A grumpy man’s guide to eating overseas

A summer holiday should be relaxing, but eating out when you’re abroad rarely lives up to expectations, says our columnist. Here are the most common myths...

Cartoon of man on rubber ring in sea with junk food

Do you remember when tourists simply went on holiday? I miss that innocent era. Now we’re all ‘travellers’, we all ‘travel’, which is like going on holiday but more work. It is especially exhausting for we foodies who are determined that our every mouthful will be a flavour revelation that we’ll take to the grave (or Instagram, at least). If only that were true. This summer, instead, I am going to relax. Let’s start by busting some common travel food myths. Bon appétit!


1. Britain sucks

Historically, British food was abysmal, which is why UK foodies are so desperate to eat well abroad. Deep in our DNA, we think it’s our only chance. Nonsense! You can eat as well in London (the world’s second most diverse food city, according to a recent Bott & Co study) as anywhere.


2. Market crash

Myth: shopping at a ‘fabulous’ local market is the pinnacle of foodie existence. Reality: you can’t speak the lingo, you just asked how much a church is (‘basilica’) rather than basil (‘basilico’) and, in the ensuing embarrassment, accidentally bought three organic tomatoes for €9. Plus, you’ve turned up at your Airbnb on Sunday, when what you actually need is a supermarket to buy milk and some wacky continental cereals for the kids.


3. Local delicacy

Just because something is a distinctive local habit doesn’t mean it’s essential. I’ve done aperitivo hour in Milan and eaten better buffet at family funerals in Salford. Lisbon’s famous piri-piri chicken and chips is, ultimately, just chicken and chips. As for Germany’s currywurst? Nein! Trust your instincts, not a guidebook.


4. Customer disservice

Nothing is more demeaning than tourists – sorry, ‘travellers’ – extolling the ‘hilariously grumpy’ service at an iconic restaurant when, in reality, it’s so permanently clogged with tourists that the staff have simply come to loathe the diners.


5. Tourist trap

First law of foreign travel: any restaurant with stunning sunset views or a swanky quayside terrace will be both terrible and terribly expensive.


6. Masochist munch

‘Fighting with locals for space at the bar, like you’re being fed from a UN food truck, is all part of the fun,’ insists the travel writer who was smoothly ushered around town by a local PR. I like bustle. But when it’s 43°C and I’m in a cramped bar being jostled by sharp-elbowed Spanish grannies shouting at the nonchalant staff about a must-eat tripe dish, sometimes I do think: ‘Sod this, where’s McDonald’s?’*


7. Real talk

People love hunting for the real heart of a country. But how real is real? I’ve spent some time in ordinary villages in Andalusia. I hate to ruin that Moro cookbook for you, but the chest-freezer is king there. You’re occasionally served some home-cured ham, pig’s ear or a rustic goat stew (a mixed blessing, frankly), but the locals also have a passion for greasy steaks, fatty sausages and side orders of anything you can feasibly cover in breadcrumbs and deep-fry. Pack indigestion tablets.


8. Heavy mettle

I have never eaten chicken sashimi in Tokyo (yes, raw chicken), fermented shark in Reykjavik or balut chicken embryos in Manila. I’m cool with that. This is not an endurance test. It’s OK to say ‘no’.


9. Never forget

Rather than seeing that cheap, delicious Corsican/Cretan/Sicilian family-run restaurant as a damning indictment of the average British neighbourhood bistro, remember two things. Firstly: overheads. Secondly, everything tastes better on holiday.

A dish at Rocca delle Tre Contrado

Read more articles by Tony Naylor...

My top 10 food waste crimes
10 unforgivable kitchen crimes
What have they done to our chocolate?
Maximum pleasure, minimum pennies
Is this the future of food?


Tony Naylor writes for Restaurant magazine and The Guardian

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