One of the great things about travel, no matter where you go, is sampling the local food. Europeans place a great deal of emphasis on eating, and meal times are a very important part of the day, with family lunches often lasting two or three hours. With a German born mother-in-law living not far away, I had already discovered the joys of Wiener schnitzel, potato salad and apple strudel long before my first visit to Europe, however I am more than willing to sample the ‘local’ versions and am always suitably impressed!
It's not just eating the food, though, that is so enjoyable in Europe. I also get great pleasure from buying the food - whether it's browsing the freshest of produce at the local market or even shopping in the supermarket - the experience somehow adds to the taste. And nothing beats eating a local speciality at a family-run restaurant or gasthof, surrounded by locals.
So that you get the most out of your European 'foodie' experience, here are some tips to help you save money and enjoy the wonderful pleasures of dining in Europe.
Restaurants and cafes
Eating out in Europe (as it is anywhere) can be quite expensive. If I'm staying in a town for more than a couple of nights, I usually stay in self-catering accommodation and tend to eat out only occasionally. If you are staying in hotels or B&B's and need to dine out, cheaper meals can usually be found at a pizzeria or pasta bar.
Many restaurants, particularly in tourist areas, offer a ‘Menu of the Day’ which is often a two- or three-course meal and a drink for a set fee. I paid €8 for a Wiener Schnitzel with chips and salad, a dessert and a drink (soft drink, wine or beer) at a lovely outdoor café in the centre of Innsbruck. At a restaurant in a tiny village in France, my family and I enjoyed the set ‘Plat du Jour’, which consisted of soup, lasagne with salad and bread, and a dessert, as well as a carafe of wine, for €15 each. It was so delicious and so filling that we didn’t need dinner that night! Most restaurants advertise these daily specials on boards out the front so you can choose the best value and most suitable menu for you.
One restaurant at a campsite in Germany offered a ‘family meal’ which consisted of a huge platter including bratwurst (sausages), schnitzel, chips, spatzle (similar to noodles), vegetables and more. It cost us about 25 Euros and was too much for hubby and I and the two kids to finish, so it was excellent value.
Drinks are often the unaccounted-for item when budgeting for meals at restaurants and cafes. Just one drink each, whether it be a soft drink, wine, beer or coffee, can quickly add €20 to the bill. Keep this in mind when ordering and you won’t get an unpleasant surprise when it’s time to pay the bill. If you would like water with your meal, ask for tap water or you may be brought bottled water which you'll be charged for.
Shopping for food
Even if you're not staying in an apartment, it's still possible to have breakfast in your hotel room if it isn't included in the tariff. By packing a couple of plastic bowls and spoons (or buying them on arrival), you can pick up a packet of cereal and some milk (most hotel rooms have a fridge) to eat with your morning croissant. Every town or village has at least one bakery which opens early to cater for the breakfast crowd.
The bakery is also the place to head to before you go out sightseeing for the day. A couple of bread rolls or baguette, a local pastry or cake and a piece of fruit make a great picnic lunch and they won't take up much room in your backpack. Taking your own picnic also gives you the chance to really make the most of your surroundings – I've enjoyed my lunch in a Swiss cow paddock with views of the alps all around; on the steps of a 400 year old church in Austria another day; and on the banks of the Seine in Paris on another occasion.
On past trips to Europe, I’ve found the price of most grocery items in the supermarket is generally a little bit dearer than at home, but meat is very expensive. Meat and delicatessen items are always priced per 100 grams, so this can be a bit of a trap. You think you are getting a real bargain, until you remember you have to multiply the price by ten if you want a kilo!!
You’ll find most things in European supermarkets that we are used to in Australia, but I have had difficulty finding canned salmon and condensed milk - and Vegemite!
European supermarkets generally don’t provide free plastic bags. You either need to take your own ‘green’ bags or purchase them at the register. ‘Green’ bags are often quite attractive and make great, inexpensive souvenirs. My Carrefour shopping bag brings back fond memories of Paris every time I use it!
Another thing to remember when shopping in supermarkets is to weigh and price the fruit and vegetables yourself. Scales that print out price stickers are located in the fruit and vegetable department. If you get to the checkout and haven’t priced your fruit and veg, you won’t get a very friendly reception from the check out operator (or those in the queue behind you!).
The local markets are also a great source of food. Many towns, particularly in France and Italy, have a regular market where everything from food to clothing is sold. Markets are the best place to pick up the freshest local produce. A visit to the market is a weekly outing for the locals, not only to stock up on their produce but also as a meeting place, and it’s great to wander around and just enjoy the atmosphere. Be warned, though - the stall holder probably won't appreciate you touching or picking up his produce. Instead, you can point to the items you wish to purchase and he'll pick them up and weigh them for you.
© Holidays to Europe
(All information provided as a guide only.)
Have you had a memorable dining experience in Europe? We'd love to hear about it.