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Savoring the Flavors of Europe: My Quest for Local Culinary Treats

Anne Steves with Cooking Teacher in Paris
Anne Steves (right) toasts her cooking teacher, a Parisian chef, before sitting down with daughter Jackie to enjoy the meal they prepared.
Photo courtesy of Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door.

In my quest to experience Europe as the locals do—intimately and on all fronts—I made a point to eat well this year. I was lectured by a Burgundian woman who told me that the guts are the absolute best part of a crab. I crunched into the cartilage of a prized plate of pigs’ ears on a back street in Madrid. And I paid a ransom for barnacles, gathered at great risk by teams of divers off the coast of Galacia in northwest Spain. (How do you eat barnacles? With a simple twist, rip, and bite). Eating well wherever I went, my budget survived and my trip was the better for it. While each country seemed to vie for my favor, France and Italy contributed most to my noticeably expanding waistline.

To fully enjoy the art of eating in France, my wife Anne, my daughter Jackie, and I took an all-day class with a renowned Parisian cook. We prowled through the market with her, gathered the needed ingredients, cooked it all up in her kitchen, and (of course) devoured the delicious fruits of our labor ... all spiced with lots of tips, philosophy, and attitude.

When it comes to cuisine, there’s no false modesty among French chefs. Ours cooked with strong principles: “In France, we love fat because fat is where the flavor is ... never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink ... in America, you just don’t have a great leek culture ... it’s always a good thing to let your meat rest, you know ... water is the friend of the enemy ... pat your pears.”

Wandering with her from shop to shop and through a bustling market, we learned plenty: Baking and pastry are separate arts; a chef can’t do both well. (Go to a boulangerie for bread, and patisserie for pastry.) Fish shops need to indicate how the fish was caught: “peche en” means fished rather than farmed; “eleve en” is “raised” on a fish farm. Poultry sold with the head attached is a sign of freshness.

My favorite discovery: a bottle of Fleur de Sel, the top crust of hand-harvested sea salt (generally from Brittany). This grappa of salt—which you sprinkle by the pinch—was $10 very well spent (my only souvenir of this trip).

By taking a Parisian cooking class, I entertained a faint hope that I’d be inspired to get into hands-on cooking myself. That didn’t happen, but I gained an understanding for all that goes into a fine meal.

As our vacation ended, Anne and Jackie flew home, and I continued my dogged quest for great-yet-affordable taste treats on the road, this time by working with Steve Smith on the restaurant listings in our Paris guidebook.

Restaurateurs dazzled me with their cooking: Gizzard salads, made of fresh greens with rich kidneys and gizzards; crêpes, where something magic happens to the Emmental cheese when it’s cooked in all that butter; escargot, with a hot plate to keep the sauce steamy for dipping the crunchy bread into the garlic.

I experienced high-class eating with Dominique—as fragile and elegant as her petite restaurant—who gave me empathy for those force-fed geese by force-feeding me the foie gras. And I experienced quality food at budget prices at a Greek restaurant with plastic tables. I asked, “Do you have yogurt with honey?” They said, “Sure, we’re Greek,” and brought me a bowl that took me straight to Santorini.

In Paris, you can’t escape the desserts ... the ritual cracking of the caramelized crust of a crème broulée ... the tangy peach sorbet drenched in liqueur that you lap up like a thirsty puppy ... and plates of pastel mini-macaroons (pistachio, rose, mint, or raspberry) served with tea at the palatial Laudrée café on the Champs-Elysées.

I’m not a food sophisticate, but I love people—especially cooks—who love their work. Agnès wears her chef’s hat like a crown but treats me like a king. Marie Alice offers me cheese that “smells like zee feet of angels.” And Monsieur Isaac, the self-proclaimed “ace of falafels” in the Jewish Quarter, brags, “I’ve got the biggest pita on the street and I fill it up!”

When I headed south to Italy, it seemed the entire country was singing “Mangia, mangia.” In the rugged Riviera villages of the Cinque Terre, people are famously passionate about their food. In Vernazza, Giovanni makes pasta. “I like the pasta too much,” he says, holding a belly far bigger than mine.

Alessandro has clearly found his niche. Rolling his cart into Vernazza for the weekly market as he has for 22 years of Tuesdays, he sells porcini mushrooms, dried cod, and sturdy parmesan cheese to Vernazzan shoppers who’ve proudly never set foot in a big city mall.

Valerio, a waiter in my favorite Riviera restaurant, is evangelical about the beauties of anchovies. Knowing I want to teach Americans the wonders of Italian anchovies, he brings me a plate with the little fish prepared four ways and says, “It’s not harsh and cured in salt like yours in America. I know, people in America say, ‘Pizza—but hold the anchovies.’ Our anchovies were swimming yesterday—they are fresh. Taste this.”

Further south and far from the sea, the Tuscan landscape is dotted with agriturismos. These traditional family farms rent out spare rooms to make ends meet—and to show off Italy’s knack for fine country living. Signora Gori, who runs a noble old farm, takes me on a walk through her estate. As a horrendous chorus of squeals comes from a rustic slaughterhouse on the horizon, she says, “This is our little Beirut.” But the view is lush, pristine, and tranquil.

Taking me into a room dominated by a stainless steel table piled with red sides of pork, she declares, “And here we make the prosciutto.” Burly men in aprons squeeze the blood out of hunks of meat the size of dancing partners. Then they cake the hamhocks in salt to begin a curing process that takes months. While the salt helps cure the meat, a coating of pepper seals it. In spooky but great-smelling rooms, racks of hanging hamhocks age. A man, dressed and acting like a veterinarian, tests each ham by sticking it with a horse bone needle and giving it a sniff.

Passing a sty dominated by a giant pig nicknamed Pastenetto (“the little pastry”), Signora Gori escorts me into the next barn, where fluffy white lambs jump to wobbly attention in their hay. Backlit, it’s a dreamy, almost Biblical scene. Picking up a baby lamb, she explains, “We use unpasteurized milk in making the pecorino cheese. This is allowed but only with strict health safeguards. I must really know our sheep.”

This close-to-the-land-and-animals food production is part of Italy’s Slow Food movement. Advocates believe there’s more to life than increasing its speed. They produce and serve food in the time-honored way. It may be more labor-intensive and expensive, but it’s tastier and—just as important—connects consumers more directly with their food. They know who made it and how.

On the far side of the farm, the son empties his last bucket of purple grapes into the dumptruck, and it—in turn—unloads into a grinder that munches through the bunches. The machine spits stems one way and juice (with mangled grapes) the other. Following that promising little river into the cellar, we’re surrounded by tall vats of aging grape juice. My guide jokes that while making wine is labor-intensive, right now the grapes are doing all the work. And as they ferment, we head home to dinner.

Around a long, rustic table polished by generations of feasting, the entire Gori family—three generations surrounded by heirlooms from many more—gathers and welcomes their American guest. It’s a classic Tuscan table: simplicity, a sense of harmony, no hurry, and a glass of fine red wine.

A key word for your Tuscan travels is corposo—full bodied. Lifting the elegant glass to my lips, I sip, while enjoying the pride in the eyes of a family so comfortably and happily rooted in their heritage and cultural soil. Entirely satisfied, I say, “Corposo.” They say, “Si, bravo.”

As I dip my bread in extra-virgin olive oil and savor a slice of their prosciutto, my friends explain that great wine goes best with simple food. With each bite and every sip, I better understand the art of Tuscan living—and why I’ll always hunger to return to Europe.

Happy travels ... and, wherever you venture, bon appétit

Breakfast in Krakow
In Kraków, Poland—as in many small hotels and B&Bs across Europe—a delightful buffet breakfast awaits visitors. Photo courtesy of Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door.
Related Topics
Culinary Travel
Back Door Travel with Rick Steves

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