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.

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