Eating Our Way Through Europe
The very act of putting food into our mouths might just be the most significant commonality that humanity shares. People eat. And more than that, across the world, people enjoy eating. Food is more than just a means of survival. Every country has its own unique cuisine. And one of the first questions we often ask someone who has returned from a trip is, “How was the food?” It’s certainly a question we’ve been asked and one that we are very happy to talk about.
Europe has a significantly different approach to food than we do here in the U.S. What stood out for us - as we were eating our way around Portugal, Spain, and France - was how fresh, simple, and full of taste the food was compared to what we have experienced back in the states. The biggest difference - Europeans eat what’s in season. It’s easy to go to the markets and find beautiful, hand-picked fruits and vegetables, or fresh fish that was caught that very morning. In the U.S. we seem to value access over seasonality. I’ve been involved in the organic and natural foods industry most of my working career, and from my experience, we Americans expect all produce to be available all the time. This means that our food is often harvested well before it is ready. When produce is left to ripen on the vine it has more nutrients and flavor. It would not occur to most Europeans to eat a mealy tomato in the winter. They would simply wait for the right season and have a delicious, juicy, flavorful tomato at that time. Cooking with seasonal produce is often regarded by the best chefs in the world as the key to more flavorful meals.
What we saw in our travels is that the local farmers sell their products to local markets. They simply don’t have the large-scale farming system that produces food on a national level like we have in the states. As a result, they don’t have the added expense of shipping food across the country, and they don’t have the “middleman” buyers we have in the states, which also adds to the cost of our food.
Shoppers in Europe expect freshness and good taste and they won’t settle for less. They simply demand a higher quality food than do American consumers. This will come as no surprise, but Europe does not have the same set size and color requirements for produce that we have in the states - they care more about the quality and freshness of the food than how it looks. In the U.S., because of these set requirements for size and color, we end up throwing away tons of delicious food that doesn’t meet the pre-set standard appearance.
I’m about to state an unproven generalization, but I also feel like it’s an accurate and fair assessment... If you order a plate of spaghetti with sauce in Italy - with the very simple ingredients of pasta, tomatoes, basil, olive oil, and salt - most people will find the spaghetti much more flavorful than an order of spaghetti in the U.S. It’s not because of some secret ingredient or added flavor. The reason is simple. The tomatoes in the sauce have been carefully grown to produce the perfect ratio of sweetness to acidity, and taste nothing like the waterier tomatoes we often find in the states. The bottom line . . . tomatoes (along with so much other fresh produce) grown in the U.S. have been bred for yield, production, and disease resistance. The growers are not paid for flavor - they are paid for yield.
To further elaborate on this point . . . Harry Klee, a horticulture professor at the University of Florida, spent years developing a nutrient-dense tomato that also happens to taste great. More than 500 sensory panelists at the University of Florida declared it among the very best tomatoes they have tested— one of the most delicious tomatoes on the planet. It’s grown right here in the U.S., in Gainesville, Florida. This tomato, called the Garden Gem, is durable, with a great shelf life and track record of disease resistance — properties growers care about. But he’s been told the Garden Gem is a little too small (about a half or a third the size of your average supermarket tomato). So that means it’d require more labor to pick, and therefore a little more cost. And for this reason, we will not see this tomato available here in the U.S. This typifies the absurdity of choosing convenience, cost, and ease of production over flavor. But guess who’s buying his seeds? The Italians!
Along with flavor and quality, there were other differences that we noticed in our travels, and these had more to do with the culture of eating than the quality of the food. In every country we visited, people seemed to have a reverence for meals and sharing food with others. A wonderful example of this is what’s called Sobremesa. It’s the Spanish tradition of lounging for hours after dessert talking, drinking, and enjoying the moment. Most commonly, Sobremesa is enjoyed over a nice cup of coffee or a shot of digestive liqueur. It would be considered inhospitable to make a guest feel rushed after a meal, so the server only brings your check when you ask for it. The atmosphere is very relaxed compared to how we tend to order, eat, and leave in a span of an hour or so. The Spanish tend to value the food as much as the time set aside to spend with family and friends.
In much of Europe, food seems to be a “love language”. We found it both inspiring and delightful to observe the reverence and honor they had for their dining experience - not only for the food itself, but for those who were gathered to share the mealtime experience. Meals were a time for sharing joy, conversation, love, and of course, great food. There are many aspects of European culture that we would recommend embracing here at home in the U.S. - and the European food culture would certainly be very high on that list. Taking your time and enjoying a nice long flavorful meal with friends and loved ones, not only makes the food more digestible, but it also makes the problems and weariness of the day more digestible. Food is a beautiful love language. We should give it a try.