Our European Odyssey

This blog covered our month-long trip to Eastern Europe -- specifically the countries of Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria and Slovakia.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Food Differences

As you may know, here in the Mongler household, food comes before everything else, so it is no surprise that when we travel, food (and eating well) is a chief concern. Therefore, we couldn't help but notice some cultural differences between American eating and Eastern European eating, whether we were enjoying a grocery store feast or a restaurant supper.

The primary difference was the abundance of cheap, good bread in the countries we visited. We enjoyed good rolls that cost somewhere between 10 and 25 cents each. In grocery stores, they were fresh-baked daily and put in large tubs. Several times, we arrived just as they were replenishing the supply, so we were able to snag hot-out-of-the-oven rolls. Mmmm mmmm.

Because of this, our breakfast was usually of the European style -- a sandwich made from a roll and filled with some combination of veggies, meat, cheese and a spread. It was excellent and a very easy meal to make and eat on a train or park bench. For dessert (yes, we had dessert at breakfast sometimes), we would spread some Nutella on a roll. Nutella, a chocolate-hazelnut spread, is definitely a good thing. When we returned to the U.S., we brought five jars with us.

The other big difference we saw was the less processed nature of the food. As one of our hosts described it, "American food is plastic-y. It is meant to be shelf-stable and prepared quickly." Which we had to agree is true. The difference was most apparent in the produce. The produce at the markets there was brighter and fresher-looking and generally tasted better. The tomatoes all still had a bit of the vine. In Eger, we enjoyed the best strawberries we have ever had.

Sauerkraut was everywhere. In markets and grocery stores, we often saw 30-gallon wooden barrels full of sauerkraut with a long-handled spoon provided for scooping it out. Cabbage in general is very popular. If we saw salad on a menu, typically it was cabbage- and not lettuce-based.

Little pastry shops were ubiquitous there also. Generally, their prices were good, and their offerings were always gorgeous. Unfortunately, while the pastries looked great, they weren't as great-tasting. Like some of the meals we had in restaurants there, the pastries were bland. They weren't usually that sweet -- a quality we value in pastries.

Speaking of sweets, we were a bit disheartened by the method of ice cream cone preparation. In the U.S., when you order a cone, they make sure to fill the entire thing with ice cream before adding the scoop on top. In Eastern Europe, however, you get the scoop on top and nothing else. One of the saddest things in the world is getting to that usually desirable last bite of your ice cream cone and realizing it's nothing but cone.

The final differences we will mention are all restaurant differences. Items are generally a la carte; if you want a side dish, you have to order it separately. The weight of a dish is always given, which is helpful for figuring out how much to order. Condiments are usually absent from the meal. If you want ketchup or some other condiment, you will have to pay extra for a serving of it.

Salt and pepper were generally absent from the table even though many of the meals could have used more salt. If salt and pepper were provided, they weren't in shakers but in cellars.

While bread from grocery stores is cheap, bread is not given free at restaurants, as it is in the U.S. They might set a basket of it on the table, but if you eat some, then you will pay for it.

On the beverage front, there is no free tap water or free drink refills. However, with the exception of Austria, beer (and sometimes wine) was cheap -- even cheaper than water. In the Czech Republic, we enjoyed a pint of beer for about a buck with our meals.

Also, every drink seemed to have its respective glass. If you order Gambrinus beer or Naturpure water, it will be delivered in a Gambrinus glass or a Naturpure glass, respectively. The glasses were also marked with a line showing the correct level for the full serving. We guess that prevents the establishment from cheating its patrons out of that last bit of precious liquid.

Mmmm, cheap Czech beer...


At 12:11 PM, June 23, 2006, Blogger Nichole said...

A typical Dutch breakfast includes buttered bread topped with chocolate sprinkles. Woo-hoo!

I'm making mental notes as I read your good/bad postings. I'll be carrying my own salt and pepper shakers if we get to Eastern Europe.


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