Europe | 10 Customs-Approved Food Souvenirs to Bring Home
I LOVE souvenirs. It’s a little piece of your trip to bring home and prolong that vacation high. I love exploring new places by way of the food culture, so it’s only fitting that I mostly collect food-related souvenirs. After a couple of recent trips to Europe, I have a pile of French, Italian, English, and Swiss goods that I’m hoarding. That’s the only problem with bringing home food items, isn’t it… when to you eat your precious relics? Well, that and getting your items confiscated by Customs. That’s a bummer (and an actual problem that can lead to huge fines). So here are some ideas for US Customs-approved food souvenirs you can bring home from your next trip to Europe.
1. Olive Oil
The Mediterranean region has prime real estate for producing some of the world’s best olive oils. Not that you can’t get Mediterranean olive oils readily in the States, but it feels more special to hand-pick a bottle close to the source. On my most recent trip, I chose a mini tin drum of A l’Olivier French olive oil infused with Menton lemon, a variety of lemon that only grows right by the border of France and Italy (in Menton, France).
Packing tips: I try to find tins rather than glass bottles so they’re less likely to break in my luggage. However, wrapping a glass bottle in bubble wrap or clothes and packing it in the middle of your suitcase usually does the trick. For a few dollars, you can also purchase inflatable or padded wine bottle bags that work just as well for olive oil bottles. Remember that all bottles over 3.4 oz must be placed in your checked luggage.
The word vinegar comes from the Old French words for “sour wine” (here’s my very scientific Google citation). The process of making wine vinegars processes grapes past the alcohol stage to form an acid, and like wine, it can be made many different varieties of grapes. Since Europe produces incredible grapes/wines, it’s only fitting that they have a pretty good vinegar game, too.
Italy is known for balsamic vinegar, specifically from the Modena region–“Aceto Balsamico di Modena.” This vinegar bears a Protected Geographical Status, but is still fairly common and not particularly expensive (though still better than your average store-bought balsamic). If you want to really do it big, look for “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena,” or “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia.” These vinegars have even stricter geographical restrictions and aging guidelines. But keep in mind that these “traditional” varieties often cost more than wine.
In other parts of Europe–especially France–look for other varieties of wine vinegar, like champagne, sherry, or even chardonnay. The single-variety vinegars (rather than more generic “white wine” and “red wine” blends) tend to be more expensive, but have greater subtleties in their flavor profiles.
Packing tips: Just like olive oil or wine bottles, wrap well with bubble wrap or clothes and pack in the middle of your checked bag. Wine bottle bags work well, too.
Condiments are the unsung heroes of the kitchen–they can make a dish go from drab to fab with just a spoonful. If you want to bring home a taste of France, author David Lebovitz says that dijon mustard is an essential pantry item for a more Parisian kitchen.
Grab a jar (or a few) of jams or jellies to give as gifts or to jazz up your next cheese plate. Or get a jar of English lemon curd and/or fruit preserves to recreate afternoon tea at home. It’s a bonus that the jars are usually pretty enough to save after the jam/jelly/curd is long gone. I brought home some strawberry & rhubarb jam from a French market that I plan to slather on toast, cheese, and pancakes if I can ever bring myself to open the jar.
Look for hot sauces, ketchup, relishes, or other prepared sauces, but make sure they don’t contain any meat.
Packing tips: Same thing goes with all of the other glass containers–pad them well and don’t pack them near the edges of your suitcase. Slip small jars (under 3.4 oz) into your carry-on luggage.
4. Spices + Salts
In my opinion, nothing sets a cuisine apart quite like the spices and seasonings used. They’re also easy to incorporate into your everyday cooking at home. A dash of Italian herbs or herbes de Provence can transform a dish (but keep in mind that these names are generic and the mixes can vary). The Provence region of France is a capital of lavender production; get some dried lavender for culinary use or for aromatic sachets. Not many spices originate from Europe, but Hungary is known for paprika. Though they don’t exactly fit in a category, I thought it was worth mentioning dried truffles and mushrooms, too. They make great additions to soups and stocks. Avoid blends with citrus leaves/seeds and lemongrass–Customs doesn’t like them.
Two of the best (and most famous) salts from Europe are French fleur de sel (“flower of salt”) and English Maldon. Fleur de sel is collected in Portugal, Spain, and a handful of other places, but the traditional French fleur de sel is most notably havested in Guérande (in Brittany). Maldon is harvested in Essex, England. Both are flake sea salts prized by chefs, and both come from regions that have harvested salt for hundreds of years. Either one makes an excellent gift for a foodie friend.
Packing tips: I recommend putting any spices or salts in a ziplock bag just to make sure they don’t spill everywhere. Packaging can sometimes burst from pressure changes on airplanes and cardboard packaging can get damaged, too, so an extra bag is a good precaution. While these items should get through security checkpoints in your carry-on luggage, know that they might still raise red flags in the x-ray machines. Make sure to keep separate from any liquids!
5. Tea or Coffee
Whether you’re a “but first, coffee” person or a pinkies-in-the-air tea drinking sort (or both!), you can certainly get your fix of specialty coffees and teas in Europe. Why not bring home some of that goodness? You can find coffee ranging from the commercially available Italian brand Illy to small batch roasters in alleyways–whatever suits your taste. Both roasted and unroasted coffee beans are allowed through Customs, as long as no pulp is attached (which you’re pretty unlikely to find).
England isn’t the only place that drinks tea, though they do it quite well. I ventured into a Swiss natural foods store and scored a bag of organic, loose leaf, Austrian tea that I love. Though I didn’t understand much of the German label, I felt pretty safe assuming that “pfefferminze” was peppermint, an ingredient I really like in tea. Even the free tea bags in hotel rooms can feel novel, so this souvenir doesn’t have to cost anything. Steer clear of loose barberry, coca, and citrus leaves, per the Customs guidelines.
Pro tip: If you really like the tea you have at afternoon or high tea in England, ask your server if you can buy a tin of it or if you can get information on where to buy it.
Packing tips: Wrapped tea bags are usually fine, but coffee and loose leaf tea might be in danger of spilling in your luggage. Placing it in a ziplock bag is usually a good idea. If your tea or coffee comes in a tin, make sure the lid is taped down. Checked or carry-on luggage works fine, but make sure to keep it separate from any liquids.
I don’t feel like I need to say a whole lot about this one. There is no arguing about whether or not you can find good chocolate in Europe. Bring it home for your personal stash, or make your friends/kids/parents/neighbors realllllyy happy with a chocolate gift. Some hotels will put chocolate on your bed with turndown service–another opportunity for a free souvenir.
Packing tips: Protect large bars from breaking by sandwiching them between two rigid items, like books. Make sure truffles or other fragile items are adequately padded/boxed (not just in a bag). Smushed truffles are sad things to discover once home. Packing your chocolate in a carry-on bag is always a good idea so that you can make sure it’s handled with care (and just in case you get hungry on your flight).
7. Caramels + Candies
From French caramels au beurre salé (salted butter caramels) and pâte de fruit to Swiss Toblerone to Turkish Delights to Swedish Plopp bars, Europe knows sweets. Feel free to bring home all the candy you want, but leave the Kinder Surprise Eggs in Europe–the toys inside the eggs got them banned in the US (choking hazard) and the fines for smuggling them in are STEEP. Try Kinder bars instead.
Packing tips: As I said with chocolate, make sure more fragile pieces are adequately padded/boxed. Candy is fine in checked or carry-on baggage.
8. Dried Fruit + Nuts
Aside from being a great snack, you can get your hands on some fun varieties of dried fruits and nuts at European markets. Think sun dried Italian tomatoes! Pine nuts! Dried Mediterranean apricots! Unfortunately you’ll have to get your fill of chestnuts from the street vendors because Customs requires a permit to bring them home.
Packing tips: These guys are usually pretty sturdy and well suited for travel (why I often pack them as snacks).
9. Dried Grains + Pasta + Flour
Relive your trip at home with a homemade meal of Italian pasta, French lentils, or Belgian waffles. Go simple with ready-to-boil dried pasta, or choose an interesting flour and get creative. I purchased a bag of organic farro flour at a Roman pizza place with plans for farro ravioli. Rice is allowed, but don’t be surprised if the Customs officials are persnickety about it since it can carry in pests–there’s also a fine for not declaring rice. If you’re bringing home lentils, it’s best to limit your purchase to 1 lb.
Packing tips: Any flours or grains are best double bagged to avoid spills. Pastas are best placed in carry-on bags to avoid breakage.
10. Cookies + Crackers
Scottish or English shortbread cookies! French macarons! Belgian Biscoff cookies! Italian biscotti! German pfeffernüsse! Danish butter cookies! Swedish Wasa crackers! You get it…
Most baked/processed cookies, crackers, cakes, granola, etc. are allowed by Customs as long as they don’t contain meat or uncooked eggs.
Packing tips: To avoid demolishing your cookies and crackers, place in carry-on luggage and try not to eat all of them before you get home.
Bonus: Market Basket
While not food, woven basket/totes are food-related… sort of. I’m dubbing this one (as seen in the photo above) the “market basket” because it’s much more chic than the reusable grocery bags I usually schlep to the farmers market. And the sloped sides are perfect for draping your delicate flowers or greens in your basket. These relatively inexpensive baskets can be found at any number of touristy shops throughout Europe.
No packing tips are necessary other than that I don’t recommend smashing it into a larger bag. If you’re like me, you’ll need the extra bag to carry all of your souvenirs home anyways 🙂
ALWAYS declare your food, even snacks you took from the plane. Most food is allowed, but the Customs agents will be much friendlier if you tell them up front what you have.
American travelers are allowed to bring up to $800 of goods per person into the U.S. without paying any additional duties or taxes (see here).
These rules apply for travelers bringing food into the U.S. for personal use only. You can check out the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website here.
A disclaimer: I did the best due diligence that I could, including reading the crazy documents and charts that Customs and TSA have on their websites. However, this is still just a guideline.