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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.

 

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.

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!

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.