Our tips include: bring goggles.
When it comes to a continent as culturally varied as Europe, you can bet the farm—and all of the good things to eat on the farm—that European gastronomic traditions are incredibly varied as well. And once epicurean adventurers decide to dive into the world of European cuisine, chances are their preconceptions of “good food” will be challenged from time to time. If you’re willing to challenge your ability to down all kinds of interesting (we’re using that adjective euphemistically here) fare, here are 10 unusual European foods to consider—and perhaps dig into if you’re feeling curious or brave.
Landlocked Czechia isn’t famous for its fish or seafood, of course, but come Christmastime, plenty of Czechs (and Slovaks) chow down on “fresh” carp. Fresh in the sense that this river fish is kept alive in huge plastic barrels of water on street corners, and then sold and brought home to swim around the family’s bathtub (as a kind of household “pet”) for several days until it comes time meet its fishy maker.
If you’re accustomed to the taste of saltwater fish, carp can take some getting used to, although it’ll likely be the freshest fish you’ll get your hands on while in the Czechia.
INSIDER TIPIf you don’t want to dispatch the carp yourself, you can have the vendor butcher it for you barrel-side, right there on the street.
While the concept of blood soup isn’t unique to Germany, Schwarzsauer, with its savory flavor, is. Made with lots of pig’s blood (or black pudding), goose giblets, and vinegar, as well as cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, and other spices, this specialty from northern Germany is the stuff of vegan nightmares—although vampires, if they existed, would go gaga over it. The good news is that one hearty bowl of Schwarzsauer will take care of your protein needs for the rest of the day. The bad news is that the strong flavor (and aroma) isn’t something that appeals to everybody.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. And when in Romania, do as the Romanians do. That might mean tucking into some local cuisine and trying creier pane. We’d say this culinary idea is a “no-brainer,” but in the case of creier pane, a heaping portion of brains are involved. This Romanian dish consists of boiled pig (or calf) brains, which are coated with flour, eggs, and breadcrumbs, and then fried to golden perfection. They can be served with veggies on the side or a big pile of French fries.
Arroz de Cabidela
In the world of bloody gastronomic delights, Portugal offers up cabidela rice. Basically, this is a big bowl of chicken or rabbit with rice, drenched in vinegar and the blood of the animal being served. Arroz de cabidela is a hearty dish that comes in different regional variations in Portugal and Brazil.
INSIDER TIPArroz de cabidela is best when prepared with a freshly slaughtered chicken (and hence fresh blood), which hasn’t fled from its mortal plane of existence for more than a day or two.
Any list about unusual European foods should include that old Scottish standby, haggis. Scotland’s national dish is made of meaty pudding filled with sheep liver, heart, lungs and other organs mixed with oats and beef, and then spiced up with cayenne pepper, onions, and salt before being stuffed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled.
Haggis doesn’t deserve the odd reception it often receives internationally, or by first-time visitors to Scotland. Sure, it doesn’t look like an ornate rose sitting there on your plate next to some mashed up turnip and potatoes, but it’s incredibly stout fare for stout people living in a rugged country.
Angulas Baby Eels
If you like zesty, squirmy things to eat, you’ll probably fall in love with angulas (also known as elvers). This Basque dish, which is served up as pinchos (tapas in northern Spain) consists of baby river eels. Actually, the eels are “adolescents,” but still relatively young and small (two or three inches in length). True angulas are harvested from Spanish rivers before the eels have a chance to make it to the ocean.
INSIDER TIPAngulas are very expensive, which is why you might be served fake angulas (gulas) instead, which are made from fish but can be pretty tasty as well.
Yes, the French eat frogs’ legs. But since the rest of the world seems to have no qualms about dissecting frogs in anatomy classes, why shouldn’t folks be able to dine on these green critters too? And if you do jump into the world of Cuisses de Grenouilles, you can choose from lightly fried frogs’ legs, the classic deep-fried frogs’ legs, pasta stuffed with frogs’ legs, sautéed frogs’ legs, and plenty of other variations on this amphibian-based cuisine. And of course, people in the know just might tell you that frogs’ legs taste similar to … you guessed it: chicken.
WHERE: Sardinia, Italy
While European Union food relegations have officially made casu marzu (Sardinian “maggot” cheese) illegal, that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to find it if you go looking. On the island of Sardinia, you can still sample this larvae–infused uber-fermented pecorino cheese if you ask around. It’s very soft, and some think very delicious—but there’s no denying the fact that casu marzu is also infested with living maggots (they should be living when you bite into it).
INSIDER TIPBring goggles if you find a clandestine operation willing to serve it to you in Sardinia, as the maggots tend to jump around, and you don’t want any of them bouncing off your eyeballs.
Fermented hákarl shark meat isn’t for everyone, although this traditional method for preparing Greenland shark has plenty of diehard fans. Once the shark has been caught and dispatched, the carcass is buried under gravel and stones for a few months. It’s then uncovered and hung to dry for a couple more months. The end result is a pungent fermented meat (Iceland’s national dish, in fact). If you can get past the powerful aroma, you might actually enjoy it … or maybe not. That all depends on the fortitude and willingness of your stomach.
Canned Bear and Reindeer
In Finland, you can eat processed reindeer or bear coming straight out of a can, which isn’t all that dissimilar from snacking on canned tuna. With plenty of game in the cold reaches of Finland, it stands that there’ll be a fair amount of game meat to go around. And if it can’t all be grilled or roasted, why not can some of it? When you want your meat from a tin, and you’ve had your fill of tuna or spam, bear or reindeer (not the magical, flying kind, hopefully) can work as a spread for your bread, or a protein source to plop into a thick stew.
INSIDER TIPReindeer meat is extremely popular in Finland. Sometimes it has to be imported from Russia to meet local demands, which means you might actually be eating Russian rather than Finnish reindeer on occasion.