Tag Archive | Netherlands

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.

 

Advertisements

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…

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.

Image

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.