Thursday, August 7, 2008

Food in Europe

So I guess I'm not hip enough, because I don't really understand what exactly makes "foodies" different from other people. Doesn't everyone like eating good food? Anyway, I guess the significant other and I would qualify as foodies to some, but not to others. We're still kind of learning how to really cook, but we're lucky to be exposed to some awesome cuisine around the Bay Area. We've certainly moved up from our college days of ramen noodles and pizza!

Now, once you accept that the food is not necessarily going to be what you expect, I think that the food culture in Europe is definitely one that every U.S. resident should try if they can, because it highlights some of the main differences about their attitudes towards food and life in general. First of all, meals are a chance to socialize, relax, and connect with other people. We saw very few solitary diners, and I believe the figure I cut at lunch, sitting alone with my book, was a slightly odd one. I also saw people sitting at a Starbucks, drinking coffee and espressos out of actual ceramic mugs for the first time ever. Think about it: when was the last time you saw people with a Starbucks cup that wasn't paper? Additionally, the waiters do not come to check up on you. They will come take your order, bring you your order, and leave you be until you flag them down for the check. Seriously. Only once, when my book got really good all of a sudden, did I outwait the waiter and get my check before I had to ask for it. I'm sure this is where the image of rude or slow service in Europe comes from.

Here's what I mean about the food being a little unexpected. We ate a lot of sausages while in Germany, and it took me about two weeks to learn the word for mustard (senf). I love mustard with my sausages, and I learned the word because we had a very kind waitress in Munich who spoke excellent English. She pointed out the condiments: mayonnaise, ketchup, and two kinds of mustard. The significant other and I occasionally like a nice spicy mustard, so I went for the one described as "hot" mustard. We were a little underwhelmed to discover that the "hot" mustard tasted like your standard yellow over here. However, the regular mustard we got in Dijon nearly knocked me down!

In some cases, you kind of have to sit back and just eat what's put in front of you. While we were in Lyon, we had one of the most amazing meals I've ever experienced. I already mentioned this, but it's the sort of place where you don't really order off a menu. The waitress asked us for drink orders, and after we'd had a chance to start feeling our aperitifs (that's Euro-speak for pre-dinner cocktail), she just started bringing out food. The dinner consisted of five courses, and we started with the soup. Now, of the four of us at the table, I spoke the most French, so everyone else was kind of relying on me to know what was going on. So when the waitress brought out the soup, and we had a rich brown broth with a white-ish lump in the middle, I didn't recognize anything overtly French, so I decided it was a potato or dumpling of some sort. When I took a scoop out of the dumpling with my spoon, you can imagine my surprise at seeing a yolk in my "dumpling"! Turned out it was a poached egg. The waitress informed us that the soup is called Oeufs en Meurette.

Lyon Dinner: Ouefs Meurette

It was delicious soup! If you'd told me that one of my favorite memories of this trip would be poached egg in beef broth soup, I would have been a bit skeptical. The second course was a salad and plate of pickles, marinated onions, and cold cuts. By this time, we were halfway through our bottle of wine and starting to get a bit full. The chef came out to tell us our options for the main course, and we all placed our order. The guys were brave and ordered the pork cheek, not knowing if they were going to get an odd-looking cut. I got poulet au vinagre (chicken in a vinegar sauce), which was delicious. Now we were all starting to feel REALLY full, and starting to think about having a nice walk along one of the rivers to help out the digestive process.

Then they brought the cheese.

Lyon Dinner: Cheese Course

This was all really good cheese. That sounds lame, but I'm not that good at describing food, I guess. It was just really, really good. We had a small selection of hard, medium, and soft cheeses, some plain, some with spices or herbs. That bowl in the back has that iconic cream cheese with chives and other spices, which was easily my favorite. I don't know if I'll ever be able to eat any of those packaged herb cheese spreads again. We had nice crusty French bread to go with it all. Now we are all so full that we can barely eat any cheese; we were really just tasting it so we wouldn't kill ourselves. But we still had dessert. Each of us got something different, so we could try a little of everything.

Lyon Dinner: Dessert Course

Clockwise from the top we have ice cream, chocolate mousse, fruit salad, and some kind of tart (I can't remember what the filling was). We had our walk after everything was over. It was incredible.

One thing I realized about food in Europe is that there are regional differences in cuisine as significant as those we have here. You do see some of the national trends in food, but it's easier to talk about a region as opposed to a country. I got to eat Swabish spätzle in Stuttgart (deliciously close to macaroni and cheese), Bavarian weisswurst in Munich, and lost of delicious Provençal cooking while we were in France. I don't normally enjoy pesto the way it's made in Italian restaurants in California, but that's because (I am convinced) THEY ARE DOING IN WRONG. Genoa, where we spent our only night in Italy, is where pesto comes from, so naturally we all had to try it. Amazing, creamy without being too cheesy, and really tasty fresh pasta. Another winner. While I was starting to miss food from home by the end of the trip, I think it was mostly missing the ease of ordering food in my native language. Overall, I just wish I'd taken more pictures!

Finally, here's a general principle about food in Europe that we learned, sort of a variation of the "When in Rome" adage: Don't expect to get a really good croissant in Germany, and don't expect to get a really good pretzel in France.


Anonymous said...

I belive that you guys are foodies, as much as shawn and I are. it helps to live in northern california.

wildtomato said...

I have trouble associating myself with the word "foodie." I've been called it, but I deny it. Like you said, who doesn't like food?

Eating weissewurst in Munich is one of my fondest memories! What a fantastic trip!

Katharina said...

Don´t expect to get a good pretzel anywhere outside of Bavaria ;-)
- But seriously, I like reading what you write about your trip to Europe. From time to time it´s nice to see things from the other side.

Lakin Khan said...

love that saying, so true in many different situations. now I'm feeling really full... I love how you describe the difference between meals in Europe and meals in the States. It's about that ephemeral state of enjoyment we Americans seem so intent on denying ourselves.