Taste your way through Europe! Learning about a country through its culinary arts is one of travel’s principle pleasures. Food is a tangible reflection of geography, history, and culture; there are few more pleasurable ways to become well acquainted with a country than through its gastronomy.
European Gastronomy – a Whirlwind Tour
As you travel through Europe, you’ll find regional similarities in adjacent countries. Whether you’re comparing fruit pastries, dried sausages, cheeses, or potato dishes, you’ll find that each European country has a unique gastronomic signature. Let’s see what’s on the table!
Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus are all known for their version of mezé (spellings will vary), a large assortment of small savory dishes to begin the meal. Meat lovers will revel in delicious preparations of lamb, beef, and seafood; thanks to the extensive use of vegetables, pulses, cheeses, seeds and nuts, this cuisine is a pleasure for vegetarians as well. Maltese dishes blend Mediterranean and African flavors: Try patizzi, a vegetarian filled pastry, or the fish and vegetable pie, lampuki.
Black Sea Flavors
On the western Black Sea coast, the cooking of Romania and Bulgaria have been influenced by both Russian and central European cuisine and in Turkey you’ll also find some Middle Eastern touches. Do not expect to resist the urge to try the favorite tiny sausages or nut or cheese-filled dessert pastries – it just won’t work.
Balkan Peninsula Favorites
In Croatia, partake of oysters, shrimp and both salt and freshwater fish, and sample kulen, a traditional dried pork sausage that is the root of much rivalry between its makers. Both Croatia and Slovenia grow black and white truffles in abundance and use them beautifully in Italian-inspired dishes. In Slovenia, try one of more than seventy varieties of štruklji, filled savory pastries. In Serbia and Montenegro you’ll see plentiful use of pork, especially in the form of delicious cured hams.
The Central European table
Fish from the Danube, hearty soups, stuffed peppers and cabbage leaves, innumerable types of dumplings, and pastries filled with poppy seeds or cheese will tempt you in Poland and Slovakia. Hungary, renowned for its goulash and paprika-based dishes, has dozens of other specialties to try. If you’re in the Czech Republic at Christmas time, feast on the traditional Christmas meal of carp and potato salad. In Lithuania try the smoked meat and fish specialties, and the tasty black rye bread you’ll find on every table.
The harsh climate of the Baltic States has long made food production a challenge, but in Latvia and Estonia you’ll enjoy plentiful vegetables, meat and fish, dairy products, and excellent bread, the backbone of the diet. The German culinary inheritance is quite pronounced in these countries.
Treats in the Benelux
Holland and Belgium share a passion for one of the ultimate treats in anybody’s book: fritjes (French fries or crisps, depending on your hometown), served in a paper cone. In Holland have a warm, caramel-filled stroop waffle for good sightseeing fuel. No visit to Belgium is complete without a pot of moules (mussels) and a sampling of its famous chocolate, among other specialties. Thanks to being nestled between Belgium, France, and Germany, Luxembourg offers its own delicious interpretation of several rich culinary traditions.
Alpine and Rhine fare
Oh, the fondue and rosti of Switzerland and Austria, heavenly, satisfying marriages of cheese and potato - that’s just a start! Unparalleled sweet treats will temp you as well; after all, milk chocolate was invented in Switzerland. Pastries in many countries are generically named viennoiserie, after the amazing confections of Austria’s capital city. Germany immediately brings to mind the world of wurst, every kind of sausage imaginable, all manner of hearty bread, dumplings of all sizes, and delicious fruit in soups, desserts, and liqueurs.
Italy is a giant in European gastronomy; its importance to western cuisine is almost incalculable. Beloved Italian cuisine brings us pasta, in its limitless forms, Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses, risotto and polenta, pizza, the divine dried ham, prosciutto, and let us not forget gelato, its famous ice cream!
Spain has an exceptional climate for growing fruits and vegetables and also benefits from a long coastline and access to plenty of seafood. It is perhaps best known for olives and olive oils, cheeses, and tapas, the tiny dishes of delight served with aperitifs. Paella is a seafood and rice stew that brings everyone to the table. Portugal offers a luscious variety of foods, including its well-known bacalhau, dried and salted cod. Moorish, African, and Spanish influences have combined over the centuries into a wonderful mix of flavors.
Ireland, like its British neighbors, produces wonderful cheeses and fish. The Irish climate is responsible for the famous Irish soda bread, as the wheat that grows well on the island is leavened best with bicarbonate rather than yeast.
The ubiquitous sea and severe winters shape Scandinavian cooking. Fish is consumed and preserved in an astonishing variety of ways, and summer fruits – especially berries - and vegetables are traditionally preserved for the long winters as well. Cheese, ham, and sturdy bread are staples throughout Scandinavia, but Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway all have their own take on how to dine well in the far north, with an ever-wider selection of contemporary restaurants.
Iceland is experiencing something of a food renaissance, and offers fabulous contemporary cuisine. Traditional favorites include smoked lamb sandwiches, hardfiskur (dried fish strips), and the unique Icelandic combination of chocolate and licorice.
And where to eat?
Home cooking at a B&B, sophisticated Michelin-starred cuisine, a picnic of treats purchased at a farmer’s market, “street food” snacks, and traditional holiday dishes are all tasty ways to sample the culinary life of a country.
To select restaurants, the classic methods of discovery are great fun: check out that alluring café down the little side street, ask for recommendations at your hotel, chat up the locals, and look for a crowd!
For focused restaurant hunting, national tourist offices and websites offer extensive listings. You can also use sites that match your interests and budget: The Michelin guides employ professional reviewers, while the TripAdvisor and the Zagat Survey features customers’ reviews. Slow Food member restaurants serve local, seasonal, sustainable cuisine, and hold food festivals and events throughout Europe. The Culinary Heritage Europe Network encourages the production of regional food as a way to develop small-scale business and lists both restaurants and farm shops. Jeunes Restaurateurs d’Europe is an organization of accomplished young chefs in Belgium, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Luxembourg, theNetherlands, Austria, Switzerland, and Slovenia. Find out what’s on the cutting edge of gastronomy!