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Square plates, narrow minds

An abomination. According to the dictionary, that is ‘something that causes disgust or hatred’. Are we talking about Russia’s anti-gay reign of terror? Are we talking about Syria’s use of poison gas on its own population? Was this word perhaps used to describe the ongoing practice of fracking? No. This word was used by William Sitwell to describe how he feels about food that is being served on square plates.

Really William Sitwell, can't you fuss over something more worthy?

Really William Sitwell, can’t you fuss over something more worthy?

William Sitwell is an employee of a large UK supermarket chain, and as such he writes all sorts of inoffensive and  informative articles for the in-store magazine, that are solely meant to make people buy a certain product. It has nothing to do with journalism, but everything with marketing. For some obscure reason, Sitwell was chosen years ago to become a regular food critic on Masterchef, and his bespectacled face has become a regular guest in our household since then. And it seems that the rise to tv fame has gone to Sitwell’s head.

Suddenly, he sees himself as a real food critic instead of a glorified supermarket checkout girl. Someone, who must leave his mark, someone who could be directional when it comes to steering British cuisine into the 21st century. And so, he has started to have opinions, and to value them, and to impose them on others, in short: he had become a Proper Food Critic.

If great cooking is a pure act of love -and that’s how I see it anyway- then food criticism is all about murdering that love. The food critic in general is a sad, joyless creature, who has long ago blurred the lines between being witty and being cynical, and who really only lights up when he finds fault in a certain dish, so he can then start his verbal assassination. Food critics only have few words to praise a meal, but millions of ways to say what they do not like. The more expensive the restaurant, the more absurd the scrutiny they’re under. Peas not all of the same size? Abomination! Slightly lumpy mashed puree/celeriac/swede/parsnip (oh, the UK and its enduring love of baby food!)? Abomination!

The animation film ‘Ratatouille’ was definitely not one of Pixar’s greatest, but one thing they did do well was how they portrayed the food critic Anton Ego, a self-inflated ball of bile and cynicism, always trying to find fault in whatever he eats (for free) and then of course finding it. I’m afraid real life food critics (and yes, I know a few in person) are more like Anton Ego than they would dare to admit.

Anton Ego hits closer to home than most critics would dare to admit

Anton Ego hits closer to home than most critics would dare to admit

Once, these food critics probably really loved food, and appreciated it. But they have taught themselves to suppress their enojoyment and to be ruthless killjoys, in the name of journalism. Heaven forbid, after all, the food critic gets accused of having a cushy easy job, with lovely free meals in expensive restaurants! Oh no, we mustn’t think that! No, it’s hard work to have to struggle through a slightly underseasoned saddle of venison, or to have to plough through yet another dodgy crème anglaise (custard to us commoners). And to then sit down and shoot the whole meal down in flames, that’s seriously hard work!

The joyless trio of the Great British Menu

The joyless trio of the Great British Menu

Take a programme like the Great British Menu for instance. There, three regular critics get to taste the creations of the chefs… but all they really do is try and outwit and outsmary… and outcriticize one another. If Prue Leith says she loves a certain aspect of a dish, it’s the signal for suspiciously thin (I believe people who say they love food ought to look like they do!) Oliver … to quip that it is completely awful, and then Matthew Fort chimes in with his posh accent and slightly effeminate manner that is so common in upper middle class Brits, to really destroy the entire dish just for the sake of being witty. It is as depressing as it is predictable, and I am sure that the critics in question don’t even realize how miserly they come across to a public that probably never ate venison sweatbreads or pickled grouse tongue and can only afford fish fingers.

I am sure William Sitwell used to be a kid that loved food, and that was excited to try new things and flavors. But now he too has turned into this unpleasant ogre, this food-Scrooge, who is cynical just for the sake of it, or because that is what a Serious Journalist is supposed to be. And one morning he woke up with a bright idea to carve a name out for himself in the overcrowded world of food writers. He would begin his very own crusade… against something nobody had thought of before. A crusade against square plates. Square, he reasons, goes against what is natural. An abomination!

Let me say this very clear. Nobody gives a toss about what sort of plate food gets served on as long as it’s clean and big enough. I have had great food from round, square, rectangular, oval, oblong, triangular, octagonal, parallellopippidoic plates. Plates that were made from porcelain, majolica, terracotta, glass, plastic, melamine, cardboard, slate and recycled potato peels. If William Sitwell has truly reached the stage, where he fusses more over the shape of a plate than about the food that’s on top of it, then really, he hasn’t got anything left to write or complain about.

I suggest he retires, before he starts complaining about the diabolical evil that is the three-pronged fork.

Say cheese! Or kaas…

I love cheese. There. I said it. I wouldn’t be much of a Dutchman if I didn’t… my country produces the best cow-milk cheeses in the world. Keep your cheddars, your Gruyères and your Emmental… it’s Gouda that wins it for me every single time. Preferable an aged Gouda, almost as crumbly as Parmezan, with crunchy salt crystals locked inside its yellow insides. There is nothing more delicious and rich than that. Kaas, that’s what we call it.

Old Gouda, the best cheese there is

Old Gouda, the best cheese there is

Chances are you have never had a proper piece of Dutch chees (unless you are in Holland).That has many reasons, the main one being that we keep the best stuff for ourselves. The Dutch cheese we export is, well, awful. Especially Edam. I have yet to meet a Dutchman who eats Edam cheese. It may be pretty-looking, those cute red bowling-balls, but we Dutch consider Edam for tourists only. Gouda is king, and the best Gouda doesn’t even come from anywhere near that city. Anywhere in Holland will do, actually. Rich pastures enough! But even exported Gouda is horrible; soapy, orange and cheddar-like. Avoid! And come to Holland to try the real stuff.

Edam: pretty but only for tourists

Edam: pretty but only for tourists

Anyway, enough with the chauvinism. Every country has its own wonderful cheeses in Europe. France has got thousands even, made from milk from cows, goats and sheep, and sometimes a blend of these. You have big hard yellow cheeses, soft fruity white ones, pungent orange ones with a sticky rind, and fragrant blue cheeses. A rainbow of cheese, literally. And I love almost all of them.

France, cheeselover's heaven

France, cheeselover’s heaven

Whenever I travel, I go out of my way to try the local cheeses. Not from the supermarket, but from the farmers, or from little épiceries. And I have made wonderful discoveries that way, plus quite a few disappointents. To start with the latter… I have yet to find a cheese in the Czech Republic that has some flavor to it, and the Turkish cheeses are also a delicacy that is entirely wasted on me. But a real fresh Greek feta cheese, eaten on a terrace overlooking some deep blue expanse of Aegean, with a crisp white wine on the side… that’s truly the food of gods.

Feta cheese in Greece... heavenly

Feta cheese in Greece… heavenly

And then there is Australia. Oh dear. Australia. In Australia you can either have fantastic, artisanal farm-made cheese, for which you pay absolute fortunes… or you buy cheese in the supermarket like 99% of the people, and then you have the most awful factory-made stuff you can imagine. Australia loves processed cheeses, like Americans do. Cheese that basically has melted and resolidified in square blocks, which is then sliced and individually wrapped in plastic (!), and which melts in ten seconds when shoved in a toaster oven. It’s the same sort of ‘cheese’ that fastfood restaurants slap on top of their cheeseburgers. It’s yellow, it’s gooey… and that’s where the resemblance to proper cheese ends. I was utterly disgusted, and to my dismay the producer of this cheese-travesty had had the gall to call it ‘Tasty Cheese’. Tasty? No sir, it is not. ‘Bland’ is the kindest adjective I can find, but ‘Revolting’ is more truthful. America is -as always with food- even worse. There, processed cheese is very much the norm, in all kinds of light varieties even. I prefer to stick a Post-It memo on my sandwich. Yellow, square and even fewer calories! Worst is cheese that comes in an aerosol, called ‘Eazy Cheeze’. Because it’s so difficult to cut a slice of cheese, apparently. Nuff said.

You might as well eat Post-Its...

You might as well eat Post-Its…

My partner knows how particularly spoilt I am when it comes to cheese, and he was wise enough to whisk me off to a farmer’s market where I was delighted to buy an Australian Brie that was very similar to a proper French one, as well as a nice aged Pecorino-type that would not have been booed in Italy. For two chunks of cheese, weighing about 400 grammes together, I paid something like 30 euro’s. That’s Australia for you. Either you pay through the nose for something truly delicious… or you buy substandard industrial crap and still pay more for that than you would for a proper cheese in Europe.

I hereby declare war on Tasty Cheese and all its disgusting brothers and sisters. I am so glad you can’t buy that sort of industrial filth in Holland. Long may it remain so. Because there is simply nothing better than a proper Dutch Gouda.

 

White Gold versus Green Giant

Both called asparagus, but the difference in taste is enormous.

Both called asparagus, but the difference in taste is enormous.

Funny how some dishes cause some sort of a continental divide between the Anglosaxon world and -in this case- the rest of mainland Europe. I say the word ‘ASPARAGUS’, and what image does that word conjure up for you? If you’re from the UK, America or Australia, I bet you are thinking of green asparagus. But for those of us from Holland, Germany, Belgium and even France, it’s white asparagus that springs to mind.

I don’t think I ever even ate green asparagus until I was in my twenties! Asparagus in Holland is white, and only available between late april and mid june. It comes from our southernmost province Limburg, where the ‘White Gold’ is grown under truncated mounds of fine soil. The darkness ensures that the stems remain ivory-white: once thet are allowed to stick their noses above ground they turn green and lose all their delicacy and value.

As soon as the white heads appear the asparagus has to be harvested.

As soon as the white heads appear the asparagus has to be harvested.

Because white asparagus is only available for a few weeks, it’s very seasonal and that adds to its specialty. Being able to eat something for only a short period makes you celebrate its arrival and lament its leaving. You gorge yourself on it while it’s there, and then basically you wait a whole year. Oh sure, you can get white asparagus in cans or jars, or flown in from South Africa, but really: that’s beside the point.

Green asparagus in a field

Green asparagus in a field

Green asparagus is nowhere near as exclusive or as delicate. You can pretty much buy it year-round and the taste is nowhere near the taste of its white cousin. Green asparagus tastes like broccoli stems more than anything. You can even just get the canned kind -Green Giant!- because that tastes exactly as boring as fresh green asparagus. Whereas the white kind has a totally unique, delicate flavour; slightly sweet and velvety and utterly, completely delicious.

Green asparagus is just like the Chinese vegetable Kai Lan.

Green asparagus is just like the Chinese vegetable Kai Lan.

Another difference between the Green and the White is its versatility. Green asparagus will pretty much stand up to anything you do to it in the kitchen. You can boil it, steam it, stir-fry and gratin it, you can eat it cold in a salad, you can slice it and use it as a sandwich topping and you can use it in French, Italian, Mexican, Chinese cuisine and so, so much more. Green asparagus goes well with lamb, it goes well with fish, it gets along fine with cheese, it is basically one of the most versatile, easy to use vegetables.

There are special asparagus-peelers

There are special asparagus-peelers

Not so with the white asparagus! Oh no. First: it hás to be squeaky fresh, and you can take that literally: fresh asparagus make a squeaking sound when you rub them together. Second: you need to peel them, and be quite generous with peeling them too. Nothing is more annoying than having to chew through the tree-bark like consistency of a badly peeled asparagus. It’s therefore best to buy thick, straight asparagus that can be peeled properly. Third: white asparagus has to be boiled in water. Nothing else will do. Steam won’t get the job done, stir-frying is unthinkable, you cannot eat them raw. You have to boil them until they are just right, in water with a bit of salt and sugar. Twenty minutes should do the trick, but do test your asparagus by piercing it with a skewer. Does it go in with a little bit of resistance? Then your White Gold is done.

The classical way to serve white asparagus is always the best!

The classical way to serve white asparagus is always the best!

Now, when it comes to serving asparagus, there is a range of options, and there are cookbooks out there that try desperately to be original, coming up with black bean stir-fry’s or even an asparagus pannacotta. I would like to slap the ‘cooks’ who invented those miserable creations around the ears with the thickest and wettest asparagus I can find. When you have such a delicate, expensive ingredient, you want it to be the star. Right? So keep it simple! I have had asparagus in lots of different ways but the best remains served with egg mimosa, thin strips of York ham, and parsley. Final touch is either melted butter (all golden and delicious) or a home-made beurre blanc or a Hollandaise. It is acceptable to serve the asparagus with chopped smoked salmon instead of the ham, but that’s pretty much it. Have some steamed new potatoes to go with it, or a nice self-made mash, and you will have a truly wonderful meal.

Don't bin the peels, but make soup from them!

Don’t bin the peels, but make soup from them!

Now, as for all those precious asparagus peels: don’t bin them but use them to make a lovely asparagus soup. Do, however, take the peels out before you serve, and do not, under ANY circumstance, feel compelled to blitz them up with your food processor. You will end up with an excellent base for making paper… but a truly awful, inedible soup that will have you grabbing for the toothpicks for the rest of the evening. Just ask my best friend Y…

Cucumber wine, bring it on!

We all know plenty of foods with wine flavour. Winegums, to name but one, but what about sherry trifles, or port-marinated Stilton cheese? To find wine that tastes of food is a more challenging task. Or at least: it used to be. Because lately, and especially in summer, the shelves at the bottle shop are suddenly stacked with all sorts of fruity newcomers.

Sangria in a carton...

Sangria in a carton…

Now of course: flavor-infused wines are nothing new. The ancient Greeks already flavored wine with honey and herbs, and everyone who goes to Greece should at least try a Retsina, the resin-infused national wine that really only tastes nice on a Greek beach, but turns into cat pee once drunk back home. And of course there’s sangria from Spain, the notorious cocktail of cheap red wine, fruit and lemonade that is reponsible for so many holiday hangovers, not to mention teen pregnancies… Sangria has been on sale ready-made for decades, usually at the bottom of the wine section, in large bottles or convenient cartons. Cheap fruity summery plonk for the undiscerning palate, great for when you throw a garden party but don’t really like the guests well enough to spend money on it. I’m not saying Sangria is awful. In Spain I drink it all the time. But in Holland it just seems daft to drink the stuff. Our weather is never good enough for it, and really… it’s a childish sort of drink.

Years ago, I discovered a little known traditional infused wine in Belgian Luxembourg, where around the unpleasant town of Arlon every springtime ‘Maitrank’ is drunk. This ‘may-drink’ consists of a blend of the very uninteresting local wine with a wildflower called Gallium Odoratum, or woodruff in English. It adds a perfumed, honey-like flavour to the wine and especially the first sip is completely bewitching. It’s served over ice with a twirl of orange peel and drank as an aperitif. Hard to get outside the Ardennes/Luxembourg area but worth looking for if you’re ever in the area! I fondly remember Maitrank as one of the first alcoholic drinks (low alcoholic, okay) that I actually liked enough to get drunk on…

Maitrank should be more popular

Maitrank should be more popular

I guess because of those experiences I have never been against the idea of combining wine with other flavor-adding ingredients. I love wine, but I am not a vinofundamentalist! So I was thrilled to discover very grown up-looking infused wines in Australia a few years ago. No country in the world is more irreverent when it comes to wine, and therefore more innovative. Aussie winegrowers plant grapes from across the globe side by side, and have no qualms whatsoever blending Portuguese with Austrian grapes if that gets a result. Of course there are heroic failures, how else does one learn. But there are also lovely inventions. The way Australians blend verdelho with riesling for instance, or how they use viognier to add a kick to pinot grigio… wonderful.

Elderflower and lemon wine from Rosemount

Elderflower and lemon wine from Rosemount

But lo and behold, searching for a nice and refreshing wine during a Perth heatwave, I stumbled across a new range from Rosemount. White wines, infused with mint, green apple, lime and even cucumber! So bizarre, that I felt compelled to buy them. Well… let me tell you one thing: Australians do not do bad wine. If Rosemount thinks it’s good enough to sell, you can bet your backside it’s good enough to drink. And that cucumber infused sauvignon blanc… my, what a delicious little quaffer that was! Especially with oysters, absolutely terrific. To those who balk at the idea of cucumber-flavored wine… have a Pimms, and see how that tastes without cucumber in it. Nuff said.

Sadly, the cucumber wine is no loner available but Rosemount has launched new ‘botanicals’ with slightly more conservative additves like lemon and elderflower. Quite nice, but not as exciting as that greenish cucumbery one. Lately, the French have picked up on the wine-plus-fruit craze too. they already added lemonade to beer and call that Panache. A lovely refreshing summer drink that’s a third of the price of what Dutch brewers only launched last year under the German name ‘ Radler’. Wonders never cease. Anyway, in France we bought grapefruit-infused rosé and granny smith-flavored sauvignon blanc, that were delicious and perfectly drinkable with a picknick or a barbecue.

Grapefruit rosé

Grapefruit rosé

And what will the next trend be? I already discovered weird oddities like lavender-infused sauvignon (fabric softener?), and even weirder: marijuana wine. I predict it will not be very long until someone -probably in the Napa valley- invents a bacon-flavored shiraz. Hm. I don’t think I am adventurous enough for that.

Marijuana wine anyone?

Marijuana wine anyone?

When in Rome… eat pizza!

Pizza is probably the world’s favourite fastfood. You literally find pizza places everywhere, on every continent. A truly global food! Ironically, you may have a hard time finding pizza in Italy. There, it’s considered a regional dish from Naples. So if you happen to be in Venice or Milan or Rome, you really need to search hard for proper pizza, since the locals there prefer their own regional snack food.

Now, I don’t mind pizza every once in a while. I am not wild about it, months can go by without eating one, and when I do, it’s usually a deep-frozen one (always one of those expensive ones though) that I eat at home. Eating out in a pizzeria is something for kids, I think. Nice for a first date when you have barely outgrown McDonalds. But as a discerning adult… no. You also won’t find me ordering a pizza at Domino’s or any other fastfood factory. I really dislike those pizza’s: they are too cheesy, too sweet, too generic, too bready, too everything. Horrible.

Like a fondue on top of cardboard... no, this is NOT a pizza.

Like a fondue on top of cardboard… no, this is NOT a pizza.

The best pizza’s in my life I ate in Naples and in Rome. In Naples, there was a pizzeria on the campsite near Pompeii, and their pizza’s were just heavenly. Thin, crispy, wood-fire-flavoured… and with just the right amount of tomato, cheese and basil leaves to make it perfect. This is as far removed from the American-style calorie-attacks as is humanly possible. A real Neapolitan pizza resembles an American one only in name. But you will never find an Italian who injects cheese, thinks of stuffed crusts, adds bacon to everything or smothers a pizza in half a kilo of molten cheese. Compared to your average American pizza, a Neapolitan pizza is just a snack. And that’s exactly what a pizza is supposed to be!

A proper Napoletan pizza Margherita. Simple, light, tasty.

A proper Neapoletan pizza Margherita. Simple, light, tasty.

The absolute best, most delicious, heavenly pizza I ever had was not in Naples however, but in Rome! In Rome, you can get ‘pizza al taglio’ in little shops, especially near the Campo de Fiori market. Big rectangular slabs of pizza, straight from the oven. You simply point to the one you want, say how much you want to spend, and the chef cuts off a piece (tagliare means to cut) and puts it on greaseproof paper. And then you just find a nearby fountain where you can sit on the edge of the basin, and enjoy your pizza. My favourite was called ‘capricciosa’, it had a generous topping with rocket leaves and artichoke and Parma ham, and it was simply divine.

Take your pick! Pizza al taglio in Rome.

Take your pick! Pizza al taglio in Rome.

I often wish the Roman ‘pizza al taglio’ had become a worldwide snack sensation instead of the Americanized cheesy greasy pizza we have to deal with. Oh well, all the more reason to visit Rome every few years.

Yours truly back in 1996 with two fresh pizza slices at Campo de Fiori.

Yours truly back in 1996 with two fresh pizza slices at Campo de Fiori.

It started with Blue Nun…

Children as a rule don’t like alcohol. I know I didn’t: like everyone I too had one of those ‘funny’ uncles who thought nothing was more fun than tricking me into taking a sip from his beer, sherry, wine or whisky. Which always ended in the same result: I’d pull a face, start crying, and swore I would never ever touch alcohol in my life. And yet, here I am, almost 50 years old, surrounded by empty bottles and glasses… Well… no, not really. Although I do like a tipple every once in a while, I have never moved into fullblown alcoholism. Days, even weeks go by without any booze touching my lips. No problem. But just as easily I’ll drink two bottles of wine in one session…

So exactly how does an alcohol-hating child turn into a prolific drinker by the time he hits college? In my case, I started trying to drink with the usual suspects. Nemely: Lambrusco and Liebfraumilch. The latter is a sweet Riesling from Germany, always sold in screwtop bottles (long before that became fashionable and called ‘stelvin’) and generally well known in the English-speaking world as Blue Nun. And Lambrusco is of course the fruity fizzy low-alcoholic wine from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. Actually quite a decent wine, but horribly mistreated and demonized as cheap plonk for sixteen-year olds. 175422

I am not ashamed to admit that it was during an Easter break in Rome with my school class, that I got drunk for the very first time, on Lambrusco. I remember we were playing bridge (I was a bit of a posh kid, I admit it) and tipping down beakers full of cheap supermarket Lambrusco while playing. Somehow, alcohol does not affect my thinking ability, so the bridge game went rather well. But when I got up to walk to my room, everything started spinning around me and my legs seemed to have minds of their own. I practically dragged myself up the stairs and into the room, where my room mate was standing with a big paper bag full of sausage rolls. His mom had bought forty sausage rolls, for him to hand out during the 24 hour train journey in a vain attempt to make her son a bit more popular with the class. But as things go, he had completely forgotten to hand them out… and a week locked in a suitcase hadn’t done them any good. ‘What do you think I should do with these?’ he asked me, while I was busy wondering why the floor wouldn’t stop moving. ‘Just give them to me’, I said, and I took the whole bag out onto the little balcony, and started tossing the sausage rolls out into the street, from five stories up.

Behind the Pensione was a chic discotheque, and a crowd was waiting to be let in. To their surprise, suddenly it started raining claggy pastry and rancid pork from the skies, but since there was a streetlight right over their heads, they could not see where the sausage rolls were coming from. As Italians do, they screamed and shouted and shook their fist at this dubious manna from the skies, while my roommate and I dispensed of all forty sausage rolls. After that I passed out. The next morning I was wondering if it had all been a dream, but one look out of the window told me otherwise. The street behind the Pensione was covered in flattened pastry and meat and all the cats of the neighbourhood were having a feast. From that moment on, suddenly I had a bad reputation.

A few years later, I was on vacation with my cousins, and we had decided to go to the Ardennes in Belgium and to Luxembourg. The Ardennes must be the most depressing place on earth: it literally always rains there and the people are among the unfriendliest you will ever meet. Small wonder we fled to the comfort of alcohol after a day or so, and so we discovered a little known local tipple called ‘Maitrank’. May-drink. A concotion of young -sour- white wine, with aromatic herbs added, most notably woodruff (Galium Odorata for you Latin-loving garden freaks). It was light, refresjing, with a perfumed honey-like aftertaste, and it was served in tumbler glasses with a slice of orange in it. Utterly delicious, nectar of the Gods! So we got quite, quite drunk on the stuff (resulting in a spectacular display of Esther William’s most iconic moments in the ornamental lake of the campsite) and even brought a few bottles home. feller

Not so long ago, I came across Maitrank again, traveling through Belgium. For nostalgia’s sake, I ordered a glass… It tasted like alcoholic cough mixture. Absolutely awful. Revisiting childhood memories is usually not such a great idea. Especially when it comes to booze.