Essential Eating: The Best Foods of Europe

One of my lesser goals in travel is to eat the traditional dishes of every country in Europe. Something that is not as simple as expected, where they are often hidden behind the hot dogs, kebab shops, and multiculturalism of today’s modern Europe. And while I did aim to tick off all the National Dishes in Europe, I found many countries have no official National Dish, or they may also have many. For example, Chicken Tikka Masala is a National Dish of England, but I’d much rather share some good old fashioned fish and chips. As I tend to go more with the popular staples of European Foods, those which are easier to track down as tourists, and, of course, the more delicious sounding the better. Anyway, below I share some of my favourite traditional foods of Europe. It’s not quite a full list, or even a half, but we will add to it as we go along.

Fish and Chips in England

Part of my love for travel in the U.K. is the traditional fish and chip shops that are found throughout the region, but I would say at their best along the coasts. Anyway, I always prefer my fish and chips from chip shop takeaways, where the batter of the fish is full and fluffy, and the chips tend to be chunkier and double deep fried. And always with lashings of salt and vinegar. But restaurant and pub grub options are also worth a punt, where they traditionally come with a dollop of tartar sauce, which is like a caper and pickle mayonnaise. And maybe a lemon wedge. Goes well with a pint of bitter.

Haggis in Scotland

One of the “weirder eats” of Britain is Haggis, a savoury pudding made from the liver, heart and lungs of a sheep, minced with oatmeal, onion, suet, salt and spices. And I personally love the stuff (although I am half Scottish). Traditionally it is served with neeps (mashed turnip) and tatties (mashed potato), and maybe a whisky gravy. Although, in travel, I eat it more in breakfasts, or crisply battered at the local chippies (chip shops). Haggis goes perfect with whiskey and is essential eating on Burns Night. Don’t forget to address the Haggis.

The Ulster Fry in N. Ireland

Similar to the Full English Breakfast, and the Full Scottish Breakfast, only better. The Ulster Fry includes a number of regional additions including potato bread, a flat wheat bread mixed with potato, and soda bread which is leavened with baking soda. But my favourite addition is definitely the black pudding, a savoury blood pudding with a blend of onions, pork fat, oatmeal and pigs blood. Goes well with Bushmills Whisky (I guess). Here for our Ultimate Guide to Northern Irish food.

Irish Stew in Ireland

I was brought up on stew in Northern Ireland, so I was never in a hurry to fork out on something I could otherwise eat at home on a daily basis. Opting instead for a Steak and Guinness pie maybe, or some battered scampi, etc, when in Ireland. Anyway, I did give Irish Stew a whirl recently, and it was a fair bit different to what I know (Ulster Irish stew), as I guess every bowl and recipe can be in some way different. But, at its most basic, traditional Irish Stew (below left) is a stew of lamb, onions, and potatoes, and occasionally carrots. And a garnish of parsley to make it look fancy. Goes well with Guinness and Irish Whiskey.

Beef Bourginon in France

France is likely the hardest to choose for on this list, due to the sheer diversity and range of food in the country, plus we almost always just order Steak-Frite. Otherwise, I’ll go for Beef Bourginon, due to its international recognition, and its love locally, where it was recently surveyed as France’s National Dish (23%). And this is partly due to the use of red wine in its recipe, where it is pretty much a stew of red wine braised beef, with carrots, mushrooms and shallots. Beef Bourginon is best found in Burgundy (us in Beaune below) and it literally translates as ‘Beef Burgundy’. Goes well with Burgundy wine and maybe some Macaron (not Macaroons).

Steak-Frites in Belgium

Steak-Frites would be our go-to meal pretty much anywhere in the world. A good rib-eye steak (or entrecote as in French), and pepper sauce (au poivre), with french fries (les frites) on the side. Sorry, Belgian Fries on the side, as any Belg will tell you that these humble deep fried potato batons were “incorrectly” named ‘French fries’ by American servicemen in Belgium following World War I. As the earliest origins of the “French Fry” actually dates back to the late-1600s, in Belgium. And Belgian Fries have been officially added to the UNESCO list of cultural treasures. However, there will always be a bit of saltiness between the two nations, although, Belgian definitely do the best Beers.

Pizza in Italy

I am risking to have an entire list here without pasta (although Manistra na Pome, or Pasta with Tomato Sauce, is a big staple in Croatia). Otherwise, pizza is loved the world over, although it will always be found best at its origins in Italy, where recipes and interpretations vary regionally throughout. For example, in Rome, it is “pizza bianca“, meaning “white pizza”, because it has no tomato sauce or even cheese at times, and it’s literally, at its most basic, just bread flavoured with salt and olive oil. However, what we know mostly to be pizza, is the Neapolitan style pizza (from Naples), made with tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. Anyway, they probably go well with grappa.

Piadina in San Marino

Found within Italy, is the tiny landlocked country of San Marino, which I am including here simply because we have it covered. And unlike other small countries, like Andorra, Monaco, and the Vatican, which we passed without eating. It is hard to miss the Piadina in San Marino, where it’s sold on pretty much every corner of the old city of San Marino. Anyway, the Piadina is a simple griddled flatbread, which comes with various fillings, but almost always prosciutto crudo (dry-cured ham), and occasionally some tomato, rocket and cheese. There is also a local cuisine in San Marino, known as Sammarinese cuisine, for those who want to adventure further.

Paella in Spain

Aside from fish and chips and Birds Eye fish fingers, I think the first proper seafood dish I ever ate was paella in Spain when in my mid-teens (we’re not very adventurous with food in our family). So this was Paella de Marisco (Spanish Seafood Rice), the national dish of Spain, where rice is cooked in a shallow pan with seafood and primarily a flavouring of saffron (although I prefer some paprika spiced pork Chorizo). Otherwise, what I really love about traditional eating in Spain, is Tapas. Where small portions of foods are served to pick and choose from. And we are kind of used to this style of eating in Asia, where we just order a bunch of plates to the table, and then share them around. Instead of each diner being lumped with just 1 big plate of food. Enjoy with some chilled Sangria or maybe a Rioja.

Fondue in Switzerland

The official National Dish of Switzerland is the Fondue, a communal pot of melted cheese, heated over a portable stove, and eaten with boiled potatoes and bread. And it would be Best found these days in the resort towns of the Swiss Alps, as we did at Cafe Du Pont, which is apparently the oldest restaurant in Zermatt famous for its herb-laced cheese fondue. But it can be tricky to track down as a meal for one, so many opt instead for the simpler solo serving of “raclette” cheese melted onto a plate with potatoes (The Swiss do love their cheese). I also love rösti, considered to be another national dish of Switzerland, and they’re a bit like hash potatoes (below right). May go well with some Appenzeller.

Currywurst in Germany

As a curry lover, I do love that curry is recognised as national dishes of some unlikely countries, such as the katsu curry in Japan, and the Currywurst in Germany. But they both have British influences as well, where the British introduced curry to Japan back in the 1800s, and Herta Heuwer, the creator of the currywurst, made the recipe from ketchup and curry powder sourced from British soldiers in Germany (1949). Anyway, Currywurst takes Germany’s humble Bratwurst sausage, fries it, and serves it chopped into pieces with a curry laced tomato sauce. And it is now quintessential street food found throughout Berlin and much of Germany. Goes well with Jaegermeister? Or German Schnapps and Beers.

Wiener Schnitzel in Austria

There is a fair bit of overlap between Austria and Germany, which, to be fair, goes the same for much of central Europe. And while Schnitzel is likely found high on any traditional German menu, it is very much an Austrian invention where Wiener Schnitzel is considered to be the National Dish of Austria. And Wiener Schnitzel is more or less a breaded veal cutlet, made from a batter of flour, beaten eggs and bread crumbs, before deep frying and serving with maybe a lemon wedge and potato salad. Note, the name “Wiener” comes from its origins in “Vienna”, the capital of Austria, which is spelt “Wien” locally in the German language.

Farmer Plates in Slovenia

I remember eating breakfast at a guesthouse in Krangsha Gora, when our host insisted on pouring 30′ alcohol schnapps into my tea before I was to drive over the Julian Alps into Austria. Which she ensures me is tradition, and normal, and legal there. Anyway, for traditional foods in Slovenia, I found many restaurants serving “farmer’s plates”, which would be similar to Ajdovi Žganci Pečenica) which bring together a selection of local meats and sausages, including blood sausage, the much-loved Carniolan sausage (Kranjska Klobasa), and some soured turnips (kisla repa). They go well with some local schnapps.

Bryndzové Halušky in Slovakia

I do get mixed up between eating in Slovenia, and Slovakia. But not so much that they’re similar cuisines, but because I again found lots of “Farmer’s plates” on the menu. So again they share various local meats and sausages in Slovakia, including the hugely popular Domáce Klobásy (homemade Slovak Sausages), although the real surprise for me, during one snowy night near Bojnice Castle, was Bryndzové Halušky. And this is the Slovakian national dish, consisting of potato dumplings, sheep cheese, and bacon bits, and I honestly wasn’t looking forward to trying it. But it was no doubt one of my food highlights in Europe, where the texture is a bit like chewy pasta, and the cream sauce, with bacon bits, reminds me almost of carbonara. Anyway, it apparently goes well with Žinčica (whey of the sheep milk).

Goulash in Hungary

Our visit to Hungary was somewhat shortlived, after losing our budget for our time there within an hour of arriving. After being fined by the Budapest subway Gestapo. They’re just not the most welcoming of folk. But Budapest no doubt makes up for it with a majestic riverside backdrop, and just some really good and hearty paprika dishes, including the national dish of Goulash. And while this paprika-laced meat (often beef) and vegetable soup/stew is common through much of East Central Europe, Goulash otherwise originates from way back in medieval Hungary. Goes well with a pálinka fruit brandy.

Knedliky Dumplings in the Czech

Some of my best times in Europe were eating in the Czech Republic, where eating is cheap and unpretentious, and it’s always like a good and proper medieval Bohemian feast (in Cesky Krumlov in particular). So I almost always go with the national dish, called Vepro Knedlo Zelo in the Czech Republic, which is a plate of roast pork with “knedliky” bread-like dumplings, and sauerkraut. Although these Knedliky dumplings also come with many variations of meats, including game meats like venison, rabbit, and pheasant at times. Washed down with meads, schnapps, ales and grogs. Absinthe is always fun as well.

Bigos in Poland

I always knew a bit of Polish food before turning up in Poland, as there are sections of Tescos dedicated to them, and there are Polish supermarkets, and half my friends are Polish back home (I have 2 friends back home). At the same time, many of the snacks I eat through Europe, like kabanos, kielbasa, and kaboski (I’m serious about sausage), I consider to be Polish. Anyway, in Poland, I was after something less international, and Bigos is considered to be Poland’s National Dish, so I gave it a go. In English though, Bigos is called Hunter Stew, where meat brought back hunters was thrown into a stew of sauerkraut, and this is how it tastes. Like pickled cabbage mixed with meat.

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