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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.

 

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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?

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.

Why manners matter

I just read an article in The Guardian (it can also have been The Independent, or another of those snooty self-acclaimed newspapers for the discerning few) about table manners for our current era. And basically, how old table manners (all manner, for that matter) had either become obsolete or were on their way out. New table manners have come into place. But all they seem to do is focus on when and how to use your smartphone during dinner.

You're not that important, nor is that message. Drop that phone!

You’re not that important, nor is that message. Drop that phone!

My short answer would be: not at all. Unless you are waiting for a transplant organ, have a wife in labor or are expecting news about a dying relative, you really should be able to turn your phone off and leave it in your pocket or handbag. I even question whether you should be dining out at all if such a scenario loomed. I know I wouldn’t be.

In the new table manners guide, it no longer matters whether you use your left hand or right hand to carve your meat, just as it is no offense to pour salt on your food before tasting it, or drink wine from a water glass. Even an elbow on the table is no longer a big no-no, nor is it to go to the toilet during eating instead of waiting until a course is over.

I pity the future generation, I really do. I wonder how long it will be before restaurants open where you just sit in front of a television with your plate in your lap. Because that seems to be where we are heading to.

What we need to focus on here is why table manners were invented in the first place. People who have little or no knowledge ot traditional table manners and etiquette may be forgiven for thinking these weird rituals only exist to make them feel uncomfortable or out of place. Why else would there be three glasses next to your plate (top right), and what is that little saucer doing to your left? And: if you happen to be left-handed then why is it wrong to carve your meat with the knife in your left hand. What’s wrong with carving up everything first and then shoveling it all into your mouth just using one hand anyway?

To all those people who say that being left-handed is a perfect excuse for using a knife in the left hand, or to just use one hand while eating, I have just one word to say. Car. If you can drive a car using both hands, and if you can do so without mixing up left and right, you can do it with a knife and fork as well. Apply yourself. It can be done. And there’s lots of other things we need both hands for. Playing the piano. Typing. Opening anything with a child-safe lock. You name it: you do it all the time.

Why is it wrong to carve with the left hand? Because your elbow will most likely be in the way of your neighbour who ís using his or her right arm. Simple. All those silly rules have been put into place for one thing and one thing only: to avoid embarrassment, in yourself and in others. Why have we all agreed glasses are to the right and bread plates to the left of our plates? Because if everyone does that, nobody will be in someone else’s way when he wants to drink something or butter a slice of toast. It’s all so very simple.

I am so annoyed when I see indulgent parents leave their kids to run wild at the table, and not teaching them proper manners. These kids will grow up feeling awkward in many social situations. If you can teach a child to multiply 6 times 8, a Hail Mary, or a Pledge of Allegiance, you can teach it to use a knife and fork, to not speak with a full mouth, to sit still and to eat properly. Why are Chinese children able to handle chopsticks already as toddlers, while spoilt European kids sometimes never even learn how to use a fork? 9781432966386

Manners matter, because they instill confidence in kids. Kids don’t get confident because their parents applaud everything they do. They need structure and boundaries. Knowing manners means that they know how they are expected to behave, and that is a great source of security. Nobody likes to feel awkward, or to be conspicuous for negative reasons.

The last scurvy victims

Canned sausage, source of infinite delicacies

Canned sausage, source of infinite delicacies

My father was to take my brother and me on a camping trip in the Ardennes, in Belgium. Just us boys: my mother would be in Indonesia with my grandma to celebrate some distant relatives’ wedding. Of course my dad had a secret objective: finally he would be able to indulge his passion for all things war-related without my mom spoiling his fun.
So off we drove in the (t)rusty old Volvo, for a boys adventure in the wild, wild lands of Belgium. Where wild boar roamed among ruined castles and limestone caves. And where, as we would soon find out, every town, village or hamlet had at least one burnt out Sherman tank proudly standing in the village square. I have dozens and dozens of photographs of me and my brother posing in front of tanks, on top of tanks and obscured by tanks. Not to mention concrete bunkers and Howitzer guns.
Anyway, on our many manly excursions past battlefields and war museums, we of course only ate manly food. My father, who was challenged in the kitchen, had brought two big cardboard boxes from the Army with assorted field rations. A collection of tins and cardboard boxes, all in the same attractive shade of murky green. Some of the tins held meatballs, mash and greens. Others macaroni and beef. And yet others were entirely filled with sausage, I guess Spam comes closest to it.
Alas! Already on our first night we found out why my dad had been able to pick these rations up for a bargain. The labels were all wrong. Instead of a lovely meal of meatballs, potatoes and spinach, the tin was filled with the solid pink mass of sausage. And, as we soon found out, that’s all we had for food. Sixteen tins of canned sausage.
My father was nothing if not a great improviser. He cut thick slices off the sausage and fried them in our camping skillet. ‘Gelderse Schijven’, he proudly called his creation. ‘Guelders Disks’: a weirdly addictive greasy clump with lots of salt, burnt edges and chewy bits of gristle. The perfect accompaniment to ‘frites’, as the Belgians call fries (or chips, for the English readers). Nothing French about fries, by the way. They’re Belgian more than anything. (But the nicest fries are the Dutch ones).
And so our holiday went… tank-hopping and cave-exploring by day, sitting around campfires by night. And eating Gelderse Schijven three times a day.
The first thing our mother noticed when we came to collect her from the airport after her month in Indonesia were our bleeding gums. Our manly diet of processed meat and fried potatoes had wreaked havoc on our health. I am certain we were on the brink of scurvy, a disease that more belonged in the 18th century. Only by forcefeeding us oranges for a week was my mother able to nurse us back to health.
I have never eaten friend tinned sausage since that trip in 1976, nor do I wish to renew the acquaintance. But I do miss my dad… just not for his cooking.