What To Do When the Food is Terrible

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As I mentioned in a post a little while ago, I recently went on a very secretive trip for a week.  I didn’t want to tell anyone because I genuinely didn’t want to feel obligated to bring things back for people or see various things that people think are a “must see.”  Instead, as this was a bit of a gift, trip-wise (I had a bunch of vacation time at work that I had to use before I lost it), I wanted to just go somewhere and have a nice, relaxing trip all by myself and just do whatever came to my mind, whether that meant sitting in a cafe all day every day, or renting a car and travelling all over the country.  Well, I decided to go to Amsterdam.  I had been through their airport countless times, as it’s usually the airport through which I have to travel in order to get to other destinations in Europe.  And over the years, I have seen pretty much all that there is to see in the airport, form the kiosks to the snack shops to pretty much every single bathroom.  So, I figured that it was about time to just stop by and actually the city to which the airport was attached.

Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but if you are like me, then you probably go to a place with at least some preconceived notions about it.  That could be something as simple as assuming that people in Spanish might not speak English on a reliable basis, to something more intriguing, such as wondering whether people in China wear pants.  No seriously, someone once asked me that question once.  So it was with me and Amsterdam.  Now, admittedly, I came to have this particular assumption based on prior experiences with travelling to countries that surround the Netherlands, including Belgium, Germany and France.  I have been now to all of those countries – Germany, several times – and have enjoyed the abundant and flavorful food that each of these countries has to offer.  Now, I know that Germany does have a lot of “heavy” foods, like bratwurst and potato dumplings, but I am part German, so I was used to these foods and still really enjoy them, albeit on a rare occasion.  France, well, if you don’t know how good the food in France is, just go there.  You will melt just staring at the breads on offer at the local boulangerie.  That’s not even mentioning the cheese, the wine, the pastries, the charcuterie and all of the other things that they are known for.  And Belgium, although known for its chocolate and beer, does a lot of other things very well, too, and shouldn’t be overlooked for it’s savory tarts and sandwiches.

Now, will all of that background in my memory, I had high hopes for the food in Amsterdam.  So it is with those memories in mind that I ask this completely honest question:  How is it that a country with miles of coastline, surrounded by three food-loving countries puts out what can only be described as spackle?  No, really.  I think that rice cakes might actually taste better than the food that I had in Amsterdam.  And that isn’t the tourist row version of Dutch food, either.  I make it a point to shop and eat from the supermarkets whenever I travel abroad, and this was certainly no exception. I tried some of the street foods, as well as what was in the supermarkets and it was all basically the same.  The traditional Dutch foods were just so bland that I could barely stand them.  And I was hard-pressed to find any decent seafood anywhere.

So, back to the title of this post:  What to do?  Well, you focus on the few things that the Dutch do well.  And I want to emphasize this especially, since I have eaten over 50 types of cheese that the French make while staying in Paris a few years ago.  The Dutch to two things (okay, if you count Genever, then three) *very* well:  Cheese and beer.  And I cannot understate the amazing array of cheese and beer that this country produces, nor the knowledge that the local Dutch have of each.  When I asked people at the supermarket which cheeses to try, they asked me “Do you prefer old or new?”  What?  This is a question that you would never hear here in the US.  Americans have just no concept of decent cheese.  And I blame Kraft for that.  But I digress.  Each day I made it a point to try at least two or three of their cheeses and never once was I disappointed.  Some were firm and pungent, others soft and creamy and more like Swiss.  All of them delectable.  Not one cheese did I try that I would not happily eat to my dying day.

And the beer.  Well, this is coming from a person that barely drinks a glass of any alcohol more than once every six months.  I tried a real Heineken at their brewery on the very first day and amazingly, liked it!  And I am not normally much of a beer person.  And then, every night thereafter, I spent at a local (apparently, the third oldest) pub / bar in the Spui district that made their own micro beers.  And each one, from the blond, to the stout, was just superb.  Rich, flavorful, not filling like they would sit as a brick in your stomach, but light and aromatic.  And each one in their own glass, too.  I would just sit there, nursing one every night (again, I am a lightweight, so I had to limit myself to one, or I will be legless and likely not be able to make it back to my hotel).  I was just in awe.

So, the answer is:  For a week, anyone, especially me, can survive on good cheese and beer.  And do so quite happily. And frankly, looking back on it, even if their other food never really gets any better, I would happily live in Amsterdam for the rest of my life and eat nothing but cheese and drink a beer every night.  And I would die a happy person.  Amsterdam, you might want to just take some notes from your neighbors in Europe, but in the meantime, never stop making your cheese and beer!!!

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La Fromagerie

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I spent a few years of my life (not my most enjoyable years, either, by the way) not being able to properly process cheese or most other dairy products.  Therefore, I spent a long time ordering pizzas without cheese, thereby confounding the person on the other end of the phone taking my order, not to mention entertaining those who saw me eat what was essentially bread and ketchup (with a little Canadian bacon for good measure).

However, by the time that I went on first real vacation in almost eight years – to Paris – I was fortunate enough to have overcome that hindrance and once again be able to enjoy, at least in moderation dairy products, from yoghurt to milk to cheese.

Now, I know, everyone knows that the French love and know their cheese.  I mean, really know their cheese.  In fact, this post was inspired by a book that I recently read on a woman from Wisconsin who, after my own heart, travelled all over France indulging in the still-traditionally-made cheeses of rural France.  This is a country that boasts no fewer than 300 types of cheese by most counts, and perhaps twice that many.

I was a little hesitant at first, I admit.  i had only recently been able to truly eat cheese itself without a lot of, let’s just say, digestive discomfort.  So, as you can imagine, I didn’t want to over-reach what my body might be able to handle.  At least, not the first time.  But like they say about drugs, it’s the first time that can really hook you for life.  And in my case, not only did it hook me, but it ruined me at the same time.

As most other Americans, I grew up eating cheese.  In fact, I remember many times when I would ask my mother for a snack after school or before bed and she would just cut a huge chunk of cheese off of a larger block and I would gnaw away on it for a while.  Happily indulging in it.  I also ate my fair share of grilled cheese sandwiches, made with the ubiquitous American cheese slices that melted so perfectly (or Velveeta wedges, if we were really good and Mom had remembered to buy those large blocks of creamy, salty goodness).  Little did I know, though, that there was a whole other world of cheese out there.  Real cheese.  Cheese that transcends the bland, dry “Mexican blend” stuff that is so familiar in the US.

The first night in the city, I discovered that there was a Fromagerie just a few dozen meters from my hotel.  I had walked by it earlier in the day, without noticing it, since it was closed and in the shadows.  However, by nightfall, as I walked by again, on the way back to my temporary home for the week, I strolled passed it and noticed the light on and saw an amazing sight:  Shelf after shelf of cheese!  Like I had never seen before in my life!  There are no such places in the US.  No stores where you can walk in and be overwhelmed by the smells of the salty, briny, rich cheeses that reside therein.

This was an epiphany.  I stepped through the door to the small (the size of a smaller-than-average bedroom) shop, populated by an older woman and the proprietor; a lovely middle-aged gentleman who didn’t speak more than a few words of English, which was actually far more than the amount of French that I spoke.

I think that I literally stepped in and immediately closed my eyes to take in the smells.  It was almost overpowering, but in the most blessed way.  And the cheeses!  from bright white to deep orange; from round wheels to bricks and slices; from stinky to tangy and from creamy and smooth to crumbly and bleu.  I couldn’t believe my nostrils or my eyes.  I didn’t know where to start, so I walked up to the owner and with a few hand gestures managed to purchase a small chunk of what turned out to be my favorite, a chevre.  Goat cheese.  Briny, a little on the off-tasting side (but in all the right ways) and perfect for spreading on a fresh baguette (which I happened to have just purchased from the local bakery down the block).  I took the chunk and the bread home and spent a few, very contented minutes just savoring the cheese and the crusty, flaky-crusted bread while watching the French version of some news show.

For the next nine days, I managed to eat my way through nearly every single type of cheese that they had.  I made it a routine.  I would stop by the boulangerie on my way home for the evening and pick up a loaf of baguette.  Did it matter that it was from the morning and all French people buy their bread in the morning, for maximum freshness?  Nope.  We Americans couldn’t make bread this good if we tried.  And we have.  Let’s just say that it’s not our strong point.

I tried every type that I could identify and many others that I couldn’t and still couldn’t to this day.  Brie, Camanbert, chevre; cow, goat and sheep cheese.  Oozey, gooey cheese.  Sharp, hard, sliced cheese.  I would buy a few ounces of each and spread them on a whole baguette so that every few bites were a flavor of a new cheese.  And I only ate the same one twice.  It was that first one, from the first night, that I loved the most.  Every night, therefore, I experienced just a little bit of Heaven on Earth.  There is just something about that simple combination of foods that makes you realize that it’s the little things in life that can make you happy.  That make you forget the smoking people in the streets; the dog poo on the footpaths; the closed museums that you spent ages trying to find.  It just makes like worth living just a little bit more.

And you can’t get those cheeses here in the US.  Why?  They are not pasteurized.  None of the ones that I tried were.  And now I lament that.  I lament that I can’t go into a shop, a supermarket or anywhere and get cheese like that here.  I try it sometimes; with mixed results.  We can get decent Danish brie, but truly, it’s nothing like what I had in Paris, and I miss it.  I dream of it.  Sometimes, I think that I can still taste it, if I think and focus hard enough.

But then, as I always say; always leave something to come back for.  I feel like taking another trip to France.