Two years ago, I went on a seven-week food odyssey to Portugal, Spain, France and Italy. It was a long-planned, much-dreamed-about trip and I did lots of research. Weeks before we left, I had geolocated the best custard tarts in Lisbon. I knew which pinchos bars I wanted to hit up in San Sebastian. I'd pre-salivated over the caneles in Bordeaux. I had restaurants booked. My goodness, I'd even organised babysitters for two kid-free dining experiences at bucket-list restaurants Mugaritz and Osteria Francescana.
That was then. This year, we exercised the credit card in Europe again but the lead-up to the trip was relatively short and I was too busy leaving to thinking about arriving. I just managed to tick off the essentials (kids' passports renewed, suitcase free from cat hair) and plan the bare bones (accommodation, Eurostar, ferries).
I had no restaurants booked, no target markets, no brunch ambitions. When people asked me what I was looking forward to, the only plan I could dig up was a vague wondering if Guinness really did taste any different when you drank it on home soil. Oh, and I remembered that English summer strawberries were wonderful.
When we landed, I felt rather unmoored – could I still call myself a food writer? I spent our first week in the English Midlands with my in-laws, shoving down scones the kids made with their nanna, mainlining strawberries and getting acclimatised to drinking tea a lot. It was lovely but I wasn't having enough key food experiences for my liking so I developed the following Calm Down guide to finding deliciousness.
Take it where you find it
I'd never been to an Irish wedding before but I started to get a sense of it when I saw the schedule. It began with a ceremony at 2pm and wrapped up with dancing at 3am. The reception dinner – at a fancy hotel in Westport, a pretty village on the gnarly west coast of Ireland – was an alternate-drop steak-or-fish affair, albeit extremely nicely done. It wasn't highly promising foodie territory yet I still came away with two culinary wins. The first, Irish treacle bread, nubbly, dark and cakey, is now part of my life. The second, Guinness. Yes, it tastes different in Ireland, nourishing and not too filling. I also learnt that Father Tommy, the Catholic priest who officiated the wedding, can hold his Guinness and is a very good dancer, much better than me. Indeed, he turned me into a flummox of left feet as we pirouetted to Galway Girl.
Ask a friend
A Facebook friend, that is. When I got to Dublin without any clue, I called out to my crowd ("In Dublin. Hungry.") and had a dozen suggestions of where to eat within an hour. I was at one of those restaurants, Etto, within 45 minutes, eating local rabbit, drinking Italian wine and toasting the internet. Two days later, a Facebook introduction saw me meeting a new friend at a wine bar in Dalkey, a seaside village south of Dublin (and Bono's home town, though I was advised that mentioning that may inspire tax-avoidance grumpy talk from the locals). In both cases, not having planned ahead made spontaneous adventuring easier.
Pick a focus
You can't eat everything (sad fact) but you can eat one thing over and over again. That's how I became an expert on caneles, the custardy rum and vanilla pastries from Bordeaux. The streets around Place Gambetta are dotted with cake shops and I went from one to the next with missionary zeal, except in this case I was the one being converted, one sticky morsel at a time.
You can search Google Maps by topic (pastry shops, salad, steak, coffee, for example) and trawl through the listings. I don't necessarily trust reviews or ratings but you can get a decent impression of quality and interest through the various words and images that pop up.
Using the internet on the road is fraught, so here are lessons learnt via bill shock. Buy data packs rather than paying as you go but even then don't use your data with abandon because it's easy to run out. Wi-Fi is your friend. Reduce megabyte consumption by saving promising locations and downloading map areas before you head out and away from precious Wi-Fi.. Spookily but handily, even when you turn off mobile data, Google Maps still knows where you are so you can find your way via the little blue dot on your phone.
Go to a market
It doesn't matter where you are or when you're there, markets get you to the heart of a place and its food. On this trip, that meant the Queens Park Farmers' Market in London (new potatoes, asparagus, skate, cheesecake by the kilogram) and Marche Popincourt in Paris (gorgeous sunny-yellow corn-fed chickens with heads and feet left on, 10 types of pâté, juicy cherries to dribble down my chin, cheese, cheese, cheese). I love provisioning for picnics at markets but many have good eat-in possibilities too: Altrincham Market near Manchester served me the best fish pie of my life.
When you want to eat out but you're totally disorganised, booking sites such as OpenTable allow you to search by time and location so you can focus on what is available rather than what you're missing out on. A table at London's The Ledbury with an hour's notice? Yep, can do. Somewhere to meet friends near the Victoria and Albert Museum? Yes, that's how we ended up at Ognisko, a lovely Polish club with a gorgeous terrace. If you're really desperate, or you want to leave the teens at home, food delivery apps such as Deliveroo work in other countries too.
When you forget to collect a list of everyone else's hidden gems, you can just find your own. The stuff you stumble on is the best anyway. Wander. Turn left then right then left again. Look up. Go through that doorway. If you're in a suburban Airbnb, take advantage of the fact that you're away from tourist centres and explore the 'hood. That's how I found Meet Me in the Morning for Dublin's best brunch and two Paris places in the 11th arrondissement, The Beans on Fire for great coffee, and cosy bistro Le Square Gardette. I am now a regular at both in the Paris life of my dreams.
Etto good modern Irish; etto.ie
Meet Me in the Morning great green eggs and coffee; instagram.com/meetmeinthemorning
Neary's a storied Irish pub for Guinness investigations; nearys.iel
Ognisko elegant Polish food with a hidden terrace; ogniskopolskie.org.uk
NOPI Yotam Ottolenghi's restaurant, just beautiful in every way; ottolenghi.co.uk/nopi
Queens Park Farmers Market on every Sunday and great for wandering and brunching; lfm.org.uk/markets
Altrincham Market eat-in market hall with great pies, pizza and steak; altrinchammarket.co.uk
Boulangerie Utopie superlative sweet and savoury bakes; facebook.com/Boulangerie-Utopie
Marche Popincourt a local gem for seasonal produce and CHEESE!; equipement.paris.fr/marche-popincourt-5479
The Beans on Fire specialty coffee and a neat little breakfast menu; thebeansonfire.com
Merci a designer store with a heart-stopping second-hand bookshop cafe; merci-merci.com
Miznon the Marais' crazy, cool Israeli hangout; facebook.com/miznonparis
Le Square Gardette stylish neighbourhood hangout from morning to late; squaregardette.fr
yam'Tcha Michelin-starred French style, Chinese flavours, highly recommended; yamtcha.com