The term “foodie” is trendy these days. It sounds pretentious, and a little silly. But I’ve decided to take that word back, for food-lovers everywhere. There’s nothing wrong with being a “foodie.” It simply means that you prioritize food in your life — and in your travels.
Some travelers eat to live. I live to eat. And the more I make food a central focus of my travels, the clearer it becomes that to really appreciate a culture, you need to understand its food. Because in a sense, food is culture.
Finish this phrase: Swiss ___. For all its claims to fame, and the end of the day, Switzerland is synonymous with cheese. It’s part of their international brand and their national identity. And the government invests generous subsidies in keeping this part of Swiss culture alive. To this day, Swiss farmers — now federally funded — still make cheese the old-fashioned way. Each spring, they take their herd of cows up to high-mountain huts, on pastures called “alps,” and hang their decorative cowbells from the eaves. There they stay with their livestock for 100 days, all summer long — milking them at dawn and at dusk, and spending their days making cheese. And then one day in September, when cool weather announces the onset of autumn, the cowhands sling those giant bells around their cows’ necks and walk them back down into the village in the valley below — creating an impromptu parade of flower-bedecked cows, enjoying a victory lap after a productive summer, to a soundtrack of clanging bells and satisfied moos.
What type of food do you associate with Spain? Tapas, of course — small plates. But a deeper understanding of Spanish cuisine tells you volumes about the Spanish culture, climate, and landscape. In arid, blistering Iberia, people take a mid-day siesta to head home, eat a big lunch, and hide out from the heat for a couple of hours. They return to work for a few more hours, and then, just as the sun goes down and temperatures grow tolerable, they go for a paseo — a languid stroll through the city streets, promenading with friends and family, greeting neighbors, and dropping into a variety of cozy bars and cafés. After a day cooped up inside, avoiding the heat, the last thing you want is to settle in for a long, sit-down dinner. So instead, you nibble on little plates of food at the bar — sharing a variety of dishes with friends old and new, sipping drinks, cracking jokes, socializing. Then you head to the next bar, for some new dishes (and some new friends). “Tapas-style” dining isn’t a trend — it’s a social ritual and a way of life, shaped over eons by Spain itself.
What are the two most beloved European cuisines? If you’re like most people, you’re thinking of Italian and French. (If you’re an odd duck like me, Hungarian might have crept into the mix.) Italian and French cuisine are equally enticing, and yet, so fundamentally different.
In sun-drenched Italy — the garden patch of Europe — cuisine is all about highlighting quality ingredients. The fewer ingredients, and the less they’re manipulated, the better. I once took a cooking class in Tuscany where Marta taught me how to make the most delicious sauce ever to cross my palate. It has just five ingredients: tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, and salt. And it makes everything it touches explosively flavorful. This emphasis on fresh ingredients also makes Italian cuisine highly localized. Why are there so many types of pasta? Because each one is engineered to highlight a particular sauce or topping, usually rooted in a highly specific place and season. (Those pasta places where you “pick your noodles, then pick your sauce” make Italians furious.) Specialties aren’t just regional — they can be specific to a town, or even to a neighborhood. And Italian law forbids restaurants from using frozen ingredients unless they’re noted on the menu.
In French cuisine, the ingredients are less important than what you do with them. I once took a cooking class in Burgundy, where every dish had at least a dozen ingredients — and each recipe involved mastering a precise, delicate technique. French chefs are technicians, who endlessly play and tinker and experiment to create something delicious. Who, but the French, would look at snails crawling across a rain-dampened path and think, “I’ll bet if I cooked those in garlic butter, they’d be delicious”? Beyond escargot, think of the other most famous French dishes: Coq au vin takes the toughest, least palatable type of poultry — rooster — and slow-simmers it in red wine and spices until it’s tender and flavorful. Bœuf bourguignon does the same with tough cuts of beef. And confit de canard is a duck that’s been rendered, preserved in a sealed can of its own congealed fat, then opened up months later and cooked in that same fat. That’s not a recipe — that’s a science experiment. So much of French cooking feels like it was created on a dare. And yet, it’s delicious. And it’s beautiful. French chefs are also elegant artists, who employ their technique to create stunning masterpieces, as pleasing to the eye as to the palate. French salads aren’t just jumbled together — they’re composée…composed.
These are just a few examples of how food can play a much larger role in your travels than simply filling the tank. And that’s the topic of my “Europe for Foodies” class, which we filmed earlier this year and is now available to view on Ricksteves.com and YouTube (and below).
Of all the travel talks I do at Rick Steves’ Europe, “Europe for Foodies” is my favorite. It’s the one that my audiences seem to enjoy the most. And, strangely, it’s also the least-attended.
Maybe people already take it for granted that food is important in travel — or are confident that it isn’t. But the purpose of this talk is to deepen your appreciation for the many vivid travel experiences where food and culture intersect. Like a French chef who makes snails delicious, I’ve engineered this talk to fine-tune your culinary sensibilities, with ample suggestions for incorporating food in your travels. If you’ve enjoyed my many blog posts about food in Europe…this talk is for you.
In the talk, I introduce age-old European culinary concepts that are newly trendy these days, including terroir, zero-kilometer, nose-to-tail, and the importance of eating with the seasons. I also suggest practical tips for finding the best restaurants, and explain some subtleties of dining in Europe that can be confusing. Sometimes this requires psychoanalyzing the way Europeans conceptualize food: You’ll learn why Italians can’t understand how anyone could drink a caffé latte after lunchtime, why they serve your salad after the pasta, and why that stubborn server won’t bring your bill to the table until you’ve asked for it.
I run through some of my favorite cheap eats in Europe (from German Currywurst to Greek souvlaki to Sicilian arancine to Polish zapiekanka) and the best food halls and street markets. And there are sections on drinking (wine, beer, spirits, and café culture) and sweets — from Belgian chocolates to Italian gelato. Finally, I suggest some experiences that allow you to incorporate food into your travels: cooking classes, food tours, visits to local farms, chasing a truffle-sniffing dog through an oak forest, getting to know a Slovenian beekeeper, and so on.
I hope you enjoy my “Europe for Foodies” talk as much as I enjoyed putting it together. And remember: Every meal you have in Europe is an opportunity to have a cultural experience.
If you enjoy reading my blog posts that focus on food, you can find a roundup here.
If you’re tight on time, you can also check out shorter chapters separately:
Europe for Foodies 101 (23 min)
Restaurant-Finding Tips (14 min)
Eating Tips and Tricks (9 min)
Cheap Eats (9 min)
Drinks and Sweets (16 min)
Foodie Experiences (7 min)