when a woman introduced Worcestershire sauce and curry powder into her sausage. For Asians, it may not be fantastic but for Germans, the sour-spicy combination is a big hit.
The famous schweinshaxe (pork knuckles) isn’t like what we have in Malaysian German restaurants. If you’re used to the super crunchy skin, then you’ll be disappointed. Most knuckles here are oven-roasted or boiled. Only a few deep-fry them to give it that extra crispiness. Sauerkraut (slightly fermented cabbage) helps lighten the meatrich meals with its refreshingly sweet-sour crunch.
If you’re on a tight budget, head to a food court or market instead of a restaurant. The basement of Galerie Kaufhof (Germany’s largest departmental chain with stores in all its major cities) offers all of the above at great taste for less than €6 (RM27) person. Thanks to some locals, I got to know about it.
Seldom mentioned is German pastries. Unfortunately, its French neighbour has stolen the limelight. However, I find German pastries to be better in many ways: they are bigger and more satisfying than the petite French version, with the focus on taste rather than looks, and they are cheaper.
The classic things to try are the original spice-filled lebkuchen (gingerbread), the surprisingly light chocolate cheesecake, and the famous schwarzwälder kirschtorte (black forest cake) – there’s no better place to indulge in that than in Triberg or Lake Mummulsee in Black Forest. If you’re in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany’s medieval gem, treat yourself to its light and sweet schneeballen (snowball) as you wander its picture-perfect streets.
Italian food is hearty and comforting. Pasta, pizza and gelato are the trio that has captured the world’s palate. Let’s also not forget the aromatic espresso, cappuccino and latte. There are innumerable varieties of pastas although the most common is spaghetti bolog
naise, of course. Do try other forms, too. Gnocchi has a nice chewy texture. Pesto sauce with its refreshing basil flavour is a good alternative to tomatobased sauces. Travellers may find the tomatobased sauces too sour because Italians prefer fresh tomatoes that have a robust and more sour taste than the canned sweetened purees. The same goes for lasagna and pizza since the tomato sauce forms the base.
Most pizzas sold at pizzerias are not round but come in large rectangular trays, sliced into palm-sized pieces. This allows you to take slices of different flavours. The price is by weight, not per slice. You may find the toppings minimal, usually with only one, such as salami, mushroom, or just cheese. This pales in comparison with our top-it-on-heavy pizzas. But that’s just how original Italian pizzas are.
In choosing a good pizzeria or pasta place, follow your nose and the crowd. Good places to eat in Rome include the Trastevere area and Camp de Fiori. Whatever you do, skip the vans parked by tourists’ spots.
There are just as many places selling gelato as there are selling pizza and pasta. For a good one, head to a gelateria. Look at the colours of the gelato. If they’re vibrant and calling out for attention (particularly the green and pink), they’re loaded with chemicals. Go for ones whose colours seem dull because these are original and natural. A true gelato should have a firmer and chewier texture than ice cream. The best that I tasted was in a little shop near Lake Como in northern Italy. It was cold, but boy, did the gelato taste good.
The land of windmills and clogs isn’t exactly known for gastronomic delights. Righty so, because of its much colder climate, food was historically a means for keeping warm rather than enjoyment. You can see this in its highcarbohydrate diet where potatoes and peas feature prominently in thick hot soups or mashed accompaniments to meat and fish.
Not many establishments serve traditional Dutch food because of its lack of popularity. An option is Haesje Claes in Amsterdam which caters to busloads of tourists. Expect to pay at least €20 (RM90) for a three-course meal. Foods to try include snert (pea soup) and stamppot (meat with mashed potatoes).
Dutch food that has won praises are its cheeses (much tamer than French cheeses; Gouda and Edam are the most popular), herring in brine and poffertjes (mini pancakes). Cheeses also double-up as handy take-home gifts. Herring in brine is only available during spring. This is served uncooked with pickles on a bun. I love poffertjes because of its addictive syrup.
Open sandwiches are pretty hip for now. They’re not Dutch in origin but healthy and tasty. Varieties include bacon with pear and walnut, grandma’s croquet with pesto sauce, salmon with capers and even Asian stir-fry beef with alfalfa. At €8-€15 (RM36-RM67) per person, sandwiches are not cheap. Then again, everything in the Netherlands is more expensive than in the southern parts of Europe.
It’s not just about taste
Whichever part of Europe you’re heading to in 2014, don’t forget to tuck into the local fare. It can be just as satisfying a travel experience as going up the Eiffel Tower. In this article, only a tiny morsel of what is available has been mentioned. If you are wondering where to eat, just follow your nose and the crowd, or ask a local. Remember, it’s not just about taste. Food connects you with the locals. Happy travelling and eating!
Aphrodisiac: Local culinary delights at River Saône, Lyon, France. – Photo by ZR Yang
Mercat Bouquera, Barcelona: a foodie’s haven. top of the food list is jambon, tapas and paella.
Strasbourg: One of the joys of eating in europe is the setting itself.
Amsterdam: don’t miss out on the local mini-pancakes, poffertjes. Luxembourg: Indulge in a european lobster cooked in brandy butter sauce.
Baden-baden, Germany: enjoy gorgeous pastries in Germany’s black Forest.
Rome, Italy: the pizzas in Italy are something else!