Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Europe Eating: Missing in Action

We've just come back from a six-week holiday in Europe.  Yay for returning to our electric toothbrushes, and as much internet usage as we want.  It's good to be home, and somewhat strange as well.  The puha weed has taken over our garden.  The November issue of the Cuisine magazine was waiting for us, with a Christmas tree on the cover (what, Christmas already?!).  We spent all day eating things we'd been missing on the other side of the world: muesli and milk for a very early breakfast (we woke up before 6am), a peanut butter sandwich snack, a cooked breakfast with bacon and eggs for the other panda (fried in butter for extra tastiness), then yum cha for lunch.

Puha running wild in our garden.
You'd think that major international cities like London, Paris and Berlin would have all the things you could possibly wish for, at all hours of the day and night.  It turns out that they did not have the same frenetic pace as the large cities in Asia, nor was the cuisine as varied as we had thought it would be.

Foods in New Zealand that we missed

Below are what we haven't been able to have (or have much of) on our European holiday, with which we have been spoilt in Auckland.  You could probably obtain some items, like peanut butter, from a specialty store, but we weren't prepared to go far out of our way, and besides, we enjoyed eating the local dishes too.

1) Cheap and Delicious Chinese Food (including yum char)

In Germany, the Chinese restaurant we went to didn't even offer us chopsticks, gave us sugar cubes with our jasmine tea, and served all the dishes on on a bed of tea lights (apparently they do this in Thai restaurants also).  In France, every Chinese eatery we saw outside of Chinatown looked like a deli, or a colder version of Magic Wok, with all the dishes precooked and laid out for you to choose from.  We didn't dare try Chinese anywhere else, on the assumption that it would be expensive and bad.  And there was no yum cha to be seen.

[Added 1 Nov 2012: I said "Chinese" rather than "Asian", because that's what we tried, and also because we found good Asian in the form of Vietnamese food as mentioned below.  A friend told us of dismal attempts to eat ramen in Spain and Italy though: in one place he was served rice noodles, and another gave him instant noodles.]

2) Cooked Breakfast

Outside of Britain, the typical European breakfast seems to consist of croissants and coffee, or maybe bread and jam with a glass of juice.  All sickeningly sweet and unfulfilling.  At one hotel, I asked if they had anything which wasn't sugary, and they pointed me in the direction of the supermarket!

Cooked breakfast in London - not the best, but we were glad to have one at all.
I wasn't after bacon or sausages, or even something as exotic as baked beans or hash browns.  A simple fried egg on toast would have sufficed.  We might have been able to find places that would serve us such a meal, had we tried hard enough, but in the end it was easier to skip straight to lunch.

3) Fresh Milk (with your tea)

France, Italy and Turkey (well, as least part of it is technically in Europe) have abundant quantities of butter, cheese and yoghurt, but nobody seems to drink milk, at least not with their tea. We never saw a 2L bottle of milk for sale in the supermarket, and it was never offered with the black teas we ordered, though you can of course have it with your coffee.  Perhaps it's the cafés au lait which account for the surprisingly higher consumption of milk in France and Italy than in New Zealand?  Strangely, the tradition of adding milk to your tea apparently began in France in the 17th century, before being adopted by the English.

What milk we have seen has been in the form of UHT sterilised milk, rather than fresh.  According the David Lebovitz' blog, the London Times reported that 95.5% of milk consumed in France is UHT sterilised.  A forum post from 2009 showed that UHT consumption as a percentage of total consumption according to the newspaper was:

Country% UHT milk consumption
Czech Rep71.4

4) Reasonably Good Coffee

Every coffee we have had in Italy - even on the train - has been fantastic.  Every coffee we have had anywhere else, be it in Germany, the UK, Switzerland or even France, has been dire: sometimes bitter, sometimes sour, sometimes burnt, sometimes chemical-tasting (as if you were drinking the cleaning solution with the coffee), sometimes a mixture of the above.

Numerous articles have been written on why the coffee in Paris is so bad, explaining that the French government pushed the inferior robusta coffee beans that was grown in its colonies, rather than the higher-quality arabica beans.  You might also like to read how the French ruined coffee and how not to drink black tar in Paris.  I couldn't find any commentary on the other countries, but I guess there isn't the same expectation of good coffee elsewhere, except maybe in Spain, which we did not visit on this trip.

5) Peanut Butter

Actually, we forgot about this one until we saw a peanut butter milkshake on the menu of a Parisian burger joint.  Yes, it's available, but it's definitely not commonplace.  People in Europe much prefer to spread their bread with Nutella or jam, from what we could see.

Foods in Europe that we will miss

Of course, now that we are home, we will start noticing plenty of things which we could eat in Europe, which are not available here.  Here are some that come to mind.

1) Excellent Butter

The Lewis Road Creamery is doing a good job of providing New Zealand with tasty local butter, but the butter from Jean-Yves Bordier, which David Lebovitz lists as one of the 10 insanely delicious things you shouldn't miss in Paris, was better.  Even the supermarket-branded butter which we sampled at an aunt's house in France was unbearably delicious, and we ate it up in much vaster quantities than was good for us.

2) Proper Hamburgers

It may sound odd that we sought out burgers to eat in Paris, but let me tell you this: every burger we have eaten there has been superior to any burger we have been able to buy here.  Why?  Because they cook their patties the way they cook their steaks, so that the meat is still pink in the middle.  Because they use the proper bun and the proper cheese, without trying to do anything fancy like add rosemary to the bread, slather everything in aioli, or use a special salsa in place of the usual lettuce and tomato.  And probably because they use fresh ingredients and simply care.  (On the other hand, they never salt their fries, so you can't have everything.)

A half-eaten burger, pink inside.

3) Good Vietnamese

We had our best Vietnamese meal to date (outside of Vietnam of course) at Good Morning Vietnam in Berlin.  We enjoyed our meal here more than at the more famous Monsieur Vuong down the road, and there were plenty of other Vietnamese eateries we didn't get to try, presumably because of the communist connection.

Likewise, the Chinatown in Paris was predominantly filled with Vietnamese eateries rather than Chinese ones, no doubt because Vietnam was a former French colony.  We've heard they are very good too, though we ran out of time before we could try any.


At the end of the day, it's a good thing that the European countries have kept their cuisines and cultural identities intact.  We might gaze in wonder at the self service kiosks you can find in the McDonald's of Switzerland and France, and while it is a curiosity for us, we travel so that we can see and taste something a little different.
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