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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…

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.

In defense of the food selfie

We are all gripped by the selfie: the pointless, egotistical guilty pleasure of photographing ourselves with our smartphone, to not only document the mad and wonderful life we live, but to rub other people’s noses in it. Selfies may be taken for oneself, of oneself and by oneself, but they are almost never kept to oneself. Instead, the selfies almost immediately find their way onto Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and all those other wonderful soapboxes of the internet, where we stand and scream and shout to announce and validate our existence.

Best suckling pork in the world at Lvi Dvur in Prague!

Wonderful Estonian starter at Kaerajaan, Prague.

I am not so big on taking selfies, perhaps because I just don’t find myself all that interesting or photogenic. I do, however, take lots and lots of phtotos of food and drink, and of myself eating and drinking. Recently, I have been reading articles about snooty restaurant chefs taking offense of this harmless habit. They declare war on guests who take photos of their carefully constructed culinary creations. Apparently, they are quite willing to sell you these edible works of art, but they want to maintain intellectual ownership. So you may destroy the food with your knife, put it in your mouth, dissolve it in gastric acid and send it to its demise in a porcelain toilet bowl, but you are NOT allowed to take a photo of what you just paid 50 euro’s for to keep as a memento.

These chefs have no idea about food and about what it does to emotions and memories. Let me explain how it works for me. Great, memorable meals are always more than just that. They are also great, memorable times spent with great, memorable people. A terrific meal by oneself is really quite a depressing affair. A great meal in great company is the best thing imagineable. Life just does not get any better. So, when I take a photo of a lovely plate of food, I also place a marker in my memory of a truly great moment. What chef would not be proud, to be part of someone’s dearest memories?

Yours truly having a wonderful lunch at Pillnitz Palace in Dresden.

Yours truly having a wonderful lunch at Pillnitz Palace in Dresden.

Apparently, the chefs who protest against food selfies, and who in some cases have gone so far as to explicitly forbid photography in their restaurants, are afraid that their intellectual property gets infringed upon. Yeah right. As if a crappy iPhone photo of some exquisite food is suddenly going to make you able to replicate that same food in your own kitchen. I have phtographed lots of food, but never once in order to copy a dish at home. Simply put: if a restaurant serves the kind of food I can cook at home, I am not going to eat there. The beauty of a home cooked meal is just that: that you or a loved one made it, and that you eat it at home. In a restaurant, I want to be stunned and amazed by ingredients I cannot get my hands on, by cooking skills that require years of training, by beautiful presentation I could never pull off on my cheap plates. And I want to remember that, so I want to take that photo.

Deal with it, snooty chefs, and allow me the pleasure of hanging on to what should be a wonderful memory. If you see me taking a food selfie in your restaurant, the you can be damn sure I am having a wonderful time, that I want to remember long after the food has been digested. So please… indulge me, or better still, pose with me! And you can be sure I’ll be back.

Superb starter at Villa Richter in Prague

Superb starter at Villa Richter in Prague

Why I hate Masterchef

Suddenly, Masterchef is everywhere. In Holland we have the original Masterchef on the BBC, plus Junior Masterchef, Celebrity Masterchef and Professional Masterchef. Basically, hardly a week goes by without some sort of Masterchef, and that’s just the Beeb. Then there is obviously Dutch Masterchef, and our Dutch commercial tv channels have scoured the globe to bring us Australian Masterchef as well, plus reruns of the UK Masterchef, USA Masterchef… bloody Papua New Guinea Masterchef! In short: it’s all too much and I am not even sure if it’s a good thing in the first place.

I love cooking, and I could probably do quite well on Masterchef because I have a good palate and I have the weird ability to know what something will taste like before actually tasting it. And most of all, because to me food and love and inextricably mixed. I love to cook and I love to cook for people I love. I express my love through my cooking. And some of the most precious memories of my life -anyone’s life!- involve sharing food with loved ones. It’s a spiritual, emotional thing for me. And so much more than just some shrill competition.

To then have to watch Masterchef, and see how such an act of loving is turned into yet another competition and another means for annoying egotistical immature people to self-inflate and assert themselves is absolute torture. I hate competitive people and I love to see them fail. They always do on Masterchef because good food is never about trying to be better than others. But tell that to those smug sociopaths.

The worst is Australian Masterchef, with three presenters/judges/divas that are incredibly annoying. Especially a little stubbly Greek who apparently secretly thinks cooking is for women and sissies, so who as compensation tries to be this huge overstated testosterone clump all the time. I would smash his skull in with a Le Creuset skillet if he talked like that to me. Cooking is not the same as racing a Ferrari, George Kalombaris! Even the -far better- BBC version is guilty of souping things up to a ridiculous level. John and Gregg excel in stupid oneliners like ‘Cooking does not get tougher than this’. I could just slap them. Whenever a contestant is stressed out and clearly struggling to serve his food on time, they just stand on the side and yell at him or her, as if that makes the work go any faster or better. Intensely annoying. Get out of the way, or help. But don’t stand there stating the obvious.

I also hate the way every chef is pushed into some sort of cookie cutter, and taught to produce fashionable pretty looking food. The obsession with pureeing everything into some sort of baby-food on the BBC version is simply ridiculous. The same goes for the reductions that end up as a nasty smear, and the obsession with using snobbish jargon. Crème Anglaise instead of custard? May we charge you 5 pounds extra?

My biggest hate is the insane trend of deconstructing tried and tested dishes. There is a reason why a tarte tatin works the way it does. There is an age old method behind a perfect Boeuf Stroganoff. Any other combination leads to something that takes hours more work to produce and yet never quite reaches the same quality and flavour as the original dish did. So why so it? Showing off skill is great, but the purpose should always be to improve the favour of the dish. Yesterday I witnessed how a three-star chef devised a menu where basically 80% of all ingredients was reduced to the point of irrecognizability. The wastage, in a time of austerity, was simply staggering. Turning rhubarb into snow, by juicing two kilos and then whisking it through liquid nitrogen, so a mere handful was left of it? Whoever thinks this is the way cooking should go needs his head examined.

So there you have it, the reason why I will never succumb to Masterchef. I will not allow anyone -least of all judges from a tv show- to stand between me and my love for food, and my need to share that with people that matter to me.231450