Excellent restaurant downstairs

Following on the theme from my last post – where Julia Roberts doesn’t get enough to eat in Bali because she ate too much in Italy and had to buy new pants, I was very much delighted last week to come to the conclusion that the time had come for me, too, to buy new pants. Like many other brides-to-be, two months before my wedding and I have quit the gym and put myself on a strict diet of carbohydrates and cookies.

Italian restaurants are a dime a dozen in most cosmopolitan cities. Pizza, pasta, garlic bread, cheese. Wine, throw in some more cheese and maybe a Peroni – I’m a happy lady. But truth be told, most of the time, one bowl of pasta, as satisfying as it may be, tastes the same as the next. Zizzi, Prezzo, Strada, Spaghetti House (ew, seriously) – hearty yes, good value definitely, but a quality meal which transports me to a land where the sun shines brightly over vast vineyards and the modest yet romantic olive-skinned son of the local milkman wins the heart of the fashionista daughter of the regional mafia boss and, most importantly, where FOOD means BUSINESS – probably not.

Le Marche is one of the many (20) regions in Italy that I didn’t know existed. I’ve been to Italy once – to Venice, as an exchange student, when I was fifteen. We stayed in a converted convent, drank a lot of contraband alcohol, and played mean tricks on the kids who fell asleep first. It wasn’t exactly the cultural experience that I imagine having there today and I spent a good chunk of my time being terrified of pigeons pooping on me.  The only thing I learned how to say in Italian was: “Could I please have two scoops of coffee ice cream in a cone.” I ate only pizza (all I could afford) and drank a lot of wine and Fanta because both were cheaper than water.

It’s not even a fact, you know, that pizza was invented in Italy; the ancient Greeks lay claim to this too.

For more common stereotypes about Italy and Italians that may or may not be true, click here.

Rossodisera on Monmouth Street features in my new favourite book, Secret London: Unusual Bars and Restaurants – you will probably see further entries from this guide in future blog posts. The owners, Igor Iacopini and Samuele Ciaralli, come from Le Marche, which is on the eastern side of Central Italy, incidentally – and have done no less than transform the basement of an English deli into their own little slice of Italia in Londra.

From the outside, Rossodisera looks like your average deli/sandwich shop come tourist trap in Covent Garden. It is a sandwich shop, yes, and it is also in Covent Garden, but beyond the meat counter and down a narrow flight of stairs is the “excellent restaurant” itself – a tiny, warm, inviting (did I say tiny?) space full of hungry Italians looking for a taste of home. OK, so there was one table of loud Americans. We’re talking theatre district, after all.

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The room is tastefully designed to resemble an Italian country house and is decorated using actual stone from the actual owner’s actual father’s actual house. I forgot that I’d never been to real Italy (having concluded that Venice doesn’t count, sorry Venetians and your blinds) before I could even begin to remember that, in fact, I had.

We ordered the obligatory selezione di formaggi  to start, which arrived on a slice of olive tree from Le Marche. We were served two hard cheeses and two soft – what they were exactly I couldn’t tell you, the waitress had a pretty thick accent from, you guessed it, Italy – paired with confiture and a beautiful clear honey. We also ordered the cheapest bottle of red wine on the wine list – we have no reservations about looking cheap – and it more than did the trick.

We both chose pasta for our main dishes. I chose the orecchiette rossodisera – a small, oval-shaped pasta with a generous serving of extra virgin olive oil, soft ricotta cheese, sundried tomatoes and fresh basil. Not to detract in any way from how nice the sauce was, but I really like this pasta shape because it looks like little ears. In fact, I would wager that the direct translation for orecchiette is little ears. I’m not even going to bother looking this one up.

Duncan ordered the chitarrina sibilla – a homemade egg pasta with a cream and truffle sauce, a roulade of pork belly direct from La Marche,  mushrooms and ‘scorzone’ truffle shavings.

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Now, my other half is not one to dish out praise lightly.

“This is the best pasta I’ve had in years,” he exclaimed. I couldn’t have agreed more; made fresh in-house with great quality ingredients, this really gave new meaning to the word homemade.

When the waitress came to clear our plates, Duncan was quick to let her know that this was, in fact, “the best pasta he’d ever had.” I was very close to suggesting we order another plate each, or move to Italy. (Dunc – if you’re reading this – is this an option?)

Sitting next to me while I write this, Duncan says:

“It was the dog’s bollocks. Quote me, will you?”

You can’t get any more Italian than that.

Another good option for authentic Italian food is La Polenteria on Old Compton Street. I don’t know why so many people are adverse to polenta. Maybe because it looks a little bit unappetizing – like a large, creamy plate of baby food. Sure, it’s stodgy – but when prepared properly it can be a light, fluffy and extremely healthy alternative to rice (unless, like me, you enjoy covering it with cheese).

Polenta is actually a cornmeal boiled into a porridge, which you can either eat straight up or fry (yup), grill or  bake. In North America, we eat this with maple syrup. Then again, in North America we eat everything with maple syrup, the greatest thing ever to come from trees.

I visited La Polenteria one rainy lunch break in April, with two girlfriends who both opted for the restaurant’s very economical lunch deal (two courses for under a tenner) while I selected a salad of fresh greens, grilled polenta, sundried tomatoes and scamorza. I had food envy instantaneously – Harriet’s vegan caponata and Stella’s pollo alla romana consisted of a generous (maybe too generous for lunchtime) helping of fluffly polenta basically smothered in ratatouille and chicken regu, respectively.

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OK, so it was a killer salad.

Historically, polenta was served as a peasant food in Europe, but don’t let that put you off – hipsters eat this now. This is a nice little spot for a cheap and cheerful lunch of either a top salad (I got over my envy once the girls started letting me pick off their plates) or something a bit different – polenta doesn’t deserve such a bad rep.

Need to know:

Rossodisera

5 Monmouth Street

020 7240 3683

Nearest tube: Covent Garden

Opening Hours: Mon-Fri 8 am-11 pm, Saturday 930 am-1130 pm, Sunday 930 am-1030 pm

http://www.rossodisera.co.uk

Reservations recommended

La Polenteria

64 Old Compton Street

020 7434 3617

Nearest tube: Leicester Square

Opening hours: Mon-Thurs 830 am-1130 pm, Friday 830am-12 am Saturday 12pm-12 am, Sunday 12 pm-11 pm

http://www.lapolenteria.com

 

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Like a goose eats a noodle

In Hungary there is, apparently, a saying:  “Like a goose eats a noodle.” It means eating so fast your food doesn’t touch the sides. I’ve always had a certain affinity for things Hungarian – for one, my aunt Judy’s mother Amalia was Hungarian, and she was an important part of my childhood. A survivor of the Holocaust, Bubby Leah moved to Montreal from Budapest in 1952 with my then very small auntie, bringing with her a culture and tradition that would come to define my perceptions of Europe as a young adult.

Secondly, my homegirl Sydney – the Amy to my Tina – is also of Hungarian descent. When we were sixteen, I was her date to St. Stephen’s Ball at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, where she was participating as a debutante. This night made a big impression on my light-purple-prom-dress-clad self.

Having made dinner reservations at The Gay Hussar on Greek Street – where British politics meets Hungarian cuisine – Sydney wrote me with some food for thought – some history and context for my evening meal, with some running commentary on the side.

1. Hungary is one of the oldest countries in Europe. It was founded in 896, before France and Germany became separate entities, and before the unification of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. (Sydney says: Haha! Suck it, Europe!)

2. Hungarian language is known as Magyar. It is the direct descendant of the language spoken by the Huns, and is therefore not an Indo-European language. It has only two related languages in Europe – Finnish and Estonian. (Sydney says: It is really a beautiful language to listen to, but really very difficult to learn. Too many ‘sz.’)

3.  One third of the nearly 15 million Hungarian speakers live outside of Hungary, mostly in Romania. (Sydney says: The Hungarian section of Romania is where you will find Transylvania and the vampires. We are all very suspicious of them. But I once wore a Transylvanian dress to an event and I looked adorable. I was 14 and I had green/red/white ribbons braided into my hair.)

4. Hungary was one of the first Communist-era countries to oppose the Soviet regime during the Cold War, notably with the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. (Sydney says: Haha!! Suck it again, Europe!)

5. Hungary has the 5th most Summer Olympics medals. They also invented the Rubik’s cube, the ballpoint pen, and the theory behind the hydrogen bomb. They also have the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union. And a buttload of thermal baths. (Sydney chose these facts at random because she likes them. Except for the bomb part. She doesn’t like WMDs as a general rule.)

Fermium Ivy Mike

The Gay Hussar is a long-standing Soho haunt steeped in history, a well-known institution of the British left, regularly frequented by politicians and a variety of other strange people. Although traditionally a Labour hangout – it was over dinner here that Tony Blair was first encouraged to run for the leadership of the Party –  rumour has it that in the eighties members of the Conservative Wets (I haven’t lived in the UK long enough to understand what this means) met here to discuss their plans to bring down Margaret Thatcher.

Mick Jagger was also once nearly charmed into standing for Labour MP at the Gay Hussar. Also, my friend Jon’s dad, who, in a previous life, was one of the bigger employers in the Tower Hamlets area, used to meet with local councillors and local politicians here to discuss things like working conditions and employment regulations.

But you don’t have to be either important or strange to eat here. Using my trusty little friend called the Internet, I booked a table for two on a Monday night with no questions asked – I thought it was only fitting to ask Jon to accompany me, although I probably would have rather asked his dad.

When we walked in the door, I immediately felt as if I were somewhere I shouldn’t be. The restaurant was already nearly half full at 7 pm, with wooden pews lining a central aisle occupied by hungry diners of various shapes and sizes, tucking in to a myriad of interesting-looking dishes and looking like they had important business to conduct.

We were seated side by side on one of the benches towards the back of the restaurant on the first floor, facing an empty chair and a very narrow space to pass. I stared at the walls, which were covered in caricatures of Labour politicians, courtesy of Martin Rowson, visual journalist extraordinaire. As fascinating as these are, I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was going to be bumping elbows with my dinner companion and staring at a series of cartoons all night.

Can one of us sit on the other side? I asked our rather stern looking waiter.

“No.”

We asked if we could be moved, and were shown up the stairs to a table in what I can only hope is the very same private dining room where Mick Jagger sat down with Tom Driberg, and presumably ordered a goulash. The atmosphere upstairs was more austere than the first floor dining room – I felt inclined to turn off my mobile and speak in soft whispers. At the same time, I could very well have been in my grandmother’s kitchen, with its traditional Eastern European knick-knacks and hand-painted porcelain dishes – all that was missing was the obligatory set of nesting dolls.

To start, Jon opted for the seared Hungarian foie gras, served with caramelised onion, tokaji and black truffled jelly on toasted brioche – I’m telling you, this place doesn’t mess around.  Fact: 30,000 goose farmers depend on the foie gras industry in Hungary. It’s our duty to support them.

I declined to have an appetiser – I was saving room for the main event, which for me was a generous portion of chicken in a creamy paprika sauce served with galuska, which, as it turns out, is some kind of cross between a noodle and a dumpling, not unlike gnocchi, but nicer and easier on the estomac. Jon, without hesitation, opted for the venison goulash. I was also saving room for dessert – an order (or two) of sweet cheese pancakes, which I had been looking forward to all day. Other tempting options included a poppyseed strudel with vanilla ice cream, and a chestnut puree flavored with dark rum and vanilla.

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True, the food at the Gay Hussar may have been secondary to the actual experience of dining there – regarded as a “national institution” by some, there is something truly special about the restaurant’s air of familiarity and unique tradition.

It’s also Eastern European comfort food at its absolute best.

But alas, the restaurant has been trading at a loss, and has been put up for auction, in a sealed bid to be held by Christie’s next week. News of the sale saddened many of London’s most prestigious food writers, and is a lesson for  a novice like me, a lowly Brixton foodie wannabe with a rapacious taste for new and interesting restaurants – when it comes to your local gem – either use it, or lose it.

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Need to know:

The Gay Hussar

2 Greek Street

020 7437 0973

Nearest tube: Oxford Circus

http://www.gayhussar.co.uk

Opening hours: Monday to Saturday, 12:45-2:30, 5:30-10:45

Reservations recommended

Get me to the Greek

My best friend is married to a Greek man – like, a real one. His parents don’t speak English very well, being from Sparta and all – Sparta, like SPARTACUS. His name is Nick – incidentally, my best friend’s cousin is also married to a Greek man, whose name is also Nick. I think, in turn, his brother is called Nick.

When I received the invitation to Melanie and Nick’s wedding, I accepted immediately and sent my RSVP card with “vegetarian” marked under “dietary restrictions.” I got a phone call from Mel.

“I got your RSVP! I’m so excited!” she said. “But, you know that the vegetarian option at the wedding is fish, right?”

“What kind of wedding has fish as their veggie option?” I asked, baffled.

“A Greek one,” she answered – fair play.

At home, there are many many Greek eateries, Montreal being a city populated by many many Greeks. I used to skip school regularly to go to Villa du Souvlaki on Sherbrooke – I’d still do that today, if I a) still lived in Montreal and b) still went to school. Their crinkle cut fries are so GOOD. Souvlaki George is another NDG staple – even a suspicious fire couldn’t shut that shit down. For the real deal, there are endless numbers of authentic Greek taverns sprinkled around Parc X – the types of places where you don’t order off the menu and where Greek families convene to celebrate memorable occasions, like the addition of a new Nick to the clan. Places where I am prepared to go to great lengths – including eating octopus – to have someone take me there. Good bets include Tripolis on St Roch or Mythos on Parc.

That time I ate octopus

That time I ate octopus and thought it was chicken

In London, the only Greek restaurant I’d come across in my nearly four years of living here was The Real Greek, and not once can I say it ever crossed my mind to go in there. So when time came to cover Greece for this project, I asked my friend Elena for a recommendation, and landed at Lemonia in Primrose Hill.

Even the name Primrose Hill sounds like something out of a fairy tale. Primrose Hill, says Wikipedia, is one of the most expensive and most exclusive residential neighbourhoods in London. Present and past residents include Sienna Miller, John Cleese, Jeremy Clarkson, Boris Johnson, Daniel Craig, Friedrich Engels (author of The Communist Manifesto) and Harry Styles.

Clearly Lemonia would be no down and dirty diner – and my meal was not going to be cheap.

It was busy when we arrived – booking ahead had been a must on a Friday. We were seated near the back of the restaurant, which felt very much like a cross between a traditional Greek tavern and a subtropical rainforest.

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Our first serious choice was whether to have Greek wine, or Cypriot wine. Cyprus-Greece relations somewhat escape me – the more I eat and the more I write the more it occurs to me that I know less about the world than I thought I did . Anyway, I think Leon Uris wrote a book about Cyprus once. It was good. On this occasion, I wasn’t going to go there.

Since Elena is Cypriot – Greek Cypriot, to be exact – we went with a dry Cypriot white, called Aphrodite. I felt like a goddess already.

Speaking in tongues with our waiter (I am NOT talking about you, she assured me – I’m still unconvinced) Elena ordered our starters – an aubergine salad, an octopus salad that I was reluctant to try because it looked very squishy, tzatziki and pitta and my personal favourite, spanakopita. These came swiftly, and I might describe them as little triangular bundles of spinach-filled joy.

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For my benefit, our entire party decided to go “Greek Veggie” for the night, meaning everybody but me ordered fish – predictably, I ordered the chicken shashlik. Once again Elena communicated with our waiter in secret code, making good use of the word “innay,” which I understood to be the Greek translation of “innit,” a word I am very much still struggling to understand.

As we waited for our food, Duncan made brief eye contact with our waiter and a second bottle of wine appeared and I was very pleased that we had reached this level of mutual non-verbal understanding with the staff. Who needs languages, eh? It was a good thing too, because we waited a while. Nevermind – I can never fault a long linger with good friends, especially when there’s pitta.

“I should have warned you, the portions are small,” Elena said when our food finally did arrive. Although my chicken and Elena’s grilled fish came with rice and salad, the grilled squid was served all by its lonely self, and there wasn’t much of it. The food was very good, albeit not inspiring – charcoal grilled meat is charcoal grilled meat; what matters is where you’re eating it, and my night out at Lemonia is the closest I’m going to get to Sparta this year.

The damage – not awful, but not inexpensive, at £70 a couple including service. I wonder if Boris runs a tab…

Need to know

Lemonia

89 Regent’s Park Road

02075867454

http://www.lemonia.co.uk

Nearest tube: Chalk Farm

Reservations recommended

Schnitzel Madness

There were so many reasons to skip over Germany. One – the war. The British still don’t seem to have gotten over that. Two – my waistline – with menu items including “rich camembert cheese mixed with cream cheese, butter and beer and served with a pretzel,” “sausage salad”  (since when is sausage a salad?) and a 340 gram meatball, I wasn’t entirely sure this was going to be a good idea. And those were just the snacks/appetisers – as a main, the meatball comes with a fried egg, fried potatoes and a side “salad.”

Instead of listening to my head though, I listened to my heart, and signed up for Monday night “Schnitzel Madness” at the Bavarian Beer House in Tower Hill. With five brave friends in tow, I expected mediochre yet hearty food, giant beer and waitresses wearing lederhosen. Maybe a food fight or two – I was not to be let down.

In fact, our ample-bosomed, lederhosen-clad server even had the German accent to go with her attire. Slightly brusquely, she seated us at a round table in the corner on the first floor, a safe distance from the two separate groups of young men drinking what I could only assume was the Jagertrain: “Jagermeister and Redbull for 10 guests – the Journey of your life.”  Of course they also could have been drinking the Porno Metre – that’s 16 shots of pornobrause on one board. What pornobrause is, I’m not sure I want to know.

Our party stuck to beer, most of us opting for a litre of Erdinger, a premium German wheat beer, to accompany our meals. It took me three hours to finish mine – beer just doesn’t belong in a glass that big. By the time I reached the bottom it was warm and disgusting and I was encouraged to just let it go – but that’s just not my style.

Andrea ordered sausage and mash to start, to be followed by her schnitzel. The rest of us didn’t feel this was necessary.

Jon and I also ordered from the BBH’s extensive schnitzel menu, largely because a) schnitzel is just the greatest word and b) because on Mondays, the “schnitzel madness” offer entitles diners to one of TEN different types of schnitzel and a pint of beer for only 15 big ones. As already indicated, we upgraded from pint to litre because, well, the number one reason I wanted to come here was for the novelty stein glass.

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Charles opted for the sausage platter, which, if I’m not mistaken, comprised six different types of sausage accompanied by mash and sauerkraut. Let’s say it was nine. It sounds more disgusting if I say nine. I was hoping for a more disgusting night, if I’m honest – the whole evening was fairly civil, with not even one giant flying weiner to be found. A bit disappointing, really – apparently, food fights are only permitted in the basement.

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Emma had a goulash, while Harriet went for the giant meatball, which in itself made the trek East worth my while. It was basically a giant fried meatball in a bun – simples.

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I’m inclined to suggest that the BBH would be a more enjoyable culinary experience for those of a more carnivorous orientation than myself – my vegetarian schnitzel was a bit mushy, and a bit too covered in cheese, but everyone else seemed into their grub and although not a spot for the high flying foodie, it is really the type of place where it’s difficult not to have a good time, especially if you are sandwiched between two tables of grown men engaged in a drunken sing-off.

If schnitzel doesn’t appeal, the Old Street branch offers made to order hog roasts at 12.90 a head. Available Mondays through Thursdays, “diners can tuck into a whole suckling pig.” Book two weeks in advance.

(Or, don’t.)

Need to know:

Bavarian Beer House (Tower Hill) 

The Arches, 9 Crutched Friars

0844  330 20 05

Nearest Tube: Tower Hill

Opening Hours: Monday to Thursday 12pm to 11pm, Friday/Saturday 12pm to 1 am, Sunday 12-10.

http://www.bavarian-beerhouse.co.uk

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French dessert DIY

“Wine…the intellectual part of the meal.”

-Alexandre Dumas

Some lesser known facts about French food:

1. France has a different cheese for almost every day of the year.

2. There are two new cookbooks published every day in France.

3. 72% of the French population finds it difficult to understand French wine labels.

Châteauneuf du Pape - with Papal Regalia

French food is extremely diverse, and includes a wide variety of regional cuisines. Provencal specialties include ratatouille, bouillabaisse, and pisaladiere, while in Rhone Alpes you can overindulge in fondue and raclette and in Burgundy you’re apt to find boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin at every neighbourhood bistrot. Other typical french recipes include pochouse (fish stewed in red wine), gratin dauphinoise, duck confit and croque monsieur.

English: Coq au Van 10-29-09 IMG_9331 Français...

Almost all of these dishes rely heavily on cheese, butter, booze or some awesome combination of the three. Yet, mysteriously, very few French people are fat.

I went on exchange to France when I was in high school – being from Quebec, I think my parents thought it would help me speak French better. I remember that on the first night I arrived in Arles, my host family had prepared a hog roast. Confronted with the notion that their new houseguest didn’t eat meat, I spent the next several weeks eating salads for lunch every day, most of which consisted of a single vegetable, often either shredded carrot, green beans or corn, covered in salad cream. Accompanied by a large baguette and an even larger block of cheese. Not the worst scenario in the world.

I didn’t think it would be very interesting for you to read a blog post about me eating a baguette with cheese. Nor was fine French dining in my budget – although choices are aplenty in London, from Galvin at Windows and Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester in Mayfair to Chez Bruce in Tooting, Mon Plaisir on Monmouth Street and Bistrot Bruno Loubet in Clerkenwell.

Once you’re done dinner, you’re going to want dessert – and this is where I come in. Sweet French recipes include macaroons, madeleines, chocolate souffle, tarte tatin, and creme caramel. And, drumroll please, the mighty profiterole – recipe courtesy of my friend Harriet’s mum.

Ingredients

2 oz butter

1/4 pint water

3 oz plain flour

1 egg – beaten well

1/4 pint double cream

100 g dark chocolate

Directions

1. The first step really should be to open nice bottle of French wine. Unfortunately, I was training for a charity run last week (girl’s gotta do something if she’s going to write a food blog and not get fat) so I was off the sauce.

1a. Preheat oven to gas mark 6/200 C, preparing to make your choux pastry – this is easier than it looks/sounds.

i. Cut up butter and heat in a saucepan with the water until melted. When it starts to boil, remove from heat and immediately tip in flour all at once.

ii. Beat until the mixture is smooth and comes away from the pan. This will be your arm exercise for the day. Cool slightly/pour more wine.

iii. Beat in the egg a little at a time to make a smooth, thick, glossy paste.

iv. Drop teaspoons of pastry onto a prepared baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes.

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v. After ten minutes, turn the oven up to gas mark 7/ 220 C. Bake for a further 15-20 minutes until puffy and golden brown.

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2. Make your filling – this involves whipping the double cream with an electric mixer.

3. Put a slit in each profiterole and using a teaspoon, fill each one with cream – don’t be stingy.

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4. Make your chocolate sauce – either use your favourite method or, if you don’t have one, melt the chocolate in some milk with a little sugar and butter et voila.

To serve – pour warm chocolate sauce over profiteroles, and enjoy. How easy was that?

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Time spent looking for awesome fries

D is a tricky one. Danish? Nah. Dominican? Unlikely. Dutch – fine. But where? Lost for ideas (save My Old Dutch on High Holborn, of course – £5 Monday Madness means I eat big pancakes sometimes) I did what any other sensible, rational food lover would do – I booked a plane ticket to Amsterdam.

Now, when Harriet agreed to go on this excursion with me, she had no idea a) that I’d cry on the plane (I didn’t, but it was highly probable) b) that I had little to no interest in either the Van Gogh Museum, Rembrandt or all the other museum-y things that most regular tourist people are interested in and c) that we would arrive on a Saturday evening having no game plan otherwise. That’s not entirely true. I’d made a list of the foods that I wanted to eat, and the streets on which I could eat them. I did not bring a map.

There is a lot of excellent food in Amsterdam, and we spent a lot of time walking around looking for it. We didn’t do much in terms of sit-down meals – street food in Amsterdam is cheap, accessible and convenient – if you only have 36 hours in a new city, you might not want to spend a lot of it in a restaurant. Instead, you might want to visit the Kattenkabinet, explore the shops of De Negen Straatjes (The Nine Streets) or take a stroll through the Red-Light district.

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The following is as brief as possible a summary of our weekend of Dutch food in the ‘dam.

1. FEBO

On our first night in Amsterdam, we headed to the Leidseplein for a poke around and some beer. Cue Febo.

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“Is that a sausage vending machine?” I asked Harriet.

“I don’t think so,” she answered, as we turned around. “But that is.”

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FEBO, unique to Holland, is funny little fast food chain which sells snacks out of small lockers in the wall. This is a fantastic way to snack.  On offer is a range of kroket, frikandellen (hot dog), and my personal favourite, the kaassouffle, which, translated, means cheese melted inside dough and then deep-fried.

2. Beer – not technically a food, I know.

But who goes to the Netherlands and does not drink beer? Not me. We settled down at Cafe Eijlders, a pub which started out as a hangout for artists and members of the Dutch resistance during the second World War. I’d forgotten that outside of London, table service actually exists; wanting to try something local, our waiter suggested we try a beer brewed at the Brouwerij de Prael, located right in Amsterdam’s city centre. It was a success.

3. FRITES

I was really committed to this one. I’d actually penciled “find patates” into my mental weekend food schedule, and was well prepared to go to great lengths to find awesome fries.

Luckily we didn’t have to go far. At Cafe Eijlders, I just asked. “Where do I find awesome fries?” No need for much time spent.

There are many Vlaamse Frites shops around the city, and the impression that I get is that what makes one superior to another lies in the number of toppings on offer. We opted against “Chipsy Kings” – snappy name though – and hit up the outlet recommended by our waiter, which was aptly named “Vlaamse Frites”, to avoid any confusion. It had 14 toppings to choose from. I’d had a bunch of beer, which I thought entitled me to not one, but two toppings.

“I will have curry, and garlic,” I declared, with confidence.

“This is a bad idea,” the frites man said, also with confidence.

Instead, I decided on a satay sauce topping. This was a GOOD idea.

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This tasted a lot better than it looks.

4. CHEESE

This was, without a doubt, the focal point of our weekend. As a testament to this, I spent more than £30 on cheese to bring home.

I am now a certified expert in cheese tasting. On a recommendation, we booked a cheese tasting at the Reypenaer cheese tasting rooms. A well established family business, the Wyngaard Kaas cheese group produces a rare, award-winning type of aged gouda that is unlike anything I have ever tasted before. Fact: the Dutch export 95% of the cheese they produce. Fact: the highest consumers of cheese in the EU are the Greek.

Gouda can be made anywhere, its distinguishing characteristic its wheel-like shape. Wyngaard Kaas makes all of its cheese by hand in a warehouse on the Old Rhine river – this both explains, and justifies, its relatively high price. The microclimate in the warehouse is adjusted by opening and closing the windows in accordance with the weather; Wyngaard is the last business in the Netherlands to use this type of ripening process.

We were guided through a tasting of 6 different cheeses, and encouraged to make notes concerning each one’s colour, smell, taste, and consistency, and then to give it an overall grade. “Everything is possible,” said the cheese instructor (I will call her this – she didn’t tell us her name, and what else do you call someone who teaches you about cheese?) “but if you don’t know what to say, say walnuts.”

My favourite was a 10 month old chèvre gris, which, according to my notes, is not actually grey, but has a sharp, woody taste and is not soft like regular goat’s cheese but closer in texture to parmesan. A close second was the VSOP, a superb 2 year old wedge of goodness with an aftertaste of caramel. Meant to be eaten in thin, carpaccio-like slices instead of giant hunks (tricky) this cheese is best enjoyed with port.

Needless to say, I bought them both.

5. HOUSE OF BOLS

Also not technically food – the House of Bols is a genever (dutch gin) museum run by the Bols distillery, the oldest distillery in the world. Bols has been making genever in Amsterdam since 1575; after the discovery of America, but before the establishment of the Dutch East India Company, before Pocahontas married John Rolfe, and before TV.

The tour of the premises include a variety of taste tests, confusing sniff tests and the “mirror bar,” where aspiring bartenders learn the tricks of the trade.

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If I had one complaint, it would be that there I could not take part in the sniff test because holes they made for smelling  were too high for me to reach.

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Our ticket came with one cocktail, and two samples of flavoured Bols liqueur. Harriet chose the elderflower and, in the spirit of Valentine’s day, the “parfait amour,” a combination of rose and violet. I chose passionfruit and, in the spirit of trying new things, yogurt. As terrible as this sounds, it was actually our favourite of the four.

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5. Indonesian food

After all of of this street food (we had another Febo on our way to the House of Bols – I confess), wine tasting at noon and cocktails in the afternoon, we were craving an actual meal. One that involved sitting. Because of the historic relationship between the Netherlands and the former Dutch East Indies, there are a large number of Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam. Perhaps this also explains the satay sauce on fries.

We happened upon Bojo Indonesian Restaurant, just off the Leidseplein – it was cold, and we were hungry. Despite there being two Indonesian restaurants on the same road, this one was full to the brim – but we were told it would only be ten minutes for a table. We waited five, tops – and were shown a generous table for six, even though there was a group of four squeezed in together at a small table by the door.

Apparently, there is a table hierarchy at Bojo. As we waited for our meal, we observed a massive game of musical chairs. The table of six behind us left; the table of four by the door moved to a different table of four. A group of six arrived, and were seated at the table for six directly behind ours. Then they moved to a different table for six, and we were confused.

“I think we are losing this game,” Harriet said.

But, we need not have worried, because as the waiter arrived with our Bintang beers, he offered us the empty table for six behind our table for six, which was left drafty, and seated another group of two at our old table for six. A group of five huddled together at the table for four by the door.

In any case, this meal was a close second to the cheese tasting of earlier that day. Harriet had a generous portion of nasi goreng with beef satay; I had a delicious gado-gado – a salad of boiled vegetables with an egg and cubes of Indonesian sticky rice. It was so good that I forgot to take a picture.

We couldn’t leave without popping into Henri Willig Cheese and buying – you guessed it – more cheese. I went for a large piece of red pesto flavored gouda, but not until I’d tasted every other variety in the store. We also bought some stroopwafels, or syrup waffles, to bring home.

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Things we missed while too busy eating cheese: Hagelslag– better known as “chocolate sprinkles,” eaten by the Dutch for breakfast on toast. Pickled herring – but I’m basically relieved about that. And pancakes – we did spent a fair bit of time looking for awesome pancakes – but in Amsterdam on a Monday before noon, there are surprisingly few pancake shops open, or shops open generally. Nevermind, I have My Old Dutch for that…