Europe has always been a prime destination for US study abroad students. If you’re going to spend a semester or more in Europe, chances are you’ll want to engage with the culture of your host country as much as you can while you’re there.
What better way to do that than explore the cuisine?
The European philosophy towards eating and the structure of a meal is essentially the opposite from what Americans are used to, and a world away from your college’s dining hall.
Food is to be savored and a meal must never be rushed. You can expect long, leisurely lunches (usually the main meal of the day) where the focus is on your food and not the reading for your next class.
While your study abroad budget probably won’t allow for fine dining all the time, you should definitely splurge at least once.
Dine like a local in France
French and American dining etiquette are completely different. In the US, even when we go out for a meal, we tend to take the least amount of time possible. This is because American culture is geared towards always being on the go.
If you eat at a restaurant while you’re studying abroad in France, there’s no such thing as a rushed lunch or dinner. Because the French eat out less often than Americans do, it becomes much more of an event. The meal is to be savored and enjoyed at a leisurely pace.
Service in France is very different from what we’re accustomed to in the US. There is no pressure to turn tables and chances are, if you need something, you’ll have to seek your server out. The philosophy is that you should have the freedom and the ability to take as much time as you want with your meal.
The French believe there is a rhythm and a ritual to a meal which must be respected.
The appetizer or entrée comes first, followed by the main course or plat principal. Bread will be served as an accompaniment to the main course, and never before it.
After the first two courses, dessert will be served and coffee comes last.
This format usually applies to lunch, which is the biggest meal of the day in France. Long lunches will take the place of a rushed American-style lunch, as breakfast and dinner consist of lighter fare.
Fare la scarpetta in Italy
Much like France, Italy places value and emphasis on the ritual of eating and enjoying a meal. An Italian meal at un ristorante will usually take an hour at least and, if it is a more relaxed affair, may take up to three hours.
Lunch is also the main meal of the day, and most shops will be closed for a few hours in the afternoon so the workers can go home for their meals.
A meal typically consists of an appetizer (antipasto), a first course or primo piatto consisting of a pasta or rice dish, a second course (secondo piatto) consisting of meat or fish with side dishes (contorni) of vegetables, and dessert followed by coffee.
Once you’ve finished your dish, you can fare la scarpetta — drag your bread through the leftover sauce on your plate.
When you go out for a meal, you can expect that servers will not hover over you like they would in an American restaurant. The “eat and get out” approach simply isn’t part of the culture. Servers will leave you to enjoy your meal and will only come to your table in between courses or if you signal for them.
This means you could well be left waiting hours for your check if you choose to wait for your server to stop by. When you’re ready to leave, catch your server’s eye and say Il conto, per favore!
If you find yourself studying abroad in Italy, take your time and enjoy the change of pace.
Fun fact: If you’re eating anywhere in Tuscany, don’t expect there to be any salt in your bread. Thanks to a high salt tax from the Middle Ages, Tuscans stopped putting salt in their bread, and have continued this tradition to this day. Don’t worry, though, everything else is very well-seasoned.
Try tapas in Spain
Because of its rich, vibrant culture and striking natural beauty, Spain has been ranked among the top study abroad destinations for US students and is a consistent favorite of travelers. The Spanish are well known around the world for the fun loving, easygoing lifestyle they lead.
Their eating habits reflect this carefree approach to life.
Like France and Italy, breakfast in Spain is light and lunch is the highlight of the day. Though this is starting to change now, historically, lunch breaks in Spain last 2-3 hours, to be followed by a short nap (siesta). The idea of this was essentially to give laborers a break from sun exposure.
A typical Spanish lunch consists of an appetizer* (usually soup), a fish or meat dish, vegetables, dessert and coffee. Plenty of bread will be served with the meal to go with all of the delicious sauces. Time is taken in between courses, so a traditional lunch is always a lengthy, luxurious affair.
Dinner in Spain is typically served between 9 PM and midnight. Because the gap between lunch and dinner is so large, it is customary to have a snack in the early evening. After dinner, many Spaniards will go out to a local pub or club for a few hours (so if you’re studying abroad in Spain, we don’t suggest early morning classes).
With its rich cultural heritage, Europe has much to offer as a destination for studying abroad. In addition to the sights, art and architecture, Europe is home to some of the world’s most renowned cuisines.
*Note– don’t confuse an appetizer to a main meal (known as a picada) with tapas, which is a meal made of appetizers.
Wherever you’re studying abroad, take the time to enjoy and adjust to the different pace of life and, of course, enjoy the amazing food! Share your study abroad dining stories with us in the comments below!