We’ve moved back to the Americas for the foreseeable future, leaving fall and winter behind. Sorry Europe, it’s time for some beaches in Mexico and Latin American culture. Coming snow and chill aside, I’m going to miss all the countries we visited in Europe. I thought it might be fun to do a recap of the best things we saw and ate and some of the oddities we noticed. New blogs will be light this month as we are staying in a beach town and well… basically going to the beach every day. This post is all about the food and drink in eight countries we visited in Europe, starting with the best food from each place.
- In Lisbon, Portugal, egg tarts reign. Just all of them all the time; get them from Pasteis de Belem or literally any other bakery. How their eggs are so tasty is a mystery. Even the eggs we got at the store had richer yolks and seemed tastier than eggly possible.
- Best meal in Barcelona is tapas, hands down. Away from the tourist streets they are much cheaper and about 483% better. Every possible combination of cheese, veggies, and meat is available. For a Euro, you can have a couple bites that taste like the equivalent of $40 meal. And usually there is a wide variety so it is perfect if someone wants hamburgers and another person wants fruit & cheese plates.
- Ajvar is Croatia’s contribution to culinary heaven. A blend of peppers and eggplant, it fits between pasta sauce and salsa. Doesn’t sound too special, but it was my go-to topping for toast, eggs, chips, pasta, crackers, meat, or sometimes just by the spoonful by itself. Especially worth nothing when served on cevapi, a skinless sausage sandwich that may cause you to nearly ruin your shirt in your hurry to get it all in your face because YUM! I searched for ajvar in every European country we went to post-Croatia. (Romania has a similar food called zakusca, but it’s more soupy and forgettable.)
- In Bucharest, Romania, the Caru’ cu Bere restaurant served up cheap lunch eats. We had superb sour kraut salad, polenta (with a rich topping of cheese, cream, and egg – it was the appetizer but basically became my main course), and tomato and cucumber salad.
- Fish was the best bet in Ireland. There isn’t really any specific way to have it prepared as long as it’s fresh. Locals emphasized that Irish cuisine doesn’t have a ‘must-try’ dish. In fact, Dublin may have had the highest percentage of restaurants and shops focusing on cuisine from other cultures.
- Goulash soup was probably the highlight of Hungary. Full of meats, veggies, and paprika, it is warm and rich. It’s probably more suited to winter than summer, so we need to go back in a season when I can eat more of it. It’s definitely not the hamburgery noodles I grew up calling goulash. Also, in a possible tie, Hungary has deep fried potato donuts. These are exactly what they sound like: a mix of potato and donut dough, fried for a crispy outside and soft, warm inside. Though they are called donuts, they aren’t dessert, but another example of Hungary’s love of high-calorie goodness.
- Poland claims victory on the pierogi front, naturally. I didn’t know there could be so many kinds. Duck, mushroom, salmon, and berries make excellent fillings though ruskie (cheese and potato) is the most traditional and is clearly the King of Pierogies. Done right, they are puffy, joyous food pillows that I would gleefully eat for every meal.
- Estonia wins dessert. Never thought I would say that Estonia has the best (non-egg tart) pastries, but they pulled it off. We were just a block away from a bakery that served up supremely fluffy pastries with the richest, smoothest creamy cheese fillings and icings. And Kalev, the main brand of chocolate, makes some of the best anywhere in Europe. Sorry, Germany, Kinder doesn’t cut it anymore.
Other food takeaways that surprised us:
- Frozen veggies are tastier in Europe. There are Italian, Chinese, and Mexican mixes that taste as fresh as a salad. The flavors are intense – like the veggies just came out of the garden. And at $1-2 dollars a bag that would feed both of us for two or three meals, America can learn something.
- Horse meat is really tasty. Seriously.
- So is moose. It fits somewhere between prosciutto and beef jerky on the meat-flavor spectrum.
- Portugal does the egg thing, but Spain must be the beneficiary of the actual chicken. Chicken in Spain tasted like a unique meat, not just a bland food needing lots of seasoning.
- Duck is really cheap at Lidl in Hungary. And in Estonia. We shamelessly ate a lot of it.
- We ate risottos in several countries and they are now probably a necessary part of my existence. The ones in Portugal were richer, more flavorful, and more gravy-like. At the Time Out Market near Lisbon’s waterfront, I had the best risotto of the whole trip with game hen and mushrooms. Ones in Hungary featured paprika, naturally.
- Sushi is common in Estonia and is happy to blend local flavors and products. We even saw a full-color book of Estonian-Japanese fusion foods.
- Peanut crisps (think Cheetos puffs with less corn and more legume) seemed to be the most popular snack in Croatia. They are addicting. Hrusk Crisps were my personal favorite. I now prefer them to cheese puffs, though I will admit that I got addicted to Latvian-produced nacho cheese balls in Estonia.
- Thank Hungary for fair and festival food. They are masters of fried dough and carryable meat.
- Chip flavors vary by country – salsa, paprika, prosciutto, mushroom, hamburger, kebab, dill, steak. There are more traditional flavors as well, the cheeses, onions, sour creams. Missing were Doritos Cool Ranch and Fritos.
- We had goose legs for the first time in Hungary. Better than turkey.
- All of Europe is terrible at spicy foods. The only partial exception is Hungary, which corners the paprika market, but still only reaches a small percentage of what we got used to in Southeast Asia.
- Dill doesn’t seem to exist in most places. It was only readily available in Estonia, presumably because they have salmon in large quantities. And salmon necessitates dill.
- Peanut butter is an exotic rarity. While it can be found in some supermarkets, it is 2-5 times more expensive than in the U.S. and is often grittier and lacking spreadability. And often hiding out in the refrigerated section.
- Europe loves cheese. The Iberian peninsula favors soft cheeses, while Romania northward seemed much more in love with hard, aged cheeses. Even so, finding appropriate cheese for nachos in Croatia was nearly impossible. Same goes for pre-shredded.
- Most know Spain is famous for prosciutto, but Hungary and Poland should also be on the preserved-meat fan’s radar. Especially Poland. Though the Central Market in Budapest had a stall serving what might have been the best prosciutto of the trip.
- Instant ramen is ubiquitous (college kids everywhere survive on that stuff), but Poland took it a step further and had beetroot borscht alongside the chicken and shrimp flavors. Sure enough, same cheap noodles, but this time with a spice packet that turned the soup bright reddish-purple. And yes, it was good.
Of course, drinks go with food:
- Literally ALL THE WINE IN PORTUGAL IS GOOD. We drank 3 -or 4-Euro bottles almost exclusively and had no regrets. The best ports were pricier. We shared a single small glass of 30 year-old port that cost about $7US and was smooth and flavorful. If only we had enough for whole bottles of that stuff…
- Alcohol in Spain was disappointing; perhaps it was overshadowed by Portugal’s. The wine was more expensive and not to our liking, and the beers were forgettable.
- Croatian wine, especially a grape variety called plavac mali, was the best thing to drink. The best bottle (we splurged for our birthdays) was produced by Zlatan Otok. We’ve never seen Croatian wine anywhere else, even other European nations, much less in the U.S. We were told their industry was growing, so hopefully we’ll be able to find it in the future.
- An aside on Macedonian wine: They made their way frequently into Croatian stores, and it turns out they also deserve to be better known. Some are even aged in amphorae, modern versions of the containers pulled up from shipwrecks. This makes for more earthy wines, and is a fun way to feel a little more connected to the region’s history.
- Sweet red wines are Romania’s forte. Even wines listed as dry are not. Kevin wasn’t thrilled by this, but I took it as a sign to make wine my dessert.
- Hungary’s best drinking was sweet white wines from the Tokaji region. Like Romania, lots of residual sugar.
- It turns out Poland does make a little bit of wine, but they make much more beer and (SO MUCH!) vodka. Too many (really cheap) drinkable beers to name, but there is one vodka that stands out. Bisongrass vodka isn’t available in the US (it’s just a teeny bit toxic), but it is the best vodka either of us has had.
- Redcurrant wine in Estonia. Berries take the place of grapes here; thank goodness they can be fermented and aged the same way. More like drinking syrup than alcohol, it is another example of their domination of desserts. Though kvass (beer made from fermented bread that tastes like toast), should get an honorary mention.
Overall, the best countries for (grape) wine were 1. Portugal – a perfect blend of inexpesive and flavorful wines 2. Croatia – for their own unique grapes and the other Balkan countries that were represented, a little pricier but still lots of deals 3. Hungary has more sweeter wines and it matches well with their cuisine.
For beer, the rankings are mostly based on Kevin’s opinion. He appreciates beer more than I do, but the more we travel, the more I find ones I like. 1. Poland wins beer. It was cheap, there was a lot of it, and there was a wide variety. And all of it was good. Nothing randomly pulled off a shelf disappointed. They also are proud of a growing craft beer industry that has produced some interesting combinations. 2. Hungary snags second place because beer there is very cheap and usually of high quality. We did find a few duds, but for pennies a bottle, it is easy to experiment. 3. Estonia has a much bigger craft scene, so there is a lot of variety for a small country. Their overall cost of living means beer is pricier than any other European country we went to on this trip. But it is tasty and there is always something new to try.
Kevin gets to exclusively pick the favorites for harder liquor awarding first to: 1. Ireland for its smooth whisky. 2. Poland because they have all the vodka. Aisles and aisles of vodka. And all the locals love it. We saw an 80 year-old couple checking out at the store with chicken, three apples, a can of coffee, and about 8 bottles of vodka. Not sure if that is how they stand each other or their children or just because they are 80 and who gives? 3. Estonia has Vana Tallinn, which makes run-based liquors and some that have winter spices in the mix – cozy for the growing chill.
Europe takes alcohol seriously. Quality is important, but so is quantity… In Croatia and a few other places, wine often comes in 1 liter bottles (rather than the U.S.-standard .75 liter). And beer. Beer cans in Europe make the standard U.S. can look like a child’s toy. Mass produced beers also come in 1- and 2-liter bottles, because beer! In Estonia, Finns hop the ferry over to buy cheaper alcohol. Estonia obliges by providing 10-packs of vodka (aka the “Finn-pack”) at all stores near the ferry dock, as well as handcarts to make carrying it back easy.
One of the interesting challenges was to try to find packaging with the most languages. The winner seemed to be a pizza box we got at Carrefour in Poland with full instructions and ingredient lists in 7 languages. (Two to four seemed to be about the average.) There was also a ketchup packet that had 11, but in almost every language the translation for ‘tomato ketchup’ is ‘tomato ketchup.’
In some cities, there are still wonderfully diverse markets showcasing local produce and meats. Some are considerably cheaper than stores for in-season produce, but others are tourist-focused and overcharge accordingly. Usually they are worth going to in either case.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that food has become a main part of our trip. We mostly ate at home, Kevin taking the opportunity to try new recipes (paella and ratatouille and fish), while using local ingredients. Unlike Thailand and Malaysia, eating out often in Europe would have drained our budget too fast, though I will say that doner kebab is cheap and yummy and very common. It was a little tough moving each month because we never knew what kitchen utensils we would end up with or how well our stove would work. Some of our favorite foods were ones we’ve had before but that had new twists or tasted completely different because of the quality of the ingredients. While we are happy to have moved on to a place where spicy food is again available and taco trucks are on many corners (namely ones by grocery store parking lots), Europe has so much more deliciousness to offer that we will have to head back… Even eight months was only enough time to get to a small portion of it all…