- Traditional cuisine of Europe
- Finding local food on a river cruise
- Sample local specialities from Portugal, Austria, Germany, Hungary, and France
- The famous foods of China, Vietnam and Russia
by Sue Bryant
One of the joys of travel is sampling local culinary specialities – and perhaps making them yourself back home. Here are some absolute classics to look out for in towns and cities along the world’s waterways – or to try on board your Riviera Travel ship.
The best of Alsace
In Strasbourg, where you’ll spend a day on the Rhine, Strasbourg and Heidelberg river cruise, you’ll see restaurants everywhere offering Flammkuchen, or tarte flambée. But this Alsace speciality is neither a cake nor a tart; it’s a kind of pizza. Flammkuchen originated when bakers wanted to test the temperature of their wood-fired bread ovens and would roll out a rectangle of super-thin dough. If the dough cooked to a crisp in one or two minutes, the oven was ready for the bread. Flammkuchen is served with a layer of crème fraîche, thinly sliced onions and lardons of bacon. Variations include cheese, mushrooms or a sweet version with apples, cinnamon and Calvados, but the key to a good one is the crispy, crunchy crust.
Classic custard tarts
Pastéis de nata are the little custard tarts you see all over Portugal, although particularly in Lisbon and Porto. You’ll certainly spot them in bakeries on The Douro, Porto and Salamanca river cruise. The tarts were invented by monks at the Jerónimos monastery in Lisbon, prior to the 18th century, when egg whites were used for starching nuns’ habits and the leftover yolks were often used in pies. The recipe remains secret, although there are many versions and the basics are layers of flaky pastry filled with a dollop of custard made from eggs, milk, sugar and cinnamon. Pastéis de nata are only bite-sized but the problem is, it’s almost impossible to limit yourself to just one.
The world’s oldest cake
The Austrians love their cakes, there’s no question. A particularly rich and delicious one to try is Linzertorte, believed by the people of Linz to be the world’s oldest cake recipe. Look out for it when you’re on the Blue Danube river cruise, which spends a day in Linz. The classic recipe is a thick, crumbly pastry containing cinnamon, lemon juice and ground hazelnuts, filled with jam and covered by a lattice of pastry strips, painted with egg white to form a glaze. Nobody is pretending Linzertorte is light in calories, but it’s delicious – and you can buy it boxed to bring home.
The perfect schnitzel
Sometimes, the best dishes are the simplest ones so in Vienna, where you will spend a day on the Cruise the Heart of Europe voyage, seek out the perfect Wienerschnitzel. Essentially, this is a very thin and often, very large cut of veal (some restaurants use pork or turkey), coated in egg, flour and crispy breadcrumbs and fried. You’ll need a generous squeeze of lemon over it and don’t expect it to come with chips; the traditional side is buttered potatoes with parsley.
When in Rüdesheim… assuming you’re not on a diet, start the day with a traditional Rüdesheimer coffee. This pretty wine-growing village in the Rhine Gorge, which you’ll sail on the Rhine Cruise to Switzerland voyage, is the home of the Asbach brandy distillery – a clue to what’s in the coffee. The brandy is warmed and then flambéed with sugar and topped with a generous pour of hot coffee. Lashings of whipped cream are spooned on top and chocolate grated over the whole ensemble – in other words, it’s a dessert in itself.
A true Hungarian goulash, or gulyás, is halfway between a soup and a stew. You’ll find it all over Budapest, where you will spend time on the Budapest to the Black Sea river cruise. The real thing should contain beef, onions, tomatoes, green pepper and a generous dose of local paprika and should be slow cooked. Potatoes or noodles are sometimes added. So while goulash may appear in the soup section on a menu, be warned that it’s rich, filling and satisfying. You can’t beat it on a cool day.
Lyon is known as the food capital of France but you’ll need a strong stomach to sample some of its more rustic specialities. Head for a bouchon – a local bistro – and get stuck into tête de veau – calf’s head, brain intact, simmered in broth and served with a mustard sauce – or, for the less squeamish, quenelles de brochet, pike dumplings served on a creamy lobster or crayfish sauce. Lyon is famed for its sausages: boudin noir is a blood sausage, while sabodet is made from pig’s head and tongue and andouillette from tripe. You’ll overnight in Lyon on the Burgundy, the River Rhône and Provence itinerary.
Ways with blini
Many of Russia’s most iconic dishes will be served on board MS Rossia on Riviera Travel’s brand new A Russian Odyssey itinerary in 2019. Without doubt, you’ll get hooked on blini, which are to Russia what pasta is to Italy. True blini are thin pancakes, traditionally made with yeast and buckwheat flour. Fillings vary; Russians with a sweet tooth serve them with raspberry jam and condensed milk, although the most common topping is sour cream and caviar. You could add smoked salmon or herring, cottage cheese and raisins, or a fried mix of mushrooms and onions. The blini can be folded, rolled or bunched into little parcels – it’s a matter of taste.
Comfort food from Vietnam
Pho is ubiquitous in Vietnam and in Ho Chi Minh City, where you’ll spend time on the Journey on the Mekong through Vietnam and Cambodia, it’s sold at every street food stall. A spicy broth heaped with fresh vegetables, thai basil, mint, chilli, lime and noodles, pho is actually highly nutritious. Traditionally, it’s made with beef (pho bo) but you can find it with chicken (pho ga) or nowadays, in vegetarian form, with tofu (although strict vegetarians should beware of what’s gone into the stock). Vietnamese eat pho for breakfast or lunch but it tastes delicious at any time of day.
Perfect Peking duck
No visit to China is complete without sampling authentic Peking Duck, which you’ll have the chance to enjoy on the Grand Tour of China at an included Peking Duck banquet. The local version should taste better than what you get from your local Chinese takeaway, with crispy skin and melt-in-the-mouth meat. Don’t be surprised to see bean sauce rather than hoisin from a bottle as an accompaniment – and served the local way in China, Peking duck involves eating the skin first, while it’s hot, with sugar and garlic sauce, and then the meat, wrapped with sauce, spring onion and cucumber sticks in dainty pancakes.
If you’re feeling inspired to begin an adventurous culinary journey of your own, take a look at the full collection of river cruises and escorted tours on the Riviera Travel website. Where will your taste buds take you? If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Sue Bryant is an award-winning journalist specialising in (and addicted to) cruising. She is cruise editor of The Sunday Times and also contributes to magazines and websites worldwide, including Sunday Times Travel Magazine, World of Cruising, Cruise Passenger (Australia), Porthole (USA) and www.cruisecritic.co.uk. Sue lives in London but is often travelling, exploring the world’s rivers and oceans. She has sailed on more than 100 ships over the last 15 years.