On Europe’s food trail

When in Europe, take time to en­joy the myr­iad lo­cal cuisines.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - Story and pho­tos by ZR Yang star2­travel@thes­tar.com.my

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.

France

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.

Spain

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.

Ger­many

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.

Italy

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 Nether­lands

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!

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