Returning home after spending September in Central Asia, I was shocked. I’d left in summer, yet some of my trees were bare, and the rake was waiting for my swift hand. Suddenly I was reaching for a jacket in the evenings whereas days earlier, I had been hiding from the hot Uzbek sun in shaded patios.
It only took a couple of days to acclimatise because, in truth, I love autumn… the sun shines brightly but the nights are cool, even crisp. The days get shorter but with summer over, a certain energy rises from the lethargy of the recent heat. The leaves glow, then fall, and in that “between” season some call Indian Summer, the earth nearly explodes with brightness, one last languorous caress before it is time for the crackle of the fireplace.
October in Europe makes me want to get away quickly, before the mad November rains hit or the snows turn every outing into a snowball fight. I have the good fortune of living in the center of Europe and this, for me, is local exploration season to places right on my doorstep.
It also means sampling foods that have been off my list through summer.
Here are my nine city choices – and the culinary reason behind each choice. The cities are all either within driving distance or easy weekend visits for me – and I’ve been to each and eaten what’s in each photograph. Please join me as I grab the last rays of sunshine and enjoy the continent at its most (at least for me) authentic.
Geneva’s filets de perche
Or fillets of perch from Lake Geneva. While these delicate little fish can be eaten all year round, the fries and tartar sauce that usually accompany them are, to me, a sign of autumn. In summer I rarely visit the lakeshore, preferring to leave it to the thousands of visitors who, unlike me, don’t live less than an hour away. Once they’ve gone home, seats open up on terraces, service spruces up, and the freshest of perch, often fished that morning, are lightly battered and thrown into the butter. This is one dish whose portions should be twice as large, in my opinion. It is so simple to make – and equally easy to ruin.
Milan – not just about fashion
Yes, that may be why most people go to Milan – to shop for wonderful clothes at prices that can be high but are often below those of other European capitals. I go to Milan for risotto and to stock up on carnaroli rice (like arborio only creamier), good pasta, olive oil and bottles of Crodino for the winter. Risotto is a rice dish that is anything but light and so, not suited to the heat of summer. This is partly because of the natural creaminess of the rice, of course, but also because of the butter and cheese that are liberally mixed into it.
While most people go to Bilbao for the Guggenheim, I go for… steak. Spain’s Basque country has always been known for its good food, its animals raised on fresh grass and its vegetables on clean earth. But the cuisine has gone from good to great and the region now has more stars than the average constellation. If I’m going to eat steak, I’m going for the best. And October is the best time: when the rains come in November, they may not stop for months.
Autumn is my preferred season for jamón, not just any ham, but jamón ibérico, de bellota, fed with acorns and acorns only. Now there’s nothing wrong with eating the best ham in the world (sorry, San Daniele, my vote goes to Spain) in summer or any other season, but once the heat goes, Madrid’s mercados, or markets, get frisky and bring out their best. I try to visit Madrid each year and I go with an open mind but as soon as I enter the Mercado San Antón, there’s a jamón stall on the right that grabs me and simply won’t let me go.
Lisbon’s hills and pasteis
Lisbon in October isn’t hot hot, but it certainly isn’t cold. It’s perfect for sightseeing, whether jumping on the tram or walking around the Alfama or the Bairro Alto, sniffing around for food (often fish) being grilled. Prices are down now that tourists have gone, and you’ll have many monuments and museums to yourself. And anyway, October is perfect for pasteis de nata, those creamy little tarts Portugal is so famous for. They may have originally been created by monks, but there’s nothing austere about their taste.
Sevilla: Flamenco and tapas
If you’ve ever been to Sevilla in summer, you’ll understand. Much as the city is glorious, all you want to do is find some air conditioning and hide, at least over the long middle part of the day. In autumn, the sky remains luminous and you have none of that swelter – yet it’s still warm enough to sit on the terraces lining the Guadalquivir for tapas, lingering as the sun slowly disappears. After a few rounds of tapas, the twang of guitar strings reminds you that Sevilla is very much a southern city.
Lyon’s frogs’ legs and escargots
Many people make a face when I mention these delicacies – they are to me, at least – and one downside of summer is my inability to indulge in these buttery, garlicky preparations. They require slightly cooler weather and come October, I’m hopping on the train for an hour to visit my favourite food mall in France, the Halles Paul Bocuse. I forget about my (permanent) diet around this time because Lyon, with its trees changing colour, is perfect now, just perfect.
Istanbul, oh so sweet
I love Turkish food under any circumstance, but some things aren’t made for summer – like baklava, that feathery pastry gooey with honey, filled to the brim with chopped walnuts or pistachios. It is often sold by the trayload in pastry shops but when you go for coffee, you can order a single one – and one will be more than enough (there seems to be portion creep these days). It is rumoured that baklava originated in Central Asia but I looked for it incessantly during my trip and sadly, I found none…
Annecy, in the heart of the Alps
This small city – which happens to be half an hour away from me – is gorgeous any time of year but in summer it’s overcrowded, and I’m sure (unproven, only suspected) that food quality goes down. By October, Annecy hits its stride. It’s too warm for thick coats but you can order a fondue and raclette and no one will balk. If you can, visit on the last Saturday of the month when the antique dealers spread out under the medieval arcades.
I’ve now made myself thoroughly hungry but… it’s the time of year when one should be.