Bizarre foods: European “delicacies,” by country

European foodsWhat constitutes “food” is relative, depending upon what part of the world you call home. In Asia, pretty much anything on no (snakes), two, four, six, or eight legs is up for grabs. Europe, however, has its own culinary oddities, as detailed below. Got maggots?

Iceland
Hákarl: Fermented, dried Greenland or basking shark. This tasty treat is prepared by burying the beheaded and gutted shark in a shallow hole in the ground for six to 12 weeks. Unsurprisingly, the end result is considered noxious to pretty much everyone on the planet aside from Icelanders.

Norway
Smalahove: Boiled lamb’s head, traditionally served at Christmas. The brain is removed, and the head salted and dried before boiling. Because they’re the fattiest bits, the ear and eye are eaten first. More fun than a wishbone.

Sardinia (yes, it’s in Italy, but this one deserved its own listing)
Casu marzu: This sheep’s milk cheese has maggots added to it during ripening, because their digestive action creates an “advanced level” of fermentation (also known as “decomposition”). Some people prefer to eat the soupy results sans critters, while the stout of heart go for the whole package. Be forewarned: according to Wikipedia, irate maggots can propel themselves for distances up to six inches. Here’s fly in your eye.

Northern Sweden or Finland
Lappkok: This charmingly-named concoction consists of blodpalt–a dumpling made with reindeer blood and wheat or rye flour–served with reindeer bone marrow. Well, Santa’s herd had to retire sometime.

[Photo credit: Flickr user fjords]

European foodsSweden
Lutefisk: This dried whitefish treated with lye is beloved by Scandinavians and their American Midwestern ancestors (let’s just say it’s an acquired taste). It’s traditionally served with potatoes or other root vegetables, gravy or white sauce, and akvavit.

Scotland
Haggis: Who doesn’t love a cooked sheep’s stomach stuffed with its lungs, heart, and liver, combined with oatmeal?

Poland
Nozki: Literally “cold feet,” this dish of jellied pig’s trotters isn’t as repulsive as it sounds. The meat is simmered with herbs and spices until falling off the bone, and set in gelatin. Think of how much fun this would be as a Jello shooter.

Ukraine
Salo: The cured fatback of pork is actually quite delicious, and similar to Italian lardo when seasoned. It’s chopped and used as a condiment, or eaten straight-up on bread. Plan your angioplasty accordingly.
European foods
England/Ireland
Black (or blood) pudding: Technically a sausage, this mixture of animal blood (usually pork), spices, fat, and oatmeal or other grains is surprisingly good. It’s served uncooked, fried, grilled, or boiled. Sound bad? At least it’s not called Spotted Dick.

Italy
Stracotto d’asino: A northern Italian donkey stew, often served as a pasta sauce. Donkey and horse are eaten throughout Italy, but this particular dish is a specialty of Veneto, and Mantua, in Lombardy.

France
Tête de veau: You have to love that the venerable French culinary bible, Larousse Gastronomique, describes this dish of boiled calf’s head as, “a gelatinous variety of white offal.” Mmm. While there are many different preparations for the classical dish, it was traditionally served with cocks’ combs and kidneys, calves sweetbreads, and mushrooms.

Eastern Europe
P’tcha: A calves’ foot jelly enjoyed by Ashkenazi Jews throughout this part of Europe. It’s uh, high in protein.

Germany
Zungenwurst: This sausage is made of pork blood and rind; pickled ox tongue, and a grain filler, such as barley. It’s available dried, or can be browned in butter or bacon fat before eating. And bacon makes everything better.European foods

Netherlands
Paardenrookvlees: Culinarily-speaking, the Dutch usually cop grief for their proclivity for pickled herring and eating mayonnaise on their french fries. That’s because most Americans don’t know this smoked horse meat is a popular sandwich filling. Trust me: Seabiscuit tastes pretty good.

Greece
Kokoretsi: Lamb or goat intestines wrapped around seasoned offal (lungs, hearts, sweetbreads, kidneys), threaded onto a skewer, and cooked on a spit. You know what’s good with grilled meat? Meat.

[Photo credits: black pudding, Flickr user quimby;lutefisk, Flickr user adam_d_; kokoretsi, Flickr user Georgio Karamanis]


Warsaw, Poland: an up-and-coming European museum destination

European museum destination
As an EU member with a good exchange rate and low prices, Poland is becoming a popular tourist destination in Eastern Europe. Most of the love goes to Krakow, with its original architecture and “new Prague” charm, but capital city Warsaw has plenty to offer as a European museum destination. While much of the old town was leveled in World War II, the restorations have been painstakingly done and the tumultuous history makes for a great basis for museum exhibitions.

Like Berlin, Warsaw has embraced its past and given the visitor plenty to learn from and new investments mean state-of-the-art attractions and exhibitions.

Given all of the places to see, Warsaw could easily fill a week (or two) on a Europe trip. Here’s a look at some of Warsaw’s best museums.
Only-in-Warsaw

Warsaw (Up)Rising Museum – Warsaw’s proudest museum is a hi-tech interactive experience detailing the events of the two-month rebellion of the Polish people against the German forces as well as what preceded and followed. It borders on being overly comprehensive, the hundreds of artifacts can overwhelm, as can the crowds who line up daily. Be sure to follow museum signs as you walk through, as the chronological exhibit doesn’t necessarily follow the logical path.

Gestapo Headquarters and Pawiak Prison – Two of the city’s most unassuming buildings were once the most feared. Not as flashy as the Rising Museum but equally effective, the former Gestapo HQ contains a few stark cells that once held prisoners to be interrogated and often tortured before being taken to the prison, along with very professionally-done interactive displays telling the experiences of the poor souls held there. Most of the prison in the former Jewish ghetto has been destroyed, but dozens of artifacts and exhibits explain the prisoners’ conditions and attempt to describe the horrors that happened there.


Fryderyk Chopin Museum – Another hi-tech, multimedia extravaganza, this brand new space dedicated to Poland’s most famous composer goes beyond the usual exhibition with a fully customizable experience. Sample sounds from a rare score, read letters to the important women in Chopin’s life, and see a recreation of his Paris drawing room.

Palace of Culture and Science – Not so much a museum as a gift Warsaw can’t hide away, the tallest building in Poland was a gift from Joseph Stalin and it’s hard to go anywhere in the city without seeing the Soviet beast. Though the building is enormous, not much of it is open to the public. It’s worth a trip to the terrace for panoramic city views (see above photo) or spend an afternoon making sense of the bizarrely curated Museum of Technology.

Want more history? There are also museums dedicated to the Polish People’s Movement and Polish Independence, plus the many churches and monuments of the restored Old City and Krakowskie Przedmiescie street. Warsaw’s Jewish culture is also well-documented at the new Jewish Museum and Wola district historical museum.

Well-done in Warsaw


Center for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle – A few blocks away from the Gestapo Headquarters, the building has a history as a royal residence, medical hospital, and now modern art museum. Some of the most innovative artists in Poland and Europe are showcased here: November saw a show focused on Internet-shaped culture such as a scrolling display of Twitter results for the phrase “Best day ever.”


Warsaw Zoo – In addition to being a nicely-maintained habitat for animals, this zoo has a fascinating and heroic past. Diane Ackerman’s book The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the story of the zoo director who aided in war efforts and saved many Jewish Poles from the Nazis by hiding them in the animal cages.


Royal Castle and Wilanow Palace – Just outside the Old City, the Royal Castle was also rebuilt from scratch and houses a slew of antiques and artwork, as well as excellent temporary exhibitions such as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” and other treasures from other museums. If you visit in good weather, it’s worth a day out of town to visit the grand Wilanow Palace and gardens, the Polish Versailles.

Not exhausted yet? Small museums also specialize in collections of cars, trains, military weaponry, horse-riding, caricatures, and Polish physicist Marie Curie. See the In Your Pocket Warsaw guide for more info.


Schengen and the disappearance of European passport stamps

schengen passport
Creative new use for border crossing posts at German/Austrian border.

In the late 1980s, an American spending a summer traveling across Europe with a Eurailpass would see his or her passport stamped possibly dozens of times. With a few exceptions, every time a border was crossed, an immigration agent would pop his or her head into a train compartment, look at everyone’s passports, in most cases stamp them, and move on. Every Eastern Bloc country required visas, some of which could be obtained at the border and others of which had to be applied for in advance.

Today, an American can enter the Schengen zone in Helsinki, fly to Oslo and then on to Amsterdam, proceed by train through Belgium, France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, then by bus to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and then by ferry back to Helsinki before catching a flight to Athens and landing in Greece without once needing to submit a passport to a border guard’s scrutiny.

The development of the Schengen agreement across Europe has altered the geopolitical map of the continent in many ways. For tourists, the development of the Schengen zone has simplified travel by drastically reducing the number of times a passport can be checked and stamped as national borders are crossed.

The Schengen Agreement is named after the town of Schengen in Luxembourg. It was here in 1985 that five countries-Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, West Germany, and France-signed an agreement to essentially create borderless travel between them. A model for this agreement had been created years before by the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), which eliminated border controls back in 1948. The Nordic countries also did away with internal border posts, in 1958.

In 1995, the five original Schengen countries plus Portugal and Spain inaugurated the zone. In 1997, Austria and Italy joined. Greece followed in 2000 and the five Nordic countries joined in 2001. In late 2007, nine more countries joined the Schengen zone; most recently, Switzerland signed up in 2008.

schengen passport
Abandoned border crossing between Slovakia and Hungary.

Today, 22 European countries are part of Schengen. Every European Union country (save the UK, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Cyprus) belongs. Other members include EU holdouts Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland. The European microstates present a few complications. Monaco’s borders are administered by France, which makes the tiny principality a part of Schengen, while Liechtenstein’s accession, approved by the European Parliament in February, is pending. San Marino and the Vatican are de facto versus official members, while mountainous, landlocked Andorra remains outside of the zone altogether.

There are five EU countries not currently part of the Schengen zone. The UK and Ireland (as well as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands) operate a Schengen-like agreement called the Common Travel Area. Neither country is obligated to join the zone.

Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus, however, are all bound by treaty to eventually join. Romania has fulfilled all the criteria for joining Schengen and Bulgaria is close to fulfillment as well. These two countries will accede together, likely later this year. Cyprus presents a more complicated situation given the division of the island between the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the largely unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north.

With the coming accession of the Western Balkans to the European Union, the Schengen zone will almost definitely continue to grow. Might it one day cover the entire landmass of Europe? Check back in two decades.

[Images: top image Flickr | Mike Knell; middle image Flickr | jczart]

Knocked up abroad: getting pregnant in a foreign country

pregnant in a foreign country My first clue that something was different came when I woke up one night on vacation in Kiev at 3am, proceeded to eat 3 slices of toast with caviar spread, went back to bed and woke up a few hours later wondering if they made blueberry muffins in Ukraine (tragicially, they do not). That “time of the month” hadn’t happened but flying tends to always mess with your body, so I didn’t give it much of a thought. Since moving to Istanbul from New York in May 2010 for a work project, my husband and I take frequent trips around Eastern Europe (see my Weekending posts) and that week we spent exploring Kiev and Warsaw while Turkey celebrated Kurban Bayramı (the Muslim festival of sacrifice).

When we arrived back home in Istanbul a few days later, I dug out the Turkish pregnancy test I had purchased a few months earlier after a previous false alarm. Though the instructions were in Turkish, peeing on a stick is fairly universal, and the “POZITIF” results were hard to misinterpret. Excited and nervous to be pregnant in a foreign country, my husband and I wondered what a mountain of paperwork we’d have to provide U.S. Customs in 9 months, what the medical system in Istanbul would be like, and if we could get away with having a baby in Turkey not named in some way for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of modern Turkey and namesake for millions of Turks. Being pregnant in a foreign country is the ultimate way of “going native,” the most “authentic” travel experience you can have. It’s also challenging, sometimes scary, and limits where you can travel, but can be a great way to discover a culture, their hospitality, and traditions.Once I confirmed that I was in fact hamile with bebek, I noticed how child-friendly Turkey is, though not without challenges for the expecting expat. I could only find one English-language pregnancy book (co-written by Oprah’s fave, Dr. Oz, who is of Turkish descent), I’ve heard C-sections are pushed on many women as the only option for childbirth, and I’ve found maternity clothes are mostly limited to childish t-shirts and denim overalls. Turkey’s also a dream for the pregnant traveler: fresh fruit juice is cheap and easy to find at most cafes, vaccinations aren’t needed to visit, and Turks treat pregnant women with the utmost respect and care.

Having a baby, especially a first, in a foreign country isn’t for everyone. My family and support system is far away and I don’t know where to go for things I can find easily in my hometown. My doctor speaks excellent English but many of the nurses and hospital staff do not, and my Turkish is hardly fluent enough to cover every situation. Though the cost of domestic help is low, I’m not sure I want a lady with whom I can’t fully communicate telling me how to raise a baby.

Pregnancy also changes how you look at travel, both where you go and how you do it. I’ve been fortunate not to have morning sickness, but I’m just as at risk for disease as other pregnant women and have to weigh the risks of visiting countries with suggested vaccinations or food- and water-borne illnesses. Growing a baby is tiring work, and it’s hard to reconcile my usual travel self (lots of walking, few breaks) with my pregnant self (tired and hungry almost all the time). The best part about pregnancy travel is learning how each culture values pregnant women and mothers, hearing childbirth experiences from locals and foreigners, and seeing how kind strangers really can be. And all the food cravings help you discover the local cuisine, too.

Stay tuned for more on pregnancy travel, including Turkish superstitions and customs, the lowdown on prenatal medical care in Istanbul, where to travel in each trimester, what to eat when pregnant abroad, and more on having a baby in a foreign country. Check here for further updates.

Stunt cyclist climbs to top of tallest hotel in Europe in 19 minutes

stunt cyclist climgs hotel

It took him 19 minutes and 27 seconds today to climb to the top of the 614 foot-tall Grand Hotel Bali in the eastern Spanish resort city of Benidorm in Madrid.

Young Polish stunt cyclist Krystian Herba did not pedal but hopped up the hotel in 921 steps.

“I’m tired but very happy” Herba told the Associated Press.

Herba has been cycling for 17 years and got started by doing stairs in famous buildings in Poland before moving on to climbs around Europe.

In October, Herba hopped to the top of the 50-story Millennium Tower in Vienna, the tallest building in Austria.

Flickr photo by Michael Jablonski