One does not have to be a food expert in order to engage in culinary travels. Most travel makes food procurement mandatory. Some of it is nothing to write home about.
Travel food, one of the highlights of the adventure, tends to define a place for the foreign traveler, in particular. Foreign food is rife with cultural misinterpretation, and subjective taste.
Some of my food expectations when traveling have made the experience bewildering. For example, when in France, I thought we should eat “French food.”
The best food we ate in Paris was, oiled and seasoned haricot-verte (stick-thin, whole green beans) from an Italian deli. I still regret sticking to my preconceived notions about foreign dining, when we could have probably enjoyed an awesome meal in the Italian restaurant below that deli in Paris.
We found an inexpensive German-made chocolate bar while meandering through a Parisian neighborhood grocery; wishing later that we had bought several. This compares sadly to the little box of overpriced Belgian chocolates from a specialty shop in, yes, Belgium, that had the same icky mystery filling of any old U.S. boxed chocolates.
In Finale Liguria, Italy, where my Italian was understood with a Canadian accent, the strawberry gelato from a beach-side shop, was so delectable that I quickly learned the correct enunciation, gelato alla fregola, to get it again behind a long line of other quick learners. This contrasts with the truly boring pasta in Verona, Italy that I could have made better at home.
Both a language issue and a revelation about my husband, was the tuna pizza at a hotel restaurant in northern Italy. I was too weary to consult the phrase book for our pizza selection so we winged-it. It was Italy, it was pizza, what’s to screw up?
When you’re thinking pizza toppings, does tonno sound to you like it might translate to tomatoes? To this overtired brain, it did. Well, it doesn’t mean tomatoes, it means tuna. Who puts tuna on pizza?
The look on my husband’s face when our tuna pizza arrived was priceless. Understand that this man is known for trying almost any food.
His response was something like the full-body-spasm that precedes throwing up, rising from the stomach, through the diaphragm, the esophagus and into the facial muscles. I’d never seen this reaction to food in decades of marriage to this man. In all fairness, our cats probably would have walked away from that pizza.
The next food-like and language observation was along the autobahn in Germany. I’m not a potty-joke kind of person, but this one has to be told.
We’re comfortable with the romance languages, rooted in Latin (French, Spanish, Italian), but German is way out of our comfort zone. Highway signs in particular were difficult for us to comprehend, especially because they came too fast for this navigator to grab the phrase book and translate. But, one German highway word that we will never forget is, Ausfahrt, which means exit. We snort-laughed for miles at that one.
Language mistakes have to constitute some of the funniest mistakes a person can make. Add a language mistake to a travel-weary-food conundrum and you might just have a stand-up comedy routine.
This brings me to the Mantisse, a chocolate-filled muffin that we discovered in McDonald’s restaurants throughout France. I fell in love with these things. So, as we pulled up to a drive thru, our daughter asked her dad to order her favorite, crepes and I from the back seat this time, asked for a Mantisse. It must have been one of our tired moments, because both of them swore I ordered, “mymanJesus.”
I realize that it is a personal preference, and many of you will have your own, but we liked nary a restaurant meal that we tried in Europe. Particularly disappointing was the grisly, chewy mystery meat special of the day that we tried at a road-side, mom-and-pop’s type restaurant, packed with regulars, in rural France. The gravy/sauce though was wonderfully, stereotypically French. Similarly, my Parisian plate of runny cheese sauce that was supposed to be shrimp ravioli, tasted like nothing, watered-down, and cost eight euros.
But the autobahn ham sandwiches, jambon-beurre, were perfection, as well as almost every market, deli, or food-truck, a la carte items we lived on (baguettes, cheese, pain au chocolat, grapes, etc.). Middle-Eastern walk-ups of kabobs and gyros became a favorite destination from within small walled cities to mid-size towns, throughout the continent. They also provided much coveted “French fries” to our daughter, under the English moniker, chips. FYI potato chips in Europe, are crisps.
We periodically bought a case of bottled water at big grocery stores and kept it in our car trunk (boot, in our English, steering wheel on the right, rental). But do you think we could get a bottle of “fizzy” water, gazeuse, in a French restaurant? Later, we learned to ask for the most common brand name, Perrier.
Aboard the QEII and Queen Mary, we avoided our scheduled, formal meals, for which one had to dress formally. We tried it once and the food was okay but not our cup of tea, get it, cup of tea, English formality….
However, the afternoon teas, complete with scones, cucumber sandwiches, etc., were nice enough; the chocolate chip cookies at the buffets were addictive; the Fish n Chips at the pub was everything the English tradition touts; and every buffet was true to its delicious stereotype, making thrice-daily walks on deck mandatory.
Finally, I will end this discussion of food and foreign travel with a cautionary tale. Go prepared with your own over-the-counter remedies, such as Pepto-Bismol, Tylenol, antacids, etc. There are green-crossed signs easily identifying pharmacies in every city in Western Europe but I dare you to find an over-the-counter item in there. Nor are these items available in neighborhood groceries, or in what we know as dollar stores.
Bon voyage and bon apetit.