Archive: Gross Traditional Edibles
For many travelers, Europe's biggest draw is the exciting cuisine: fresh pasta, pesto, and gelato in Italy; lovingly prepared fine French cuisine; a properly drawn Guinness in an Irish pub; or a hearty, steaming Swiss Rösti with bratwurst at 10,000 feet. But not all of the new tastes we discover in Europe are quite so appetizing. Here is a distillation of traditional European foods that our readers wish they could forget, distilled from a 40-page collection of tips submitted to our online Graffiti Wall from 1998-2003. For the complete and unabridged conversation, visit our previous archive.
I read that marmite is one of the carriers of bubonic plague. Yikes.
Newport, RI USA 02/03/04
[Editor's note: While those who have tasted marmite, a British sandwich spread made of yeast, might easily believe it could cause death, rest assured that the actual carrier of disease is that cute, furry little rodent: the marmot, also known as the groundhog. Happy Groundhog's Day!]
Hakarl & Marmite
I love to try foods and no few mentioned here are among those I've tried. Many I like, or at least eat out of nostalgia on returns. Two, down in the "distillation" are special though. Neither are on my personal menu as favorites. Hakarl, the Icelandic decomposed shark, was on my list to try the second time I was in Iceland. It looked interesting, somewhat like a Stilton gone really green (love Stilton!) and far over age — sort of green gray shot through with pale yellow. First bite was a flashback. Right into high school chemestry lab with the hood not taking the hydrogen sulfide out fast enough. Did clean the sinus! Finished, but I class it as "interesting" rather than a food.
By special request I brought
Marmite home for my British cousin-in-law. It was a ceremony and I had
to have my taste. Another flashback to about 1944 running away from a
spoon of some sort of dark liquid the doctor had prescribed and being
caught on the back porch — the taste was horrible! For me that yeast residue
or extract was medicine. For my cousin, evacuated from the bombing, it
was food! It is all in the memories. I cringe when I see people from the
U.S. inhabiting the known fast food chains and "safe" (meaning nothing
unusual) eating places. Many of my best memories of decades of travel
are of foods. All too many I'll probably never have again. People not
trying will miss a lot.
Fairfax, VA USA 12/26/03
Here in Germany, there are LOTS of gross things to eat that are surprisingly tasty. My favorite is a schwabish (south Germany) dish that is made of stomach lining from a cow (yummy!) There is also bloodwurst, which is what it means- congealed blood with solidified fat- it's popular with old men and poor tourists who think it's just another sausage! Pig ankle, and pig feet served with saurkraut are also popular. There is also "mystery sausage" you can buy at a local metzger (butcher) and while tasty- can contain ANYTHING from brain to bowel.
Eastern European Food
In 1998 I visited Eastern Europe, specifically Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw. Being a mushroom hater I was completely won over by a delicious meal I had in Warsaw consisting of Mushroom soup — there were real fungi in that soup; Bigos (a hunter's stew that was very delicious) and traditional pachki. Gastonomically, this was one enlightening trip. Try it!
Muncie, IN USA 12/10/03
Carne di Asino
While visiting the city of Mantova, south of Verona, last year to see a special exhibition of the Gonzaga Collection, we went to a local restaurant to discover that the Mantova area is known for 2 special dishes, ravioloi stuffed with pumpkin and carne di asino (donkey meat). This restaurant served both of them.
I asked our 7 year old if he wanted the pasta with "carne di asino" sauce and he asked what it was. When I told him it was donkey meat, he had to have some. I told him if he was brave enough to try it, I would also. We both ordered and ate a dish and it was actually quite good. The taste was very similar to cinghiale (wild boar) sauce from the Toscana region, which is one of my favorites in Italy. Also one of my son's favorite pizzas is one with shredded, smoked horsemeat, grana and rucola, so he must have something about things in the horse family.
Other Italian foods that he likes that most other kids,
even Italian ones, find gross is gorgonzola cheese, proscuitto crudo,
mixed seafood pasta or salad (he partcularly likes the octopus tentacles)
and artichokes. I guess we should be thankful that he enjoys trying "weird"
stuff (for a kid) rather than turning his nose up at anything that's a
little different like most kids do. It sure makes it easier to travel
Another Bad London Chippie
Another traditional chippie shop in London is Seasons, on Gloucester Road a block from the Tube station. Very bad and greasy; avoid at all cost. I rather just pop into a pub for chips.
Bad London Chippie
It was gross, it was traditional, but hardly edible! We stopped at a "hole-in-the-wall" fish and chips shop across from the Earls Court Tube Station in London for "traditional" fish and chips. Don't waste your time, it was the worst fried food I've ever had! It deserves the "Greasy Spoon Award."! I don't think they have ever changed their oil in the frying vat. Don't put your health at risk while traveling.
Almere, NL 10/18/03
The "Horse Sh*t Balls" [asked about in July 2 post] are indeed a chocolate cake desert, shaped like what they are named for. Our kids got a big kick out of eating them and they were very good.
More on the Ukraine
In response to comments about the foods of the Ukraine, you should have tried the pork fat. It is like bacon without any of the meat part. Served cold with pickles and (of course) cold vodka. A company in Kiev makes a delicious packaged snack: pork fat dipped in chocolate!
seaford, ny USA 09/27/03
matjes herring and salt rice
About the comments on matjes herring in Scandinavia and salt licorice: I miss then both to the nth degree. The matjes herring is not raw, it is cooked by marinating as is ceviche. The salt licorice ( salmiak, salmiakki) is an delicious form of licorice that is almost addictive.
smithville, tx USA 09/27/03
Irish "Puddings" and more
While in Ireland, we ate the black and white puddings (blood puddings) that are served with a complete Irish breakfast. Ummm, not good. They were small, disk-shaped portions with oats or barley or something keeping it together. It had a very strong flavor and was thick. I am not picky and hate people who refuse to try anything that looks a little odd, but, the pudding was definitely not something I would eat again. Also, oysters in the Dingle Peninsula....actually any oyster...HOW can people eat those?? Yuck. We also had some bacon that our friends in Cork made. They said it was supposed to be more like the American style that we have. In the end, it turned out to be waaay too salty and had the thick rind on it that you would almost break your teeth on to chew! I much preferred the ham-like bacon that was served in Ireland.
St. Clair Shores, MI USA 09/23/03
One of our travelling party in Madrid was of mexican descent, so when we saw a sign for "mexican" tapas we had to try it out. We were served tortillas with cheese and something black on top. Lupe, who is fluent in spanish, asks what it was three times and could not understand what the waiter said. Needless to say it tasted like foul dirt that was wet and fetid. We preceded to laugh about the "cooch", which is the name we gleaned from the waiter, for the rest of the trip. When we got home Lupe "googled" it and found ... huitlacoche (wheat-lah-KOH-chay). It's corn that's been infected by smut that becomes bloated and black and rotten. When in Spain, do as the Spanish do (or eat)!
Chicago, IL USA 09/03/03
Haggis Not So Bad
When I visited Scotland this April, I was determined to try haggis. It was my third trip and I had yet to try this supposedly gross dish. I figured I owed it to my Scottish ancestors to at least try it. My chance came while eating dinner at a very charming pub on Edinburgh's Royal Mile called The Royal McGregor. They offered chicken stuffed with haggis which waa a great idea — if I hated the haggis I could still eat the chicken part. After all I've heard about horrible haggis — you'd think it's be one of the things they make people eat on Survivor or Fear Factor — it tasted like ordinary breakfast sausgage. No problem! It doesn't really deserve the bad rap it gets.
L.A., CA USA 08/18/03
While living in Ukraine for two years, I got to sample a wide variety of scary foods. For Christmas, New Year's, or possibly Easter you may expect holodets — a runny gray aspic (gelatin) made by boiling a hog's head (and perhaps trotters) for twelve hours, then refrigerating the scum from the top. It's not as bad as you think; a big bite of bread or another dish, and you won't even know it's there. I also celebrated one Christmas with a beef slaughterer and his family, and there had a sausage (whose name I didn't catch) filled with slippery dark red blood and whole buckwheat. Solyanka is a soup with a meat-based broth, lemon, whole olives, and chopped pickles — quirky, but rather enjoyable — that I discovered by ordering random unkown foods in a cafe.
I spent time in Spain last summer and the food was absolutely amazing except for one thing — morcilla. It is a Spanish blood sausage, and it looks and tastes absolutely awful! It looks black, and when you cut into it, it's a brownish mush. I had to at least taste it at my host brother's urging "Come on, don't be like that, you have to try it!" and after I did, I vowed never to do so again.
Montgomery, AL USA 08/04/03
We were in Brussels recently (July, 2003) and while we were in the town square in the old town area, we saw a cart with a French woman selling escargots (snails). They were prepared in a broth with carrots, celery, and lots of black pepper. They were extremely fresh and tasted like steamed clams. I've had them prepared other ways, but this simple preparation was absolutely a delight!!
Williamsville, NY USA 07/26/03
Has anyone tried the sausage called "andouillette" in a Paris bistro? Its stink precedes its arrival at the table. I thought that I was being brave to try the pork chitterling (intestines) sausage, but I could only eat 2 bites drowned in dijon mustard before giving up!
Arlington, VA USA 07/26/03
I have eaten blood sausage, sheep's brains, and misht (an egyptian
peasant cheese that is best left undescribed) but by far, the most disgusting
food I have eaten was as a kid growing up in Middle America. My mom is Italian-American,
so we always had good food at home, but food eaten at my friends' houses,
and of course, school lunches, were another story. Fried spam, canned Chef
Boyardee ravioli, casseroles made from condensed cream of mushroom soup,
sliced hot dogs, noodles, and canned peas, those horrible little canned
vienna sausages, wonder bread served on a plate covered by greasy brown
gravy, need I go on?
Eugene, OR USA 07/10/03
Not those balls....
While in Greece years ago, old "I'll try almost anything, once" shared a popular meze (appetizer). The Greek name escapes me, but it was bull testicles.Essentially, they were chewy and tasteless.. nothing a little ouzo couldn't cure.
Dallas, TX USA 07/07/03
Mystery Dessert in Gimmelwald?
When my boyfriend and I hiked down to Gimmelwald from Murren, we saw on a menu outside a restaurant "horse sh*t balls" listed as one of the specials but of course the place was closed so we could not go inside to ask. We assume that it must be some kind of chocolate concoction, but do not know for sure.
Boulder, CO USA 07/02/03
We just spent two weeks in Greece and tried almost everything ugly we could find. I had some real trouble with the octopus. It is usually grilled over an open fire. At some places it was really salty and others more smoky. You can view the fresh catch drying in the sun all over in the afternoon. My husband really enjoyed it. I just couldn't get over the look of it. But do try it. The best octopus was made by an aunt of a friend. She fried it like chicken. I think I have transplanted in my husbands dreams by some fried octopus. Do give it a try while in Greece.
Belleville, MI USA 06/05/03
The escargot or the beef brawn?
In Lyon, we found a good restaurant where I could be adventurous and try escargot. My son had no interest in anything so weird, and wondered about the salad with "beef brawn" on the menu. I told him that was probably a typo for brown beef, and must mean browned beef. That sounded safe, so he ordered it. The food came and I raved so much about the escargot that my son decided to give them a try; then he wanted another one, then another. So the experiment was a big hit.
On the other hand, the safe choice of the salad was causing a little
queasiness; my son found a hair in the salad, then saw that there were
little pieces of hair all over it. He was a good sport, and just pushed
the meat out of the way because the lettuce itself didn't seem to have
any hair in it, but when the waiter came by I told him discretely that
there seemed to be hair in the salad. He beamed and said "Yes, hair, beef
brawn." I looked confused and he called over a waitress who apparently
spoke more English than he did. She explained, "beef brawn, nose, lining
of the nose," as she pointed to her own nostrils! My son is 11 and I have
to say I am proud of the restraint and respect he exhibited at the revelation
that he'd been eating the nose of a cow, complete with mucus membrane
and nose hairs. After that, we noticed beef brawn on the menu at other
places in France and also in Germany, so it must be fairly popular. If
you want to try it, go ahead, just so you know what you're trying.
WA USA 05/25/03
Distillation: Gross Traditional Edibles
It may seem tame, but beware of chicken soup in Budapest, Hungary. It came as one big pot for the table, and consisted of a nearly whole chicken. (I don't think the head made it in.) I was trying to discreetly eat around the unidentified organs floating in it (hey, I don't like the gizzards) when I spooned up a foot. Our hosts all smiled — it's good luck to get a foot in your bowl. I was expected to suck the skin off the toes, but I just couldn't. My Dad saved face for the family and ate it. Ugh.
The thing I remember most vividly about the Scottish drink Irn-Bru (aside from the radioactive traffic cone color and orange-bubblegum taste) is the warning on the label: "If it spills, it will stain." Irn-Bru is like Big Red from hell. Were I not far too suave and debonair, I'd have spit my big, thirsty, curious gulp of the inexplicably number-one-selling soda all over Edinburgh. Nonetheless, it's a memory I'll never lose. Unfortunately.
When I was last in Ireland, but I distinctly remember my shock and horror when I ate a "chip" dipped in ketchup that was SWEET! It was as if they had added WAY too much brown sugar to the ketchup. It grew on me, but man, talk about taste bud shock!
The last time I was in Austria, I had the vegetarian option for dinner at my hotel. One night, it was baked celery. I don't know if it's local to Austria, but it must be. I don't know of anywhere else on Earth where celery is as thick as the palm of my hand. Maybe it grew in the fields next to the nuclear power plant we passed by. Either way, I was too weirded out to eat it.
How about good old Scotch Eggs? My auntie served these to me when we visited her in Colchester, England a few years back. Hard-boiled egg, wrapped in sausage, deep fried, sliced, and served COLD. My fiancé calls them "medieval Egg McMuffins".
Marmite in Britain must be an acquired taste because, to me, it tasted like I was licking the bottom of a shoe.
If you go into a Fish-and-Chips shop in most parts of Scotland, you'll find they deep-fry an unusual number of things. They'll take already-cooked pizza and drop it into the fat fryer. The crowning glory has to be the deep-fried Mars bar. I'm not making this up.
I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the Pulpo de Gallega from Spain yet! It is sliced octopus legs, fried and seasoned — I'm so glad I suspended my vegetarianism to try it. Strangely enough, it has the texture of dark turkey meat, and tastes vaguely of bacon. The suction cups are fully cooked, and not even slightly slimy. One warning, though: it is quite rich and a bit greasy, so plan on sharing your pincho worth of pulpo!
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's the German ploughman's lunch. My boyfriend's uncle tried to warn me away from it, but I really wanted to give it a shot. It was interesting how the flavor changed with each chew, going from mildly funky provolone flavor to full-on moldy sweatsock. I'm glad I had it once, and once was enough!
Iceland has a favorite treat called "buried" or "rotted" shark, which is exactly what the name says. It is buried raw, and after several years it's dug up and eaten while quaffing a violent drink called Black Death. This supposedly numbs one to the odor of the shark. It's usually still frozen when they serve it. The waiter told us, "it has to be — or it will stink up the kitchen."
Whale steak in Bergen, Norway. Remember, it's a mammal — there's nothing fishy about this critter. Looks like a medium-rare filet of fine lean beef. Tastes a little stronger, more like buffalo.
Here's a gross edible that I find quite tasty: eating a whole mozzarella ball from an Italian grocery store. It's pretty refreshing if you don't want to have ice cream.
God bless the Irish people, but their blood pudding and white-and-black pudding were so hair-raisingly gross that I couldn't believe anyone ever acquired a taste for them.
Many years ago, 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), and served at room temperature. It had no discernable taste. Wasn't good enough to eat (or enjoy), wasn't bad enough to gag, just kinda wasn't anything.
My husband and I couldn't leave Scotland without at least trying haggis. We were in a portside cafe on the Isle of Mull which offered haggis as an appetizer, so we figured we'd order one portion to share. The aroma reached us before the plate did. We looked at each other across the table in shock, broke into huge grins, and simultaneously exclaimed, "Chopped liver!" (If you're not Jewish, let me explain that chopped chicken liver is a traditional, much-loved Jewish dish.) When the waitress saw with what delight we fell upon the haggis (we immediately ordered a second portion!), she said (in a heavy Scots accent), "Ah, ye must have it the Scots way, wi' a wee dram!" and she dribbled a little Scotch over the haggis.
The idea of French fries and mayonnaise grew on me after two trips to Amsterdam and Belgium. The mayo is usually different from the bland, Hellmann's-type mayo in the states — it's more flavorful, usually with some garlic; and sometimes they have various wild flavors. A stand in Bruges offered frites with a selection of about eight different types of sauce, including Indian curry and "American BBQ"-style sauce. It's not bad.
When in Finland, be sure to try the salmiakki! This salty licorice is a favorite of Finns. I couldn't stand the stuff, but my host family got a huge kick out of my facial expressions each time I tried it! It was explained to me that this salty licorice became popular as a candy during WW II when sugar was unavailable. Salmiakki also has a very good use other than as a sweet: the salmiak salts in it make a good mild antacid. Try popping a small amount into your mouth and letting it dissolve after sampling too much of your other foreign delights!
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.
Schneeballen in Rothenburg, Germany! You think the clerk placed a fresh one in your bag, but when you bite into it you'd swear you were eating the one that had been sitting in the display case for two weeks.
I always learn the appropriate translation for "blood sausage" — Blutwurst in Germany, morcilla in Spain. I still got stuck with it in Spain, unfortunately, because my tablemate translated the menu entry as a "special dish of Alhambra" — blood sausage chunks on a bed of bread crumbs. Even the stray cat wouldn't touch it.
At Augustinerbrau in Munich, I saw the most unusual-looking food: mackerel on a stick. Called Steckelfisch, it was the entire fish (head, eyes, and all), on a stick, like some weird charred popsicle roasting over a fire. Definitely not for the faint of heart. While sitting in a beer tent, a local gentlemen who had this fish sat next to us. He insisted we share it with him. We had consumed a liter or so of good German beer, and not wanting to be rude Americans, we sampled it — and it was the best tasting fish, clean white meat, not fishy at all! Who knew it could be so good?
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 sheep heads lined up on the counter as you entered the cafe. He and I split one — literally. The waiter took our selection to the kitchen, split it in half and rearranged the contents. Made a lovely meze in itself, with varying tastes and textures (eyeball was excluded). The brains were a bit salty, and the texture of scrambled eggs; the tongue and cheeks were very good.
In most traditional Czech restaurants, the specialty of the house is "Knee of Pork" (a.k.a. pork knuckle). It is a huge monstrosity with very little meat, but it comes served with a foot-long fork and knife protruding out of the middle! Last time I ordered it, the two tables around me placed an order as well, since it looked so impressive. Like all Czech food, it comes with kraut. Enjoy!
In Moscow, most everything is in the original Russian language with Cyrillic lettering. When a translation is provided, it's often not very helpful. We dined at a restaurant with a menu featuring "Meat assembly," "Steak marsupial," and "Chicken entrails." Yum. A motley string quartet played "Strangers in the Night," which made it all seem right.
When in northern Germany, we splurged for a nice dinner in the German equivalent of a "supper club." The free appetizer came, with those little rye bread slices. The waiter said, "It's a local specialty. It's better with salt." Being from Wisconsin, I thought it was a cheese dip with nuts. I spread it on the bread, salted it, and tried a bite. It reminded me of something... After the second bite, I suddenly thought of bacon grease, and remembered stories my German teacher told about Schmalz. "My God!" I said to my husband, "It's LARD!" and dropped my piece. "Pretty good," he replied, and proceeded to finish the whole thing.
Not to be outdone by the Scots, the Welsh have some peculiar traditional foods. Alas, I don't remember the Welsh name (probably something like Llthwddgyn), but my companion bought what turned out to be a jar of limp, briny, just-a-touch-rubbery seaweed. Nothing else. I love the crispy stuff on sushi, but this "delicacy" belonged on the dubious dinner plates in the Calvin and Hobbes comics.
We had to catch a train in Lyon so we stopped for a quick bite at a French fast-food place called Quickie. Only afterwards did we discover our seemingly innocent hamburgers were made out of horsemeat! I've been told it has a sweeter, more stringy texture than beef, but under the ketchup, pickles, and cheese, it was hard to tell the difference.
There are restaurants in France where "steak tartare cheval" is served. Yup, raw horsemeat. But seeing cheval on a French menu does not always mean horse. Usually when a French dish is topped with an egg, it's called á cheval (on horseback).
Cygnar — Italian artichoke bitters. I am a fan of bitters in general; Angostura is a standby, and Peychaud and Orange are delightfully exotic, but Cygnar is the most BITTER and SOUR thing I have ever tasted. It makes Campari taste like Sloe Gin.
While living in Spain a few years ago I observed bowls of what appeared to be blood-colored Knox blocks in a number of tapas bars. It turned out to be just that — congealed blood. I have eaten (and enjoyed in varying degrees) everything from raw octopus to "innards" soup that looked like liquefied liverwurst, but here I had to draw the line.