I am writing this in darkest January, in the middle of lockdown, a few weeks after Brexit, during a pandemic that has put an end to both travel and eating out for the foreseeable future.
Oh, and with a new baby due any day.
It’s not a happy place for a foodie.
But good times will come again, and I’ve been thinking of some of my favourite European foodie holidays, places I’d love to revisit in 2021.
San Sebastian and the Basque region
One of my favourite holidays of the past few years was 10 days in the Basque region of Spain, which took in Bilbao, San Sebastian, Logroño and other small villages, beaches and countryside in the land of pinxtos and rioja, as well as a trip over the border with France to Biarritz.
We rented a Mini convertible and spent our days going from bar to bar, enjoying cold glasses of wine of all colours for just a Euro or two, always accompanied by a snack. Maybe fresh prawns, waiting to be shelled and dipped in aioli. Perhaps some octopus, accompanied by chorizo. Always something delicious on bread. We didn’t eat a ‘proper meal’ the whole trip, but never went hungry. Most food was enjoyed standing up, leaning on the bar. Our feet ached from all the walking and standing, but our stomachs had never been happier.
A city not often seen on foodie lists, but one that stands out to me.
We went in the Winter, and were blown away mostly by the cost of everything – from travel (a private compartment on the night train from Berlin), to hotel (4 stars, on the river) to food (Michelin star dining), to activities (outdoor spas with more pools than I can count) – Budapest offers everything you could want in a city break for less money than most other places in Europe.
Everything was less than half of what I might pay in London, but of equal or better quality.
We visited local bakeries for breakfast coffee and pastries, enjoyed hearty goulash for lunch, visited ‘ruin’ bars in the evening for craft beer, and maxed out the fine dining options in the evenings.
In particular, a meal at Onyx, holder of 2 Michelin stars, stays in my mind.
With white tablecloths and crystal chandeliers, it had everything you would expect at this level. I remember the wine decanter, an incredible snake style which made each pour last nearly a minute. And the bread trolley – oh the bread trolley – there must have been 20 different breads to try. We couldn’t decide, so they gave us a selection of all of them, all warm and with different butters. And the petit-fours – little mint macarons in special boxes we were sent home with, to enjoy in bed.
I visited Gothenburg nearly a decade ago, and honestly, it was a disaster. We were there in November, for just a couple of nights. It rained constantly the entire time, most heavily during the few hours of daylight. We spent most of the time dashing from cover to cover or tucked up in our hotel room trying to figure out what activities in Sweden could be done a) in the rain and b) without bankrupting us.
I still haven’t figured out the answer.
But it’s on this list because I had the best meal of my life in Gothenburg. One of those moments when everything comes together – you come out of the rain and steam dry and manage to order the exact food you didn’t know you needed.
It was at the Feskekôrka, or ‘fish church’. A church turned fish market, with a restaurant overlooking the market stalls.
The menu was small and changed daily. I think I ordered the special. It was herring with lingonberries and potatoes.
I don’t know why it was so good, or why I remember it so strongly. I just remember the saltiness of the fish and the tang and sweetness of the berries and the comforting warmth of the potatoes and thinking I could eat this forever.
Back in 2019 we travelled to the South of France for a wedding. We spent a week driving the 300km from Lyon to the town of Sommières, near Montpellier, stopping off at villages and towns along the Rhône.
But what I remember about the food isn’t the restaurants or the meals out, it’s the supermarkets, and the simple feasts we enjoyed in the comfort of our AirBnb’s, usually in between swimming and sunbathing.
Bottles of cold rose or crisp lagers. Fresh crunchy bread with salted butter. Fresh goat’s cheese, spooned into cherry tomatoes. Cherries. Cured meats and delicious pâté. Never a full meal, never much effort to prepare. All available in the local Lidl. The kind of food that you can remember and be transported, to feel the heat of the sun on the flagstones, the smell of lavender, the gentle breeze.
A European foodie destination list wouldn’t be complete without Italy. I’ve chosen Rome because it’s my most recently Italian food memory. I visited for a few days for work in September 2018. My flight time meant I arrived to a free afternoon. Is there anything more luxurious than being alone with only yourself to please in a new city?
I checked into my tiny hotel, changed into something more appropriate for Rome’s balmy weather, and wandered the streets to the first place I saw with outdoor tables and people watching and Aperol Spritz and pasta. I ordered carbonara and drank my huge, glowing Aperol and watched the world go by.
Over the next two days, I had pasta for both lunch and dinner. There were other options, of course, but, when in Rome… I tried cacio e pepe for the first time. Had more carbonara. Tried new pasta shapes and sauces. Even branched out to a gnocchi dish one day. The best were the simplest, allowing the eggs and cheese and black pepper and the love that Italians have for their food to stand out.
I could carry on.
I want to go back to Paris for patisserie, to Bordeaux for wine. To revisit Prague and Riga. To have burgers in Berlin again. To enjoy seafood in Venice. Dumplings in Austria and bitterballen in Amsterdam. Fresh fish in Croatia, souvlaki and moussaka in the Greek islands. To enjoy tapas in Madrid and custard tarts in Porto.
What foodie memories are keeping you going in these cold months?