Europe. I have struggled to write this post because my attempts to convey my exhilaration for the gastronomic aspect of this trip have been paltry at best. How does one describe the depth and breadth of culinary history, culture, tradition, innovation, and quality of European food? I have come to realize that I will never do this continent justice by attempting to verbalize its epicurean splendor. Yet, I proceed.
Many of the world’s most talented chefs work and live in Europe. One of our destinations will be San Sebastian, a gourmand’s mecca. Also home to two of the world’s best restaurants: Mugaritz and Arzak. Arzak is run by a father and daughter team, Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, who both reinvent and respect Spanish and Basque dishes. Elena was recently honoured with Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef. At Arzak, traditional dishes undergo metamorphosis becoming plates that dazzle the senses. Mugaritz’s Executive Chef is Andoni Luis Aduriz, who apprenticed at El Bulli and was recently awarded the esteemed San Pellegrino Chef’s Choice Award. His philosophy applies science to cuisine in order to evoke an emotional experience. He defies preconceived notions of how food should be prepared, served, and experienced. It is in this restaurant, set just outside of San Sebastian in the Basque countryside, where we will seriously loosen the purse strings. Aduriz serves locally sourced ingredients framed in seasonal tasting menus that emphasize nature and technique. It is sure to be a meal that will be both awe-inspiring and transform the way I think about food preparation.
Once reputed as having one of the world’s worst cuisines, England has since triumphed over this erroneous stereotype. Some of the world’s most talented chefs hail from the UK, or have made it their home (Yotam Ottolenghi, Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, Alain Ducasse, Brett Graham of The Ledbury, Isaac McHale, Fergus Henderson, Marco Pure White… the list goes on). London has transformed into a culinary mecca, and Britain has gained respect in the gastronomic community as fine purveyors of everything from beer, cheese, seafood, sausage, and to everything else in between. Personally, I am most excited about revisiting Neal’s Yard Dairy. They are vendors of artisanal British farmhouse cheeses, including the famous Stilton and Cheshire (or, for cheese purists, Stichelton: the raw milk version of Stilton). On the forefront of the slow food movement, they maintain close relationships with cheesemakers themselves.
Neal’s Yard Dairy
When I travel, I like to immerse myself in the culture as much as possible. Meaning I will have to give up sushi for a couple of months. Tasting local and traditional cuisine will be another highlight of this trip. In Turkey, I hope to get my fill of Anatolian cooking. Due to its geographic location and its history of occupation, Turkish food is shaped by European, Asian, Middle Eastern, and African influences. They also serve many dishes mezze style, which is one of my favourite ways to eat. You get to try little bits of everything! Moreover, Turkey is well-known for its rocket fuel-type coffee, and there’s not much more that I like better than a cup of coffee that will make your hair stand on end.
The Spanish are known for their tapas and pintxos, a style of small plate dining. They are often served as little bites to accompany your beverage of choice, while socializing with friends or relatives. Pintxos hail from the Basque region of northern Spain, and are different from tapas in that they are generally served on small skewers or toothpicks (pintxo literally means “spike” in Spanish). These small plates are often a pretense for socializing, where the main event is the conversation that takes place among friends. It is not uncommon to “tavern hop”, tasting a little bit here and there as you go. Small plate dining is all about grazing. It emphasizes eating slowly and thoroughly savouring every last morsel. The type of small plate varies from the traditional (think ingredients like jamon, chorizo, olives, roasted red peppers, or anchovies, perhaps on a thinly sliced baguette) to the experimental and unconventional (such as artichokes stuffed with foie gras and hazelnuts, or fish crudo atop a cherry wafer served with sheep’s milk cheese and fresh mint).
Portugal is another country for which I am eagerly anticipating digging into some traditional dishes. As mentioned in a previous post, I consider myself “pseudo-Portuguese”. My stepfamily hails from the Acores, off of the southern coast of Portugal. Accordingly, I have grown up eating customary Portuguese comfort food. I cannot wait to get my hands on some sardinhas (grilled whole sardines), polvo (octopus), chicken piri-piri, caldo verde (potato and kale soup), balcalhau a gomes ca (salt cod with potatoes, onion, and egg), and fresh-off-the-tree figs. Like much of the best cuisine across the globe, many of the most delicious dishes are born from austerity – doing the best with what you can get your hands on. The Portuguese food I grew up eating is traditionally rustic food, and could not be more delectable.
Paris has some of the most luxurious food on the planet. That’s not to say that some of their best fare does not have rustic origins (in fact, it often does), but rather that Parisians have refined their food to a unsurpassed level of opulence. Parisians do not settle for mediocre. My four favourite (and necessary) indulgences on the planet are coffee, chocolate, wine, and cheese – and the French do them really, really well. Arguably they do it just as well, if not better, than anywhere on the planet. The culture of savouring the sumptuousness of these luxury foods and truly engaging in the culinary experience is something which I admire about the Europeans (and I believe is often an oversight in North American culture). A further highlight in Paris for me will be a visit to Thierry Marx’s FoodLab. It is essentially a research kitchen emphasizing gastronomical experimentation. The courses offered marry science and food to better understand the underlying chemical and physical mechanisms which take place during the cooking process. Moreover, it is a facility which pushes the boundaries of food innovation, making us re-evaluate conventional ways of preparation.
Europe is the birthplace of wine. The French, Spanish, and Portuguese (amongst many other nations) have been making wine for centuries. More and more, lesser known European countries are making a place for themselves in the world of wine. England and Croatia are emerging as nuclei of viticulture. I look forward to sidling up the seaside bar at Buza in Dubrovnik, and sipping a glass while overlooking the Adriatic. Austria, once known mostly for its fruity sweet vintages, is expanding their varietals. Wine bars are a modern cultural movement in Vienna. In fact, many wineries and grape pressing facilities have restaurants in house, where you can simultaneously sample their wine and enjoy a meal. One of the pinnacles of this trip will in the A Borfesztival in Budapest. It is set in the square of Buda Castle, where you can sample 1000 wines (which could make for a very interesting, if not pixilated, evening) from Hungary and around the world. To go along with the tastings, there are various cultural events and workshops reflecting local wines and traditions.
Buza Seaside Bar, Dubrovnik
At the risk of pontificating at great lengths about Europe’s culinary hedonism, I will restrict myself to one last thing for which I am feverishly excited: food markets. Living in Vancouver, we are fortunate to have wonderful farmers’ markets and places like Granville Island where local vendors can sell their provisions. The amount of pleasure these markets give me is indescribable. They are one of the most accessible ways to boast local splendor. One has the opportunity to literally taste their surroundings. Europe has many distinctive and sumptuous food fairs. From the Central Market Hall in Budapest, Naschmarkt in Vienna, La Boqueria in Barcelona, and Borough Market in London, I will have my work cut out for me! Almost every neighbourhood in every city has their particular market exhibiting the finest produce, seafood, meat, dairy, and sweets.
Central Market Hall, Budapest
Europe, I cannot wait to sink my teeth into you.