Archive | November 2012

Sour grapes at Brown Brothers

Amazing wines from across the globe, all in one place: Brown Brothers.

I thought I knew wineries, before I went to Australia. Dank caves and musty cellars in rural France, where even the air was 12 percent proof and where devious old ladies would pour you so much free tipple that you’d find yourself happily drunk and in possession of sixteen bottles of Chateau Whatever. A wine that seemed awfully delicious in Saint-Lunatique but that, at home, has lost all its charm and barely makes it into a stew. Or is only useful as a gift to people you don’t really like that much.
Don’t snigger: we’ve all done it! And most of us who have done wine tastings in Europe will recognize the experience. Although I must say that there are many, many wonderful and lovely winemakers with charming tasting rooms and great wines. But about them I will write another time.
Wine tasting in Europe is a very down-to-earth sort of thing, but then, in countries like France, Italy and Spain, wine isn’t seen as something to be snobbish about. I had heard horror stories from friends who had ‘done’ the Napa Valley in California though and found it to be impossibly snooty, overprices and really no fun at all.
So it was with a sense of trepidation that I entered the tasting room at Brown Brothers, in rural Victoria, a mere three hours north of Melbourne. Australian wine could for me, up until then, be summarized in one word: cheap. And quite frankly, I was quite sick and tired of the thick buttery Aussie Chardonnays from the supermarket. So, I was not really expecting much, yes I apologize for that.
Imagine my surprise when I was confronted with the massive, massive range of wines at Brown Brothers. It seemed as if every single grape that had been cultivated in Europe, had found its perfect new home in Australia. Grapes you did not find in one and the same province, let alone country, happily grew side by side. And -shock! horror!- were BLENDED into ungodly, unholy mixtures!
I just could not get my head around it. Who would blend a noble Riesling from Germany with the zesty Verdelho from Portugal? What crazy mind stirred Viognier in with Gewurztraminer?
Of course, the proof of the pudding was in the eating, and I took my first sip… And another… and another…
Long story short, it wasn’t even 10:30 am and I was happily tipsy already. I chatted with the lady behind the counter, who kept on pouring me delicious wine after heavenly nectar, and apparently I came across as this savvy bigshot European wine connaisseur. Which I really am not, I just happen to know what I like and what grape to expect it from, that’s more than enough oenology for me!
So, I got invited for a special occasion: they were about to uncork the first batch of their brand new Nebbiolo range. Yes, Nebbiolo, the noble grape that creates the black and seductive Barolo wine. Another emigrant that thrived in the Victorian climate.
And now you expect another euphoric paragraph about how wonderful that Nebbiolo was. Well… it was awful. Like licquorice drenched with vinegar, it was sour and astringent and just yukky. Which winedrinkers know of course: a young Nebbiolo is just undrinkable, it takes ten years or more to become rich and velvety and delicious.
So I left Brown Brothers, head spinning with new knowledge and certainly the equivalent of a bottle of wine in tastings… with a bag full of desert wine and a nasty taste in my mouth from that very young Nebbiolo. And that was 12 years ago… and I am just kicking myself that I did not buy some Brown Brothers Nebbiolo back then. Because right now, it would have been absolutely gorgeous.

Fayonnaise… or Fail-o-naise?

Look in any Dutchman’s fridge or pantry, and you will probably immediately notice it: a large jar of mayonnaise. We are besotted with the stuff! We consume mayonnaise in artery-clogging quantities, especially on fries.’Patat mét’ (Fries with) is the essential Dutch street food, the snack of choice for millions. And no, I am not referring to the thin limp lukewarm travesty that you get at fastfood chains (who do not deserve to be mentioned by name in this blog!) No: proper ‘patat’ is thick, chunky, made from fresh potatoes that have been twice fried. Piping hot in a pointed paper bag, with a generous dollop of mayonnaise on top.

Sidebar: of course the Dutch have -along with the Belgians- invented countless ways of eating fried potatoes. Our colonial Indonesian heritage introduced us to peanut sauce (as is eaten with satay) and somewhere in history and enterprising Dutch gourmet apparently discovered that warm spicy peanut sauce is simply gorgeous with ‘patat’. Later still, even more avant-garde snack lovers combined the peanut sauce with mayonnaise ánd chopped onions to create the most delicious -or vile- snack ever: ‘Patatje Oorlog’: ‘War fries’. Which turn every stomach into a battle zone!

‘Patatje Oorlog’: the infamous Dutch ‘War Fries’.

Anyway, back to mayonnaise. A very simple sauce made of egg yolks, oil, salt, a drop of vinegar and some patient vigorous whisking. And yes, self-made mayonnaise really is nicer than anything you can buy in the supermarket. I make my mayo the easy way: everything together in a beaker -I use the whole egg, not just the yolks, that gives a much lighter and airier sauce!-, put in the immersion blender, a quick bzzzz, slowly pull the blender out, hey presto! But if you feel like doing it he traditional way by dripping in the oil drop by drop, go ahead and knock yourself out.

I have noticed that in the English speaking world, mayonnaise is well known and readily available… but just not used on fries. Instead people seem to prefer ketchup or tomato sauce, or vinegar or even worse: brown sauce. All the spawn of Satan of course to a real European food lover! When I was in Australia for the first time in november 2000, my partner and I were on our way from Sydney to Melbourne by car. An endless drive, and I was happy to stop at a roadside eatery and stretch the legs. And yum yum, they had nice thick chunky chips on the menu!

Foolish me: I then dared to ask for some mayonnaise with my chips. I knew they had mayonnaise, because they were selling sandwiches with chicken and mayo. The obese lady behind the counter looked at me as if I had just asked her to vomit on my chips. Baffled, she even got the chef out of the kitchen and asked me to kindly repeat the outrageous thing I had just asked for. Mayonnaise please. Yes, to go with the chips. I will even give you a dollar extra. The chef asked me if I did not mean to ask for tomato sauce instead. Or perhaps some mustard? No, I remained adamant: it was mayo wanted and I was not going to leave without it. After a minute of intense debate, the chef yielded and gave me a spoonful of the pale golden sauce I so craved for. But all the time I was eating, he, the obese checkout lady as well as several of the local clientele glared at me as if I was in the movie Priscilla and had just walked in wearing a dress made of slippers. I bet that to this day they regale eachother with stories of the Day That Strange European Guy Asked For Mayonnaise With His Chips.

Was that the worst mayo-related anecdote from Australia? It was until 2010, when we came over to Oz to celebrate Christmas with the inlaws. My mother in law, Fay, is a great cook. Nobody bakes a roast like she does, and her pork crackling is to die (or to kill -yes sister-in-law Kerry, I am referring to you!) for. So when I was helping out in the kitchen preparing a salad, I asked her if she had any salad dressing or vinaigrette. ‘Use mayonnaise!’, she chirped, ‘I just made a jar full of it!’. Yummm, home made mayonnaise, I prefer that any day over Hellman’s bland goo. I was surprised it looked slightly orange, and it smelled… well… sweet. Not like mayonnaise. Tentatively, I put a teaspoon in and licked some of Fay’s mayonnaise off it…

My tongue must have recoiled back as if it was springloaded! Fay’s mayonnaise did not just smell sweet… it was! It turned out she had used a recipe -chemical formula, more like- from the war, when apparently there were no eggs or oil around. She had made mayonnaise from condensed milk and vinegar, with a dollop of marmalade to make it even more inedible.

It was the most revolting thing I had ever tasted and I am afraid my face told Fay so. She was deeply insulted I did not approve of her Fayonnaise, as I called it. We did manage to patch things up over the following weeks, but secretly I think she may still not have forgiven me. Oh well. We’re going there again in a few months time, time will tell… I am almost tempted to give Fayonnaise another try. Not on fries, but as a cake frosting!

Korean courage and karaoke

Almost every self-respecting country in the world produces at least one type of ‘national drink’. Though more often than not these drinks are really nothing but some awful commercial concoction with a vaguely touristy label. If the locals don’t drink the stuff themselves, it’s NOT a national drink, sorry.

On the other hand, if a drink is really ONLY drunk by locals and shunned by the tourists, and as good as unavailable in the rest of the world, then you really have found a national tipple. One such famous drinks is the notorious Makgeolli from South Korea. They probably have it in North Korea as well, but I wasn’t fortunate -or interested- enough to travel in that forbidden country.

In 1995 I was given the opportunity to travel to South Korea, as a guest of Hyundai who were launching a new car. And on the first evening I was one of the jetlagged guests at a giant banquet in the gardens of the sumptuous Cheju Shilla resort on Jeju Island, Korea’s version of Hawaii. There, I was surprised to receive a welcome drink of murky slop from a gourd. It looked like watery milk with a slightly cream-coloured tinge, and it gave off a fresh yeasty scent. I remembered that scent all too well from tapé, the fermented and slightly alcoholic rice desert my Chinese-Javanese grandma used to make, and that kept us nice and quiet as children. So I did not hesitate to have a drink. I also did not want to offend our Korean hosts like some of my less civilized Dutch colleagues did. I will never cease to cringe at the Dutch inability to travel without trampling toes, but that is another topic that shall be dealt with another time.

The fermented rice-wine Makgeolli should be served with a gourd.

The taste was pleasantly refreshing, slightly sour and not too alcoholic, or at least so it seemed. There was a definite hint of sake, the more famous and commercial rice wine from Japan. I liked this ‘mokkalie’ as we called it. Korean is a notoriously hard language to transcribe and unlike the Chinese who standardized matters by forcing the Pinyin transcription rules onto the entire world (hence Canton became Guangzhou), you can basically spell Korean any way you fancy. Makgeolli seems to be the common English form though. Whatever.

Unlike most colleagues, who after a first polite taste (or rude refusal) switched to their boring imported European lager, I decided to stick with Makgeolli for the rest of the evening. I actually really grew to like the drink, more and more, and that made a very favorable impression on the Korean hosts with whom I shared a table. Was it Korean courage, that prompted me to grab the karaoke microphone a little later, and warble ‘Careless whisper’? I have no idea, I do remember scornful looks from the lager-drinking Dutch and even more so from the Germans who were terribly shy. Then, the opening bars of ‘La Bamba’ started, and there was no way I was going to leave the stage. Instead, a Korean gentleman from our table jumped on the stage beside me, and together we duetted what must have been the worst version of La Bamba ever. The other Koreans present went ballistic over our performance and afterwards my Korean duet partner and I hugged and abandoned the stage to make room for a large crowd that insisted on singing ‘We are the world’.

Five days later things were very, very different. The colossal headache I woke up with after the Makgeolli-fueled karaoke-spectacle had left me after a day, the embarrasment was still very much alive, and my Dutch colleagues made little effort to hide their disdain. We were visiting the Hyundai headquarters that day and were all in our suits and ties. One colleague was boasting that he was going to interview the second-in-command at Hyundai, who in a hierarchical society like the Korean one was something like the left hand of God.

Things turned out very, very different indeed.

When we greeted the Hyundai high-and-mighty, politely bowing and handing over our calling cards with both hands, as we had been taught, I was scrutinized by a middle-aged Korean man with titanium glasses and an expensive suit. ‘You have a very nice voice’, he said, out of the blue. I was confused and looked at the vice-president of Hyundai… and suddenly recognized my duetting partner from he karaoke night! Let me just end this long story by saying that I ended up getting that exclusive interview, and my arrogant colleague who had felt too good for Korean booze and karaoke, was politely sent packing.

See? When in Rome -or Seoul- drink as the Romans do. And sing like a bird!

What’s in a name… bitterballen

If you asked me what the culinary legacy of the Netherlands is, I would probably fall silent. My country does not boast a world-famous cuisine. We do not produce stunning wines, and our traditional delicacies form a metaphor for our country in general: wet, dull and without high points. Stodgy stews and thick soups rule the roost in the traditional Dutch kitchen, with the odd ‘stamppot’ thrown in.

But we do have a few culinary gems here, oh yes. It’s just that we do not export them. We tend to keep the good stuff for ourselves in Holland. And send the mass-produced crap out all over the world. The Dutch cheese you get outside of Holland is invariably soapy, orange and would not even be put in a mousetrap in the Netherlands. Edam may be the famous Dutch cheese, but the Dutch won’t touch Edam with a bargepole. Gouda is infinitely better, especially the cured ones. But we barely produces enough of the good stuff for the domestic market so the rest of the world gets the industrial grade cheap stuff.

The same goes for beer. A Dutch beer may well be one of the most well known in the world (I dare not mention its name just in case some bigshot lawyer reads this), but the smaller boutique beers are infintely more tasty.

The delicacy I find the most iconic Dutch food, and would even consider Holland’s gift to the world is the bitterbal (plural: bitterballen). Yes, that translates quite literally to what you think, but there is nothing bitter about them. In old Dutch, the word ‘bitter’ is used to describe any stiff drink, especially jenever, the Dutch equivalent of gin. These tasty deep-fried snacks are an excellent accompaniment to afternoon beers. Go to any Dutch café, whether it is one of the ‘brown’ kind or a glitzy minimalist ‘grand café’, and you will see the waiters whizz about with tray upon tray of these brown round balls, more often than not accompanied by mustard and Dutch-flag toothpicks.

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I love bitterballen. So much so that I cannot bring myself to even calling them anything else. Bitter balls? No thank you! If you can say ‘tagliatelle carbonara’ and ‘coq au vin’, I insist you can also make the effort to say ‘bitterballen’! Dutch is not that hard!

Whenever we have guests from abroad in Holland, we take them to one of our favourite cafés (De Posthoorn in Den Haag for instance) and treat them to a plate of bitterballen. People love them! They go crazy over them! Which makes it all the more baffling that the bitterbal has yet to conquer the world. They are só much nicer than those cardboardy falafel balls yet you can buy those on every street corner. Absurd. The world needs bitterballen!

Maybe the problem is that they are far from easy to make. Basically an bitterbal is a ball of thick ‘ragout’; a roux-based sauce with lots of soft succulent beef or veal in it, that has been slow-cooked until it falls apart in threads. That thick roux is then rolled into balls, frozen, covered in batter and breadcrumbs and then deep-fried. I know nobody who makes their own bitterballen, that’s how complicated it is. We all just go and buy frozen ones from the supermarket. Or better still: we go to a café, order some nice beers -Belgian more often than not!- and polish off a dozen of these brown crispy warm delicacies.

If ever you come to the Netherlands: do yourself a big favour and order bitterballen with your drinks. You will thank me for it.