A Little Tipple
One of the major pleasures of going on vacation abroad is taking the
opportunity to eat out in a foreign environment. However, if you’re not
prepared in advance, this can sometimes be a stressful experience – especially
in the minefield that is ordering from a wine list.
European attitudes to alcohol differ considerably from the way
things are done in the States. That’s not to say that Europe is a continent of
winos – they just do things a little differently. And, predictably, each
European country does things a little differently itself.
Take the issue of ‘table wine’. In the US, table wine is defined
as any normal strength wine (between around nine and fourteen percent alcohol
by volume). The definition includes everything from cheap, vinegary
four-bucks-a-bottle stuff through to the very finest vintages – basically
anything that isn’t a fortified wine or brandy. In Europe, however, it means
something completely different. In France, for example, a table wine (vin de
table) is usually something cheap and drinkable but not in any way special –
it’s labeled as table wine (or perhaps as vin de pays) to differentiate it from
the establishment’s grander vintages. The exceptions to this rule are usually
to be found in Italy, where vino di tavolo is usually understood to mean the
best locally-produced wine in any given area.
What, how and where people drink also varies across the
continent. In the southern and Latin countries, as well as large parts of
south-eastern Europe, drinking alcohol is primarily associated with meals, and
most is drunk in the form of wine. Although much more drinking tends to go on
within the home and the rate of alcoholism is just as high as elsewhere, you’ll
see very little public drunkenness is places like France and Spain. Wine, along
with beer, is often drunk in cafés. It’s also much more common to drink at
lunchtime – if you’re invited to lunch in France or Italy, there will almost
certainly be a bottle of wine on the table.
In northern and Eastern Europe there is much more of a culture
of drinking for the sake of it, and beer and spirits are much more popular. The
UK, Holland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland and the Scandinavian countries
are major beer consumers, although wine is also drunk. If you’re used to
drinking beer in the States, it’s a good idea to remember that European beer
can be much stronger: original Czech Budweiser, for example, often contains
twice as much alcohol as the US equivalent. In most European languages there is
one word for beer: bier, birra, cerveza and so on. Bear in mind that the UK has
five: beer, lager, stout, bitter and ale. Bitters and ales are the traditional
British dark beers that, contrary to myth, are not served warm, but rather at a
little below room temperature. ‘Lager’ is the British name for all European and
American light-colored beers which are served cool: Budweiser, whether Czech or
American, is a lager to the Brits. Stout is dark black stuff such as Guinness
that’s popular in Ireland, but also in Scotland and northern England. In the UK
the word ‘beer’ traditionally only referred to ales and bitters (so you’ll
sometimes see pubs advertising ‘premium beers and lagers’). These days,
however, it applies to lagers and stouts too.
In the northern European countries beer is drunk on its own, for
its own sake, often in large quantities – but, as elsewhere in Europe, it’s
quite acceptable to drink beer with a meal in a restaurant. Going further east,
into Eastern Europe and the countries of the former USSR, vodka is the drink of
choice. The circumstances under which it’s drunk are a little like beer in more
western countries: traditionally with a meal as part of a social gathering, or
simply on its own in shot glasses.
One major difference is the age at which it’s OK to drink. In
most European countries it’s legal to buy alcohol at age sixteen, and often
legal to drink it at even younger ages if it has been bought by someone else
and is being consumed with a meal. This varies in some jurisdictions – for
example, you have to be eighteen in the UK, though 16-year-olds can drink with
a meal in a pub, and it’s possible to drink at an even younger age in your own
home. In general, this doesn’t cause massive problems with teen drunkenness on
any greater scale than those experienced in the US – though European under-21s
are often horrified to discover that they’re not allowed to drink in US bars.
Visiting Europe is a great chance to discover a totally
different culture of eating and drinking. Doing a little research before you go
is a great way to make sure that your enjoyment is guaranteed.