“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” -J.R.R. Tolkien
One of our favorite things to do while we are traveling is to eat locally by cooking our own meals. More and more, we are staying at Airbnb or self-catering apartments that include a kitchen. When traveling with a family of four, it is often cheaper than two rooms at a hotel and we are usually staying in a real neighborhood rather than a tourist area.
We save money by making our own breakfasts in the morning. It tends to make our morning launch more relaxed. We eat in our pajamas, sleep a little longer, make as much coffee as we want. The apartment begins to feel a little more like our home away from home.
But the real fun thing for us to is to prepare nice evening meals with locally sourced food. We often try to prepare a regional dish and try to shop like the locals do. It is a really interesting activity to go to a city market or a local grocery store and try to find all the ingredients you need for a special meal. You will likely be surrounded by locals trying to do the same thing, and as pedestrian as grocery shopping my sound, you may find yourself totally out of your element shopping in a foreign country. Think how disorienting it can be to visit a new grocery store. Now compound that with foods you’ve never seen and everyone speaking another language. Just the other day we had a tough time finding eggs. We finally found them at the end of an isle of boxed foods. Europeans frequently do not refrigerate their eggs!
The local market is even more fun! In many parts of Europe, cities and towns have weekly street markets. Vendors travel from city to city selling everything from fresh produce, meats and cheeses, and fish to jeans, sweaters and underwear. It is a throwback to a time before department stores. Many of these towns heavily rely on the markets and they are a lot of fun. Unless you are close to a big city, you may be miles away from a supermarket or department store. You will not see a Wal-Mart. It is nice.
Once you’ve loaded up on your groceries, it’s back to the apartment to cook. This is a time to make lasting memories. Some of our most memorable meals are seafood paella in southern Spain, fresh pasta in the Provence region of France and most recently braised chicken here in Tuscany. None of the meals were perfect but the memories remain strong because of the challenges and the camaraderie involved in preparing and then sharing the meals together.
Often the kitchen can be as disorienting as the shopping experience. European kitchens tend to be much more “compact” than those in the US. Any directions on appliances will be in a foreign language, and some things you may take for granted-salt and pepper, large baking dishes, sharp knives-may be non-existent in your adopted kitchen. I will never understand the purpose of serrated chef’s knives, but we have found them time after time. It’s all part of the fun.
With the paella mentioned above we had no paella pan but we were in Spain! We went to a little market just a couple blocks from our apartment and picked out some seafood. Somewhere we found some saffron and chorizo was easy! We used the largest skillet we had and squeezed it in. It was probably the only skillet we had so we had to do everything in this one inadequate pan. It was a bit of a struggle but we had a blast and it was delish!
The pasta in Provence was a little less difficult. What made it memorable was the teeny picturesque town we stayed in had no store or bakery and we made it back to our renatl with no bread. We had however noticed a sign in town that said a pizza truck was coming for a visit that evening. So while Chelsea and I manned the kitchen, Betsy and David went down to the pizza truck the see if we could get them to cook us just a crust with maybe cheese and garlic. Betsy speaks French quite well but couldn’t exactly get the cook to understand what we were looking for. We didn’t get exactly what we wanted, but they came home with a white pizza to go with our pasta. Again, quite memorable and very tasty!
When we arrived here in Tuscany this week, Betsy and I hadn’t cooked a meal for ourselves in over a month. Chelsea is with us and we hit a grocery store on the way in to Montichiello-again a town too small to have a food store, bakery, or weekly market. Shopping with Chelsea is an experience in itself, but the girl knows what she wants. After a week in Piemonte we needed some lighter food. We decided on a simple green salad, faro and Romanesco cauliflower, and a roast chicken. All the chicken looked very nice and in recognizable packaging, but then Chelsea spied a blue-footed chicken. We knew it was blue-footed because it still had its feet…and head! When we got it home I realized that although it was de-feathered it had pretty much everything else. No neatly packed gizzards wrapped in paper inside the carcass. We also realized that even though the kitchen had a combo microwave/oven, we couldn’t figure out how to make the oven work. That’s how our roast chicken became a stovetop braised chicken!
When I cut the chicken into pieces (I couldn’t help but think of the “Christmas Story” when I cut off the head), I was surprised that there was no smell at all. It was amazing! I have never had a chicken this fresh.
Chelsea needed white wine for the braising liquid so I went down to a nice little wine bar we passed walking into town and in my best Italian asked for a bottle of white wine. It wasn’t perfect, but I got my point across. Unfortunately, they couldn’t sell me a bottle, but they sold me a glass…in a styrofoam cup…with a lid. Perfect, just what we needed. The meal was fabulous and a great way to spend the evening together.
When we rent a place like this, we cook in about every other night. That gives us plenty of time to sample the local restaurants for lunch and the alternate evenings. It is also a very special way to understand the culture and feel more like a local.
Are you planning a trip somewhere in Europe? We can help with that! Remember that we are always available to you and your friends and family for custom trip planning to Italy, France, Ireland, England and all of Europe. We also still have spots available on our small group trip to Tuscany and our small group trip to Piedmont! We'd love for you to join us! You can always reach Betsy at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to help you make your travel dreams to Europe come true!