Hmm, perhaps it was rather insensitive of Marie Antoinette to respond to the plight of the starving lower classes by declaiming “Let them eat cake!” but in this day of uber-virtuous Insta goddesses and green juicing, there’d probably be quite a few of us who’d be more than happy to take her advice. Enjoying signature treats is one of the joys of exploring new places so look out for these beauties as you travel - after all, you’re bound to burn off the calories with all of that sightseeing!
1. Xocolata, Barcelona, Spain
Darker and not as sweet as the cocoa you might be accustomed to, this version is also thicker, with the consistency of custard, or of a chocolate pudding that hasn’t quite set. It’s often served with dunkable churros (fried, doughnut-like strips of pastry dusted with sugar) but for a more authentically Barcelonan experience, try your with melindros: small, spongey biscuits.
2. Deep Fried Mars Bar, Scotland
Obviously created by someone with arteries of steel, this confection is said to have first appeared at a fish and chip shop just outside of Aberdeen. The Mars Bars are best chilled before battering, to limit the scope for the chocolate completely dissolving in the hot fat of the deep fryer.
3. Turrón, Spain
It’s primarily a Christmas treat, but variations of this nougaty confection can be found throughout the year. There are two main types, both containing eggs, sugar, honey and almonds, but the version from Alicante is hard and must contain 64% whole almonds, while the variety from Jijona, about 20 km away, contains a drop of oil and 60% nuts, which have been pounded to a paste, giving the turrón a chewier texture.
4. Stroopwafels, The Netherlands
Rich and sinfully sweet, this treat comprises two thin, large, round, buttery waffles filled with a sticky caramel syrup: for the real deal, head to a market or street vendor to watch them being made and stuck together in front of you. Otherwise, packaged varieties are widely available in supermarkets and gift shops.
5. Ensaïmadas Mallorquina, Balearic Islands, Spain
So uniquely Majorcan that they’ve been awarded PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) by the European Commission, these sweet breakfast pastries have to be made according to strict regulations determining the pastry’s weight, ingredients and even the direction of the spiral! The hand-stretched dough is filled with lard and can come either plain, or with fillings ranging from chocolate or apricot to turrón paste.
6. Bara brith, Wales
The name literally translates as ‘speckled bread’; this traditional Welsh fruitcake is packed with dried fruit and peel, which is traditionally soaked overnight in cold tea. It’s made with yeast and lard, and is often sweetened further by a glaze of honey. Head to a cozy Welsh tearoom to try it, preferably smothered in fresh butter and washed down with mug after mug of hot tea.
7. Trdelnik, Slovakia
This pastry is commonly found in Prague but it’s Slovakia that has the EU registration on them, so let’s let them claim it, shall we? Dating back to the 17th century, trdelnik is made by wrapping dough around a wooden or metal spit and spinning it over a fire until it’s soft and chewy on the inside but crispy on the outside. Buy yours from a street vendor or open air market, and have it finished off with a sprinkling of sugar, cinnamon and nuts - or filled with whipped cream for a sinfully delicious treat.
8. Medovnik, Czech Republic
This multi-layered honey cake has a creamy filling and comes with a light sprinkling of walnuts. Baked in a circular tin and cut into wedges, you’ll find it at cafes throughout the Czech Republic: wash it down with good strong coffee, which seems to enhance the slight caramelly tinge in the cake’s flavor.
9. Panettone, Italy
Stories surrounding this quintessentially Italian festive sweet bread abound; some just as delicious as the bread itself. Containing sugar, raisins and candied peel, it almost certainly originated in Milan; traditionally, it was eaten at Christmas, when the head of the family would carve a cross into its surface before distributing it among the family, retaining one piece for the following year.
10. Pavlova - Australia. Orrrr ...maybe New Zealand
These two Antipodean countries share a friendly rivalry about many things and the origins of this cloud of sweet loveliness is just one of them. No arguments, though, over the fact that it’s a mouthful of heaven - a bed of meringue, crisp on the outside and slightly chewy on the inside, topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit. Who cares who invented it when it tastes like this?
11. Burfi, India
Also known as ‘barfi” and okay, it’s possibly a shame, from a Westerners point of view, that the name sounds like a cross between ‘burp’ and ‘barf’ - but if there was ever a reason to be more open minded then this would surely count as one, because this traditional sweet is delicious. Made from chickpea flour, condensed milk and sugar; other flavours, such as nuts, fruits and spices, are also sometimes added.
12. Oliebollen, The Netherlands
Here we go with the off-putting names again - this one literally translates to ‘oily balls.’ So, not a great sounding treat then, huh. But get past that and wrap your mouth around one of these deep-fried donuts: traditionally eaten to celebrate the New Year, they contain plump raisins and are dusted with fine sugar for a lip-smacking treat.
13. Brigadeiro, Brazil
Who doesn’t love the combination of politics, charm and looks? (sadly lacking these days, yep, we know). Way back in 1945, military hero Brigadeiro Eduardo Gomes ran for office and women set out to back his campaign: selling his favorite sweets was one of their fundraising avenues. He didn’t ultimately win, but the chocolates, which combine sweetened condensed milk, cocoa powder and butter, rolled into balls and smothered with chocolate sprinkles, are still popular - and still bear his name.
14. Maple Taffy, Canada
Seen at many winter festivals in Canada, this chewy, tooth-janglingly sweet treat involves boiling maple syrup and then pouring it out, while still hot, over sparklingly fresh, clean, cold snow. Just as it begins to set, a lolly stick is pressed into one end of it and then the whole strip is twisted and rolled onto the stick into a type of lollipop.
15. Suspiro de limeña, Peru
The literal translation of this dessert’s name is “the sigh of a woman,’ which probably says it all in terms of how decadent, sensual and indulgent it is. First recorded in an 1818 version of the New Dictionary of American Cuisine, it has a base of manjar blanco (like dulce de leche) which is topped by meringue infused with port and then dusted with cinnamon.
16. Tangyuan, China
These sweet dumplings are a traditional treat for the end of Chinese New Year, but their popularity means that they’re eaten year-round. They’re made from balls of glutinous rice flour, which are sometimes filled with the likes of black sesame or peanut. After being boiled in water, they’re doused in a syrupy soup.
17. Taiyaki, Japan
Made in the shape of a Japanese Red Seabream - a tai, thus what the dessert takes its name from - this is made from a pancake or waffle batter, often filled with bean curd paste, chocolate or sweet potato. Modern interpretations of the treat see it reimagined as an ice cream cone, with the ice cream placed in the fish’s open mouth.
18. Pasteis de Nata, Portugal
These were allegedly developed by monks but so sinfully delicious that it’s hard to imagine how that’s possible?!! Think crisp flaky pastry encompassing yieldingly firm egg custard, topped with a dusting of cinnamon. Although widely available in gift shops and supermarkets, head to a cafe or bakery for the best experience - and don’t try to limit yourself to just one.
19. Baklava, Greece - or Turkey?
It’s that pavlova issue again, with two geographically close countries asserting their traditional ownership of it. Can we just say ‘thank you’ to both of them and have double portions? Layers of meltingly thin filo pastry are combined with an assortment of nuts, and made dentally dangerous - but so worth it - by a dousing of syrup or honey. A strong Greek coffee will probably neutralize the effects on your teeth though. Or a Turkish one. Or both …
20. Loukoumades, Greece
These ones are pretty much undeniably Greek - deep fried balls of dough, served warm, drizzled with syrup or honey and sprinkled with cinnamon and nuts. Allegedly their roots can be traced back to the first ever Olympics in 776 BC, where they were referred to as ‘honey tokens’ and awarded to victors. We say: why wait until after winning (or losing) the race?!
21. La Crema Cataluña, Spain
Not dissimilar from a French crème brulee, but with the addition of cinnamon or lemon peel, this burnt-custard dessert is traditionally linked with St Joseph’s Day on March 19th, but over the years, the Catalonians have clearly become weary of waiting for an excuse to eat this sweet egginess, so you’ll now find it available throughout the year, especially in places like Barcelona.
22. Canelés, France
The Bordeaux region has even more to offer than just its sublime range of wines: these sweet little delicacies originate from here as well. Actually, Canelés, which have a caramelized, baked crust and a gooey custardy center, came about because of the wine industry, which uses egg whites to filter the wine. Why waste all of those yolks when you create delicious treats like this from them?
23. Gelato, Italy
Of course, you can find gelato pretty much anywhere in the world but for the real deal, you surely have to be in Italy, right? Go one step further and have one in Florence, which claims to be the birthplace of this cold confection; better yet, sit on the edge of a fountain in the warm Italian sunshine to eat yours and enjoy a true moment of La Dolce Vita - dolce does mean ‘sweet’, after all.
24. Stollen, Germany
Akin to Italy’s panettone, stollen is a Christmas treat, a kind of rich fruit bread, packed with spices and candied peel and fruit, which have often been macerated in brandy or rum. As soon as it comes out of the oven, it’s smothered with melted butter and then rolled in sugar; a thick strip of marzipan is often included through its center for even more sweetness.
25. Runeberg Torte, Finland
Oooh what a delicate little mouthful - but what a punch it packs. Allegedly taking its name from a poet who was so crazy about the dessert that it became synonymous with him, this is a rum-soaked cake of almond, atop which sits a circle of white frosting and a blob of raspberry jam.
26. Bolla, Iceland
Traditionally eaten as part of a three-day indulgence ahead of Lent, these are cream-puff type confections, featuring light pastry, a dusting of sugar, a smear of jam and a whoosh of whipped cream in the center. Kids wake their parents by smacking them with paper wands shouting “bolla, bolla!” - and they’re owed a bun for every smack they land before their parents haul themselves out of bed. For those with adults to attack, they’re widely available in the cafes and bakeries.
27. Lamingtons, Australia
You can’t go to Australia without trying one of these. Invented at the turn of the 20th century in Queensland, they were named after the wife of the then-Governor of the state, Lady Lamington. Essentially a cube of sponge dipped in dark chocolate sauce and then rolled in dessicated coconut, some versions have a thin layer of jam and/ or cream in the center, too.
28. Eton Mess, England
Nothing says ‘summer’ in the UK more than strawberries and cream, but add broken shards of crisp meringue and you really are living the dream. The story goes that the dessert originated in Eton at the annual cricket match, where a pudding comprising these three elements was accidentally dropped on the floor and then scooped, in its shattered state, into individual bowls. Waste not, want not - and why not!?
29. Turkish Delight, Turkey
Legend puts the origins of these little pillows of sweetness in the 1700s, when a Turkish sultan, outraged at having broken his tooth on one of the boiled sweets which were traditionally served after meals, demanded that his court confectioner make him something softer. To sugar, water and cornstarch, various natural flavors are added - for the most authentically Turkish ones, try rosewater, pistachio, Bergamot and lemon.
30. Sachertorte, Austria
This chocolate sponge cake was invented in 1832 by Prince Wenzel von Metternich’s chef; so intrinsic is it to Austrian culture that it merits its own special day on the calendar (December 5th incidentally - so that’s the pre-Christmas diet out of the window…) The sliver of apricot jam within must be just that - a sliver, although debate rages about where it should be placed: in the center, or under the icing? No arguments, though, about the dark chocolate ganache frosting that covers it - delicious.