I admit it. I’m a foodie. Travel is really just a means to an end – with the end being a fabulous meal. Seriously, the best thing about traveling must surely be eating. Nothing else brings you closer to the true culture of a place or a people than their food. Am I right? And no matter how many monuments, museums, beaches, shopping streets or festivals you visit – you still “gotta eat”.
Last night, Mr. H and I were enjoying a scrumptious meal together. Sometimes, eating good food inspires talk of past meals in far off places. So while tasting (and toasting) our way through the evening, we decided to come up with the Top 5 Foodie Travel Experiences we’ve shared on our travels together. Here’s what we remembered, in the order that we remembered them:
1. That Time I Ordered the Black Stuff
In Barcelona, a few years ago, we took a taxi across town to an overflowing seafood restaurant in what, at first, seemed like an abandoned back alley. The place was called Els Pescadors, and it was situated in a little plaza called Prim, which except for the restaurant was quiet. This was definitely not a touristy place.
We sat outside, wedged in right next to a large table full of locals. I noticed several had ordered plates of oily, black food that they seemed particularly pleased with. I couldn’t resist…I asked what it was, in my very basic Spanish. A few of the guys showed me the “cuttlefish in squid ink” on the menu. They even suggested a wine to go with it. I had to have it.
My husband says I always order the strangest thing on the menu – and this strange thing was absolutely divine. There was something elemental about the dish – satisfaction at a deep level – and I spent months trying to find the taste and texture again once we left Spain, but with no luck. (Just remember, giving in to foodie travel means you will spend time later trying to find that taste again.)
The squid ink was salty and earthy and smooth (though I remember just the slightest crunch of the cuttlefish at the beginning of each bite). And despite the strong sense of truffle-y umami, the taste was delicate, even elegant.
Above, you can see the photo I took of that not particularly attractive dish – but looking at it still makes me salivate.
2. The Amazing, Overloaded Table Full of Freshness at that Goat Farm
We stopped at Ein Camonim with a friend, on our way to a weekend in Safed. Ein Camonim is a working dairy farm filled with prize-winning goats in the Galilee area of Israel. The owners make about thirty kinds of boutique cheeses, plus yogurt and ice cream, on site. They also press their own olive oil. This place is a testament to the fact that foodie travel doesn’t have to be about gourmet fine dining.
We sat outside under a thatched canopy, on wobbly chairs, and soon found our table completely covered with fresh local salads and mezes, plus a giant tree stump turned cheese plate which was covered with a variety of hard and soft cheeses.
Everything was super casual. The table cloths were like something your grandmother would pull out of the bottom of a dresser drawer – colorful and washed thin. There was decent wine – (not great) – and the most amazing homemade yogurt in a small glass. The yogurt was truly spectacular! You can request more of anything you like, and we definitely requested more of it, as well as some of the salads and cheeses.
Sitting outside in the rustic environment, with fresh vegetables, fruits, cheeses and wines arriving from every direction was a lovely way to while away an afternoon.
3. Stopping at Every Marché in Europe on Our Road Trips
Marché is what all travel pit-stops should aspire to. While driving through Europe, we literally began planning our routes and break times based on the location of the next Marché.
These are highway rest stops with class and style and I wish we had them in America. Their cheery green signs on the motorway always mean beautiful buffets filled with amazing produce, main courses like fresh salmon (grilled to order), schnitzels, pasta, just-squeezed fruit and vegetable juices, intriguing salads and sides, an on-site bakery, espresso and desserts.
Plus you’ll usually find a shop as well as clean and sophisticated restrooms and more, depending on the specific location. (Bring a euro coin with you to the loo – you have to pay for this awesomeness. But when you buy something in the restaurant or shop, they refund your coin.
They even an online planner, so that you can route your trip via Marché stops. It is so worth it. Here’s the link: Marché Trip Planner.
If you’re driving in Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia or Norway. don’t miss your chance! Really. Just drive. Stop. And repeat.
4. That Time My Husband Ordered Three Desserts
Yes. This happened. In Bergamo, Italy at a restaurant called Il Pianone. We sat at the top of the mountain, outside under a canopy with a large group of amusing colleagues.
I’m not sure if it was the fresh air, the gregarious company or just the energy that comes from being in a beautiful place with people you like — but something caused my husband to start ordering desserts, one after another at the end of the meal. When he had scraped one plate clean, he happily ordered something new, much to the bemusement of the waiters – and our friends. He might have kept on after three, but someone (me? maybe?) talked him out of it. And mind you, this was after a full-course Italian meal!
Il Pianone has great food, perfect service and spectacular views. It’s definitely worth a trip if you’re in Bergamo. But for us, it will always be the place that started a running joke about my husband’s sweet tooth.
5. That Amazing 5-Hour Dinner in Switzerland
As we pondered our list over dinner, suddenly Mr. H and I both had the same thought at the same time. “Schauenstein!”
How could this amazing place not make the list? How had we managed not to make it first, in fact? The evening we spent here was a crazy, gastronomic, food-as-art experience in a castle in the foothills of the Alps. Decadent and mesmerizing and unique. Yes. It HAD to be on the list.
Our Swiss friends had made reservations at the infamous Schloss Schauenstein several months in advance of our arrival. We were lucky to get in at all. There’s not much else in the area, so the estate is also a boutique hotel which only has about three rooms.
Using the word “meal” is much too banal to describe the experience here.
At Schauenstein, you move from the dark paneled library to the Euro-modern dining room to the baroque bar, while being served tiny bites of the most exquisite food, presented in uniquely creative ways.
Three tiny peas of various sizes with a curled pea pod, a pop of pea sprouts, a morsel of delicate lobster and a bubbly lobster foam, for instance. Foie gras, fresh mint, quail egg on two bites of frisee, venison, corn ice cream, cheeses…each plate an exotic combination of amuse bouche and tasting menu.
You choose four, six or eight courses, but the actual menu items are left up to the chef to decide each night. The menu changes, depending on his mood and the ingredients he selects, and you eat (joyfully) whatever appears before you. There are an additional four or five courses which arrive unexpectedly, in addition to the ones you order.
At first, we were sure we could never feel satisfied. The beautiful, tiny bites of food were lovely, but we were sure we’d leave hungry. But after about five hours of perfectly orchestrated food performance art, we couldn’t have been happier.
Schauenstein has three stars in the Michelin Guide and frankly is more memorable than the one four star restaurant I’ve visited (and won’t name). Schauenstein is consistently ranked as one of the Top 50 Restaurants in the World by S.Pelegrino and for good reason. It’s also a pricey place – I’d say the most we’ve ever spent on a dinner out – and it is always booked months in advance. But the experience is one we will always remember.
If you are interested in more information about any of the places we visited, just click on the relevant photo above. Each links back to one of my favorite foodie travel experiences.