(Warning: this is not to be read over breakfast.)
We’re getting ready to go to Europe which, for a person who hasn’t had a foreign language course since ... well, since Europe decided to be polite to tourists, produces some perils.
We were in Siena, Italy, and ordered a pepperoni pizza. That’s what we got: a pizza covered with red peppers. Had any of us tasted it, you could have felt the flames in Florence.
In Paris, I thought I was getting sausage for breakfast. It was, yes indeed — goat sausage.
In Greece, we found that “seafood” isn’t just pretty fish — sometimes it comes with suction cups attached, too.
(The perils of the Orient are well-documented so I won’t tell you about leaving the restaurant in Bangkok and looking in the trash and seeing the severed heads of ...)
Soon, Spain will be the order of business and, going in, there’s an advantage here: four years of high school Spanish, two years of college Spanish and lots of years of living in a state where Spanish is no worse than the second language.
We are landing in Madrid and then (refer to your map, please,) taking a train to Seville, where we pick up a car and make a swing through Jerez, Ronda, Gibraltar, Granada, Valencia and Barcelona. Gibraltar is a British colony, so no problems there (i.e., we’ll eat lousy food, but it least we’ll know what it is,) but the rest is up to us and our understanding of the menu.
It is a dangerous road. Spain isn’t South Georgia and they serve things over there which they like, whether Americans do or not.
I found a website titled Gross National Products, which turned out to be a message board where American travelers warn others about European not-to-eats.
Here are samples:
• “In the Basque country of Spain, be careful: you can get lamprey eel cooked in its own blood or grilled alive and squirming.”
• “There is a huge covered produce market (in Barcelona.) I saw numerous types of tripe, livers, kidneys, skinned rabbits and chicken with heads and eyes still intact. You can tell the freshness by the eyes — once they start to go milky they’re not fresh! It’s interesting to see food how it looks before all the processing and packaging.”
• “Beware of street vendors selling hot dogs in Madrid. Many use ... try not to gag ... hog penises as a major part of the frank.”
• “I’d be willing to try donkey stew, which they serve in parts of Spain.”
(This person adds a most unpleasant thought: “Unlike cattle, horses and donkeys do not stand there grazing right where they urinate and defecate.”)
So, the key to survival is the menu. If we can handle this, we can avoid unpleasant dishes (they even serve barnacles — “percebes” — on the coast,) and I thought that I had studied enough to become reasonably adept at guidebook Spanish.
“Carne.” “Pollo.” “Pescado.” Not bad, eh? Hey, I know the difference between “cerveza” and “cabeza,” too!
Not good. I found out the hard way: I was in Tampa and went to lunch at the Columbia restaurant in Ybor City. This is authentic as it gets in Florida (no, NOT Miami — we aren’t going to Cuba or Nicaragua) and might provide a reasonable test.
(An aside: the Columbia appears authentic, though I’ve always felt the Gonzmart family knows that it can’t make it on the locals and needs the turistas, which means it can’t be really authentic or else few would return.
(For instance, the waiters are imperious, speaking a combination English-Spanish — “Si, it is good” — that surely is right out of Central Casting, but somehow one feels that their roots are deeper in Polk County than the Old Country.)
But the menu. Trouble lies ahead, because just knowing Carne, Pollo and Pescado won’t cut it.
Caldo Gallego? Fiduea de Marisos? Palomilla? Picadillo? Not in the guidebook or my head. They didn’t teach that back at Asheville School or Carolina.
The challenge is ahead. New words to learn. If I can’t tell “donkey” from “steak,” I’ll get what I deserve. If I think “pulpo” is a citrus drink, then I deserve the plate of tentacles I’ll get.
Others have found out the very hard way so, before we leave you this week, here are some other offerings from that website in case you’re thinking of heading over:
• “I was traveling through France with my shy, cautious, non-French-speaking 13- year-old daughter. My job was to protect her from accidentally eating snails or their ilk. At the Chateau de Chissay, a very nice hotel near Chenconceau, I ordered ‘riz d’agneaux’ for her, thinking it meant ‘rice and lamb.’ The waiter looked puzzled, and then I remembered....It means ‘rice OF the lamb.’ As in ‘Thymus of the Lamb.’ I changed the order to plain white pasta with Parmesan cheese.”
• “Lutefisk and haggis...every European country seems to have its food of penitence. These edible traditions are kept alive by the old folks so the young ones won’t forget their suffering.”
• “How about good old Scotch Eggs? My auntie served these to me when we visited her in England a few years back. Hard-boiled egg, wrapped in sausage, deep fried, sliced, and served COLD. My fiance refers to them as ‘medieval Egg McMuffins’.”
• “On our last trip to Poland we stayed with friends in a small village west of Krakow. When it came time for dinner, she prepared a local specialty for us. Spaghetti with a creamed strawberry sauce.”
• “We were in Piacenza, Italy visiting our Italian relatives for the first time. They took us out to a restaurant that served Piacenzan cuisine, with the main course being ‘stracotto d’asino’ — donkey meat stew! It turned out to be good, I thought, but it didn’t help when my cousin mistakenly said ‘monkey’ instead of ‘donkey’ after being asked what it was.”
• “In Frankfurt, I tried handkase, a small wheel of cheese that has been pickled in vinegar and is served with rye bread and sliced onions. It was interesting how the flavor changed with each chew, going from mildly funky provolone flavor to full-on moldy sweatsock.”
• “My wife and I decided to enjoy a special evening in Vienna. We got a local favorite by accident: Calf’s Brain on Spinach. McDonald’s never looked so good.”
• “At Augustinerbrau in Munich, I saw the most unusual-looking food: mackerel on a stick. It was the entire fish (head, eyes, and all), on a stick, like some weird popsicle.”
• “After a day of driving and sightseeing in the French countryside, my wife — who is not very food-adventurous — and I stopped to eat. Her mastery of the French language failed her and she ordered cow tongue. Not bad with a bottle of Cote du Rhone.”
• “A warning when buying sandwich items in Switzerland: salami is sometimes made out of horse meat. Luckily, my husband’s high school French came back to him just before we opened a package of it to put on our sandwiches. Yikes! Stay away from ‘chevaul’ listed on the package.”
• “For truly awful, nobody can beat ‘rotted shark’ in Iceland. When you are served, it is still frozen. The waiter told us ‘it has to be or it will stink up the kitchen’.”
• “On our recent trip to Turkey, our driver/guide tried to point out local specialties. In Kars, in eastern Turkey, it turned out to be what looked to be dried skulls — in fact, they were precooked sheeps’ heads lined up on the counter as you entered the cafe. The waiter would take your selection to the kitchen, split it in half and rearrange the contents.”
• “On a flight on Alisarda Airlines (the airline of Sardinia,) I was served a dish of unknown origin. It was jet black, waxy (looked as if it was a can of black Kiwi shoe polish dumped on a plate and chopped up,) served room temperature. It had no discernible taste. Wasn’t good enough to eat (or enjoy,) wasn’t bad enough to gag, just kinda wasn’t anything. At the time, my Italian was less than good, so I couldn’t even ask what it was. In retrospect, I know it wasn’t made from squid’s ink, and even though I own over 500 cookbooks, I still have no idea what it was.”
• • •
I suspect we’ll survive Spain, though there surely will be a stomach lining or a cloven hoof along the way.
By the way, I mentioned all this to an Oriental friend.
His reply: “If you think this is bad, you should hear us talking about Big Macs.”
— Fred Seely is the editorial director of the Daily Record. He can be contacted at [email protected] and welcomes your tales of trying to eat elsewhere.