In Australia and on motorcycle tours in New Zealand, the US and Canada, as well as the UK, I eat because I am hungry. Things are different in continental Europe. Here, I eat to enjoy the food. I do not eat more, though I may eat small amounts more often, but I definitely eat for a different reason.
Oh ho, I hear you muttering. A food snob! Continental la-di-da eight course meals in Michelin-starred restaurants, with starched tablecloths and obsequious waiters. We know your type!
Not so. While I have eaten in Michelin-starred restaurants, that is not what I mean. For a start I can only afford to eat in such a place about once every couple of years, unless maybe it is at Hawker Chan, a street-food vendor in Singapore, which sells the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred meal: a chicken-and-rice dish that costs 3 Singapore dollars, or about US$2.25. But since Singapore is probably the dullest motorcycle destination in the world, I get there infrequently.
There are two things at which continental Europeans are better than the entire Anglophone world. The first is the quality of the ingredients or raw materials they grow, catch, make, or shoot. They take a great deal of care about this, and they have no choice. If you live in an Italian neighborhood, you will have seen the care with which Donna Casalinga examines every string bean before she selects it. You sell good produce, of every kind, or you sell nothing. This leads to respect for ingredients. Germany practically has a national holiday when it is asparagus season.
Second is the preparation, which is not only painstakingly careful, but also nearly infinitely variable. Take cassoulet which, when all is said and done, is just a bean stew. The recipes range from the Toulouse variation which begins with ham hocks to the more chicken-based ‘classic’ variety through as many alternatives as there are French housewives. Or so it seems.
This emphasis on variety is really a third advantage for continental cooks. Note that I say ‘cooks’; from dishes as simple as Italian nettle soup from Thiene to a highly complicated bouillabaisse concocted at La Ciotat (both of which I have had the pleasure of trying), everyday folk cook this stuff. What it amounts to is that wondrous thing: regional cuisine.
Don’t think that you are excluded from this when you are travelling by motorcycle. You can produce your own version of a local dish just by asking when you go to buy the ingredients. These days it is also easy enough to check with the cook’s chum, Mr Google although you may miss some small points.
To help you get your ingredients together, or even just to get some interesting-looking and tasty stuff to put on sandwiches, perhaps a fresh baguette filled with local cheese or charcuterie, consumed in one of those tiny parks you find all over Europe by the roadside, there are markets. These come in a bewildering variety.
Cities and even large towns will almost inevitably have a central market, usually in a large purpose-built hall which will be prominently identified. Large cities will also have smaller neighborhood markets. When Mrs Bear and I were staying in the Marais in Paris, we had a market just around the corner, with all the requisite stalls. A couple of vegetable and fruit stalls, one for eggs, one for cheese, one for charcuterie and meat and so on. What I really liked about doing the shopping there was that a small bar occupied one of the corners, and in the morning the workers would stop off there for a glass of Sancerre before beginning the day’s travails. Needless to say I joined them, and found that it indeed made the day brighter.
No, I don’t do it at home – for one thing, my local pub wouldn’t know a Sancerre if it bit their… ham.
If the place you are visiting is not large enough to have a permanent market, they will quite likely have a weekly one. This will consist of stands and white vans which have a flap opening to one side. What distinguishes a market from just someone selling apples is that there will be stalls for all the produce you could want. Often this will be a farmers’ market, with absolutely local offerings, but it will also offer foodstuff from further away, like fish if you’re inland.
Just a tip: my favorite markets are the Viktualienmark in Munich, despite its being a tourist attraction these days, and the covered market just off Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Both of them also have snack stands, which can blow you away with the quality of their food. Another excellent choice is the outdoor market along the Cours Saleya in Nice. The French National Council for the Culinary Arts has ranked the Cours Saleya as one of the country’s special markets, and who am I to argue with the FNCCA?
You have your produce and you have tips for what to do with it. How you prepare it is a subject for another post.
Just a quick disclaimer: naturally there are exceptions to the annoyingly general statement that began this post. Take the Cowboy Blues Restaurant in Escalante, Utah, which also happens to lie right beside Utah’s Highway 12, one of America’s best bike roads. I would ride a long way to once again sample their locally-caught and smoked trout fillet.
(Photos: The Bear and Uwe Krauss. Uwe’s photos are the good ones.)