Before you head to Europe, make sure you brush up on local dining etiquette by learning these food rules you might not even know existed.
As full-grown human beings, we like to think we have a solid understanding of dining and drinking etiquette. But as it turns out, even though everyone everywhere eats, food rules are far from universal. For example, growing up, I was taught to leave my hands in my lap on top of my napkin when I wasn’t twirling (though never cutting) spaghetti. But in Greece and France, good manners dictate your hands be visible above the table—luckily, those rules about noodles do hold true in Italy.
No matter where you go, sharing a meal is the best way to connect with locals, and that is much easier without the distraction (and awkwardness) of unintended rudeness. Here are a few food rules from around Europe you may want to get familiar with before your next trip.
DON’T rush a meal in Spain, France, or Italy
Expect to dine in a leisurely fashion in these countries—lunch or dinner with friends or colleagues can last up to three hours or sometimes more. Also, remember that even after all those courses, it’s custom to linger after a meal for conversation over coffee and drinks, no eat-and-run allowed.
DO order water if you want it in France, Germany, Portugal, and Spain
Remember that in most destinations around Europe, water only comes to the table if you order it, and it’s not free. You can ask for tap water if you’re on a tight budget, but it’s frowned upon as a sign of stinginess.
DON’T get careless with the linens in Germany and France
In France, you should wait to take your napkin and place it in your lap until your hosts do so. In Germany, it’s important never to leave your napkin (paper or fabric) crumpled on your chair. Whenever you’re not using it, it must be folded and placed to the left of your plate.
DON’T drink water with soup in Spain
While drinking water, in general, is perfectly acceptable in Spain, sipping agua with a couple of specific dishes is culturally taboo, especially among older generations and people from smaller communities. Tradition dictates that you skip water when eating octopus or soup because the combination will make your stomach hurt. If you’re really thirsty, don’t worry—wine and soft drinks are fine.
DO put your bread directly on the table in France
Unlike in many other countries, in France, bread is traditionally laid directly on the table (not a bread plate) and must be placed right side up. Bread placed face down is considered bad luck—bakers used to do this to mark a loaf reserved for the local executioner. It’s also important to note that when sharing a meal in France, no matter how ravenous you are, bread isn’t served as an appetizer—it should be eaten with your meal. Furthermore, you should break it into pieces with your hands, rather than bite right into it.
DON’T ask for extra cheese in Italy
At many Italian restaurants outside of Italy, servers walk around offering freshly shredded cheese to add to your pasta or pizza, but in Italy it’s just not acceptable to smother your food with Parmesan. This is partly because a lot of dishes prepared with Parmesan stateside are actually made with pecorino cheese in Italy, and partly because asking for more cheese makes it seem like you’re trying to disguise the taste of the dish you ordered. Whatever you do, don’t commit the cardinal sin of requesting cheese on a seafood dish.
DO fold lettuce—DON’T cut it—in Germany and France
No matter how big the pieces of romaine in your German or French salad, remember this simple rule—fold and spear, never cut. To slice your lettuce may be considered a negative comment on the salad’s preparation.
DON’T waste bread in Russia
Around Europe, wasting bread is generally considered pretty bad form because in most countries, it’s a sacred component of every meal. But in Russia, it’s especially important to be judicious about how much bread you serve yourself, because the consequences could be dire: Tradition holds that when you die, all of the bread you’ve wasted over the years will be weighed and added to the balance that decides whether or not you get into heaven.
NEVER take the last bite of a shared dish in Denmark
Sharing a piece of cake with a friend? Social custom among Danes dictates that the parties divide the last bits of a shared dish equally among all parties until the dish in question is reduced to crumbs.
DO tilt soup away from you in the United Kingdom
In England and Scotland, the correct way to eat soup is to tilt the bowl and even the spoon away from you, then sip from the side of the spoon after it’s brought up to your mouth.
ALWAYS pass the port to the left in the United Kingdom
It may seem a bit arbitrary, but in the United Kingdom, port is always passed to the left, after you’ve poured a drink for the person on your right. If someone forgets, the English tradition is to ask, “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” If the person hogging the bottle is in the know, he or she will take the hint, apologize, and pass it on (to the left, of course). If the person doesn’t get it, the next step is to say, “He’s a terribly good chap, but he always forgets to pass the port.”