Saturday, October 31, 2015

Day 9: Creating a Master

The value of art is in the eye of the beholder. In the case of Helene Kroller-Muller, her eye was guided by the art critic H.P. Bremmer.  With access to vast wealth from her father's and husband's fortunes, and the judgment of Bremmer, Helene set out to establish a museum of art, purchasing nearly 12 000 pieces from 1907 to 1938, when her museum-home was opened to the public. Helene Kroller-Muller died in 1939, donating her museum-home to the community, as well as the extensive grounds of her estate; what is now Hoge Veluwe park.

To Helene Kroller-Muller, Vincent Van Gogh was superior to all other artists.  Introduced to Van Gogh through Bremmer, Helene ultimately purchased hundreds of his works, spending a small fortune in the process.

For a painter who received very little attention in his own lifetime, it is argued that the attention from Helene Kroller-Muller may be what elevated him to the stature of one of the great artists. By establishing the second largest collection of Van Gogh's works in a public museum, Helene and Bremmer may be directly responsible for Van Gogh's recognition today.

Of course, what would any collection of Van Gogh be without Sunflowers?

Helene even bought works that were paying homage to Van Gogh:

Feeding off Helene's enthusiasm for Van Gogh, locals demonstrate their own enthusiasm for the Dutch master. (To the right of the house and tree...)

 In order to establish a true museum - instead of simply a tribute to a relatively unknown (at the time) artist, Helen did broaden her perspective, acquiring works by Picasso, the Dutch artist Gabriel, and several others.

I'm trying to understand the point of pointilism...

Ah yes, this is clearly a violin!

Some people just don't understand modern art.

Outside of the museum itself, there is a picturesque sculpture garden, with works by the likes of Rodin and others.  Some of those "others" were rather, um...creative.

The Kroller Muller museum is nestled within the 5000 hectare Hoge Veluwe park, which houses a herd of mouflon, deer, wild boar, and the late Helene's home, the Saint Hubert Hunting Lodge.  Despite our efforts, we only saw the latter.

The architect who designed Saint Hubert lodge (to my knowledge, this is not the same architect who designed the St. Hubert chain of restaurants in Quebec) designed the building, grounds, furnishings, and even the crockery.  It was meant to be a comprehensive whole, with every piece complementing the overall theme. Helene named the building the Saint Hubert Hunting Lodge after the Christian myth of the nobleman Hubertus.

Hubertus was out hunting on Good Friday morning when a stag appeared with a vision of a cross between its antlers.  As Hubertus saw this, he heard the voice of God speak to him, directing him to dedicate his life to the Lord, and to hunt humanely. (The principles of hunting as articulated by Hubertus after this vision include never killing a mother with young in tow, and to kill a sick or injured animal instead of a prized trophy.  These principles are still held in high regard among hunters in Europe, today.)

All the online reviews of the Kroller Muller museum and Hoge Veluwe are positive.  While I thoroughly enjoyed our excursion, I suspect that the reviews may be biased, in that anyone who makes the effort to take a train, then a bus, then another bus, then a hike or bike ride in order to get to the museum already is a huge fan of the works of Van Gogh that are housed there.  The review is nearly guaranteed to be positive.  In any case, it is unlikely that I will ever return to the Kroller Muller, though I am happy I went.

As we returned to Utrecht for the last time, we contemplated our overnight bus to Munich. The last bus trip on Eurolines was pretty uncomfortable, and neither of us was looking forward to 11 hours on a noisy, cramped bus that smelled of cigarette smoke.  Saying our good-byes to Paul and Stella - who had generously hosted the majority of our stay in Holland - we were pleasantly surprised when our Flixbus showed up - clean, spacious, and comfortable.  I settled in for the night, ready to wake up in Munich.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Day 8: Windmills and Woolly Mammoths

Today could have been any given Saturday, as a group of us went for a drive and a run.  Except, of course, that it wasn’t Saturday, and our drive and run destinations are nowhere near where I spend most of my Saturdays. To start, however, notwithstanding the good intentions last night, I did not get up early for a run this morning. It might have been the jenever, advocaat, and a beer back at “home” after dinner, but I’ll blame the enduring jet-lag.  I didn’t wake up until after 9am this morning. (Given that I normally wake up naturally around 7:30 on a Saturday, this surprised me.)

Once I finally did haul my sleepy body out of bed, we got our stuff together to check out Zaanse Schanse. Dubbed a “Dutch theme park”, Zaanse Schanse sprang up when a number of traditional Dutch buildings (assorted windmills and shops) faced destruction in their native settings. Thanks to a concerted effort of nationalistic historians, the buildings were transported to a destination just outside of Amsterdam, easily accessible by transit or, in our case, car. (Thanks Paul!)

Mindy and I hemmed and hawed about Zaanse Schranse as a destination as compared to Kinderdijk.  Kinderdijk is the real thing!  19 windmills along a beautiful waterway preserved as it was centuries ago. By comparison, Zaanse Schranse is a typical tourist attraction, simplifying access by sacrificing historical legitimacy.  Kinderdijk is a Dutch treasure, while Zaanse Schranse is just for tourists. Wait, though.  Mindy and I ARE tourists.  As Paul had never been before, he was also playing the part of a tourist in his own land. (Stella was dutifully studying for exams at home.)

In retrospect, Kinderdijk would have been an awful lot of effort (~2 hours each way in transit) for at most an equally satisfying experience. Zaanse Schranse creates its desired effect – it presents a fairly accurate example of Dutch life as it once was, even if it cheats regarding the geographical footprint. Besides, I don’t think Kinderdijk would have had a Dutch bobsled on display!

Of all the shops we checked out in Zaanse Schranse, I think the clog-making shop was most interesting.  First of all, they were actually making clogs there!  I tried some on, and they really aren't comfortable.  I asked Paul about what I have heard - that they get more comfortable with ongoing use.  He used to wear them around the house and in the garden as a child, ans he assured me that they do NOT.

Wedding clogs??

Once we finished with the windmills, we drove to a nearby forest where Paul and I went for a run.  Mindy was debating joining us, but instead opted for a nap in the backseat of the car... A fwe kilometres in, we ran right into a pack of woolly mammoths!! Ok,in truth, they were Scottish long-horn cows, but take a look at these things, they look like small woolly mammoths! ...kind of...  (At least that's what I think mammoths would look like...)

Although our day was supposed to conclude with a Dutch birthday party (a friend of Paul's), Paul was feeling crushed by how hard I pushed the pace while running...and an unrelated migraine.  We picked up some very non-Dutch sushi on the way home, and the four of us (Stella pulled herself away from her studies) watched the movie Minions.

Like I said, it was like any given Saturday at home with friends.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Day 7: Dutch Hospitality

Those who have read extensively in this blog will have come across the story of when I met Paul Zwama, a friendly and talented Dutch runner who opened his home to me on my first trip to Holland to for an ill-fated attempt at the Rotterdam Marathon. On this return trip, Paul insisted that Mindy and I plan on spending several nights with he and his girlfriend Stella; claiming insult that we spent even a single night in a hotel in Amsterdam. Today was a lazy day with Paul and Stella, recovering from the exhausting pace of our adventures these past few days (sleeping in, doing laundry, catching up on a bit of work, etc).

Well, it wasn’t entirely lazy.  Despite a late night arrival last night, Paul had us up early (it felt early, anyway) for a workout at his gym.  I haven’t run since the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon on Oct 18th, and it’s been even longer since my last strength workout. Nonetheless, I gamely tried to keep up with Paul during a core and strength routine, and was grateful when we moved on to the cardio machines.  At least there any slacking on my part would be less noticed. There was talk of a late afternoon run with Stella to make it a double-workout day…but that didn’t happen. It was later afternoon by the time Mindy and I resumed the travellers’ agenda of discovery, making our way on borrowed bicycles into Utrecht city centre to admire the medieval streets and canals.

 Culture shock isn’t normally too strong when travelling in western Europe; for Mindy, the idea that we were bicycling on the road without helmets – “Dutch style” – took a bit of getting used to.

Though there aren’t as many exciting things for tourists to do, Utrecht is every bit the equal of Amsterdam in terms of picturesque canals and beautiful towers. It was at the foot of one of those towers where Mindy and I met Paul and Stella for dinner at a Pannenkoeken, a Dutch pancake house. This restaurant, set right in the ancient walls and opening to the canal level, had already been visited by Mindy and me earlier in the evening.  After we had spent a few hours wandering through shops and streets, we unintentionally settled at our ultimate dinner destination to try young and old jenever – the Dutch predecessor of Gin, and advocaat – the Dutch interpretation of a Caribbean liqueur originally made from avocados, but made with egg-yolk in the Dutch fashion. (Avocados don’t grow too well in the Dutch climate.)

Good company, stunning ambience, more excellent Dutch cuisine (we didn’t even have Jelte to explain the heritage of these pancakes), and the warmth of multiple shots of jenever and advocaat made for an excellent evening in the Utrecht city centre.  After a bike ride home full of laughter, we finished our evening with another drink, and another plan to run the next morning.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Day 6: Going Dutch for Dinner

The Dutch aren’t exactly renowned for their culinary cuisine (outside of cheese), so when Mindy suggested that we take a food tour through Amsterdam’s Jordaan neighbourhood, I was a little apprehensive. Nonetheless, my heart was racing when we picked up our tour group at CafĂ© Papeneiland today. (Admittedly that’s because we were running full speed down the narrow streets and bridges of Amsterdam to get there in time!)

Jelte, our 6’8” guide, personified the theory that the Dutch diet high in cheese (calcium) allows for bones to grow long and strong. Our luck, he was not only a food guide, but also an architecture guide – the perfect combination for wandering the historic streets of Jordaan. 

Although Jordaan is part of the city of Amsterdam, it is best contemplated as a village within the city. The name “Jordaan” comes from the gardens throughout this neighbourhood that was originally built for the working class of Amsterdam. (Think of the French "jardin".) The current residents still feel a bit "apart" from the canal districts, though Jordaan is no blue-collar neighbourhood anymore, with rising house prices and the allure of an eclectic and artistic culture.

Our first stop on the tour was a "brown cafe" for some poffertjes - small Dutch pancakes traditionally served with icing sugar.   Actually, that's not entirely true. Our first stop was outside a tulip store.  During times of scarce food in World War II, the Dutch were reduced to boiling tulip bulbs and eating them. Apparently they taste rather like cabbage. Poffertjes seemed more appealing, so we passed on tasting the tulips, and proceeded to the cozy setting of the cafe. (For those who doubt Canada's subtle approach to imperialism, these pancakes are now served with Canadian maple syrup!)

Brown cafes are, not surprisingly, styled in earth tones; primarily brown.  Until recently, the browns were further reinforced by cigarette smoke clinging to walls, curtains, and people. Jelte explained that this particular cafe had formerly been a canal house, built in symmetry with the staircase in the middle of the main floor, facing the front entrance.  As the house was converted to a main-floor shop with housing above, the stairs were moved to the side of the house, breaking the aesthetic balance of the design.  The architect in Jelte was crushed by this move, but the poffertjes were really tasty, so he suffered alone.

After pancakes and coffee (I have become a bit of an espresso addict on this trip, but I am comforted to know that, like the French, the Dutch have a coffee culture, so I say "when in Rome..."), we proceeded to the Slagerij (I assume that must be related to the same root word as "slaughter").  We tried two types of smoked sausage - one cooked and one raw. Let me clarify for those of you who know my eating habits. When I booked this tour, I took advantage of the fact that the tour operator caters to vegetarians, and requested a meatless tour.  However, as Mindy and I ate our egg salad (which was quite good), I realised that I wanted to try the Dutch food being showcased on this tour, even if that meant I was eating meat.  Jelte was very accommodating regarding this last minute change, promising that he would arrange for us to try meat at every opportunity that we wanted, including this butcher.  The raw sausage was surprisingly tender and very good! The cooked sausage was...sausage.  I've had similar things before.

The cheese at the next stop was divine, as good Dutch cheese tends to be. We tried three types of Gouda (think "Howda") cheese, and a farmer's cheese. The Dutch have been making cheese for at least 1800 years, so it is not surprising they have learned how to do it right! (That any archaeological evidence survived in the swampland around Amsterdam to signify this lengthy history is a minor miracle.) After tasting, I neglected to buy any cheese from that shop.... Sigh! Guess I will have to go back to Amsterdam again and find that shop, myself.

Two things that I learned about Dutch cheese today should have been obvious to me, but weren't. The first: like Edam cheese, Gouda cheese was originally named after the town where it was produced. As the Dutch neglected to copyright the name, it now refers to virtually any cheese (made in Holland or elsewhere) that is produced in a wax-encased round. While other cheese may call itself Gouda, nothing matches the original, which we tried at various levels of aging.  When aged, cheese looses moisture and mass (up to 1/3 of it's weight), effectively "gaining" salt content (per unit of mass). The increased salt, firmer consistency, and sharper taste of the mature cheese makes it taste SO GOOD!!! (I did know that last part - that aged cheese is delicious.  I didn't need Jelte to teach me that.)

The second thing I learned about cheese today is that farmer's cheese is a raw milk cheese that doesn't have much in terms of "recipe".  Originally, farmer's cheese was simply what the farmer could make with the milk on hand.  Today, each batch of farmer's cheese is a little different, owing to the lack of pasteurization and the flexibility in types of milk. (To briefly explain, there is no restriction on only morning milk, which is fattier, or summer milk, which is more flavorful, etc..) While I prefer a more mature and established cheese flavour, I "suffered" through this farmer's cheese, too.

The next couple of stops were for fish - classical Dutch heritage, and Surinamese-inspired pom sandwiches. At the fish ship we ate raw herring the Amsterdam way, with onions and mustard, and followed that up with deep fried cod.

To explain the Surinamese cuisine, Jelte first explained some critical background in Holland's history. At the height of its imperialistic power, the Dutch East India company controlled most of the important trade through the high seas. Spices and other wealth from the east was continuously flowing through Amsterdam harbour, with sailors manning untold numbers of ships to keep this trade going. (See my blog on the Red Light District for a little more detail on the impacts of those sailors on Amsterdam's development.) In any case, the success f the Dutch East India company spawned a Dutch West Indies division, with a prominent outpost in what is now Suriname. When Suriname became an independent country unto itself, citizens were given the option to emigrate to Holland and become Dutch citizens, or remain in Suriname as citizens of that fledgling country. Those who trekked to Holland brought with them food and customs that added colour and spice - quite literally - to the Dutch customs.

The Dutch love their sandwiches, and the Surinamese love their pom, so it is to be expected that the resulting culinary marriage would produce delicious offspring. Crusty bread with a warm filling made of a kind of batter of thick mashed potatoes, spices, and bits of chicken and gravy....If that doesn't seem appealing, blame the writer and not the dish.  In this case, my request for vegetarian food worked to my advantage.  I started with an excellent tempeh sandwich in spicy sauce, then benefited from the lack of appetite of one of my colleagues on the tour, who didn't want her pom sandwich. Finally, we each had a dessert of battered, fried plantain with a peanut sauce. 

To work up an appetite for the next stop, Jelte called upon his architectural expertise to temporarily focus more on the buildings than the food of the Jordaan. Off the main canals but still set amidst beautiful waterways, Jordaan is the product of more recent development than the core of Amsterdam. There are no houses built only 6-feet wide in this neighbourhood.

There are, of course, still the leaning houses.  While the side-to-side lean of houses is absolutely due to rotting supports, Jelte countered the oft'-given explanation for the forward slant of homes.  It was not to prevent things from banging off the front of the house as they were hoisted up to windows. (The slant is not sufficiently steep to make any real difference that way, and besides, the benefit would be eliminated as whatever was being hoisted would be pulled higher - closer to the facade.)  It came down to style and ego.  If you are standing in front of a house, looking up at it, the house looks more imposing if you have to crane your neck to look to the top.  Eventually, city planners forbade this practice.

Prior to street numbers, people would name their houses, displaying the name as a pseudo address.  These names usually related to the activities within the house. 

As times change, so do practices, so this house does have a more precise address than "Hallowe'en House".

The Dutch don't really celebrate Hallowe'en, so this degree of decorating is surprising!

These mirrors were not to identify the house to those passing in the street below, but rather for the opposite effect.  They allowed those in the upper rooms to gossip about those on the street, without having to actually stand at the window to do it.

Bars under windows allowed for laundry to hang to dry, and kept inner courtyards open for gardens and quiet introspection.

Having burned off at least a dozen of the hundreds of calories we were consuming that day, we returned to the primary objective of the tour: eating Dutch food. The next stop was a return to Cafe Papeneiland, where we had started, for some traditional Dutch apple pie. Another brown cafe, Papeneiland earned its name ("Pope's island") after the conversion of Amsterdam from Catholicism to Protestantism. Across the street from the cafe was a secret Catholic church.  While the Amsterdammers were tolerant of these secret Catholic gatherings, an escape tunnel was built just in case.  It traveled under the canal into the basement of the cafe which was, as you might have guessed, owned by a Catholic.

The Dutch are not "as American as apple pie", and their pies demonstrate that difference. The thick, bready crust and firm apples (made from specific Dutch apples) make Dutch apple pie more akin to sweetened, lightly stewed apples with oatmeal.  This will henceforth be my justification for eating apple pie for breakfast! It's kind of surprising that obesity isn't more common in the Netherlands...

After this dessert we went for...dessert.  Light-tasting and slightly alcoholic advocaat cookies, which the Patisserie Anesta makes exclusively for this Jordaan Food Tour. The Dutch West Indies company brought advocaat back to Holland. A liqueur made from avocados, advocaat is a thick, almost custard consistency, and sweet like custard, too.  The Dutch version looks like custard as they substituted egg yolks for avocados, having realised that avocados don't grow well in the Dutch climate.  Mighty as they were in trade, the Dutch had not yet perfected trans-continental shipping of perishable foods.

With our collective sweet-tooth sated, we found our way into one more brown cafe for beer and bitterballen. While there was no need to teach us what beer is, Jelte did enlighten us on IPAs. As the Dutch voyaged to India on the high seas, they found that beer lasted better in the holds of their ships than water.  Even still, beer sometimes spoiled.  The Dutch learned that they could prolong the life of the beer by continuing the fermentation while on-board the ships.  The beer would be "fed" yeast and hops after setting sail, resulting in a "hop-ier" beer with stronger flavour; an India Pale Ale from those trips to India.

Our beer probably didn't come from a saltwater-coated barrel, and, strangely - given that this was a Jordaan Food Tour - it was brewed in Belgium.  Jelte assured us that it was brewed by Dutch beer-masters who simply had set-up shop in Belgium. To accompany our Dutch-Belgian beer, we ate traditional Dutch bitterballen - a deep-fried ball filled with a stewed meat mixture. Perhaps we were full, or perhaps the bitterballen simply couldn't compete with the treats from Patisserie Anesta. In any case, the beer was alright, but the bitterballen were left unfinished.

Feeling considerable heavier than when we had started four hours before, Mindy and I parted our tour group and our excellent guide, Jelte, to go for another Dutch food tasting.  This one was entirely focused on cheese.

In the basement of the Reypenaer cheese shop, tables were set out to excite the cheese lover in each of us!

So many kinds of cheese to try!  We were taken through a guided tour from youngest to oldest, also learning about the aging process. (Reypenaer doesn't actually make cheese, but buys the young cheese from producers in order to age it.) The old Reypenaer storehouse has no climate control (at least none more advanced than opening windows and hatchways), and the consequent variations in temperature and humidity are intrinsic to the complex flavours and textures of Reypenaer cheese.  As demand and production have increased, the company has built a new warehouse.  However, in order to maintain the advantages of natural aging conditions, sensors built into the old warehouse transmit temperature and humidity conditions to the climate control features in the new warehouse, effectively mimicking the natural conditions. The result?  Delicious cheese!

Fully stuffed with cheese and wine, we wandered over to wait in the dwindling line for Anne Frank House. After a day of indulgence, Anne Frank house served as a good reminder of the hardships others have suffered, and just how lucky we are.

On a lighter note, according to Jelte, Darwinian selection is in full force today in Amsterdam as 15 men die per year by falling in and drowning in the canals, while peeing.(I know that's also about death, but it IS a lighter note than the Anne Frank story!)

Exhausted but happy with our full day, we left Amsterdam for the last time on this trip and took a train to Utrecht for the night.