As most of our stories do, this began as an argument. Liz was espousing the virtues of Georgian food, which I had summarily dismissed, and then, during the following geeky discussion of random countries' cuisines, we began to wonder how each part of Europe stacked up against the others.
And so we dug into the countries (between us, we’ve visited 39 of 48 on the list) and came up with rules: the biggest factor had to be the indigenous cuisine (in other words, Ireland doesn’t get extra credit just because Dublin has a spectacular Indian restaurant), the food and drink culture within its cities and towns, and the variety that exists within each place. Sure, some countries may cook up one thing extraordinarily well, but what else can they do? As my Grandfather used to say, just because you can juggle doesn’t mean you can dance. Gastronomically speaking, we want the places that can juggle AND dance. And maybe cook too.
As with anything that exists on the Internet, we will have missed some dishes or failed to point out a key component in blood soup or made horrible Hungary puns. And we apologize and trust you will keep us honest in the comments. But until then, strap in, because you are about to go on a whirlwind culinary tour. Maybe try and avoid the scurvy grass.
[Editor's note: These are the countries in Europe, according to the CIA World Factbook.]
48. Vatican City
The one restaurant in Vatican City quickly puts an end to the rumor that you can only eat at Communion, and Rome is sitting there, right outside, waiting with fresh cacio e pepe, but, still... the country has one restaurant. Give Pope Francis some options!
47. Faroe Islands
If you get tired of eating skerpikjøt, they have something called scurvy grass, “whose sour leaves can compensate for the lack of fresh vegetables.”
While they do have Njeguška pršuta, which is essentially their version of prosciutto, and is delicious, they’re also big fans of not-so-delicious clear fish soups and smoked bleak, which sounds like a depressing murder mystery, but is actually a fish in the carp family. UNLESS THAT’S JUST WHAT THE REAL MURDERERS WANT YOU TO THINK!
The food here is good! French and Spanish cuisine. Problem is -- it’s all imported, and not their own original food, so... you don’t get credit for that.
If you could eat untaxed income, Monaco would be a lot higher on this list. But you can’t, so Monaco is not very high on this list.
I went to this country in 2007 to get the fancy fake passport stamp they make available. And then I ate Thai food. And while Liechtenstein is lovely, mostly all of their food -- save hafalaaban (soup with ham and cornmeal dumplings!) -- comes from other countries, and so we must invoke a partial Andorra clause.
We really wanted to put Ukraine higher, because we’re full of compassion what with all of the problems with Russia, but all that jellied meat and fermented rye bread kvass and sour milk drinking... we just can’t. I’m sorry.
In the food and drinks section of BeinKosovo.com, under traditional food, there is nothing. Same for drinks. On another site, they point out that people in Kosovo now eat French toast. But they seem to have burek, flija, and all sorts of spinach pies, and Šarski cheese is relatively famous, so we’ll just assume that the web admin for BeinKosovo just got lazy updating the site.
The land of frozen water’s cuisine was made famous by an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, where he has a very hard time eating that fermented shark. But that’s not all those Icelanders have to dine on! Feast your eyes and mouth on minke whale or air-dried fish & butter... or, um, puffin. And then wash it all down with their unsweetened schnapps beverage Brennivin, Einstök pale ale in cool bottles, and late-night dogs from that one famous hot dog stand often frequented by Americans on bachelor parties.
As they say, “come for the Baltic dwarf herring, stay for the smoked eel and sprats.”
First off, they do make their own wine and have several breweries, so golf-clap for that. But no golf-claps for basically just eating German, French, and Belgian foods, even if they are delicious.
Off the Southern tip of Italy, somewhat close to Tunisia, you would think the flavors of the Mediterranean would push this small island nation up, at least past most of the Eastern European guys. But, for whatever reason, Malta insists on making things like fish pie and filling pastries with mushy peas.
Quick, try and find Moldova on a map! Did you say right between Southwestern Ukraine and Romania?!? Man, you’re good, so come get your prize: jellied chicken. Or if you don’t want that, maybe you’ll go for mămăligă, essentially the Moldovan polenta, or lots of goat cheese or delicious chicken noodle soup (zeamă de găină). We prefer that to their other favorite: ciorba de burta, aka beef tripe sour cream soup.
You’re getting a lot of the traditional Eastern European favorites here: rye breads, potato dumplings, cold beet soup, BLOOD SOUP, plus so many things made from potatoes and mushrooms, and a somewhat strange fascination with sour things -- sour cream butter, sour cheese, etc. Points are awarded, though, for their willingness to make all sorts of buns, pancakes, and smoked meats. And for creating NBA basketball players Arvydas Sabonis and Šarūnas Marčiulionis.
I wish I could just say Romanians eat blood because Dracula is totally real and absolutely from here IT EVEN SAYS IT ON THEIR WEBSITE. But they actually have a culinary mish-mash of Turkish, Saxon, and Hungarian influences combined with a very healthy agro culture -- thanks in no small part to the fact that Romania is still developing -- meaning paprika and sausages and local cheeses, like the feta-esque urdă. Also, so many sour soups. So many. Everything gets washed down with plum brandy and wine -- Romania locks in as the 10th largest wine producer in the world -- and, also, maybe blood.
Yes, we know Nordic food is so hot right now. But I’m sorry, and maybe I’m not very popular or cool, but I just don’t love dried lamb’s ribs steamed over birch branches or lutefisk or stockfish or eating a lamb’s head with the eyeballs too. I’m also not a giant fan of eating sweet brown cheese for breakfast or drinking a lot of aquavit. But before I’m fully denied legal entry into the land of amazing trolls and very comfortable sweaters, I do dig the fact that they LOVE pølse, aka hot dogs (even though they were introduced to them by the Danes), and think it’s quite charming that they sometimes put them in flat potato bread called lompe, which essentially makes it look like everyone is eating hot dogs in tortillas.
Despite having to constantly tell people, “No, no, you’re thinking of Slovakia,” the Slovenians get points for having three wine regions, making delicious local prosciutto (kraški pršut), and putting all sorts of fillings in struklji, or dough rounds. And if you go to Lake Bled, everyone will FREAK OUT if you don’t try the Bled cream cake at Hotel Park, aka kremna rezina, which is a vanilla custard cream cake that actually sounds quite delicious.
The rest of the world should go ahead and adopt Slovakia’s national dish, bryndzové halušky is made of potato dumplings and bacon and a soft, salty cheese, which yes, just sounds like an even better version of poutine. If Slovaks preferred their hriatô, which is made of damn bacon, bacon fat, honey, and booze, to their true love of sour milk, then we’d love this place even more.
The country’s tourism website introduces its gastronomy game with a story about how, during the Serbian Empire in the 1300s, every meal in the palace was eaten with pure-gold utensils. Which is weird, but maybe spit-roasted game and strudels and cornmeal-potato-feta polenta just tastes better with a hint of gold mixed in. We wouldn’t know. We’re not that fancy. We DO like specialty beef prosciutto though.
Belarus boasts the American lumberjack diet for Europe: all the meat and potatoes. Which is great, but there’s only so many potato dishes (and, truly, they have a lot!) and sausages and pork stews you can get into before you feel like you’re on a Hungry-Man diet.
My only time in Latvia involved wandering around bogs in Kemeri National Park, watching crazy hunter-types look for red deer, boar, and wolves. I was very nervous, but the meal that night of smoked boar was delicious. They also had some pretty incredible honey cakes, pumpkin pancakes, and many shots of Riga Black Balsam, which was a really bitter herbal liqueur that you eventually grow to love. So yes, my specific trip colors my opinion of a country that is also deep into cabbage soup, but it’s certainly enough to push them into the top 30.
Lingonberry jam is EVERYWHERE. I think they might actually stamp it into your passport when you get to Finland. They’ve also got weird stuff like kalakukko (fish pie baked in a rye bread), nakkikastike (hot dog sauce, using onions and frankfurters over boiled potatoes), so many porridges, and leipäjuusto, or bread cheese. It feels a little bit like a more spartan form of Swedish cuisine, just covered in lingonberries.
Albania’s another country with really excellent Mediterranean food: stuffed eggplant, fig preserves, yogurt, sauteed lamb, delicious, salty cheese, buckets of olives, fresh-caught fish. Sound like Greece? Or Turkey? Yep, that’s the issue. But still, it’s great.
In lieu of making hilariously subtle vodka and caviar jokes, we implore you read our dear friend Andy Kryza’s piece on the eight essential Russian foods, and then come back for the vodka and caviar.
They’ve got their very own breed of jelly donuts that’re made with extra egg and sugar and have custard fillings, meaning they’re way more delicious and fatty than what you’re used to. But, then, Poland's also into all those sour soups.
The land of those heavy weapons that knights used to carry around has some damn fine moves, including the delicious, but impossible to say pastrmajlija (essentially fried dough topped with cubed, salted meat), ajvar (like a roasted pepper dip), and tavče gravče (beans cooked in a skillet). Their wines -- especially from the Tikves area -- are no joke either.
22. Czech Republic
While living here in the mid-aughts, I tired rather quickly of the traditional roasted pork knuckle and potato dumpling meal. And I could only eat so many smažený sýr fried cheese sandwiches with mayo. What I didn’t tire of, however, was enjoying some of the best beer I’ve ever had (from one of the 60+ breweries in the country), and then stumbling to the sausage stands to get německé klobásky v housce, which is a sandwich made up of five small sausages and topped with mustard, fried onion, and cherished love. Now if everyone would stop trying to push that dish with beef sirloin in cream sauce, the Czechs could keep moving up.
21. Bosnia and Herzegovina
In addition to having the most fun name to say in Europe, B&H has the boldest cup of caffeine on the continent and a social culture that’s centered around it. Bosanska kafa -- Bosnian coffee, which is similar to Turkish coffee -- is ground finer than espresso, and the tiny cup is bold, thick, and incredibly rich. Meeting a friend for coffee takes hours, and, well, you can’t not drink it here. For having such a unique way of socializing, Bosnia gets points. They lose points for all that grilled lamb, lamb and beef sausages, cheese-filled burek, and baklava, which is really delicious, but is even more similar to Turkish cuisine than perhaps even their coffee.
The Cypriots are the sorcerers behind the most mind-boggling dairy product: halloumi. But besides that cheese that JUST WON’T MELT, the specialties are really just the best of Turkish and Greek foods, like keftedes (fried meatballs!), koupepia (you know them as dolma at that Greek pizza spot your parents always took you to), and hummus (... hummus), which we love but it’s just not enough.
The official website of Sweden declares that back in the “golden age of home baking” coffee parties “turned into orgies of sweet yeast breads, small cookies, cookies with fillings, pastries and cakes.” Also, like that’s not enough, they basically brag about how every Swede eats the equivalent of 316 cinnamon buns every year. So go, have a cinnamon bun orgy, squeeze in a little time with the gravlax and fried Swedish pancakes, and politely excuse your now-chubbier self when the grog and schnapps come out.
Once you’re done making your potato jokes, just know that any place that does great corned beef, shepherd’s pie, steak & Guinness pie, potato leek soup, fish & chips, delicious boxtys (potato pancakes), essential cheddar cheeses, Dublin coddle filled with sausage, back bacon, and potato, and can wash it all down with the most famous stout and whiskeys in the world PLUS REALLY GOOD TEA, deserves to be in the top 20. Oh, and if that doesn’t do it for you, they’ve got a line of biscuits that are called USA. SYNERGY.
17. The Netherlands
Dutch pancakes are legendary. Dutch cheeses -- like Gouda and Edam -- are slightly less legendary, but nonetheless famous. They eat stroopwafel cookies, put chocolate sprinkles (aka hagelslag) on bread for some reason, and deep-fry meatballs and serve them with mustard. They dip fries in mayo. They have a crazy-extensive Indonesian food scene, stemming from when Indonesia was a Dutch colony. They have famous beers (Heineken, Amstel, Grolsch, Skol, etc.), and somewhat famous gin (genever). They eat more licorice than anywhere else in the world, which seems like a crazy fact to know. And they might move even higher, if they didn’t also love soused herring with pickles and raw onion so damn much.
Dig into a plate of wienerschnitzel and a stein of Viennese lager and ponder how you could do that while also listening to Beethoven’s "Ninth Symphony" without the country that is definitely not Germany, but speaks German and is also really into beer and sausages. They’ve also got the sexy, lattice-topped, currant preserve-filled Linzer torte. But then the rest is far too similar to Germany, which means its delicious but... the same.
They did it, friends. They were the ones who started the New Nordic Cuisine trend. They are the ones who you can blame for seeing things like rødgrød (thickened stewed fruit), sødsuppe (fruit soup), and smorrebrod (open-faced sandwiches) in cool neighborhoods with fixie bikes and people in slim-fitting chambray work shirts all over the US. They have what is considered one of the best restaurants in the world in Noma, and many other Michelin-starred spots. And while Carlsberg dominates their macro-beer scene, they also gave us Mikkeller, one of our favorite beer brewers in the world. Plus, they seem to have introduced hot dogs to everyone else in the Nordic world. So yeah, they’re doing pretty well.
Bulgaria’s motto is “unity makes strength,” and nothing makes you stronger than a love of grilled meats (kebapche) and moussaka. Kids eat sandwiches filled with lyutenitsa relish and sirene cheese, adults eat some sort of tripe soup that seems alarming, and everyone eats shopska salata, comparable in simplicity and perfection to the Greek version, plus once you’re done with your salad, you can eat tons of greasy, flaky pastries. It’s like if the foods of Russia, Italy, Greece, and Turkey all had a somewhat hard-to-picture orgy. And despite the weird visual, trust me, that’s not a bad thing.
13. United Kingdom
Admittedly, the UK gets a bad rap for its food, but this is a nation that breaks for elevenses AND high tea like the goddamn civilized, society that it is. And unapologetically calls the morning tea break elevenses. They run the Scotch and gin game and arguably have one of the greatest beer bar cultures in the world. They take the thick, rich clotted cream for breakfast, have made sheep stomachs craveable for centuries, and throw together rarebit that can make the cheese-loving Swiss jealous. Also, fish and chips.
12. San Marino
Let’s be clear about the best thing happening here: San Marino is the SECOND country that’s located INSIDE Italy. The teensy place is in the Emilia-Romagna region -- the place where prosciutto and Parmesan and Bolognese come from -- so it’s surrounded by really amazing food. The second best in the world, actually. But unlike boring, wine-hoarding Vatican City, San Marino has its own food culture independent from, but similar to all that jazz. They’ve got a special drying style that San Marino’s pigs go through, which produces extra-sweet prosciutto. Also, there’s passatelli, the pasta made with flour, egg, lemon zest, and Parm that’s cooked in broth. Also the Torta Tre Monti, which you can also call Torta de San Marino because the layers of wafers and hazelnut cream and chocolate dreams ARE ONLY MADE HERE. SM’s also cooking all the lasagna and red sauce and minestrone of its Italian neighbors, but they can sip four of their own vino varietals or Oro dei Goti, their own award-winning Moscato. Be ashamed of your comparative culinary autonomy, Mr. Pope.
So much meze. Feta. Olives. Baklava. Olive oil. Honey. Moussaka. Tzatziki. Gyros. Souvlaki. Lemon potatoes. Spanakopita. A salad that is delicious and mostly associated with Moms opting for a sensible lunch. A style of yogurt that now makes up nearly half of America’s market share. A kind of pizza that dominates suburban Boston and my childhood. Those candy bars with sesame seeds. I could go on and on, but the point is this: Greek food -- despite being somewhat typical for Americans -- is vastly underrated. It’s flavorful and rich, but doesn’t rely too much on any one focus, as you can tell from that annoying list I made a few sentences above. Their anise-flavored aperitif ouzo, on the other hand, is not my cup of booze.
I am a weak-willed man, and so it’s taking all of my feeble willpower to not make “Are you Hungary yet?” puns. I visited Hungary by myself a couple of years ago, and spent the entire trip sitting by myself at various taverns, reading weird Northern Irish novels, and taking down bowl after bowl of goulash, and chicken paprikash, turos csusza (which is essentially cheese noodles made with bacon), rántott sajt (fried cheese), and liptai túró, which is like their version of pimento cheese, and tastes like small spicy angels are resting in your mouth. The beauty of their cuisine is that so much of it is stewed, braised, and -- with their generous paprika seasoning -- offers up just the right amount of spice. It just feels like everything they make is the best kind of comfort food. And yes, it’s making me very Hungary right now.
Portugal may be piggybacked to Spain, but it manages to avoid the culinary shadow of its much larger neighbor. Yes, they share coastal traits -- SO MUCH SALTED COD -- but when about half your border is coastal, you really start to master the fish game, and signature Portuguese dishes, like the aromatic cataplanas (a traditional way of steaming foods together) or flavor-rich caldeiradas (fish stew), flaunt it. There’s also salted cod stew and lemony salted cod fritters. But in case you thought Portugal just rests on its fishy laurels, dig into cozido à Portuguesa: pork, beef, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and rice that varies from region to region of the country but is rich and bold and combines so many of the non-ocean-based culinary prides of the country. Plus, there’s salted cod casserole and salted cod in cream sauce.
Portugal also has a bounty of booze: port, obviously, but also Madeira and Vinho Verde. You know what those taste good with? The other 997 ways you could also eat salted cod in Portugal. Or maybe just some olives.
Like most countries', Switzerland’s culinary traditions developed out of necessity. Just while other places were stuck eating a lifetime supply of potatoes, Switzerland was like, “it’s really cold in these beautiful mountains, I bet our stockpiles of cheese would be an excellent way to help consume the bread and pickles we have so we can survive.” Gruyere, Emmentaler, and Vacherin typically get the name calls outside the country, but practically every single town has their own delicious specialty. And while bubbly fondue and oozing raclettes may not be totally substantial for, like, nutrients, there’s also alplermagronen, a rich gratin of potatoes, macaroni, cheese, cream, and onions. You also may have heard that the Swiss make chocolate. That WAS NOT A LIE, and it’s delicious.
Food you haven’t heard of? It’s just as hearty and rich and better than the stuff you’ve been living off of, like Luzerner Chügelipastete, a puff pastry filled with goddamn meatballs and white sauce, or beef braised in wine and served over slow-cooked polenta that soaks up all those savory juices or roti, an iconic dish of salted & fried shredded potatoes that’s basically like hash browns but far better with cheese and bacon in the mix. For that matter, we’re sure there’s SOMETHING boring and bland in the Swiss mix, but then they just add the cheese of the day in, and ALL THE PROBLEMS ARE SOLVED.
The mix of influences here -- be they Italian, Mediterranean, French on the coasts, and slavic in the interior of the country -- helps set up a delicious mish-mash of foods. They have fantastic olive oil, and the oysters in the small town of Ston are considered some of the best in the Adriatic. Their Babić, Malvasia, prosecco, and Vrbnička žlahtina wines used to be underrated, but are getting more international cred each year. And, perhaps their most famous dish -- roasted lamb “under the bell” -- is worth the hype, considering the meat cooks from both sides (with a domed clay bell covered in hot charcoal on top, and a coal BBQ below) slowly in its own juices.
So much chocolate. So many different kinds of waffles. A vegetable named after one of their major cities that has, in recent years, taken the American restaurant world by sprouted storm. A complex beer scene featuring upwards of 180 breweries dominated by Trappist and Abbey beers. Large, twice-fried, um, fries. Delicious cheeses, including the AOP-protected Herve, which is often eaten on rye bread covered in pear and apple syrup, and paired with some delicious beer. Belgians may not always be able to agree on what language to speak or even whether they should remain a country, but their damn delicious foodstuffs better not go anywhere.
Most of the foods are heavy -- the bountiful styles of sausage, from brats and bockwurst, to frankfurters, landjäger, and weisswurst; the potatoes, from the pancakes and dumplings (kartoffelklöße), to famous potato salad and whatever schupfnudeln is; the spatzle; the sauerkraut; the krapfen donuts. But they are gloriously heavy -- heavy in a way that makes you feel warm and strong. The beers are, of course, world famous, what with the German Beer Purity Laws ensuring quality, and the widespread popularity of biergarten culture. But head to any cafe around 4pm and you will see the highly underrated kaffee und kuchen (coffee and cake) culture as well, which is also just a fun thing to say aloud.
Georgia sits in the middle of the ancient spice route between Europe and the Middle East and Asia, so the country’s dishes are imbued with an incredibly rich and unique use of herbs & spices, like cilantro and dried marigold, that are used in combinations not seen in the other individual regions and are layered for bold, but balanced dishes. And the pinch-hitter of those dishes is khachapuri, a boat-shaped pastry filled with a glorious amount of melted cheese and a raw egg. It’s so popular that the country’s trying to trademark it so places like Panera don’t steal it when they realize HOW MUCH BETTER THE BREAD BOWL CAN BE.
Also in the lineup: khinkali, the twisted dumpling knots that’re filled with pork, beef, or lamb and laden with all those spices, plus onions; kuchmachi, which is one of those dishes where you should not ask what’s in it (hearts, gizzards, and the like) and just savor the deep flavor of pork, fried garlic and onions, coriander, and bright pomegranate seeds; or chahohbili, a peppery, sweet chicken stew. Cheese is abundant (obviously, they put it in bread boats), and tkemali, a plum sauce, accompanies a slew of meat dishes and is, of course, laden with coriander and cumin and peppery bites.
This is a national cuisine that manages to be cheap, yet satisfying, bold, yet incredibly simple. The diversity is almost overwhelming, so let’s start with the national star: jamón ibérico, an art form of cured meat production, slices of which are buttery, savory, and cost more than a sandwich at Dean & Deluca. That attention to detail and respect of the product is reflected in bowls of briny olives and small, light ham croquettes, and it shines in giant pans of smoky paella, whose proper preparation somehow manages to let vast medleys of very different flavors simultaneously stand alone and mix together. And the Spanish tortilla, an onion, potato, and egg omelet that might just be the epitome of filling simplicity. While the influences poured in over the region’s very long history, centuries of cooking have given Spaniards the time to make all of this food very, undeniably Spanish.
It is tough to argue against the culinary charms of France: they are, after all, home to the style of cuisine that everyone -- for years and years -- considered the only worthy fancy restaurant food. They pioneered the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), ensuring that certain foods and drinks could only come from specific parts of France. The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization even recognized French FOOD as part of a list of things that show “intangible cultural heritage." Also, the movie Ratatouille.
We don’t even need to get into specifics, because everyone knows the dominant hold France has in the wine and cheese game. And how the rest of the world uses hors d’oeuvre to describe first courses, and that steak frites, and onion soup, and baguette with really good warm butter and fleur de sel should have their own national day. But the beauty of France comes from the variety -- as important as the traditional Parisian dishes are -- they’ve also got the oysters from Brittany, Normandy, and Languedoc, the famed quiches of the Lorraine area, and the German-influenced flammekueche in Alsace, plus an extremely underrated beer and cider industry. Je laisse tomber, France. Vous gagnez.
Other countries on this list got docked for lacking enough of their own culinary attributes. Italy is the opposite. Italy’s cuisine has basically been protected by centuries of Grandmothers who refused to take anyone else’s recipes but their own BECAUSE ONLY GRANDMA’S SUNDAY SAUCE IS GOOD ENOUGH.
Sure, Emilia-Romagna is marked by deeply flavored, aromatic lasagna, the Veneto is deeply entrenched in its pea risotto, and Campania boasts Neapolitan crisp-crust pizza. Restaurants in Umbria throw hog heads over their doors when harvests are in during their famous truffle season, and the Tuscans have their simple vegetable and bread ribollita soup. But while the regions are marked by impressively rigid divisions, it's their passion for their cuisine -- not to mention, you know, how great it tastes -- that has made it that way and ensured it’s one of the most cooked and transformed and enjoyed worldwide.