Finding the sweet spots
Sampling the local cuisine is undeniably an essential part of the travel experience — especially when the local speciality is sweet, creamy, crunchy, gooey and oh so good! Even though delicious traditions have now spread across the globe, there’s nothing quite like sampling a treat in the country where it was invented and perfected.
Craving something sweet? Here is where you can find some of the world’s most popular desserts.
Pavlova in Australia or New Zealand
Where was this sweet treat invented? It depends on whom you ask: both New Zealand and Australia claim ownership of the pavlova. The dessert was reportedly served in honour of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova during her tour of New Zealand back in the 1920s, but some sources say similar recipes were found in rural cookbooks in both countries before then.
What sets this dessert apart from traditional meringue is cornstarch — the addition helps form a crunchy outer shell while allowing the centre to stay soft, rather like a marshmallow. The sweet concoction is then covered with whipped cream and fruit in countless variations. You may never uncover the mystery as to where the pavlova first appeared, but you’ll enjoy trying to find out who makes it best.
Cheesecake in New York City, USA
New York City can’t take credit for inventing the cheesecake, but the city put its own spin on the centuries-old import from Europe. While other cheesecake varieties use cheeses like ricotta or cottage cheese, the New York-style cheesecake gets its rich reputation from heavy cream, cream cheese and eggs. Baked in a deep, spring form pan with a complementary graham cookie crust, you’ll often find this treat adorned with a fruity sauce.
So where is the best place to indulge? You can’t go wrong with the two restaurants that made the dessert famous. Lindy’s promises “world famous cheesecake” while Junior’s boasts the “most fabulous cheesecake and desserts”. We’ll let you be the judge.
Turkish Delight in Istanbul, Turkey
Legend has it confectioner Ali Muhiddin Hadji Bekir developed these jellied morsels to please the harem of reigning Sultan Abdul Hamid. Known as lokum in Turkey, these treats were made from humble ingredients like a gel of starch and water but soon became a feature at every feast. They’re made with a variety of flavourings — including lemon and rosewater — and the more expensive varieties contain nuts and dried fruit.
Over the centuries, Turkish delight spread around the world courtesy of travellers. However, the shop Haci Bekir established in 1777 in Istanbul’s Old City is still serving up these tasty treats — a tradition carried on by his descendents. Unlike many desserts you’ll find in your travels, lokum is easy to package and travels well — making it perfect for gifts. (For more information, visit the Haci Bekir Confectioners website.)
Gelato in Florence, Italy
When in Italy, you won’t find a better way to beat the heat than the country’s famous frozen specialty. While frozen desserts have been around for millennia, it wasn’t until the Italian Renaissance that gelato became tradition. Bernardo Buontalenti first introduced this creamy confection to the court of Florence’s powerful and prominent Medici family, but it was Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli who brought it to the public.
What makes gelato different from the ice cream we know and love? Gelato is often made with low fat or skim milk instead of cream and balanced with more sweeteners — which foodies say offers a more intense flavour experience. Like ice cream, the best treats are often handmade, and you’ll find no shortage of gelaterie in Firenze and an endless list of decadent flavours to try.
Brussels Waffles in Belgium
When you think of this specialty, chances are you’re picturing the Belgian waffles piled high with the whipped cream, chocolate and fruit we see in North America. However, when in Belgium enjoy a waffle like the locals. These light, rectangular treats are served with butter, a sprinkle of icing sugar and fruit rather than elaborate toppings.
Instead of a heavy breakfast, enjoy them during a stop in a tearoom and brasserie (a casual restaurant which serves simple food and adult beverages). Lonely Planet recommends Etablissement Max in Ghent, where proprietor Yves Van Maldeghem cooks up waffles on his family’s 120 waffle irons. (Along with pancakes and apple fritters too.)
Crepes in France
They’re made all over the world, but some say you haven’t truly experienced crepes until you’ve had them in France. Here crepes in all their filled and folded glory are still a popular treat, and you’ll find them just about everywhere from street stalls to restaurants.
These versatile, wafer-thin versions of pancakes got their start in Brittany where they were originally used as bread. Today there are countless ways to enjoy them, whether it’s a tasty snack, decadent breakfast or main dish. Crepes can be sweet or savoury depending on the fillings and ingredients added to the batter, like herbs or different kinds of flour. In short, there will be plenty to sample! (For more information on crepes, see Epicurean.com.)
Chocolate in Switzerland
Chocoholics know Switzerland as the home of big names like Nestlé, Lindt and Toblerone, but the careful art and science of chocolate is not to be missed in the country’s many chocolate shops. Each one has its carefully guarded secrets and specialties including, but not limited to, truffles, ice cream and slabs of chocolate of every variety. Some say “chocotourism” is a must in hubs like Zurich and Geneva. (Chocolate Atlas has a good list of shops in Geneva.)
Shopping for gifts isn’t the only way to enjoy Switzerland’s specialty. Book a tasting tour or visit one of the many factories for an up close look at the craft. Looking for a road trip idea? Try the Chemin du Gruyère— the Swiss Chocolate and Cheese Trail.
Of course, Switzerland is just one of many “chocotourism” destinations in Europe. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Greece and Germany, just to name a few.
Galub Jamun in India
We’ll bet you can’t eat just one. These little balls of dough are fried until delightfully golden and then soaked in sugary syrup. The dessert isn’t unique to India — it got its start from an Arabic dessert that became popular throughout the sub-continent. It’s a staple treat at any festival or celebration, and now so popular it won’t be hard to find on our journey.
The recipe sounds simple, but there is a lot of variety among the many regions that serve this delectable dessert. Different ingredients can be added in different quantities to the dough — like sugar, which can give the balls a deep, glossy hue when fried. Different syrups and flavours are used too, like cardamom, saffron, rosewater and honey. Like other rich desserts, you may want to share!
Shave ice in Oahu, Hawaii
It’s not your typical snow cone! Shaving the ice rather than crushing it not only makes for a smoother texture, it helps the ice absorb the flavours so they don’t sink to the bottom. Since its first introduction to the islands via Japanese workers, this seemingly simple dessert has practically become an art form.
Of course, it isn’t all about the syrups — ice cream or adzuki bean paste is a common addition, as is a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk known as a “snow cap.” Shave ice may just be the ideal way to cool down after a day at the beach. (Gadling has a list of the best places on Oahu to get you started.)
You don’t have to travel to a far-flung destination to enjoy a local specialty. While Canada’s multicultural heritage has brought much of the sweet stuff to our shores, we have our own home-grown traditions too. For instance, who could overlook British Columbia’s Nanaimo bars or Newfoundland’s figgy duff? Or beaver tails — a favourite food for visitors to our nation’s capital. Butter tarts and brown sugar pie are sure to indulge even the fiercest sugar craving, not to mention Quebec’s sucre a la crème.
We’re also good at making the most of local ingredients — especially when spring gets the sap flowing. Maple syrup is as delicious on snow as it is in taffy, candy and maple syrup pie. Warm weather bring the berries for Saskatoon berry pie and traditional Acadian blueberry grunt.
Of course, this list is a just a small sampling of the many goodies you’ll find in your travels. Check a guide book, scour the travel blogs and ask the locals to help you find the best treats and the best places to enjoy them.
Which local specialties are your favourites? Help us build this list in the comments.
Additional sources: WhyGelato.com, SharingTravelExperiences.com