As those of you keeping up on my whereabouts on my Facebook page know, I’ve been out of the country again, visiting Amsterdam and meeting local folks about the food scene there. I went to do research on still life paintings for the article I’ve been writing on the curious renaming of molecular gastronomy as “modernist cuisine.” I also managed to pick up an assignment from NPR to write about Dutch pickles, a project I pursued with all my might.
I’ll tell you more about both of these adventures in another post, but I just wanted to share a few photos and notables.
To get it out of the way: no, I didn’t partake in Amsterdam’s legendary consumables. Not really my scene. But it was interesting to see the effects of the tourist trade on the permissive drug culture and vice versa. I highly recommend the underwear. Highly.
Amsterdam is a compelling city, and I really was taken with it. What they say about bicycles is true — they’re everywhere — but what they don’t tell you is that they are massive steel-framed tanks, and one is at great risk of being bulldozed if one isn’t careful! The canals in the winter, especially in the snow, are gorgeous, and there’s so much to see walking along the water, including decrepit old houseboats, swans, sex shops, and old delis turned into antique shops. I was very fortunate to have as a guide the artist and independent food scholar Karin Vaneker, who taught me so much about Dutch culture in the few short days we had together.
I happened to be in The Netherlands on December 5, which is the day Sinterklaas drops off presents with his cadre of servants called “Zwarte Piets” or Black Peters. (Sinterklaas, the tall white man with the beard, is so busy around Christmas with America that it needs to be earlier in Holland, I suppose.) To Americans sensitive to our own colonial past and the racist minstrel acts of the nineteenth century, it’s very very difficult to see a bunch of blue-eyed white people in blackface and Moorish costume dancing around and singing as anything but horrific. Many Dutch (including Karin), however, maintain the tradition isn’t racist, and that Zwarte Piet is not even of African descent — he’s dirty from going down the chimney. There’s a good discussion about the debate and growing opposition to the tradition here. Nevertheless, it was kind of sweet to hear Christmas carols in Dam Square and see the children so excited, and to get gifted myself by a Zwarte Piet distributing handfuls of tiny spice cookies to commuters on a local train far outside of the tourist area.
The food in Amsterdam was definitely the most international of all the cities I’ve visited in Europe. In places like Italy or France, it’s often difficult to find meals that aren’t closely related to the locality. But in Amsterdam, I had a hard time finding Dutch food in restaurants and instead opted for Middle Eastern, Surinamese, Indonesian, etc. I can’t complain — it was great!
I had the opportunity to visit two street markets. At the Albert Cuyp market, the largest street market in Holland (and over a hundred years old), I saw unquestionably the most beautiful fish I’ve ever seen at a stand: pure white and glistening. The flesh looked like the interior of some creamy white fruit, a fresh lychee maybe? Or whipped lard, for those of you who dream of such delights. And there were cockles and mussels, alive alive-o, and scallops in huge shells, and smoked mackerel with skin so golden from the processing that it glowed…and these beautiful thin smoked eels, paling. We ate salted herring with raw onions and pickles, and little fried fish nuggets. Following that snack with poffertjes, the tiny sweet pancakes everyone loves, seemed a little indelicate, so I opted for tastes of three delicious aged cured Spanish hams instead.
The Dutch and I both love dark, spicy licorice, so I was very happy to browse all the flavors available in the markets. I had always thought that the shapes were the only difference, but they say each one has a different taste. I settled on novelty flavors to take home — black straps that look like a belt, and little replicas of the famous Belgian statue of a boy peeing, the Mannekin Pis. Haven’t tried the latter yet, and I hope it’s not pee flavored. A delicious meal at a charming little bistro called Restaurant Greetje ended with a licorice crème brûlée, topped with a traditional licorice root stick (above, at a Christmas festival booth at Haarlem). The waiter told us that children liked to chew on the sticks, so I did likewise. First time I’ve ever gnawed on a stick at a restaurant, and hopefully not the last.
And I can’t forget the cheese. Depicted in its art, Dutch cheese is something to be remembered. If you ever get a chance to eat the caramel-rich aged gouda, don’t hestitate. But it was also very difficult to say no to the Stilton soaked in port that I saw in an incredible cheese shop next to the fabulous de Leeuw delicatessen. We opted for Dutch chocolate cheesecake instead.
Next up: the amazing Mavis, Suriname caterer to the stars and Dutch pickles!