With just over 50 countries to choose from, Europe has always been at the top of many people’s travel bucket lists. The continent seems to offer something for everyone, whether it’s the long history stretching back to the Romans, Greeks and beyond, the incredible architecture, the number of jaw-dropping landscapes or the locals you’ll encounter along the journey.
While all of these are honourable temptations, there is another force that seems to drive trip purchases: food.
Much of Europe is already famous for the cuisine. There are the indulgent pastas and pizzas of Italy, the freshly made crepes and pastries of France, the waffles, beer and chocolate of Belgium and the seafood of the Greek Islands.
Although all of these countries deserve every bit of attention they’ve attracted, in this post, it’s time to focus on Europe’s foodie underdogs. Below are three countries that will not only impress you with their culinary scenes – but may even surprise you by surpassing the continent’s old-time favourites.
With its world-famous tapas and pintxos, Spain may seem like an odd inclusion on a list of Europe’s ‘surprising’ food destinations. This country has already been wowing travellers for decades, but most people seem to focus on the northern regions (think San Sebastian, Madrid and Barcelona) to get their fix of the bite-sized portions for which Spain is known.
To find something truly special, though, you’ll need to travel south.
Why? That’s because southern Spain, especially Andalucia, is the source of many of the country’s most popular ingredients. Not only is this region considered to be one of the world’s biggest olive oil producers, Andalucia is equally famed as the home of Spain’s most famous hams – Jamon Iberico and Jamon Serrano. One of the country’s biggest alcoholic exports, sherry, also has its start here, and the fact that the southern coast is a prime location for fresh seafood doesn’t hurt either.
With all of these ingredients at your fork-tips, your foodie tour of southern Spain should include Granada, Malaga, Cordoba and Seville.
It goes without saying that you’ll need to try the ham, but also look out for dishes like salmorejo (a refreshing cold tomato soup), any fish dish you can get your hands on, patatas bravas (potatoes served with a spicy tomato sauce) and finish off with torrijas (a sweet dish made with bread, syrup and cinnamon).
Whatever you do, don’t order all of your dishes at once. Instead, ask for one or two as the locals do, sip some sherry and embark on an evening of leisurely eating.
Since Croatia was once ruled or influenced by a long list of powers including the Venetians, Ottomans, Hungarians, Austrians and more, it’s not surprising that what you’ll find in modern Croatian cuisine is a unique reflection of the country’s diverse history.
When you look at a food menu in Croatia, it’ll feel like every dish could be from somewhere else. You’ll spot Italian staples of pasta and pizza, rich stews, seafood and soups, but all of these will feature a Croatian twist. To make it even more complex, each region in Croatia prides itself on having a speciality dish or two. But, in short, this only means that you’ll find a little bit of everything – and every flavour – in Croatian cuisine, with the additional benefit of being able to enjoy your meals in some of the most beautiful settings in Europe.
Whether you’re by the coast in Split or Zadar or in the awe-inspiring walled city of Dubrovnik, you’ll struggle to know what to do first: take photos of the location or eat the meal placed in front of you!
Some dishes you’ll need to look out for include cevapi (a skinless sausage best enjoyed in a pita or flatbread), grilled sardines, pasticada (a decadent beef stew from Dalmatia) or brudet (a slow-cooked fish dish). For dessert, grab a cup of doughnut-like fritule from a street vendor or track down some crunchy krostule from a bakery.
Let’s face it, British food does not have the best reputation. For the most part, it’s assumed that the country’s pubs and restaurants only serve stodgy stews and over-boiled vegetables, characterised by a general lack of seasoning.
If this is what you’ve been thinking too, it may just be time to change your mind about the UK’s culinary scene.
All over the UK, especially in the country’s biggest cities, there has been an upsurge of top-notch gastropubs, cafes and Michelin-starred restaurants all setting out to do the same thing: taking British cuisine to the next level.
You’ll still find all of the regional delicacies in the UK: fish and chips, scotch eggs and Chelsea buns from London, pork scratchings, balti and groaty pudding from Birmingham, Yorkshire pudding and pikelets from Leeds and rag pie or Manchester tart from Manchester. But what you’ll also find is that these traditional treats have been given a modern – or dare I say it, hipster – treatment, with tasty versions being served up at dining venues, market stalls, food festivals and pop-ups all over the country.
There’s extra appeal stemming from the fact that the UK is home to a vast numbers of cultures and nationalities, and it was only a matter of time before this melting pot of influences would begin to reflect on the food too.
So whether you’re keen on trying excellent British fare, twists on the classics or even authentic world cuisine, I guarantee that, somewhere in the aforementioned cities, you’ll be able to find a restaurant or vendor busy serving up exactly what you’re looking for.
Even after a short stay in the UK, you’ll soon realise that the British food scene is anything but boring.
While the travel trend may be to rely on the tried-and-tested foodie destinations in Europe, as evidenced above, there are plenty of other hidden gems – and their food scenes – just waiting to be discovered and devoured.
Kasha Dubaniewicz is a travel writer and photographer. Originally hailing from Cape Town, South Africa, she is currently living in London and travelling at every opportunity. Follow her adventures on her blog, Lines of Escape, or on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.