Morning’s Holy Grail: The Quest For Half & Half

Whether we realize it or not, in addition to luggage, most travelers carry a part of their homeland with them when they venture abroad.

Serious travelers want to experience the local culture – food, art, music and history. But we don’t totally re-invent ourselves in foreign countries. Habits from home cling to us, and these habits, by definition, are difficult to give up. For me, one of these habits is a good cup of coffee in the morning … with cream. Not milk, but light cream … or as it’s called in America – half & half.

So on most of our trips outside the US, one of the first orders of business is finding coffee cream. Not the healthiest of habits I know, but there you are.

Sounds simple enough – right? Cream comes from milk, which comes from cows, and everybody has cows. Following this logical path through the grassy meadow leads to the conclusion that every country should have cream. But, as I’ve learned the hard way, there are lots of different types of cream, many of which don’t belong in my coffee. When you don’t speak (or read) the language, the tough bit is figuring out which type of cream is the right one.

Kiev Milk Foray

One simple strategy for finding cream, that I’ve had to abandon, is looking at the label and packaging. For instance, this photo was taken in Kyiv, and the bottle on the right looks conspicuously like milk. The closeup shows a few cows, grazing peacefully in an idyllic meadow. The bottle has the classic milk-bottle shape, and contains a white liquid. It’s gotta be milk right? Wrong-a-mundo – it’s yogurt. As it turned out, the unique pyramid package on the left is actually milk, but not cream.

Isn't that a cow?

With all these product and language differences, I’ve had my share of mishaps. One classic blunder, which produced gales of laughter from Terri, was when I poured Alfredo sauce into my coffee in Florence. After this embarrassing episode, I vowed to taste the cream BEFORE adding it to my coffee. I’ve bought milk, sour cream, Crème fraîche, yogurt, whipping cream … and that tasty Alfredo sauce; thinking each would be perfect for my cuppa joe.

After a few weeks in Germany, I have it figured out. Sahne means cream, and the trick is to buy 10% – 15% fat. Any more makes it whipping cream. Venturing too far from plain sahne, gets me in trouble. I bought “Coffee Cream” but it was sweetened (like condensed milk).

One trick I’ve learned is to make my own half & half. The simple formula is half milk and half cream (usually whipping cream). This concoction cuts the percentage of fat, and Mr. Artery thanks me every time I do it.

So with trial and error, and some international improvisation, I usually get there. But it isn’t always pretty.

Are there products you use at home that are difficult to find abroad? What’s your Holy Grail? The girls are dying to hear.

Happy Trails,

Dairy Cows

Photo Credit: 1.  Jean Carlo Emer


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

66 thoughts

  1. Thom was very sad the last time we went abroad with two jars of peanut butter, and he had them confiscated by airport security. Sometimes you can get it abroad–in Poland it was no problem–but sometimes it is simply not to be found. That’s okay too, because we can live without it. I used to carry a small tin of powdered coffee with dried milk, but it contained partially hydrogenated oil, which I don’t consume at all any more. So I have learned to be happy with milk, because they do have that wherever we go.
    A very interesting post!

    1. I love peanut butter Naomi, and think that I could survive on it, so I can imagine Thom’s disappointment when security took his secret stash away. And on the coffee side, I usually pack some Nescafe. It isn’t great, but it prevents my having to leave the hotel room or apartment first thing in the search for coffee. ~James

    1. If I learned one thing living in the UK, it’s how discriminating the British are when it comes to their tea. And I can imagine that lots of your countrymen also carry a few bags in their luggage. BTW, how’s the trip to Turkey going? ~James

  2. Ah, this brings back memories, James ! Not so much of trying to find something we really wanted, but more of reactions from travellers to things local. We nearly fell off our chairs laughing scornfully when the father of a family from the deep south of the USA – growing daily more disgusted at the dairy products on offer in our Madrid hotel’s breakfast room – rose to his feet one morning and cried, waving his butter-knife in the air, “This butter is SORE !!!” We had found there to be indeed a slight taste of ‘off’-ness to all the dairy products; but as we doubted Madrid was on the turn, it didn’t bother us. We did miss Chic’s own seville marmalade; but happily when we got to France we found Bonne Maman, and bought a carload to take with it around Europe. 🙂

    1. When we travel we try to experiment with local foods as much as possible. And when we have an apartment, we enjoy cooking with new products. In Budapest, we discovered a goulash spice concentrate that came in a tube and it was wonderful. We got totally hooked, and of course, we couldn’t find it in the US. So, aside from the half & half, travel isn’t just about deprivation. ~James

  3. That’s very funny. (the Alfredo sauce especially). I travelled with friends that brought a Costco size jar of peanut butter with them which I thought was odd. We eat what the locals eat for the most part but I don’t eat meat and sometimes it is hard to get it across that I only want vegetables when we travel. It is getting easier these days as so many more people are vegetarians. I always enjoy a cafe con leche des-cafinado when in Spain.

    1. You’re the second person that’s mentioned peanut butter Darlene. It’s a good standby and I enjoy it, but personally, I’ve never traveled with it. As a kid I pretty much lived on it, but as an adult, given its calories and fat, I’ve tried to wean myself a bit. On the vegetables side, it can also be hard when traveling in areas that have sanitation issues. It’s particularly difficult to get your veggies (and avoid tummy problems) when traveling in places like Asia. It must be very challenging for strict vegetarians. ~James

  4. Love the Alfredo story! I’m always on the look out for good coffee (hard to find in corners of the world that are fixed on instant coffee powder). I crossed borders to get the good stuff when living in Zhuhai!

    1. In most of the places we travel, I’ve pretty much resigned myself to Nescafe. It doesn’t really taste like coffee, but it’s warm, sweet, (and with half & half) creamy. There are lots of cultures around the world that don’t have a coffee tradition, so it’s Nescafe to the rescue. ~James

      1. I’ve tried the Starbucks, and they are definitely better than Nescafe. But I know that eventually I’ll run out and be drinking Nescafe. So I soldier on and just start with the Nescafe. Sometimes, the apartments that we rent have a French press, and that’s wonderful. ~James

  5. Upon moving to Dubrovnik, I also embarked on a mission to find half and half. It does not exist here and have adjusted my coffee with milk. I found it was easier for me than trying to make my own. Still trying to learn the differences with the creams, yogurts and other dairy, it is ongoing for me.

    1. Carol, I don’t remember what I did for coffee cream when we visited Dubrovnik. But isn’t it interesting what a large array of dairy products are available, and how they change from country to country. Europeans seem to enjoy yoghurt much more than Americans, so this is the product that I look out for. I’ve bought it by mistake a few times. ~James

  6. It’s interesting the “milk” bottle contained yogurt. And what strange packaging for the milk. Is it a single serve container? I couldn’t imagine putting it in the fridge open. I’m with you on the 1/2 & 1/2, gotta have it for my coffee! Did the smell of the coffee alfredo reach your nose before the cup touched your lips?

    1. The Alfredo incident was pretty funny Laura. In Europe, many dairy products come in these small boxes. All the boxes look pretty much the same, and can contain milk, cream, and as I learned in Florence, pasta sauces. And no, I didn’t smell the sauce, but the coffee had a distinctly salty taste. THEN, I tasted the sauce and said to Terri: “This tastes crappy in my coffee, but it will be great on pasta.” ~James

  7. At home I drink brewed decaf, black, no sugar, in the morning and either espresso (made at home in a Nespresso machine) or an espresso macchiato (not that Starbucks abortion) out. I have found a proper macchiato can be difficult to come by. For some reason Greece has especially bad coffee, but much of Asia is problematic – although Vietnam has its own special coffee.

    Orange juice is another iffy item. I am currently in Romania and OJ has been hit or miss.

    1. I’m surprised about the OJ Kathy. Europeans seem to be much more into fruit juices than Americans, so there always seems to be a big selection. And I agree about coffee in Greece. We spent a month in Athens, and finding good coffee was a constant struggle. When I travel in Asia, I usually switch to tea, which is much more reliable than the coffee. ~James

  8. I certainly hope you haven’t poured the Arla product on the right bottom corner of the first picture into your coffee?! It’s savoury sour cream with the taste of garlic to be added to meat meals… (and if you insist trying it, please let me watch 😉 )

    1. On closer inspection Vilma, I probably would have picked up that this was savory, thanks to the garlic bulb on the package. Where I get into trouble is packaging with no photos or just a cow, and you’d be surprised how often that happens. The strange thing about the Alfredo sauce was that the word “Alfredo” didn’t appear anywhere on the box. The good news was that it made tasty pasta. ~James

  9. I used to NEED cream in my coffee and can imagine the lengths one would go to to find a proper supply while travelling.

    I used to drink tea religiously till I switched to black coffee a few years ago. My trip to China, I had no need of searching for anything. We’d brought snacks from home thinking we’d need something to chew on in the evenings. Breakfast coffee was great, both regular and decaf. Didn’t notice the cream situation as I don’t use it.

    1. We try to keep our luggage weight low, so usually we don’t carry food. The only exception is a few snacks for the day of arrival. Between the jet lag, and unknown locations of stores, restaurants, etc, we don’t want to be forced to go out to search for food. And the quest for cream is one of the little challenges I almost look forward to tackling. Usually, I’m guaranteed to get to try some new yoghurt flavor. ~James

    1. Honey is a wonderful thing to try locally. I remember on my first trip to the UK, how different the honey tasted from what I was accustomed to. I should have known this – different flowers, different flavor. Have you ever had orange-blossom honey. Oh yeah! Do you have a favorite? ~James

  10. James I laughed out loud at the Alfredo sauce one. Oh my goodness that cracked me up.
    My biggest challenge when traveling is that I don’t eat red meat. In many countries restaurants have done there best to convince me that pigs, wild boars and assorted other hog family members are not red meat. Even vegetable soup has it’s fair share of sausage finds. 🙂

    1. I take it that you didn’t fall for the pork industry’s marketing campaign that told everyone that pork was “the other white meat.” And I must admit that these German sausages are a real pleasure. I will have to go into brat rehab when I get home. ~James

  11. Once when dining in a traditional Thai restaurant in Bangkok, my ex and I helped ourselves to the bowl of herbs and seeds on the way out thinking it was a palate cleanser. I looked back to see the waiters snickering, probably saying, “Silly Americans, they are eating the potpourri!”

    I always brought back ketchup when living overseas. You can’t get good ketchup outside of the US.

    1. Wonderful, funny story Martha. Now I don’t feel so dumb drinking Alfredo sauce in my coffee. And I agree with you on the ketchup. It’s a total unknown, and other than tomatoes, who knows what’s going to be in it. ~James

  12. I think we can agree on the need for a good cup of coffee in the morning. I’m afraid Florence and I were spoiled during our time in Panama with some of the finest coffee in the world. It was inexpensive and so yummy that it was almost sinful to add cream or sugar (like adding diet Coke to 18 year old whiskey), so I don’t remember hunting for dairy products for our morning coffee.

    Dining out, cream and sugar were almost essential additives for what passes for coffee in some countries (including the bulk stuff sold in U.S. grocery stores). The drip coffee that Americans are accustomed to is rare in many countries unless you brew it at home. When we went out, Florence would order ‘Americano’ – espresso with hot water on the side, to get coffee that wasn’t too strong. I usually ordered cappuccino in Europe. Some of it was good – most of it was average. My favorite was at Costa, a fast-growing coffee chain in the UK.

    It must have been hilarious, the look on your face when you sipped coffee with Alfredo sauce. Yuk! – Mike

    1. Central America is a good place to get spoiled drinking really good coffee. We had particularly good java on our trip to Costa Rica. The Tarrazú was really great, and it’s hard to find in my part of the world. I try not to get obsessed about coffee when I travel, as tea is always a good backup and good tea can be had just about anywhere. My brewing method of choice is a French press, and luckily, most apartments we rent seem to have one. ~James

  13. Alfredo sauce? Now that is a classic blunder. We had some really nasty toothpaste in China so on the 2nd attempt I saw a tube with a green leaf on it. “This has to be mint!,” I declared. Turns out, it was green tea toothpaste. We then learned the symbols for tea and mint so as not to make such a mistake again. Note: you don’t want green tea toothpaste.

    1. Jeff in my working life I spent a few months in Beijing as part of a negotiating team trying to hammer out a contract with the Chinese government. Day after day we sat in a freezing cold room, facing the Chinese team. And the entire time, there was nothing to drink but green tea. It scarred me for life, and consequently, I don’t ever want to see another cup of green tea, or for that matter, have it show up in my toothpaste. ~James

  14. David, I’m in Paris again and just bought my coffee cream. Turns out is it cream but needs to be diluted by about 80% or I feel like I’m having ice cream in the morning. Maybe that should be a thing?

    1. I can relate Alison. Those heavy creams are only one step below ice cream, and they aren’t the kind of thing to have too often. But man, do they taste good right out of the carton. Oh yeah, I forgot. I’m not supposed to drink from the carton. ~James

  15. Alfredo sauce in coffee? Blllaaaggghhhhhhhhhh! What a fun post. My holy grail is usually something simple but necessary: clean water! I’m so afraid of the water in most foreign countries — not because it may not be sanitary — but because my stomach may not tolerate it, and the last thing I want to do is get sick on a tour bus!!! So bottled water for me – to drink, brush my teeth, etc.

    1. Rusha, for two years I drank water from the Nile (not by choice but by necessity), so I’ve had the whole Chinese menu of intestinal maladies. On my visits back to the US, the company doctor always had a room lined up for me. But these days, bottled water is available everywhere, and if there’s ever a question, I go bottled. But the biggest nuisance is totin’ all that heavy water around. When we travel in areas with unsafe tap water, I get so tired of carrying home big, heavy bottles of water. And on this topic, you might find this post that I wrote while in Laos funny.

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. We really enjoyed our time in Kyiv, but I have to admit that finding the right cream for my coffee was a challenge. But a bit of a challenge is one of the reasons we travel. ~James

  16. The first trip when we moved to China we loaded suitcases with clothes and my teaching resources. We added a few things not sure we could get like good conditioner, deodorant etc after asking some expats what we could and couldn’t get. At Christmas we went home and came back loaded with cereals and other must have tastes from home. Now our suitcases rarely have clothes on the return trip, but food. This year we had a large suitcase that we couldn’t leave behind since it is our last year here and would need it for the return journey. It was loaded with cereal, granola bars, favourite shampoo and a large pack of toilet paper. I thought the fellows at the airport who scanned that one would have a good giggle. Traveling you should and want to taste local things… and we have, but sometimes when you are home sick or just want something familiar you need these little nuggets. One local shop has capitalized on this and charge a small fortune for items from North America and Europe.
    Good tip on the cream… in China they drink tea, so they don’t do cream. I use instant coffee packets and sometimes I want real coffee with cream and not have to pay a small fortune for the extra strong Starbucks.

    1. You make points that I can definitely relate to. There are tourists, travelers, and expats. I’ve been all three, and being an expat is a totally different deal than traveling. I’m sure that I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but as an expat you have a different yard stick. Having a few comforts from home doesn’t mean you aren’t experiencing the local culture. It just means that you’re having a few comforts from home. When we lived in Sudan under Sharia Law, the first sip of illegal beer that I had at an embassy party was nectar from the gods. Successful expats adapt, adjust, and assimilate, but that doesn’t mean becoming a different person. Thanks for a great comment and for reminding me of all the folks out there that are real travelers. ~James

      1. Thanks James. I have learned to pack light and being an expat and carrying heavy bags filled to the brim with comforts from home always makes me feel the need to explain… I won’t get home for a year, I never pack so much, but it costs way to much or is unavailable… Being an expat has allowed us a lot of travel opportunities so its all good whenever you get to see another place 🙂

  17. I can also relate to this…My problem is that I avoid dairy products and given how hard it often is to find I’ve packed tetra packs of soya milk in my luggage – really heavy! I do now enjoy my coffee and tea black in a pinch.

    1. On this trip, in both Germany and Denmark, soy milk has been readily available in larger supermarkets. Not only are they heavy, but for me, I try to keep the liquids in my luggage to a minimum. And I do carry-on so the liquids have to pass security. ~James

    1. I’ve never been a big fan of powdered milk Curt, and luckily, haven’t had to use it much. But Africa forces lots of those “this, that, or nothing” decisions. In my experience, it was a lesser-of-the-evils choice. We were lucky in that my company had a deal with a commissary, so we had access some stuff imported from Greece (frozen meat, etc). And in fact, that was where I got grape juice for making my illegal wine. ~James

  18. I love UNsweetened iced tea. Plain and simple. When we visited the eastern side of Lake Superior in Canada last summer I was hard pressed to find it. Any kind of iced tea, when we went out to eat. I do not drink soda but I love a bit of caffeine daily. So I had to find tea at the grocery and make my own over the campfire. Simple thing but I drink iced tea daily and was willing to do what I had to for a glass 🙂

    1. Amy, iced tea is such a staple in the south, it would be near scandalous for any kind of establishment not to have it. Why it just wouldn’t be right. And tea made over a campfire, you are a serious devotee. Remember sun-brewed tea? When we lived in Dallas, the hot Texas sun could make some wicked sun-brewed tea – in a hurry. ~James

  19. Love it! My bugaboo is having ice in my drinks. I want my Coca-Cola in a glass filled to the brim with ice. And we take our peanut butter and jelly with us. What we had trouble getting in Iceland was a bottle of wine. There are special stores that are only open a few hours a week – just never connected up. C’est la vie.

    1. Bugaboo, I love that word Pam. I’m with you on the ice in drinks issue. Americans and our ice fetish – most Europeans think this is pretty weird and don’t understand. I had this explained to me as: If you’re drinking a cold Coke, for instance, why would you want to put in ice to dilute it and deprive you of some of the Coke you’ve paid for?” Logically, this makes total sense, but I still like ice in my drink – especially the happy hour variety. ~James

  20. Haha this is so funny! I’m going to Nepal this coming summer and I’m debating whether or not I need to bring a jar of my beloved peanut butter with me!

    1. I don’t remember from my travels in Nepal Meg, but I’m pretty sure that you won’t be able to find peanut butter; so if you’re taking a jar, make it a big one. And enjoy your stay in Nepal. It will be fun and a real eye-opener. ~James

  21. I too must have cream for my coffee, but I must admit to using heavy cream. I don’t shy away from saturated fat but also don’t consume hugh amounts. When I do buy heavy cream, I buy organic cream from pasture-fed cows. I don’t believe it is the cream so much as how the cow is fed and how the cream is processed. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it! 🙂

    1. You’re a woman after my own heart LuAnn. I have used heavy cream as well, but honestly, it tastes so good that I try not to get accustomed to it. It certainly perks up a cup of mediocre Nescafe. ~James

      1. I believe everyone has to have one (or a few) guilty pleasures. This, for me, is a great way to start my day and then I try to behave myself the rest of the day. I am not always successful of course! 🙂

  22. I do like my lattes. Thankfully, America’s Starbucks has spread across most of the glob so I am usually in luck if the locals don’t understand milky coffee. Italy, however, is heaven for latte lovers.

    1. You’re right about Italian coffee Marie. In my experience, the Italians will not tolerate bad coffee. You can go into the smallest train station in the country, walk up to the coffee bar, and get a really tasty cup of coffee – cappo, latte, whatever. Of course, you have to elbow your way up to the bar, but it’s worth it for the coffee. ~James

  23. Oh my goodness I can relate to this so much. Ask me how I once managed to make lamingtons with milo and dried apple. I wish I could think of a more disgusting solution off the top of my head but all I can think of is… no wait! I think I once tried to make fish ball noodles with marzipan balls (or something). There you go. 🙂

    1. Bronwyn, one of the rewarding things about writing this post is finding out that I’m not the only one that obsesses about this sort of stuff. I love all the novelty of travel, but sometimes a bit of comfort from home is nice as well. Marzipan noodles sound delish! ~James

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