Sunday, September 18, 2011


My parents are visiting and we're having a great time showing them some of the sights (and tastes!) that we have discovered as we approach two months of living here! While Dutch people often note that their cuisine is not particularly remarkable, there are several more traditional Dutch treats that are definitely worth trying. One such item is pannenkoeken, or Dutch pancakes. Unlike American pancakes which are thick and fluffy, these are more like [huge] crepes. Moreover, most pannenkoeken restaurants have hundreds of options in terms of what can be baked into the pancake - for example, our group of four had: apple, ginger, powdered sugar; bacon and ginger; bacon, apple, cheese; and bacon, ham, mushrooms, cheese. If any of you have met my mom, I'm assuming you can guess right away that her's was the only non-savory pancake. Anyways, at Oudt Leyden, the pancakes are served on these giant, round platters from Delft, which is where the traditional blue & white Dutch pottery is made. It is quite a treat to finish the pancake and to be left to admire the Delft pottery that lies beneath. However, in our group, only one person was able to uncover completely the Delft design lying underneath the pancake...scroll through the pictures below to discover who won the clean plate award that night:

Friday, September 16, 2011

(Food x Drink) >> (Food + Drink)

While walking to meet up with Nisha for lunch today, I was thinking about how food & drink go together. This is what most people are usually thinking about, right? Inspired by recent planning for a trip to Trappist Belgium, I was specifically thinking about cheese and beer. I’d in fact say that beer is a dramatically better pairing for cheese than wine is, all the time.

Implicit, of course, is the assumption that we’re talking about decent beer (“American style light lagers,” e.g. Bud, Miller Lite, are only useful if you’ll be plucking a ping pong ball from your cup before each drink). Light styles like (good) lagers and pilsners wouldn’t be my first pick, though I’m sure they too could be good with the right cheese (sharp cheddar maybe?). Mostly I’m thinking I’m sweeter, hoppier, bigger beers: dubbels, tripels, stouts.

But the beers that most clearly ask for cheese, in our opinion (Nisha and I talk about this... a lot), are traditional geuzes, the sour, spontaneously-fermented style made by brewers like Cantillon, who we visited in Brussels. They’re so sour that they need something to alternate with that can fight back at them, which could be anything from an equally pungent blue cheese to a creamy soft cheese (the fat will give the lambic something to fight through, other than the lining of your mouth).

Until a few years ago, I never really thought about these things. I could claim relative normalcy, but I'm sure I was just weird about other stuff instead. Sometimes I’d go to a restaurant and ask for a recommendation, but aside from a few great experiences it’s been tough to find great advice without asking highly specific questions. In other words, you kinda have to know yourself and start to figure these things out on your own. One of the influences that changed how I think about eating was a book by Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery. He traveled and learned about great beer long before it became an organized geeky sub-culture, and for years he’s been making the case for food and beer pairings. Although I remember loving the book, I don’t really remember the specific recommendations any more, just the take home message that I should be thinking about these things if I want to have truly enjoyable meals.

So what makes for a good pairing? That’s probably more personal than many food writers suggest, but for me it’s when food and drink have some tension, when they share certain ideas but emphasize them differently. They don’t erase each other, but they each give your mouth new things to focus on, so that the last bite can still be as exciting as the first. It's not quite unison but a far more enjoyable harmony. This preference definitely reflects my predilection for lots of variety in my food, tapas or tasting menus whenever possible. It’s not the only way to pair things, but it’s what we try to do when we sit down for a meal. I’ve even tried, with only occasional success, to make our own flavored drinks, like rhubarb soda (delicious) or strawberry shrub (disastrous). Worst case scenario, thinking about pairings is a fantastic excuse to make good wine, beer, or cocktails a part of more meals. Who am I to argue with that?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Summer Saturday in Amsterdam (Part 2)

Most of our day in Amsterdam (see part 1) was mere preamble to my favorite visit we’ve made throughout all these trips - In de Olofspoort, a bar dedicated to the Dutch liquor jenever. In the only crotchety words of a kind owner: “The English tried to steal our jenever, made some cologne, and called it gin." (He dropped this gem then stepped outside with a hand-rolled to "attend to regulating his nicotine levels.".)

We each started off here with a jenever made in the “oude” (traditional) style. Nisha’s was aged 3 years and very smooth; it was not too strong to drink on its own. Mine, aged only 1 year, was tasty but rough around the edges in the way young alcohol tends to be, jagged rather than complexly spicy. Still, 200 style points for being served from what looked to be an absinthe tap - a broad glass beaker of liquor with a copper faucet at the bottom; a steampunk Gatorade cooler, for booze. I’m no big fan of chemistry, but for some reason I really, really enjoy having any sort of special flask, stopper, or piping to deliver my beverages. I hate to think I’d get on well with the man, but I’d damn sure buy a coffee from the Half-Blood Prince.

As we began to sip our drinks, we fell into conversation with a Belfast carpenter claiming the surname “Holland.” Searching for topics of common ground, he informed us - Irish lilt essential - that he looooves The Eagles. (That would be the ones prone to riding fences, not run-and-gun quarterbacks.)

Holland seemed no stranger to the conviviality of the pub atmosphere, and insisted on buying a round for us all, though was shocked to learn we'd gone in for things a bit more potent than Amstel. He stepped up to the challenge, and 3 korenwijn were selected for us - southern Netherlands for Nisha, northern for me, and Amsterdam for Holland. Holland needed a break and a cigarette before confronting the glass of liquor, and the wife half of the ownership team, the kind of professional behind the bar you only hear about in stories, took the opportunity to slot in a quiet regular next to us.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Summer Saturday in Amsterdam (Part 1)

(Note: This one turned out pretty long, so I broke it into two posts. The second half/the fun part will be up here tomorrow.)

For a day that started out rather inauspiciously (and ended on a bit of a down note), this first Saturday of September was just about perfect.

Laziness kept us in bed past the point of reasonable hunger, and we both ended up getting stressed about the late start, due entirely to crankiness from lack of food. The forecast called for 78 and sunny (25-26, as I try to use this clumsy Celsius scale), and somehow we moved past excitement and into “oh crap, we better take advantage of this perfect weekend before it’s over!” We should’ve recognized the first sign of a lucky day when our favorite Saturday Market baker had just removed warm croissants from the oven when we walked up to buy our customary appelflappen. Buttery fingers and a stray flake in the beard were the only evidence of either purchase by the time we crossed the second canal.

Sated, we confidently boarded a train for Amsterdam... and ended up in Haarlem. Panicked that we’d get busted for using the wrong ticket, we waited half an hour to sneak onto the next train back to Leiden, where we boarded another train to Amsterdam... that took the same route! Again we ended up in Haarlem, though at least this time there was a train conductor we could talk to who explained that there was a bus to Amsterdam Sloterdijk (not the main station), and from there we could catch the train to Amsterdam Centraal.

I initially felt like a fool for somehow making this mistake, but then realized that there were tons of Dutch people coming up to ask the same questions, and in fact we recognized several of them from our first train to Haarlem - evidently the same stupid forth, back, and forth was made by lots of people. When we asked why the monitor next to the train platform still read “Amsterdam Centraal” if that wasn’t the train’s destination, the conductor informed us that the change was only for a few trains that specific weekend, so they couldn’t change what automatically displays on the monitor. Right... At least there were more than enough buses to re-route everybody, and the Dutch all seemed to handle the news quite calmly. Somehow this rubbed off on us enough that we held in the urge to explain just how stupid it is to change the train schedule without putting up any signs or making any announcements. Zen lesson learned: what the hell good would whining have done me anyway?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sunday in Leiden

After much debate, and due partially to the unreliable internet connection that has limited our posts recently, we stayed in Leiden this weekend. We had a great dinner at my advisor's house Friday night, went on our first "big" (only 7 km each way, but 2 cities away!) cycling trip, and spent Sunday reading and then taking a walk around to explore the town some more.

I remarked in passing once that we seem to have moved to Stars Hollow. This weekend, there's been: a Holland Men's Folk Chorus near a dockside, billowing display of old-fashioned steam engines; the duel of techno-for-children v. Dutch rock 'n roll from a moving barge; horses pulling carts, and horses being ridden bareback next to a bicycle; much ringing of church bells, part of the "Open Monument Day" where people across the country visit historic windmills, factories, and town halls.

We didn't try to capture everything, but here's what we saw on a walk Sunday afternoon.

We have to enjoy all the shades of green before the weather drives them away.

Ya know, typical getting around town.

Cool comes easy to some people. 
Sadly, we did not stick around for their cover of "I'm on a Boat."

Food trucks don't need Twitter when they serve something warm and sugary.

In the Netherlands, you can always diversify your picture by including a bicycle.

Still can't believe this is the view from our home.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Brussels: Things to do

I think we've already mentioned some of the main sites (e.g. Grand Place/Grote Markt, Manneken Pis), but here are some places that are worth visiting:

1) Place Sablon - this is a great area to walk around because of the dense concentration of art galleries and antiques stores.

apparently, ob/gyn tables haven't changed much over the last 150 years!

Moreover, when you need a break from all the window shopping, there are some AMAZING chocolate/dessert places to stop for a delicious pick-me-up. The weather got chilly for about 10 minutes, which was long enough for me to intensely desire hot chocolate - luckily, we were next to Wittamer.  I had read that the chocolate there was incredible but honestly, the hot chocolate was so good that I didn't have the patience (willpower?) to stop drinking it and take a picture of the striking cafe or the lovely hot chocolate. Upon returning here, I did stumble upon this recipe for their hot chocolate on the blog of David Lebovitz.  I am quite confident that I can't recreate their deliciousness but perhaps when it gets colder...
We also stopped by Pierre Marcolini because, quite frankly, I couldn't resist their beautiful window displays of macarons.  Seriously, check out how beautiful they are! The flavors of the nine macarons that I tried were great - with salted caramel and a subtle, chocolate-encased violet flavor winning out - but I must say, the texture was not completely perfect (despite the macarons having beautiful "feet").  I think a good macaron should have a slightly more formed, or crispy "shell."  Anyways, looking forward to trying more when we are in Paris in a few weeks!

2) Musée Magritte - Brussels has many great museums, but we were most interested in seeing the work of the Belgian painter René Magritte. Perhaps his most well-known painting is that of an image of a pipe with the seemingly contradictory caption below, "Cesi n'est pas une pipe" (this is not a pipe). The idea being that the object on the canvas was paint or an image, but not actually a pipe. Those of you who have seen me wear my "cesi n'est pas une pipe" t-shirt depicting a Nintendo pipe may understand how we couldn't miss going to this museum! The museum is really fun to walk through. Magritte often had his friends think up titles for his paintings - some seem to be completely unrelated to the painting - however, in simply thinking about the image in the context of this title, the meaning of the painting changes and often, in very humorous or clever ways.
near the Magritte Museum

3) Frites - there are frites everywhere in Brussels. In the old city, Friterie Tabora and Fritland are perfectly fine places to satisfy a craving but if you are willing to travel a little bit (a few miles!), Maison Antoine at Place Jourdan is definitely the place to go!  This becomes evident from the second you arrive and line up behind a long queue of people willing to wait 30 minutes for these frites which arrive double-fried and in a humongous cone. One has the choice of at least 20 different sauces here - everything from traditional mayo to sauces with names that bewildered us like samourai.  Of note, sauce Américaine is delicious - tomato-based with spices - and totally unfamiliar to both of us (it must be referring to the South America)! One of the great things about Maison Antoine, is that almost all the cafes and restaurants near there have signs stating that frites are allowed in their establishments - this means you can sit down and order a beer to enjoy with your cone of frites.

4) Beer - I will reiterate if you're interested in beer, Cantillon is not to be missed (see post)! But in terms of enjoying good Belgian beer, do not miss Moeder Lambic.  More than 40 local beers on tap, great ambiance, a knowledgeable staff - you can't go wrong here.  If you are interested in good beer, but are willing (aka- young enough) to tolerate loud, super packed spaces - check out the dictionary-sized beer menu (mainly bottles) at Delirium Cafe. Operated by Brouwerij Huyghe (makers of the "delirium" and several other beers), their own beers are heavily featured on tap.  We sampled a few good beers here, but Moeder Lambic remains my favorite beer place!
Moeder Lambic
Delirium Cafe: Locations may change, but double fisting Daavs is a constant!
5) Dinner - the best dinner that we had during our trip to Brussels was at In't Spinnekopke.  The restaurant is a great place for an introduction to more traditional Belgian cuisine - the food is prepared well and is served in a rustic, homey environment.  We started out with their house beer, which was on tap and delicious and opted for an appetizer of foie gras with poached pear and speculoos.  Speculoos is a dry cookie heavily spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg,  cloves, ginger, cardamom, and pepper and is popular in both the Netherlands and Belgium - the cookies are quite tasty and even David, who rarely eats desserts, has taken to having 2-3 cookies after dinner on most nights!  Anyways, this appetizer was amazing - the richness of a perfectly cooked, fatty piece of foie gras with spicy crumbles of cookie, and the light sweetness of pear was a great combination. Even the tart slices of apple decorating the plate, proved to be a well thought out diversion from the richness.  I'm including the pictures below...but they really don't do the food justice. We chose tete de veau tortue (calf's head) and coq spinnekopke (their house chicken) as the main courses.  We very rarely eat chicken at home and pretty much never order it at restaurants, but I think we were both very glad that we did here. The chicken was moist and cooked in flavorful, slightly sweet, thick sauce consisting of beer and mushrooms - plentiful in portion and the perfect comfort food. The tete de veau was served in a shiny copper vessel and the meat was delicate and swimming in a tangy tomato broth.  Oh my goodness, the food was good!  So good that we ate it all and did not have room for dessert, which convinced us that instead we needed digestifs.  We had fleur de houblon (made from the hops flower) and digestif maison (house limoncello) - a delicious ending to a great meal!  

In't Spinnekopke
Coq Spinnekopke
Foie Gras
Tete de Veau Tortue
Tete de Veau Tortue + house beer
I think this post has become a little my last, short recommendation: Viva M'boma. The name apparently means "long live the grandmother" and thus, does traditional cooking in a modern, black and white environment.  The restaurant specializes in offal - if you're not into offal, you can find a ton of other great restaurants in this area of the city.  The service here is wonderful - honestly, the servers are not only knowledgeable and helpful, but really just very nice.  The food is definitely good, but alas, this post is too long so I will leave you with the pictures.

head cheese

bone marrow, oxtail, veal cheeks

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Brussels: Cantillon Brewery

Brussels: Cantillon Brewery –

This was one of the places we were most excited to visit in Brussels (sorry, Manneken Pis). It is the last traditional brewery in Brussels and has been a family-run establishment since 1900.  Cantillon specializes in making traditional lambics - in the U.S. I think many people may equate lambics with Lindemans Framboise, Kriek, Pecheresse, or Pomme beers. While Lindemans is based in Belgium and to its credit, produces items that can be sweet but refreshing, their lambics are far from traditional both in taste and how they are made. Lambics really can be much more complex and interesting - I promise!

What makes Cantillon worth visiting is that you not only have the opportunity to learn how they make their beer and see their charming, historic facilities but also to try their wonderful (and unique) beer. So I will tell you a little bit about what we learned, because honestly, it was all really fascinating to us.  And of note, Cantillon does sell their products in the US - for example, at the wonderful Monk's Cafe in Philadelphia.  

different styles of "examining" the beer!

The thing that makes traditional lambics so special is that they have undergone spontaneous fermentation. This means that wort (the liquid extracted from mashing wheat, barley, and hops) is exposed simply to wild yeasts present in the air, which ultimately are responsible for fermentation. No careful decisions are made as to which yeasts are going to be used to innoculate the beer, as with ales and lagers. This is also why true lambics are supposedly only from Belgium - as only this region has the right yeast flora for the process.  Anyways, this process of fermentation can be allowed to continue for several years in these beautiful oak barrels.  Breweries may then make gueuze, which combines lambics of several different ages to achieve a more balanced final product.  Young lambic adds sugars which are necessary for fermentation to continue even after the gueuze has been bottled and old lambics contribute more to bouquet/taste.  Finally, breweries can also macerate fruit (traditionally, cherries [kriek] or raspberries [framboise]) into their lambic, which impart some of the fruits' natural flavors and color to the beer and provides more sugar for fermentation.  So those are the basics.

I love that the brewery really can't exist without "Mother Nature" - it relies on whatever yeasts are floating in the air. This, interestingly, means that the brewery also has rules against killing spiders/getting rid of spiderwebs in its facilities. As you can imagine, fermentation+fruit+Summer months attract lots of insects; so instead of using insecticides, they let spiders just do their job! David and I definitely support this - from personal experience, we had gone many months (years?) without cleaning a huge spiderweb in our house in Richmond.  Once "we" (aka- David) cleaned it, we had a crazy, CRAZY number of fruit flies. Lesson 1: Clean the house less often! Lesson 2: Spiders (remember Charlotte!) can be good and helpful.  I love it!  

And the final product - what does it actually taste like? At the brewery (as part of the 6 euro tour) we got to try two of their beers: a gueuze and a fruit lambic (framboise and kriek). All were wonderful! I think the thing to mention without going into a ton of details about the specific tastes of each of the beers we tried is that if you have never tried this style before, you will be surprised by the tart, almost vinegary nature of the beer. Now that perhaps does not sound intrinsically wonderful, but I assure you that once you let your palate explore this taste, it's really delightful and just has such a unique quality.  Needless to say we came home with 6 [large] bottles of various styles they make. Lambics do age incredibly well as their character continues to change as the fermentation process continues in the bottle - but I am pretty sure we will not be able to resist imbibing these sooner rather than later!  

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Brussels: Waffles!

Waffles!  As one quickly learns, there are two types of waffles ("gaufres" in French) sold in Brussels: the Liège waffle and the Brussels waffle.  The Liège waffle is more popular among locals, where it is enjoyed sans adornment other than a light dusting of powdered sugar.  This waffle has rounder/uneven edges, but most importantly is denser and has this incredibly caramelized exterior.  The Brussels waffle is more in keeping with the non-Eggo waffles that we get in the U.S. - square, thicker, and fairly fluffly.  Needless to say, the Liège waffle is so deliciously appealing that in the FIVE times (count 'em...2.5 waffles/day is really not terrible, right?...especially compared to our averages for frites and beer) that we ate waffles, we never even bothered to try the Brussels style.  And of course, we didn't bother with the extra toppings because the Liège waffle has enough caramelization and little bits of chewy melted sugar that it really doesn't need anything else.  We tried waffles at the following places (in order of best waffle):

1) Dandoy (we went here twice, the waffles were that good!):  there are several branches of this store throughout Brussels.  They are known for their Belgian biscuits (cookies) but as we learned, they make amazing waffles.  The waffles were dense but yeasty, with the perfect amount of little melted bits of sugar to sweeten the dough, and a beautiful, dark amber exterior.  Warning: they do make the Liège waffles earlier in the day and re-warm them in waffle irons to order, but despite this, they were really excellent!

2) A little "Gaufres" van at Place du Grand Sablon - our second favorite, perhaps partially because I was on the verge of a tired, "my feet hurt", dehydrated (shout out to Cantillon Brewery for letting me try their deliciousness in the early afternoon!), hypoglycemic episode and both the aroma and the waffle itself had serious restorative powers.

3) Waffle World - this was a little stand near our hotel where, despite the name, we hungrily sought out a cheap and quick breakfast option before immersing ourselves in the work of René Magritte.  Surprisingly, it was pretty delicious - simple formula: dough+sugar+warm= yum.

4) La Funambule - this stand was also very near our hotel and the waffle was enjoyable.  But really the photo op is the true winner here: