One of the joys of travelling, in my opinion, is the opportunity to try new things. Food is one of them. Being an avid fan of the stuff since I was born, and fortunately raised in a dual-nationality household, I was taught to A). Eat a wide range of traditional home-made national dishes with many different flavours and food combinations, B). Enjoy a wide range of traditional home-made national dishes with many different flavours and food combinations, and C). Eat everything on that bloody plate!
To liken me to a gannet would be an understatement. If the food is good I’ll wolf it down and think about the consequences later.
It saddens me to witness children and even adults who would turn their noses up at something potentially delicious just because they don’t like the way it looks. Some of the most delicious cuisine I have tasted wouldn’t score highly on the beauty awards. Furthermore, some of the most beautifully presented fare has lead to nothing but bitter disappointment where no amount of garnishing or florally-carved carrots can improve the flavour. While the first bite is with the eye the second is most important and that is with the mouth!
When visiting various countries of Europe on my meagre budget I have made a point of having at least one meal where I sample the nation’s, region’s, or city’s traditional dish. Most have been enjoyable to some extent, some have been divine, while others have been much less so. But before you go running towards those golden arches of familiarity in your next holiday destination, why not see what the locals have to offer. After all, many of these traditional dishes have been well established long before that Big Mac you’re clutching. That many people can’t be wrong, right?
Here are some of the more interesting victuals I have consumed on my travels thus far;
Icelandic Hákarl (rotten shark) – To say this is an acquired taste is to sugar-coat it in such a way that lures one such as myself into a false sense of security. I have sampled some of the most grisly grub from around the world from a sheep’s eyeball to boiled stomach lining, but Iceland’s aquatic delicacy is definitely one which left a bitter taste.
When thinking of which meal to prepare, burying a shark in the ground for up to three months in order to release the toxins is not the first thing that springs to my mind. It certainly defeats the object of a having quick snack. Harkening back to the age of the Vikings when Greenlandic shark was one of the only sources of nourishment it was stored and preserved in the ground for consumption throughout the long winter months – a technique which is still used today.
The powerful flavour of ammonia ruthlessly attacks the sinuses from all angles making this dish quite a painful challenge. While I glanced around the restaurant in mid-chew agony to spy if any of the Icelandic staff were stifling giggles into their shirt collars, I grasped for my beverage. The sweet relief came from the final swallow after which I swilled down the acerbic taste with a cup of Icelandic moss tea. Although it may not be my favourite European gastronomic experience, it is certainly one which I shall remember with amusement.
An Icelandic seafood platter with dried fish, smoked trout, mashed fish and potato, mountain-caught lamb, and the infamous cubes of Hákarl. Moss tea at the ready! (circa 2016). Photo by Steph
Swiss Cheese Fondue – Originating in the alps this hearty dish was originally far from being the delectation of wealthy ski enthusiasts but was the food of peasants who used their leftover cheese, wine, and coarse bread to create a filling winter meal. Filling is the operative word as this rich delicacy does not take prisoners! Served over a small burning flame the cheese has a strong, salty taste which may leave you gasping for a gallon of ice-water.
Fondue is definitely best enjoyed in a group as myself and fellow Hello Europe! blogger, Phil, soon discovered after ambitiously ordering one portion each – before us stood the vast pot of molten cheese which the staff insisted we finish, leaving not a single smear of the dairy delight in sight. However, as the cheese sat heavily in our stomachs our fill of Swiss dairy was reaching beyond its peak. Politely signalling a waitress to insist that we were full, but that the meal was indeed delicious as our green gills and sweating brows displayed, the woman eyed the thin layer of cheese lining the pot, whisked it away to our relief, only to return with a plate piled with blow-torched rolls of leftover cheese. Needless to say, if you’re watching the waistline the give this dish a wide berth as a vat of melted cheese and bread doesn’t exactly help maintain your bikini body. Or just don’t be as greedy as we were.
Traditional Swiss cheese fondue. Serves more than two! (circa 2015). Photo by Steph.
French Escargot – French cuisine is laden with clichés. Just as they label the British as “les rosbif” due of our love of the roasted cow meat, we affectionately return the playful insult by calling them “frogs” after the French delicacy – frogs’ legs. Although not exactly P.C. we cannot deny the edible undertones of this banter.
France is one of Europe’s most famous countries for its cooking and is very proud of its culinary achievements. So when visiting the beautiful and bustling city of Paris I naturally wanted to try one of the most clichéd French dishes I could think of – even mentioning the word ‘escargot’ I cannot help but imagine myself with an exaggerated French accent and a beret.
Tongues at the ready I tucked into the first shell…… garlic. To actually comment on the flavour of the snail I’d have to tell you a few porkies since I could barely taste the terrestrial mollusc for the saturation of garlic butter, which wasn’t unpleasant. One thing I can comment on was the texture which was a little chewy but not dissimilar to a tender piece of chicken. I am assured that if a snail is very chewy or slimy then it hasn’t been cooked correctly. Thankfully mine were wonderfully prepared. However, it leaves little else to talk about.
Hungarian Gulyás (goulash) – One of the many countries of my own heritage is Hungary. Budapest’s beauty is on a grand scale with the mighty river Danube splitting Buda on the west and Pest on the east. But far from the grandeur of the capital lie the quaint villages of the surrounding countryside. One such village being one of the many birthplace’s of my ancestry, where I was fortunate enough to sample some delicious, traditional home-made goulash.
The etymology of the word ‘goulash’ stems from the Hungarian word for ‘herdsman’ who would drive their cattle from the pasture and butcher the weaker cows to make a stew as they camped. Fortunately, I was not required to butcher any cows for my meal but I did have to excavate an entire chicken’s worth of small bones from the simmering stew. Whether this is a traditional means of preparation or whether the relatives simply decided to drop a whole chicken in the mix to save time is debatable. Nevertheless, all ideas of speedy scoffing were out of the window as my empty stomach gurgled its way through each painstaking, bone-picking process.
There was no question about the dish being mouth-watering, though it was more due to the fact that the fragrant fare teased my taste buds to the point of salivating as I clawed at the bony meat. It is here where I might insert a word-joke about being hungry in Hungary, but I’ll leave that to you.
Polish Bigos (‘Hunter’s Stew’) – Another dish to harken from a closer branch of my heritage – bigos is one of the many Polish dishes with which I was fortunate to grow up. However, being partial to my mother’s cooking it has made me quite critical of Polish restaurant food. In fact, if you want to sample some of the best Polish cuisine you should steer far-clear of the white table cloths and bow-tied waiters and head directly to the ‘bar mleczny’ or ‘milk bars’ of any major Polish city.
Milk bars are typical Polish cafeterias which became well established during the Nazi then Soviet occupation after World War I and II. Offering cheap, hearty traditional food to the poor and down-trodden Polish workers while the more expensive restaurants were labelled as “capitalist”. Bar mleczny can still be found in most major cities and still serve hearty and extremely affordable Polish food. They remain the best places to eat out, in my opinion.
One food that I recommend to everyone is bigos. A dish consisting of long-boiled sauerkraut with Polish smoked sausage, pork meat and various flavourings and spices it is the ideal accompaniment to a glass of Polish vodka and is a favourite foodstuff for social gatherings and celebrations of any kind, and the Poles will think of any excuse to have a drink and a dance! Nazdrowie!
Dutch Stamppot – Living in the Netherlands for over three years I was able to sample some typically Dutch foods, from hagelslag on my bread, to kroketten from the street vendor, to bitterballen with my lager, and the hearty winter favourite, stamppot.
Anyone that is new to Dutch cuisine can be forgiven for thinking; ‘erm… it seems a little bland’. Their love of all things uniformed translates into practically all aspects of their life, including the food. Where the Italians are famed for over-feeding you with messy dishes of blended sauces and flavours, the Dutch like to keep it neat. So much so that even the portions are measured proportionately to the eater. They will cook exactly the right amount for the number of people sitting and not a spoonful more. Where “going Dutch” means an even split they weren’t kidding! If you want second helpings, forget it! And you can almost guarantee that the main will be followed by tiramisu. I lost count how often I ate that desert.
Where blending flavours may not be a speciality of Dutch cooking, mashing things together is. Stamppot is one such delight. Potato with two or three other ingredients mashed into it. That’s all the preparation you need. The clue is in the name, really! My particular favourite is andijviestamppot with kale and fried bits of bacon. Just mash these into your potato and place alongside a smoked sausage. Simplicity at its best.
My very own home-made andijviestamppot and sausage. One of the the few dishes I can cook well (circa 2012). Photo by Steph.
So here you have some of the many varied European dishes I have tasted ranging from delicious delights which tantalise the taste buds to daring delicacies which leave you momentarily blind and grasping for the nearest mouthwash. This is one of my great pleasures of travelling and there are many more foods yet to try. I look forward to sampling them all.
Food is a huge part of our lives in all corners of the world and aside from it being key to survival it can also tell us so much about the culture, the history, and even the mentality of the people who have had the recipes handed down to them from generation after generation. Food is a social connector which brings people together in celebration and tradition and to have been fortunate enough to try a few national dishes of some of the countries I have visited in this rich and varied continent of ours is something for which I am grateful and of which I am proud. I urge all of you to try a new food when travelling in another country. A break-away from the food-familiars can add so much to the experience. You never know, that weird looking grub with all the funny bits in it might be the best thing you’ve ever eaten. It might be the worst. Either way it’ll be another great memory and a story to tell the grandchildren. Smacznego!
Featured image (circa 2016). Photo by Steph.