All across Europe, winter is the season for hearty, comforting, richly flavored food and drink – and the festivals that celebrate it. That’s why it’s the best time of year for a hungry traveler to cross the Atlantic in search of a good meal.
After a long day of schussing down the slopes of Mont Blanc in the French Alps (or taking the gondola if you’re feeling lazy), there’s nothing as satisfying as a dish of tartiflette in one of Chamonix’s quaint bistros. A baked casserole of potatoes, bacon, onions and buttery, nutty, melty reblochon cheese, it’s hearty and satisfying and the perfect winter meal.
And it’s just one reason why winter is the best season for gourmet travel in Europe.
True, summer has its fresh fruits, bright salads and crisp rosés. But winter is the season for richly braised meats, for the earthy goodness of roasted root vegetables, and for the sweet warmth of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. Short days and cold nights make it the perfect time for long, lingering meals paired with bold red wine. And should you have a craving for just one more sweet pastry, well, winter’s woolly layers can easily hide an extra pound or two.
The fine dining starts in late fall with truffle season. These earthy, sensual tubers are among the world’s most treasured foodstuffs. In Italy’s Piemonte region, clever dogs start sniffing out the precious Tuber magnatum in October, and epicures can savour them at Alba’s International White Truffle Fair until late November. In France, hunting for Périgord’s “black diamonds” begins in November, and both Sarlat-la-Canéda in the Dordogne and Lalbenque in Hautes-Pyrénées hold an annual Fête de la Truffe (Truffle Festival) in January.
Once the truffles have arrived, Christmas and its festive markets aren’t far behind. They pop up all over Europe but are at their finest in Germany, the country that gave us Christmas trees and Santa Claus. One-of-a-kind gifts aside, the best reason to visit these social markets is for the hot mulled wine and sweetly spiced gingerbread.
Those who really love Christmas goodies should head to Dresden and its annual Stollenfest in early December. At this event, bakers parade a giant, multi-tonne stollen—a fruit-studded loaf midway between bread and cake — through the streets before slicing and sharing it with the crowd.
Also in December, chocolate lovers should head to the historic town of Tübingen, where more than 100 top chocolatiers gather for the chocolART festival. Or consider the Chocolate Festival in London, the perfect opportunity to pick up sweet treats for holiday gifts. And those who are nuts for chestnuts can meander down to the Fiera di a Castagna in Bocognano on the island of Corsica, France. More than chestnuts are on the menu at this agricultural fair, which also features cheese, pastries, hazelnuts, honey, wine, beer and live entertainment.
The traditional holiday feasts are followed by New Year’s Eve, which in France means Champagne and oysters, especially the plump, briny ones from the famous “claires” of the Marenne-Oléron. The next day, people from Berlin to Budapest to Bologna dine on lentils for luck.
Once the festive hangover has worn off, the year dawns with even more foodie festivals.
In January, the City of Light shakes things up with Paris Cocktail Week and Bouche à Bouche, a festival that combines fine food and DJ set music. Amsterdam’s Food Soul Festival transforms the Kromhouthal into a massive restaurant. And foodies happily brave the chill of the North Sea to indulge in the four-day Sylt Gourmet Festival, held on a beautiful and historic German Island.
Meanwhile, those who swoon for uni should go directly to Cadiz, Spain in early January for Erizada, the Sea Urchin Festival. Beginning at sunrise, fishermen crack open the spiny shellfish and serve them raw — and free! — to thousands of revelers. Nearly 1,500 pounds will be consumed by day’s end.
But if there’s just one festival to add to the calendar, it might as well be Gastrofestival in Madrid, which will be held February 1-11 in 2020. It’s dedicated to “everything indulgent,” which means food, wine, art, literature, music, film, theatre, design and fashion. Restaurants, cocktail bars, cooking schools and retailers all take part. All that’s missing is you.
Also in February, the pretty French Riviera town of Menton holds its annual Fête du Citron, which features exhibitions, parades and sculptures made entirely of lemons. And in the Provençal town of Nyons, the Fête de l’Alicoque celebrates the olive harvest with free tastings of the year’s new olive oils.
All this culinary indulgence ends in March with Carnival, a festival of excess that wraps up on Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday or, for the hungry, Pancake Day. It’s the last day before Lent, the 40 days of penance that allow us to recover from the season of happy dining.
But not, perhaps, without one more serving of something rich and hearty and, preferably, oozing deliciously with gloriously gooey melted cheese.