Last updated 4 weeks ago by Michael Darmanin
Quaint gabled buildings, narrow and leaning, lining the picturesque canals. A solitary windmill standing defiant, in its ancient stone and thatch glory, against the low skies … Netherlands is full of undeniable attractions.
Van Gogh, Rembrandt, tulips, red light districts, whiffs of marijuana … all mingle in a heady concoction of sights, sounds and smells.
Yet, it stumbles somewhat when we switch the sensory mode to taste. ‘Dutch delicacies’ rank rather high in the list of genuine oxymorons … tending towards ‘holy war’ and ‘job satisfaction’ in absolute authenticity.
Of course, they eat. The tallest people of the world need their nourishment.
But the rich borrowed recipes from culinary-rich Indonesia and other erstwhile colonies are exceptions rather than staple. Authentic Dutch food is rather straightforward. Mashed potatoes, vegetables, a big sausage, gravy all together making up the traditional stamppot. Loads of bread and cheese. Comforting, filling—but not quite haute cuisine.
Much like the way they name things. The oldest church in Utrecht is Pieterskerk, simply Peter’s Church. The name of the oldest church in Amsterdam is still more prosaic —Oude Kerk, which translates literally to ‘Old Church’.
The oldest movie theatre in Amsterdam is similarly called, with equal flamboyant flair of imagination, The Movies. One of the two wooden buildings that have survived in the town center is named Het Houten Huis, which means The Wooden House.
The food is likewise. Simple, straightforward, practical … Raw herring with pickles and onions, often stashed inside two pieces of bread. Food cannot be simpler than that.
Beer and bitterballen in brown cafés
Bitterballen (or bitter-balls) perhaps provide the most salivating exception. Round golf ball shaped croquettes. Crisp and inviting, especially with the stingingly strong mustard dip that almost always accompanies it.
The core is chopped veal stuffed into a thick gravy of beef stock, bits of potato, onions, and sprinkling of nutmeg, parsley and salt-pepper. The mixture is refrigerated until it is firm and then coated with breadcrumb and egg-mixture. Finally this is deep-fried.
The result is something close to the fabulous finger food so abundantly spread across the more sophisticated Asian cuisine-scape.
Given that bitterballen derives its name from bitter, a generic Dutch word for certain types of herb-flavoured alcoholic beverages, it is best to have it with locally brewed beer. Or that strong traditional juniper-flavoured liquor Jenever, historically associated with the phrase ‘Dutch courage’.
Hence, the best place to have bitterballen is in one of those famous archetypal Dutch cafés—with old-world charm, soft music, mellow lighting, cozy conversation, and plenty of brown wooden paneling. These cafés are called … surprise, surprise … Brown Cafés. There are plenty of them. For example Café Jan de Winter or Kafe Belgie in Oudegracht (the throbbingly imaginative street name that means Old Canal) in Utrecht. In Amsterdam, there are plenty of them in around the area where three long streets crisscross the four major canals. They thus make a grid of nine little streets, called, what else but, The Nine Streets.
The atmosphere in these cafés, with the food, drinks, music, lighting, conversation, combining into that untranslatable Dutch word gezellig. Unpronounceable too, if you are not Dutch. And Bitterballen is one of the prime ingredients.
Closest to heaven in the low country
But, one needs to be careful. The sinfully tempting bitterballs can be piping hot. As my Irish guests recently found out. The two of them had been guzzling IjWit, the delicious coriander-seed and lemon-flavored Dutch beer when the snacks arrived.
“Small bites at first,” I warned. “They can be hot.”
One of them followed my advice. “Superb. Tastes like gravy,” he surmised after two delicious moments, his eyes acquiring the glaze that often descends on the sudden discovery of the beer-bitterballen blend.
His friend, the compulsive rebel, did not consider such caution necessary. A while later he was dousing the flames with half the contents of his glass. “Tastes like lava,” he observed when he finally found his somewhat singed tongue again.
Yes, like any true treasure the discovery comes with associated perils. Sip the beer, enjoy the small bites. It is the closest one can get to heaven in this low country.