I’ve had a lifelong fascination with food so naturally when I travel overseas, eating like a local is a high priority. I love getting lost in street markets, chatting up cheese mongers and butchers, grabbing a quick bite in a museum café. I even find foreign vending machines intriguing. I never go hungry when I travel. I’m a fool for food souvenirs, too. Local delicacies are ideal, especially in decorative packaging. Form meets function, so to speak. Not only do I come home with treats to enjoy or share, I can get creative and repurpose the empty containers. Who needs matching kitchen canisters when you can enlist unique souvenir tins to store stuff in and provide pleasant reminders of your travels?
Some of my most productive food souvenir hauls have been in the grand department stores in Europe. In the early 90’s I worked in The Cellar at Macy’s in Herald Square, near the end of its glorious reign as the showplace of gourmet specialty foods, so I have a place in my heart for department stores. There are many cities in Europe whose flagships are deserving of your sightseeing time. My kitchen counter hosts decorative tins that once held English tea, Scottish shortbread (from Jenner’s in Edinburgh), and more. During my first trip to Germany, I have to confess that I got a little caught up in Christmas market fever and, along with 85 stunning ornaments, I also dragged home a globe-shaped tin filled with Lebkuchen from Nuremberg and a coffee tin from Munich’s Dallmayr, depicting the 300 year old institution that touts itself as the delicatessen of kings. I also framed some beautifully illustrated chocolate bar wrappers I picked up there. They hang next to the beer coasters I “picked up” on a beer crawl in Heidelberg.
Don’t discount food halls if you are in the mood for a memorable meal. I once gathered the fixings for a Thanksgiving dinner for two after a quick zip through Harrods in London. If you find yourself in Berlin, go to Ka-De-We and proceed directly to the Gourmet floor. Sit yourself down at one of its many dining counters. You’ll get a bonus cooking lesson as lunch is prepared before your eyes and, you can engage with your fellow diners who will likely be an interesting mix of local working stiffs, little old ladies, and travelers. Chances are pretty good that they will all speak enough English so you won’t have to consult any pesky foreign phrasebooks. I can still see and smell the Gruyere bubbling on the Black Forest Ham that was so skillfully draped over my Rösti plate…mmm.
Just one final word of advice, perishable food is a no-go with US Customs so, enjoy all the fresh meats, cheese, and produce you can at their sources, but make sure your food souvenirs are vacuum packed and labelled for export. I wouldn’t want you to have to surrender your goodies to an agent whose canine just sniffed you out at the baggage carousel.