By DEANNA BIONDI
Last semester, I studied abroad in Bath, England through an advanced studies program. During my studies abroad I was immersed in English culture. Beyond that, I was able to explore my guilty pleasure–new places, new food. Whether it meant choosing the best restaurants during a short trip, testing out every restaurant, pub and bar in the area or navigating the local grocery stores, all of my most vivid memories involve exploration of the cuisine abroad.
Navigating the Grocery Stores
One of my most dangerous discoveries while abroad was that I could get a large pack of chocolate cookies for sixty pence. Sixty. That became a regular habit of mine, and with a grocery store less than three minutes from my front door, it was way too easy to satisfy my cravings whenever I found myself without cookies in the house. Luckily, the Marks and Spencer’s right down the road was one of the few grocery stores that allowed cash at the self-checkout machines so I didn’t have to look a cashier in the eyes as I paid with coins for a large pack of Bourbon Cremes at four in the afternoon.
The cereal that I eat every morning for breakfast isn’t sold in the UK, so for a while, I was on a mission to find a breakfast cereal that stacked up against Honey Bunches of Oats (bad name for a god-tier cereal). It was a harrowing search because British cereals are, quite frankly, not good. They’re bland due to having fewer sugars and chemicals than American versions (which just makes everything worse), but the strongest contender I found was called Country Crisp Oats and Honey. Unfortunately, this particular flavor was only sold at the furthest possible grocery store from my house. I’m sure there wasn’t a doubt–but you better believe I made the 15-minute walk every time I ran out of cereal.
There was a street-food stall two minutes outside my front door called JC’s Kitchen. Now that I’m back home, I crave it almost every day. I don’t even know how to categorize their menu, but my usual order was, in simple terms, a bowl of mashed potatoes with veggies and pork belly. They only opened their stall when the weather forecast was favorable, and given the unpredictability of the weather in Bath, it was up in the air whether or not they would be open. I used to look out the window of one of the classrooms in the academic building to see if I could spot the familiar black tent. If I was fortunate enough that they were open, I would treat myself to some JC’s Kitchen after class. Halfway through the year, they moved locations without my knowledge to accommodate the annual Christmas market that began construction in mid-November. For a while, I thought they just weren’t coming back. As dramatic as it sounds, it was devastating. I mourned the loss until the day I happened to stumble upon their new location in another nearby part of the city.
There’s a popular pub in Bath called The Raven that I only ate at twice during my time there, although not for want of trying to go several other times. Any attempt to eat at The Raven requires accepting that you might not find a table. The cramped two-story pub almost always had patrons spilling out the front door. The reward for managing to find an empty table is a pint of house ale and the best meat pies I’ve ever had in my life.
Everyone asked if I was excited about the food in Italy. And, of course, I was; I’m always excited about food. It turns out, however, that navigating the restaurant scene in the biggest tourist cities in Italy is incredibly difficult, especially when you’re traveling on a budget. It’s hard to wade through the countless tourist-trap restaurants, with deceptively nice interior décor and pictures of attractive food just outside the doorways large enough to be seen by passersby, and find the authentic establishments that won’t charge you twenty-something euros for mediocre pasta.
When you find the good restaurants, any dish more elaborate than pasta and sauce will be a little out of the price range of a vacationing college student. On our last night in Rome, we ate at a restaurant recommended to us by our Airbnb host. It was a small basement space packed with as many tables as could fit, all of which were occupied. Getting recommendations from people familiar with the area is the best way to go; our pizzas were delicious and cheap, and they gave me a half-liter pitcher of decent wine for three euros.