After three weeks of traveling in Europe, I call it – British food is the best | Adrian Chiles


LLast month in Croatia an old Serbian told me a joke about the British, French, Germans and Swiss. I shudder over the details but it was a vision of paradise in which the engineers were German, the cooks were French, the lovers were Italian, the Swiss were in charge of organizing everything and the police – or the “bobbies” as my Serbian friend Slobo called them – were British. I felt a slight swell of pride at this Dixon of Dock Green characterization of law enforcement in my home country. As for the fall, I don’t know how we got there, but there was some kind of confusion in which the Italians were in charge of organizing everything, which led to the police being provided by the Germans, the engineering by the French, the British did the cooking and all the lovers were Swiss.

Now, there are a lot of crude national stereotypes to sort out here. The German brass seem correct to me and our Renault drives very well. As for the Swiss, even though I’ve never had a Swiss lover, I can’t imagine what they could miss in the bedroom. My friend told me that he once offended a Swiss guy with this joke, and now he offended me. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard food from my home country casually decried within earshot. And I don’t. Having spent three weeks touring Europe this summer, I know for sure that by the standards we are the best.

Where we win hands down is on variety. I was told the joke in a busy village near a port on an island in the Adriatic. I love the place and spent an awful lot of time there, although I won’t name it lest I offend what I’m about to say, which would make me kill, cook and eat next time that I will go there. But within a five minute walk from the cafe where we were sitting there were about 20 restaurants. I have visited them all at one time or another. While some are better than others, the quality of the food is generally excellent – seafood, some meat, lots of salads, lots of chard and a pizza or two. However, the menus are pretty much the same wherever you go. The offer hardly varies. This is true on this beloved island of mine and elsewhere in mainland Europe. In France, you eat French, Italian Italian, Greek Greek, Spanish Spanish, etc. Wherever you go it’s wonderful for the first five days, then it gets a little more boring with each passing day.

In the UK we have a bit of everything, happily offering French, Italian, Greek or whatever you want. Even the smallest of our towns will probably have – in addition to a traditional cafe, a chippy, a restaurant or a pub with food – an Indian/Bangladeshi place, something Chinese, a shop kebab and maybe a Thai restaurant. An absurd argument about this diversity itself being the result of our incompetence in the kitchen could be made, but even if so, what about it? How lucky we are not to live in the culinary monoculture that is the norm for many of our European cousins.

The area in which we are comparatively and embarrassingly underserved is what we might call food on the go. Our motorway services are overloaded and overpriced, with all the usual suspicious mega-brands. Outside of the highways, you’ll hardly find anything, and if you do, well, good luck. The best of Britain.

On the mainland, however, it’s a different story. Going back to where I started this rant, in Croatia there seem to be great little family restaurants at every other bend in the road. And the motorway services, like elsewhere in Europe, are impeccable and full of interesting things you want to eat and drink. Somewhere in Belgium, in addition to fuel, we had a small loaf of bread as dark as the night, with good cheese. In Italy, east of Venice, the guy fixing the espresso machine filled my cup for free. But my favorite was one of the Autobahn-Restaurants in Landzeit in Austria, just south of Wels. Gods, it was like a cross between Fortnum & Mason, your best local buffet restaurant and your favorite farmer’s market. Mountains of salad and vegetables; hams and strings lying around everywhere; a fish counter; pastry shop; and sausages — meaty and vegan — so thick and long you could roll cricket pitches with them. Agog, I checked out the window. Yes, there was a highway there and so it was a highway gas station.

The chiefs looked like chiefs, and not in disguise. It wasn’t just the outfits; they knew their onions. Each counter was like a different cooking class. Other staff were outfitted in what I considered traditional Austrian dress. A little kitschy, I suppose, but my love was blind to that. Could we bring the dog? But of course! And here is water and snacks for him. I was filled with regret that we only came to recharge the car and had to be somewhere else by nightfall. Otherwise, I would have stayed a night, or even a week. I may make a special trip there next year. Before leaving with a heavy heart, I surprised some of the staff by barking at them in bad German that this was the best Autobahn-Restaurant I had ever encountered in all my days.

I am now working on a personal joke featuring a vision of paradise in which we find a Croatian roadside restaurant, an Austrian motorway service station, a malfunctioning Italian espresso machine and a British curry house. Feel free to create your own punchline.

Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and columnist for The Guardian

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