The malty, buttery, yeasty aroma of baking bread can lure even the most carb-conscious traveler into following their nose. Bread, in all its forms, smells like comfort, warmth, and home. A staple in almost every culture on the planet, bread is even believed to be the first human-prepared food: Sumerians may have been baking leavened bread 8,000 years ago, and evidence of starchy plants pounded on flat rocks dates back more than 20,000 years before that.
Parisians take pride in their airy baguettes, San Franciscans sing the praises of the city’s sourdough, and no matter how you slice it, sampling the local signature bread is a great way to get a sense — and taste — of a place. Here are seven places around the world that take their dough seriously — plus recipes to bake these specialties at home.
Focaccia Con il Formaggio: Recco, Italy
While focaccia usually summons visions of Genoa’s pillowy flatbread with olive oil pooling on its dimpled surface, the seaside city of Recco on the Italian Riviera has a very different but no less delicious variation. Focaccia di Recco features a layer of creamy stracchino cheese sandwiched between pieces of dough stretched so thin that you can see through it.
Blasted quickly in a burning-hot oven, the focaccia is a marvelously messy treat. Restaurant Panificio Moltedo has been making its version of the cheesy bread since 1874, while upscale Pizzeria del Ponte has become popular enough to expand into Genoa and Milan. Try baking the bread yourself with this recipe.
Ruisleipä (Finnish Rye Bread): Helsinki, Finland
We can’t swear that this hearty yet healthy rye bread is the reason Finns are the happiest people in the world, but a slice of this dense and delicious sourdough — slathered with cultured butter, of course — is sure to put a smile on your face. Rye grows faster during Finland’s short growing season than wheat, and ruisleipä (which means “rye bread” in Finnish) is made from 100% dark rye flour and traditionally fermented in a wooden bucket called a taikinatiinu.
After the bread is baked as a flat disk with a hole in the middle (then hung to dry and age), it’s known as ruisreikäleipä. Founded in 1914, Kanniston Leipomo now has six locations in Helsinki, and is among the capital’s most beloved bakeries. In the historic neighborhood of Töölö, small but mighty Helsinki Homemade Bakery also makes the “best of” lists. Home bakers can find a recipe for the rye bread here.
Pão de Queijo (Cheese Puffs): Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Cheese is an almost universally beloved addition to bread, and pão de queijo is no exception. A cousin to French gougères, these petite, gluten-free dough balls are made using the same technique, with eggs beaten into a milk-and-flour dough with grated parmesan. The dough is made with cassava or tapioca flour, and the resulting puffs are breadier than airy gougères — making leftovers perfect for sandwiches.
Although they’re easy to whip up at home, residents of Rio flock to Cultivar Brasil. Located in the neighborhood known as Santa Teresa, the humble brunch and lunch spot is the undisputed king of making a mean pão de queijo — and the coffee is great, too.
Aish Baladi (Egyptian Flatbread): Cairo, Egypt
One of the oldest breads in the world, the Egyptian flatbread known as aish baladi was feasted on by the pharaohs, and is still the national bread of the North African country. Originally made with emmer, an ancient strain of wheat known as farro in Europe, aish baladi is now made with whole wheat flour and baked in scorching ovens.
Similar to a pita, the bread is found everywhere from street markets to the Four Seasons hotel in Cairo. Fast-casual chain Zooba opened in Cairo 10 years ago, and its aish baladi and other Egyptian street foods are now sold across the country and all the way to New York. Grab a baking stone and try baking your own aish baladi at home using this recipe.
Laugenbrezeln (Soft Pretzels): Munich, Germany
Pretzels for breakfast? In Bavaria, a plate-sized pretzel with weisswurst (veal sausage) and a dollop of mustard are as familiar on a breakfast table in Germany as bacon and eggs are in the U.S. The secret to the pretzel’s sleek, brown coating is lye — a powerful alkali used to create soap. The twisted dough is briefly dipped in a lye-and-water bath, which causes the browning but leaves the inside dough soft and chewy. (The heat of the oven neutralizes the caustic chemical.)
Salted and served warm, the laugenbrezel, or German soft pretzel, is an integral accompaniment to the steins served in Munich’s beer halls, like Hofbräuhaus. The Rischart family has been making the slightly sweet pretzels for five generations, creating a bakery empire and devoted fans who wait in long lines to buy the signature butter pretzels. If you want to try making your own, King Arthur has an authentic recipe.
Bagels: Montréal, Canada
New Yorkers will beg to differ, but the capital of Québec has a vibrant bagel scene, leading to bitter bakery rivalries and devoted fans proclaiming the superiority of their favorite flavor. What distinguishes the bagels of Montréal from those found in Manhattan?
Smaller, sweeter, and crunchier than their New York counterparts, Québecois bagels are typically made with an egg-based dough, boiled in honey water, coated in sesame seeds, and baked in a wood-fired oven. If you make the bagels at home, you’ll have no competition. But in Montréal, you must choose a side: St-Viateur or Fairmount? Like the Yankees and the Mets, you can only love one.
Injera: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Ethiopia’s thin, spongy, and slightly sour fermented flatbread made of teff flour is both an edible base for spicy and savory stewed meats and vegetables, as well as a utensil for transferring those tasty bites. Diners tear off a coaster-sized piece of injera, and use it to cover and pinch a bite or two of stew, bringing it to their mouths without touching the food with their fingers.
Naturally gluten-free, teff is one of the earliest cultivated grains — high in both protein and fiber. In the capital of Addis Ababa, fans flock to Yod Abyssinia and Totot for traditional Ethiopian fare, including injera, as well as tej (honey wine). Allow three or more days if you want to make injera at home; you’ll need to make a starter to get the unique sour taste.