Like Napoleon's army, we travel on our stomachs
...........................Stop now if you have no interest in food, because this is all about how we have eaten our way through Europe.
One might say that we spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about our next meal. Of course, one would be completely wrong.
When you go to a different country, the food is a big part of the culture and how we do like to immerse ourselves in culture! The whole issue of food-- what to get, where to get it and when to get it -- is just way different in much of Europe than it is in the US.
We wanted to enjoy the food wherever we went, but we needed to watch our pennies if not our waistlines. What's the big deal, you say? Well, when you are on a two-week tour, your food budget is not terribly significant. But when you are on a multi-month visit, the food budget takes on a whole different dimension, or at least it does for us. We longed to eat as the natives eat but who wants to cook all the time? Thus the hunt for value as well as quality.
One of the things that is hard for 24/7 Americans to understand is that Europeans don't expect everything to be open all the time. Every country is different but most of them have established opening and closing times, if not set by law as in Germany, at least by tradition. If you are planning to buy something at a shop or supermarket for a picnic lunch, then you need to get there before they close at 12 or 12:30. On Sunday, the supermarket will most likely be closed all day but you can probably find a bakery and a charcuterie that will be open in the morning.
In some tourist areas in Portugal and in parts of southern Spain, there are restaurants open from lunch all the way through dinner. However, this is the exception rather than the rule and most restaurants close between lunch and dinner. (Note: I have no idea about McDonald's, which you see in an amazing number of places. They may be open all the time but we don't go there so I wouldn't know.)
One tradition that I wish would be extended to the US is that every restaurant in Europe has its menu posted outside the door. You can browse around the square or down the street until you find what you want to eat at a price you're willing to pay.
In Portugal, there were restaurants everywhere. No matter how many tourists crowded the streets, there were more restaurants with seating set up along the streets and alleyways. You could stop for a Coke, beer or glass of wine, or you could have a meal. We also tried a couple of bakeries in the Lisbon area and found wonderful pastries.
In downtown Lisbon, we ate grilled sardines (once is enough) and grilled squid (of which I was to consume a lot--I love it.) It was in Cascais that Al first discovered pork Alentejo, which is cubed, spiced pork in a sauce with clams, which he ordered relentlessly. We also tried chicken piri-piri as recommended by the guidebook and it was a big disappointment: roasted chicken over which you can drizzle a hot oil to taste. Big deal. On Easter, we had the traditional roast kid which was scrumptiously tender and in Evora we had lamb chops which had tiny bones about the same size as the kid's.
While the food in Portugal was quite reasonably priced, the restaurants all have a little trick that the guidebooks warn you about. First, the bread is not included in the price of the meal but it is invariably brought to you. (This is also true in Spain.) Then, the waiter will casually place a plate or two of something that you didn't order on the table. If it looks good, dig in but be aware that this, too, will be an extra charge although these are rarely more than two or three euros. Once you get used to this, you can be selective about what you let the waiter leave on the table, if anything. He might express a little surprise that you are waving him off, but that's just an act and he's not really offended. We've enjoyed some interesting appetizers this way that we would never have thought to order.
Beer is very reasonably priced in Portugal and we had some nice wines for around five euros for a half bottle, which is about the price of a single glass in a restaurant here at home. As elsewhere in Europe, the cost of soft drinks is as much as beer or wine.
We ate breakfast where we slept until we got to Spain. The guesthouse where we stayed in Matalascanas only serves breakfast during 'the season' (August) and the host waved vaguely up the street when we asked where we could get something. Since we had previous experience with bars where the only patrons are men drinking their morning coffee, I sent Al off alone to investigate. He came back to report success.
He had found a kind of bar in a mercado, a building with several kinds of stores and stands. To place an order at the bar, you had to push past the men who clustered around the counter, smoking cigarettes and drinking something in small wineglasses. But they had excellent cafe con leche and adequate tostadas plus a seating area out in the main passageway where we could both enjoy a breakfast and watch the morning action as the fish market and the butcher and everyone else got ready for the day.
In Spain, a tostada is a split and toasted sandwich roll, nothing like the 'Mexican' concoction called a tostada in the US. This bar had the best tostadas we would encounter, a nice whole-grain variety along with the normal white. However, in general, Spain has the worst bread of any country that we have visited. I can imagine that maybe the bread in the old Soviet Union or Siberia would be worse, but in the Western world, Spain's is the worst of all. This was true almost every place we ate in Spain where bread was served, either as breakfast toast or as an accompaniment to a meal. Our hostess in Zalamea served wonderful bread but I suspect she may have made it herself. It wasn't until we got to Ribadesella on the north coast that we finally found good bread again. We even went into bakeries and looked at what they had to offer but the bread selection was atrocious.
Although I had always taken my coffee black, we learned to love cafe con leche and never had a bad cup of coffee in Spain.
When you think of eating in Spain, the terms 'tapas' always comes to mind. At first, we had a hard time finding places that served tapas and I suspect it was a regional thing. Once we got to Conil, we found tapas in several of the bar/restaurants. Tapas are not just one kind of food, but simply snack-sized portions of which you might order two or three or maybe more. Tapas range from items like tortillas de camarones, a crisp, flat cornmeal pancake-like object with tiny embedded shrimps, to small servings of ensaladilla rusa, which is a mixed vegetable salad in mayonnaise. One of our very favorites was a dish of grilled eggplant garnished with a sour-cream type dollop and roasted red peppers. Another that I ordered repeatedly was a small ramekin of pork chunks in a mildly spicy sauce.
Some places will have tiny sandwiches instead of or in addition to other tapas. (These collectively have a name which escapes me now.) You might get a four-inch-long bun with a short hunk of sausage in it, or maybe a piece of that wonderful serrano ham. Three or four of these will make a nice light lunch for two people. A small serving of marinated anchovies or even a saucer full of olives can also be considered tapas. From Conil onward, we looked for tapas and sometimes we found them in the most unlikely places, like on the counter of a truck stop, and sometimes not at all.
Another of our favorite dishes was deep-fried boquerones, or anchovies. These bear no relationship to those heavily salted fillets that you don't want on your pizza. Instead, these are tiny, whole fish that have been lightly floured and quickly deep-fried and are served by the basketful or heaping mound. With fries, of course. This might be our all-time favorite fish dish.
We discovered deep-fried boquerones by observing what people around us were eating since the term boquerones was not in my little dictionary. (I've since seen it used a lot to refer to whole pickled anchovies, which are something completely different.) After learning to say 'please', 'thank you' and 'where is the toilet' in the local language, the next most valuable phrase is 'what is that', to be accompanied by pointing at something. One evening in Matalascanas, I had been consulting with my little Spanish book and before I could put it away, the young couple at another table asked if they could use it. The staff already knows you aren't a native speaker, so there's no disgrace in using the book or in asking about something on the menu or another plate. People are always more than ready to help.
Spain is definitely set up for carnivores. In some areas, they raise the famous black pigs which feed on acorns in the fall and end up as Iberian hams. However, you can't make ham out of the whole pig, so what is left over is cut up and served fresh in a variety of cuts. We tried these whenever we saw them on a menu as Iberian pork or one of several other names like plumas or secreto. This is the best pork I have ever eaten, juicy and dark, looking like beef only better.
You can also get some excellent beef in Spain but the problem with all of the Spanish dishes is that they are invariably served with fries. The only thing I can figure out is that they don't raise potatoes in Spain and they get their fries from the European equivalent of Sysco. If you're lucky, you might get a 'mixed salad', which is iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and onions. If you had to order the salad separately, it will probably be topped with tuna. I can't digest iceberg lettuce, so Al got all of mine. Happily we didn't see iceberg lettuce again until we got to the UK.
Except in some of the real tourist areas, Spain is also for people with a different body clock than we have. Lunch begins around 12:30 and goes until 3:00, when the restaurant closes down. You might find a bar in the afternoon, but don't expect to get more to eat than some olives. The restaurants don't open again until at least eight, maybe later and then it's just for drinks. You can't order a meal until nine or 9:30. This was a big adjustment for people who are usually in bed by 9:30.
Beer is inexpensive in Spain, so sitting around a beach-side bar in the afternoon is not a costly proposition. Wine is similarly cheap and you can get a glass of fino sherry in a bar for around a euro and a half.
Along the north coast of Spain, in Cantabria, the local specialty is called 'sidra', which is a kind of hard cider. It is also very cheap but, boy, is it bad, with a yeasty flavor and corresponding odor. You have to buy it by the bottle because of the way it is served. The waiter places your glass on a stand and raises the bottle as high in the air as he can before he pours. Of course a lot of it is wasted as it splashes, which is not really a bad thing, but the idea is that pouring it this way adds air bubbles. Whatever, it tastes like something you made in college in the basement. No, worse. The surprising thing is that we would see obvious locals sucking up the stuff like it was drinkable, probably because it was so cheap.
The price of beer doubled when we crossed the French border. Between that and our disastrous first night in France, Al was ready to turn around and go back to Spain. However, one pot of mussels reminded him about French food and he decided that he could live with the higher price of beer. Fortunately, the quality and selection of the wine improved with no price increase in that beverage.
We ate a lot of mussels in France. In fact, I finally got my fill of them, which I didn't think was possible. We also ate oysters, duck gizzard salad, confit of duck, duck breast, lamb shanks, lamb chops, veal chops, tete de veau, entrecote de boeuf with bearnaise sauce, pork loin in Calvados cream, various kinds of fish, choucroute garni (sauerkraut and absurd amount of different pork products) in the Alsace and too many other dishes to even remember. (Note: I do not eat veal in the US because it is 'milk-fed', i.e., raised in confinement. In France you get grass-fed veal which can be identified by the much-darker meat.) We didn't go to fancy restaurants but we enjoyed almost every meal we ate.
Something you see a lot in France is the new potato, little yellow buttery-textured ovals about two inches long. These are served with everything that doesn't get frites and are much more tasty. I wish I knew where I could get them here.
My very favorite vegetable is the haricot vert, which is green beans but not the kind of green beans that we normally get in the US. Haricots vertes are longer and skinnier and far greener and with more flavor. Fortunately, Trader Joe's imports a frozen variety which is pretty good if you saute them in butter and olive oil, so I can get my haricot vert fix at home, but fresher is better. I've tried to order them from the menu and been told, not the season, so the French haven't totally submitted to frozen foods yet.
But above all, France is bread. If you've never broken off the end of a fresh baguette as you walk out of the bakery, you've never experienced bread. I don't know what they do with the government-mandated ingredients-- flour, water, leavening, salt -- that makes French bread completely different from anything we've ever found in the US, but it is orders of magnitude different. French bread comes in different shapes from the ultra-skinny ficelle up to batons, long loaves that could probably drive in a home run and each tastes just a little different. I think it's the ratio of crust to interior, but I'm not sure. Different bakeries get different results and the weather plays an important part in how the bread turns out. When it's good, it's very very good and when it's not, it's still better than anything I've ever found at home.
The very best part of French bread is its price. A baguette will run you around .80 euro cents, about a buck US. A small baguette will be less, a larger baton will be a bit more, but all are very cheap. We always feel like such pikers in the bakery because we only buy one baguette. Most customers purchase them by the armload.
It always amazes us when we stop at a roadside rest area for a picnic. We spread out the table cloth and put our single baguette and some pate in between us. The next car pulls up, a Renault Clio maybe, which is really small. Four people emerge and begin unloading their picnic which consists of at least four baguettes, two bottles of wine, some sausage, etc. At least three bagfulls of food. Four baguettes for four people! I don't know where they put it, especially since the French are notoriously a lot slimmer than we Americans.
There is also the croissant, which is subject to much wider variation. While you can buy a perfectly good baguette at the French supermarket, the mass-produced croissant is often just a bready thing in a croissant shape. You have to go to a real bakery, one that takes pride in its croissants, to get the real thing. There is a world of difference between a croissant that is made with 'pur beurre', or pure butter, and a croissant which is not. You'll know when you eat the real thing. It will be light and almost crispy, but not quite, on the outside. When you eat it, it will collapse into a rush of butter and flakes in your mouth. I can't really describe it, but trust me, don't accept substitutes. Unlike bread, you can get a lot of mediocre croissants even in France. They all cost the same, so don't settle for less than perfect.
I still remember the first time we saw a fromagerie or cheese store in France. As it turned out, it was just a medium-sized one but the counter was at least thirty feet long. We revisited it this year just to make sure it was as big as we remembered. Even the fromage vendor at the weekly market will have three dozen varieties and a hypermarche may have five times as many. I'm not joking. It's hard to make a choice when you are faced with so many options and only so much digestive system. I know it's such a cliche, but Camembert and Roquefort are right up there as favorites. We tasted as many cheeses as we could and still didn't work our way very far through the universe of fromage. They're not all wonderful and some are pretty boring, but when you hit a great cheese, you know it. Cheese and bread are the two things we miss the very most when we come home.
The best way to stretch the food budget in France is to take advantage of the 'plat du jour', which will be available only at lunch time. Every restaurant has a blackboard on which the daily specials are written in chalk. The only hitch is that you have to be able to read the French script which is amazingly different from ours even though we theoretically use the same alphabet. More than once I had to resort to asking what the words said.
Sometimes the 'plat du jour' is just a 'plat', or main course and someimes it is part of a 'menu', or fixed offering that might consist of a starter and main course, a main course and dessert, or all three. These will invariably be a great value and will often use ingredients that are not always available. We never felt like the plat du jour was an attempt to foist something cheap onto the customer and were often surprised at the large portions.
One day, we selected a cafe for its shaded terrace more than anything and sat down at a tiny table for two. Al ordered a salad while I ordered the plat du jour. It started out innocently enough with a charcuterie sampler (two kinds of ham, three kinds of sausage and a piece of pate) which would really have been enough for a whole meal. Then when my main course came, the owner had to bring over another table just to put my food on. The 'plat' was actually served on a heated tray with several slices of tenderloin of pork in a Calvados sauce in the center with a mound of zucchini and spinach au gratin on one side and grilled mixed vegetables on the other. The potatoes came in a separate dish. Thank goodness Al only had that salad because without his help, I wouldn't have made more than a small dent in the serving. All this for less than ten euros including a glass of wine. That's why when we ate in a restaurant for lunch, we usually tried to do a picnic for dinner.
If we didn't want to go to a restaurant, there was always the Doner Kebab. A Doner Kebab stand serves something like gyro meat folded into an enormous piece of flatbread with a yogurt sauce and tomatoes for about three euros each. You can't eat anything else. Because this is France, they also can serve you a beer which you eat at the sidewalk table with your sandwich. We never saw a Doner Kebab with indoor seating until we got to Germany.
Picnic lunches are wonderful in France. We travel with full picnic gear including a tablecloth, corkscrew, eating implements and bread knife. If it's the day of the weekly market, you might get something from the paella man or the nem (Vietnamese eggrolls, etc.) man or the cous-cous man. There will be a cheese vendor there who may have different cheeses than you can get in the local store and you can get fresh fruit. If it's not market day, you just go to the bakery for a baguette and to the charcuterie for some pate or sausage and maybe a little salad, and you're set. Some bakeries will also have little pizzas and quiches along with the bread and pastries.
The price of wine in France is a real eye-opener. Of course we've been reading about the world glut of wine, but this is good for the consumer because of the amount of good, cheap wine in the French stores. We found that you can get a very nice bottle for under 3 euros. Now if you go to Trader Joe's and get Two Buck Chuck, you're paying around the same, but in the French supermarket, there are aisles of wine priced like this or less. They even sell wine in those little boxes like you can buy juice in, for less than a euro, although I tried one once and it was pretty bad. Of course you can pay a lot more for the really fancy stuff, but you can get a good AOC Cotes du Rhone, for example, for 3 euros. Cheaper than Coke and a whole lot better.
In restaurants, we often order a 'pichet' or carafe of house wine which usually runs around 3 or 4 euros for 25 centiliters which is a couple of glasses, or 5 to 6 euros for 50 centiliters, which is actually 3/4 of a bottle. Only once or twice in any country was I disappointed in the quality of the house wine, usually with whites.
Which reminds me of something else we've read in guidebooks, that it is supposedly hard to get a glass of tap water in a restaurant. Any more, that is pure hooey. You just ask for a 'pichet d'eau' and you'll get a small carafe of water. Many restaurants bring it to you without your asking and sometimes, wonder of wonders, it's even cold.
France eats on a more reasonable schedule than Spain. Lunch is at noon and restaurants open for dinner around 7 or 7:30. However, in Paris, we noticed that restaurants were going full blast at 10:30 at night, just like in Spain. Bistros might open for breakfast and not close until the wee hours of the morning, although I don't know if you could get a meal at just any old hour.
Germany seems to be on the same schedule as France as far as restaurants go. They seem to have wackier closing hours for shops but that didn't really impact us on this trip.
In Germany, one eats wurst. One starts eating the wurst at breakfast and I had no idea that liverwurst was so good at that hour. At our hotel in Nuremberg, we had a full breakfast buffet available with several kinds of sliced meats, liverwurst, smoked salmon, eggs, sausage, croissants, lots of bread choices, yogurt, cheeses and cereals along with fruits and juices. Way too much. At a regular B&B, the spread will be smaller but along the same lines. No wonder the Germans are bigger than the French. We ate right along with them.
Germany also has good bar food, mainly wurst, of course, which you eat along with your beer at the outside table. We were fortunate enough to be in Germany for chanterelle season and managed to find them on the menu a couple of different times. You can eat other things besides wurst but that's what goes best with the beer. None of it is diet material.
The big city train stations in Germany are an excellent place to get a quick light meal. Most will have complete shopping malls inside them where you can choose from a variety of eating options starting with a stand-up table at a sandwich bar to a sit-down restaurant. There will also be a fruit stand and a small grocery store along with a newstand/bookstore, a florist/card shop, maybe a dry cleaners, a shoe repair store, and anything else the commuter might need between work and home.
You see more 'fast food' type storefronts in Germany than in other countries, from Doner Kebab to wurst stands to sandwich stores. There's no reason to go into a restaurant for a meal if you're in a hurry.
Italy is the home of multiple courses and of pasta. You can go broke ordering multiple courses. Fortunately, while we saw many folks plodding through the complete set of offered courses, the waiter won't be too bent out of shape if you confine yourself to one course. We tried various pasta dishes and I have to say that I couldn't really tell the difference between what I ate in Italy and really good pasta I've had in the US. I was disappointed with 'genuine' risotto. If that's what it's supposed to be like, then I've had it at home too and the same goes for polenta. Everything we ate was impeccably prepared and served, but it just all seemed like a good Italian restaurant at home but with slightly higher prices. The food was good but I was apparently expecting it to be something different than it was. I do know that it invariably cost us more for our meals in Italy than elsewhere on the continent except for Belgium.
Belgium is the land of the 'friterie', a truck or a little roadside stand that specialized in fried things, including frites. On the back wall is a poster showing you everything they can pull out of the freezer and fry up for you. Not bad road food when you just need a quick bite. Otherwise, Belgian food is remarkably like French food, just more expensive. All you really care about in Belgium is the beer anyway. A person could spend a month here and not be able to sample all of the beers and ales produced by this small country. Who knew there were so many Trappist monks per square kilometer?
In the UK, one often eats at a pub and, price aside, we had some excellent meals in pubs. Steak and ale pie can be very good, for example. There is also an Indian restaurant in every neighborhood on the island and we love Indian food. I ate a lot of lamb in the UK, doing my best to consume as many of those sheep as possible. Some of it was good and some was very, very good. Lamb is something that we don't see on the menu much at home, so it was a real treat. I also had rabbit stew once, which was excellent. I was disappointed with my cod and chips, but maybe we just didn't go to the right shop.
Then there is the 'full English breakfast' or 'cooked breakfast'. This consists of baked beans, a fried egg or two, some bacon, a piece of sausage, a piece of fried bread, and a chunk of black (blood!) pudding (optional) and half of a grilled tomato. I've tried blood pudding and it just doesn't do anything for me, mainly the texture. I also don't care for the texture of the sausage that comes with this kind of breakfast. Too fine a grind and gummy, like it's all filler and not much taste either. The bacon, however, is usually wonderful, more like fatty ham. In Scotland, you have the 'full Scottish breakfast' where the piece of fried bread is replaced by something called a potato scone, a flat piece of potatoe-y bread-like substance which is actually quite tasty, and the black pudding is replaced by haggis. I know I should have tried it, but I passed on the haggis. Since any sane person would not eat the full cooked breakfast more than a couple of times a week (or maybe never, if any real thought is given to health issues), you can usually get a lighter breakfast of yogurt, the British equivalent of a croissant, fruit or fruit juice and cereal.
England is the land of the 'bitter', and we tried to get the local specialty wherever we ate. Some were good and some were mediocre. I prefer the hearty ales and my favorite of all is Guinness, but you have to be at the right pub to get that since any one pub usually serves only beers from a particular brewery or supplier. We also discovered cider, which is a light, dry, alcoholic drink made from apples. It goes very well with some dishes.
One of the things we love about restaurants anywhere is the opportunity to people-watch. When you are in tourist areas, the watching is even better. The variety of personal styles is absolutely amazing. You can spot the Germans and the Dutch and the Italians and the French just by how they dress and act. I suppose we stood out as Americans, but then one is always happily oblivious in that regard.
Dogs are often taken into restaurants but you'll rarely notice them as they just lay underneath the table until it's time to go. European dogs are much more socialized than American ones and behave themselves around other people and dogs.
Children in Europe are also generally better behaved in restaurants than in the US. We never had kids running up and down between the tables and screaming. I think I only heard a baby really crying once or twice in a restaurant the whole trip. There were a lot of British families in Brittany when we were there because it was their half-term vacation. It was quite interesting to hear the children from teenagers all the way down to young children politely placing their orders directly to the waiter.
The imperative to turn the tables over to get more seatings does not seem to have taken effect in Europe. We were never made to feel like we needed to vacate the table. In fact, you usually have to make an effort to find the waiter when you want the check, which many Americans interpret as neglect but it is just the opposite: it's giving you time and space. Nothing irritates me more in the US than the hovering waitperson interrupting a conversation to ask if everything is alright. If it wasn't, I would have let you know, you twit. The European waiter handles a larger number of tables, so you might have to wait for your turn a little longer, but you're not in a hurry anyway. Or you shouldn't be. Although he doesn't get tips, the service is much better (if more leisurely) than in the US because the waiter has so much more to do, like make sure you have exactly the right glass for whatever you're drinking, and the right combination of silverware for whatever you're eating and he has to clean the crumbs off in between courses, so on and so on. You have to pay a whole lot of money for that kind of service in the US, but it's normal in any corner restaurant in Europe. When not performing these functions, the good waiter will cruise by, looking out of the corner of his eye just in case you want to wave him down. He will never interrupt your conversation except to bring another course. I say 'he' because the overwhelming number of servers were male and it is a profession in itself, not just a stepping stone to another job.
One restaurant in Italy took the concept of allowing you to hang around as long as you want to an extreme. It was on a low pass in the Dolomites, with a killer view from the terrace and adjacent lawn. When people had finished their meals, they just moved from the table to the lawn where lounge chairs had been set up. Off came the shoes, the shirts, the pant legs got rolled up and the sun lotion applied. Lean back in the chair. Close the eyes. Aaaahh. Now that's the way to digest your meal in peace.