Thursday, 17 May 2012

Dutch cuisine (Ολλανδέζικη κουζίνα)

Although it is rare to hear of a restaurant specialising in Dutch cuisine, there is a range of meals that are very representative of Dutch cuisine, despite Hollands' many culinary influences since the 16th century. While we were staying at a friend's place in the Netherlands, we got a brief introduction to home-cooked Dutch food and local pantry/fridge staples.

My friend's fondness for cooking is how we met. For our introduction to Dutch cuisine, she made a vegetable soup with tiny meatballs. What made it particularly Dutch was that it was heavily scented with finely chopped paper-thin herbs. The Dutch use these herbs a lot in their food, including in their ham and cheese products.

The soup was served with a spicy garlic Dutch butter, a product of Holland's famous dairy industry. The Dutch cheese market in Alkmaar close to where I was staying is well known internationally (it opens once a week during the warm months - alas, I was not there on that day). And the idea of the Dutch adding spices to their food is also a typical feature of Holland's cuisine,. Since the 16th century, the Netherlands was the main trader of spices throughout Europe, via the formation of the Dutch East India Trading Company in 1602, which actually controlled the spice trade between Asia and Europe for two centuries (like all empires, it eventually went bankrupt).

With so much butter and cheese, the Dutch are naturally keen on their bread too. The shape of the loaves reflects the Dutch culture of being very neat and tidy, with a uniform shape. Our friend spread us a large table full of the best of Dutch breakfast food every morning, with a range of sweet spreads for bread (like applesauce and rosehip jam) and hot drinks like cocoa and coffee (also very important Dutch trade items). She also showed us something the Dutch do with chocolate snow - they sprinkle it on buttered bread!

"I know it sounds crazy!" my friend laughed. "But when we see what other people do with chocolate sprinkles, like spreading them on cakes and muffins, we think they are crazy!"

I also got the chance to taste a quintessential Dutch semi-sweet custard with a yoghurt consistency called vla. It is available in tetrapaks in the fridge section of a supermarket. I had expressed my wish to eat rhubarb; this chard-like vegetable is not grown in Greece, and few people would understand its use here, since the leaf part isn't actually eaten, and the stem becomes a sweet. My good friends made a rhubarb crumble especially for me, and served it with vla. Apparently, vla is eaten as a pudding or afternoon snack, and over fruit. And it's very very Dutch.

While touring around Holland, always in the company of our friend who acted as a personal guide and an ambassador of her country, I had the chance to ask about the different kinds of Dutch street food, and eating in the the Dutch way. Some things we tried, while others, we just got a glimpse of, as our stomachs couldn't fit it all in. 

I like making poffertjes because it's a 'happy' kind of food - it's also a good way to introduce children to cooking; the special pan makes it much easier.

Pancakes, small and large, are popular all over Holland, and generally in Northern Europe (Britain excluded). A particular specialty of Holland is mini-pancakes called poffertje, epsecially popular as a birthday party treat and in the summer. Out of curiosity, I asked to see my friend's poffertje pan (something every Dutch person has in their home), which in her case was a very heavy cast-iron pan with moulds ready for making mini-pancakes. I bought one of them too (a more modern much lighter version!), because pancakes are popular in my own home and the poffertje tin makes them more fun to make.

Olliebollen are deep fried donuts, which I've also made at home, according to a reicpe my friend gave me; I could say my Cretan olliebollen are a very healthy version since I use only olive oil.  As you can see by the way the children are dressed, the cold was quite intense in late April. My friend kept telling me that we are very lucky not to have been caught in the rain while we were walking.

Doughy sweet treats are very much a part of Dutch cuisine. Special Dutch donuts, olliebollen, are made for New Year's, but they can also be bought at major Dutch tourist attractions throughout the year which also sell waffles.

qutomated dutch fast food outletProcessed meat products in a bread bun are as popular in Holland as they are in most Northern European cities, but the specialty in Holland is frikandel with or without various toppings. A typical Dutch way to sell them is from an automated dispenser which we found more amusing than the frikandel itself! Our stomachs were always too full when we passed one of those, so we didn't taste the 'real' thing (we managed to scoff down a regular hot dog at a stand with the typical frikandel toppings).

Another very Dutch street food item is the fresh raw herring sold at stands that specialise in fish-based street food. Apparently, this delicacy is very good for when you are suffering from a cold with a sore throat, which are common ailments in Holland, as the weather is very cold most of the year round. The fresh raw herring is served simply as it is, with some chopped onion, which sticks to it. The eater takes the herring by the tail and eats it from the head-end first (the head is removed during the cleaning/preparation process), making sure to re-stick it with onion after each bite. I personally liked it vry much - it reminds me of own marinated sardines at home.

My friends also presented us with some food items before we left, which left us with some happy memories as we continued our trip: coffee, chocolate, biscuits, applesauce, sweets, along with some Dutch smoked and herbed cheese varieties that I picked up are all being enjoyed back home in my Mediterranean kitchen. But one of the treats didn't make it that far.

The Westfriese Broeder sweet bread - kind of like a filled flat tsoureki - kept up our strength while we were walking around Berlin. Spicy currant-fruit filled breads are a personal favorite of mine, but not so popular in Crete. This bread is going to be a bit tricky to reporoduce back in my kitchen - all the recipes are in Dutch!

I found only one aspect of food shopping a little shocking: vegetables at the supermarket are often individually vacuum-packed (remembering the golden Dutch rule of being neat, clean and tidy), and with a price per item, not by the kilo (again to do with rules of hygiene presumably). In mid-April, aubergines cost €1.29 each. It's cheaper to eat ready-prepared food than it is to cook...

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