Europe for Foodies: The Handout

By Cameron Hewitt

Here at the Rick Steves’ Europe home office in Edmonds, Washington, I regularly present slideshow lectures on various travel topics. (You can stream several of these online: European Travel Skills; Czech Republic/Poland/Hungary; Slovenia/Croatia; European Cruising 101; Mediterranean Cruise Ports; and Northern European Cruise Ports).

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been developing a brand-new class that’s all about food. I believe that, when you travel in Europe, appreciating the local cuisine can unlock a greater appreciation of the culture as a whole. Food has become a high priority in travel these days, and one of my key roles at Rick Steves’ Europe is making sure that our content doesn’t miss out on the Foodie Revolution. This class collects the best of what I’ve learned over 15 years of eating well all over Europe.

If you’re in the Seattle area, love food, and want to gain some inspiration about how to tune into food culture and prioritize it in your travels, join me at the Edmonds Theater this Saturday (February 11) at 10:00. The class is free; to ensure a seat, sign up at our website.

And if you can’t make it, I hope you can glean a few of my best tips from my class handout, below.

Europe for Foodies

By Cameron Hewitt

“Foodie-ism” 101

  • The Foodie Revolution & Celebrity Chefs. From Britain to USA, Ramsay, Oliver, Lagasse, Bourdain have given rise to “foodie culture.”
  • European Food Pioneers. Ferran Adrià (elBulli, deconstructivist / molecular), René Redzepi (Noma, New Nordic; influenced Blaine Wetzel).
  • Terroir. Ingredients are shaped by the very specific conditions in which they grow. “Locally sourced” is nothing new in Europe (“zero-kilometer meal”).
  • Eat with the Seasons. Don’t look for French onion soup or white truffles in the summer. Europeans insist on eating seasonally. In Italy, frozen ingredients must be noted on the menu.
  • Cuisine and Culture Are Interchangeable. Each one speaks volumes about the other. Examples: Swiss “cow culture,” Bulgarian wedding feast, Spanish taps culture (paseo).
  • Local Specialties. Get beyond (or learn more about) the clichés. Appreciate the subtle varieties of Spanish jamón, French cheeses, Italian pastas.
  • Be willing to try anything… once. Nose-to-tail classics (haggis in Scotland, tripe sandwiches in Florence) are newly trendy.
  • Understand the Reason for the Cuisine. Italian (simple, ingredient-driven) vs. French (artistry; complex sauces and technique to make the most of limited/low-quality ingredients: coq au vin, escargots, duck confit).
  • Budget Foodie Options. “Foodie” doesn’t have to mean “expensive.” Fried goodies on the street in Naples, street food in Ljubljana.

Choosing a Restaurant

  • Challenge Yourself to Find Something Better. Don’t just settle for the glitziest place with a neon sign that says “We speak English and Accept Credit Cards.” Best choices are often mom-and-pop traditional places, or creative young foodie joints.
  • Get off the main drag. Often, just a block or two away, prices drop and food/service improves.
  • Look for a short, handwritten menu in one language. It’s short because the owner wants to do fewer things and do them well. It’s handwritten because it’s based on what’s fresh today. And it’s in one language because it’s catering to locals—not one-time tourist traffic.
  • Find a nice setting. Sometimes the view trumps food/tourists/price concerns. Better yet, just get a scenic before- or after-dinner drink.
  • Do your homework. Makes the difference between a functional meal and a memorable one.
  • Guidebooks can be helpful. But be sure the author’s philosophy aligns with yours.
  • Crowdsourcing Sites Have Pros and Cons. Wide range of opinions is helpful—but consider the source. TripAdvisor skews to touristy restaurants (e.g., Seattle rankings). Yelp is more local, but unfortunately less active in Europe.
  • Newspapers/Websites. New York Times “36 Hours in…” series is top-notch, well-researched, engaging videos. The Guardian (London) also has excellent food writing (Britain and beyond).
  • Local Food Blogs. Search for “foodie blog” plus your destination; often excellent food writing and photography with a local scoop. Example: Katie Parla in Rome (great apps). Also check out my blog: blog.ricksteves.com/cameron

Practicalities

  • Menu la Carte. Throughout Europe, a menu is a fixed-price meal; to dine à la carte, ask for the “card” (carte/carta/Karte).
  • Menus (Fixed-Price Meals). Can be a good chance to sample local specialties—or a tourist trap. “Tourist menus” are handy but not high cuisine; pay a few euros more for better choices.
  • Courses. In Italy, a full-blown meal has four courses: antipasti (appetizers); primi (“first” course, pasta or soup); secondi (“second” course, meat or fish); and dolci (dessert).
  • Sharing. This is generally OK, but don’t cheap out on the overall bill. In Italy, 2 people can split any 4 courses (e.g., one antipasto, one pasta, one main dish, and one dessert). In general, sharing is an excellent way to sample more dishes, especially in cultures where it’s common (Spanish tapas, Greek mezes). Tip: In Italy, some restaurants will do bis (two half-portions of pasta)
  • Language Barrier. Use a phrase book (with menu decoder) or an online translator (Google Translate uses your camera). But don’t get too hung up on every word—take a leap of faith.
  • Service and Tipping. European service is unhurried (“slow” to Americans). They won’t bring your bill until you ask. Europeans typically tip far less than Americans (many don’t tip at all; others up to 10-12%). In most countries, just round up to the nearest round number, typically 5-10%. Insisting on tipping “American-style” is culturally insensitive, even if well-intentioned.
  • Vegetarianism. Most of Europe tries to be accommodating. Be explicit—in some places, “vegetarian” means “no red meat” or “not much meat.”
  • Gluten-Free. Not as common in Europe. Consider: 1% of the population has Celiac Disease, but 20% eat gluten-free. Hmm…
  • Cheating? If you are inclined to “cheat” on your vegetarian/gluten-free diet, do it in Europe.
  • Food Allergies. Get the list translated so you can show it to servers—especially if dangerous.

Cheap Eats

  • Street Food. Each country has its own; can be some of the best (and cheapest) food in town. In cities look for creative food markets (e.g., London Ropewalk).
  • “Ethnic” Food. It’s OK to take a break from the culinary rut (pork/kraut in Germany, pub grub in Britain, pasta in Italy, etc.). Kebabs (or döner kebabs) are everywhere. And each country has their own “secondary cuisine”: Indian in Britain, Georgian in Russia, etc.
  • Markets. A delight to browse (Budapest’s Great Market Hall, London’s Borough Market). Look for pop-up street markets and outdoor produce markets. Small towns in France designate a weekly “market day”—plan for it (e.g., Sarlat).
  • Other Cheap Eats. Market cafés, worker/student cafeterias (“mensa”), gathering a meal at variety of artisanal shops (bakery, cheese, meats).
  • Picnic. Simply means “non-restaurant meal.” All of the above are ways to assemble a memorable picnic—find a scenic spot for yours.

Drinking

  • Wine. Know what qualities you like—the vintner wants to help you narrow down your options. Wine bars/enoteche pair with good food, wine shops offer variety, and winery visits are more in-depth. Italy, France, and Spain have top wines, but don’t overlook lesser-known wine countries (Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia).
  • Beer. German Biergarten culture, self-service, big liter steins called Mass (deposit). Czech Republic has best (and cheapest) pilsners (named for Plzeň). Belgian beers are refined, higher alcohol, each one served in a very specific glass to highlight the taste. Britain prefers its ales room-temperature, pulled up from cellar using “pulls,” after-work hangout in front of pubs. Craft beers trendy everywhere (especially Italy).
  • Spirits. Splurge on a scenic cocktail. Europeans love both aperitif (before dinner) and digestif (after dinner, aids digestion). National specialties: whisky in Scotland/Ireland (distillery tours), vodka in Poland, limoncello in southern Italy, ouzo in Greece/Turkey, Unicum in Hungary, Becherovka in Czech Rep. Hospitality = homemade firewater.
  • Soft Drinks. Discover the “local Coke”: Rivella in Switzerland (made with milk serum, tastes like vitamins), Irn-Bru in Scotland (bright orange), Cockta in Slovenia.
  • Café Culture. Espresso with different amounts of milk (Italians don’t drink milk after lunch, for digestive reasons). You may pay more to sit than to stand—check price list. Genteel Coffee houses in Budapest, Vienna. Afternoon tea in Britain. Turkish coffee in Turkey/Bosnia/ Balkans comes with culture of slowing down.

Sweets

  • Chocolates. Best in Belgium, Britain, Switzerland. Also consider other candies (British sweets, Scandinavian salted licorice).
  • Pastries. In addition to predictable choices, try alternatives: kürtőskalács in Hungary/Eastern Europe; churros in Spain. Cultural divide: SE Europe sweetens with honey rather than sugar.
  • Ice Cream/Gelato. Look for “artisanal”/artigianale or “homemade.” Pistachio is best barometer of quality. Flavors that pair/marry well. Avoid big piles of bright colors (for attracting children).

Foodie Experiences

  • Cooking Classes. Have fun, learn a skill (and understand the culture behind it), and bring home recipes. Trendy; look online or ask your hotel.
  • Food Tours. Get to know a (typically less-touristy) neighborhood, learn about local food culture, and identify great restaurants (e.g., Eat Polska food tours in Warsaw and Krakow).
  • Learn Where Your Food Comes From. Agriturismi/ tourist farm (Italy), cheesemakers, beehive (Slovenia), truffle hunt, making kanafeh (Bulgaria).

Happy Travels…and Happy Eating!