Down-home Dutch cooking in Amsterdam

Dutch cooking, AmsterdamDutch cooking isn’t one of Europe’s famous cuisines. Yet while it can’t compete on the world stage with Italian or Spanish cuisine, Dutch cooking can been really good and travelers to The Netherlands shouldn’t dismiss the culinary side of their trip. Here are three cheap to mid-priced restaurants that will make you appreciate Dutch cooking.

De Stadskantine
This “city canteen” at Van Woustraat 120 is run by friendly folks who decided there needed to be a cheap, quick, cafeteria-style restaurant in Amsterdam, something between the grab-and-gulp fast food joints and the sedate sit-down restaurants.

They succeed admirably. The long tables allow people to mingle in an informal atmosphere and each dish is already prepared so you don’t have long to wait. This is especially good if you’re just visiting Amsterdam, because you can rest and refuel without losing a big part of your sightseeing day. The servings are hearty and the food well-prepared and healthy. I had the turkey with tomato sauce, potatoes, and green beans. This isn’t haute cuisine; this is tasty, filling food the way you mom used to make, assuming your mom was Dutch.

De Stadskantine has only been open eight months and it’s already hugely popular. It hasn’t made it onto the tourist trail yet and the only language I overheard was Dutch. The menu changes regularly and there’s always a meat dish, a fish dish, and a vegetarian option. Entrees are all under ten euros ($13.50), a bargain for Amsterdam. Check out their website for what’s on today.Restaurant Moeders
This restaurant at Rozengracht 251 is named after and dedicated to mothers. The walls are covered with photos of them and you can donate one of your own mom. They also offer specials if it happens to be mom’s birthday.

The odd decor doesn’t stop with the mother obsession. The restaurant looks like a cross between a diner, a cafe, and the cluttered living room of some old spinster who lives with 50 cats. That’s a good thing, as you can see from their website. Oh, and none of the cutlery or dishes match because they was all donated by the diners the first day it opened.

So this is one of the most distinctive looking restaurants in Amsterdam, but how’s the food? Excellent. I had a hearty stew that was just the ticket on the cold drizzly night I went and left no room at all for dessert. Service was friendly and prompt. This restaurant fills up quickly so book ahead, way ahead if you want to attend their annual Mother’s Day party. They also serve High Tea.

Haesje Claes
This large restaurant housed in three connected historic canal homes has been popular with locals and tourists for years now. While many such places coast on their reputation, Haesje Claes doesn’t.

It’s great for dining alone like I was because the decor gives you plenty to look at. The rooms and tables are lined with old decorative tiles from centuries past, and one room has an ornate Baroque ceiling the owner salvaged from some old building. The atmosphere is homey and intimate with a relaxed, cheerful crowd and friendly waitresses.

The food was cleverly done without being pretentious. Spoiled for choice with the appetizers, I ordered the Taster, which comes with six starters including cheese croquet, shrimp croquet, potato salad, fried tripe ball, and a couple more that I’ve forgotten. All were excellent except the tripe, which was, well, tripe. The venison steak I had as a main was well-prepared too.

In all, these three restaurants should satisfy your appetite no matter how long you walked around Amsterdam that day, and they’ll each give you an insight into the underrated world of Dutch cooking. All are reasonably priced. I’d pick De Stadskantine as my overall favorite for its good value and fun atmosphere. Haesje Claes is best for a proper sit-down meal in historic surroundings. Restaurant Moeders is the place to be if you’re traveling with your mom or you are a mom.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Amsterdam’s Torture Museum!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Tasting gourmet Dutch cheese in Amsterdam

Dutch cheese
I’m addicted to it. Every time I’m in Amsterdam the first thing I do is get some to satisfy my craving. I couldn’t think of a trip to Amsterdam without it. Yeah, you know what I mean.

Eating Dutch cheese!

I’ve always wondered why some countries get famous for certain foods. Why is Belgian chocolate so great? Why do the Dutch make such fine cheese? Why aren’t the Dutch the chocolate experts and the Belgians famous for cheese?

While in Amsterdam I went to a Dutch cheese tasting at the Reypenaer Cheese Tasting Rooms, the shop and showroom of one of the nation’s leading cheese manufacturers. They hold hour-long cheese tasting classes most days, where you get to taste a variety of cheeses and learn about the process of making them.

This class will teach you all you need to know to be a bore at cocktail parties. For example, most of us know that aged cheese is more flavorful, but why is that? As cheese ages it loses moisture, and moisture dilutes taste. As cheese ages, calcium and salt will form crunchy little white crystals called cheese crystals. This is a sign of maturity in a cheese. Very large crystals are a sign of well-aged cheese.

Some cheese has holes in it. This is caused by gas produced by bacteria. One would think that flatulent germs would be a bad thing, but as anyone who has eaten holey cheese knows, it has a sweet flavor that’s quite pleasant.

Local conditions affect the flavor, and this is one of the reasons The Netherlands is one of the leaders in the cheese industry. Warmth and humidity makes cheese mature more quickly. The Dutch region of Beemster is considered one of the best regions for cheese because its between to stretches of water.

The grass the cows, sheep, or goats eat is also a factor. For example, some cheese is only made with milk produced from animals eating grass in springtime because this is the richest and most lush grass of the year. Weather conditions affect dairy farmers almost as much as they do crop farmers. The rainy dutch weather ensures rich grass most years. England and Ireland have lots of rainfall too, and so it’s no surprise they have some excellent cheeses.

When tasting cheese, slice it thin as that allows for more oxygen. Drink some water between each sample to cleanse your palate. It’s best to sample both with and without wine. During the tastings we tried different wines and ports with different cheeses. I found that the flavor of all but the most mature cheeses was drowned out by the strong flavor of port. Lighter wines allow for the flavor of the cheese to come through, and the right combination of wine and cheese improves the taste of both.

The cheese tasting class was a great way to spend a rainy Dutch afternoon, and of course everyone ended up buying something in the shop! So if you’re at a loss for something to do while waiting for Amsterdam’s nightlife to kick in, stop by and learn something about Dutch cheese.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Down-home cooking in Amsterdam!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Amsterdam’s Maritime Museum

AmsterdamAmsterdam owes its wealth to the sea. In the Golden Age of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch sailed around the world looking for rare products to bring back to Europe. They were one of the great maritime powers and are still important in shipping today.

Amsterdam is a city made for the sea. Its canals are laid out like a spider’s web, where every family that could afford it built a narrow house on one of the canals, complete with a private warehouse and crane on the upper floor. This maximization of seafront property allowed a large section of society to share in the nation’s wealth.

To really understand Amsterdam and The Netherlands, you need to visit the National Maritime Museum, called Het Scheepvaartmuseum in Dutch. This museum, reopened earlier this year after a major remodel, offers a history of Holland’s maritime adventures from the past 500 years.

Just a short walk from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, the museum is housed in a large 17th century arsenal. Inside are modern interactive displays explaining how early mariners found their way by the stars, how ships were built, and where and for what they traded.

One of my favorite displays is a set of reproductions of sailors’ photo albums from the past century. You sit in an easy chair flipping through the pages while listening to an audio commentary explaining the photos. It was like sitting with some old Jack Tar as he spun tales of the sea. There’s also a large collection of ship’s ornaments, nautical equipment, and an art gallery of maritime paintings.

%Gallery-139729%Another big draw is the Amsterdam, a beautiful full-sized replica of an East Indiaman from the Age of Sail. This is a big hit with Dutch kids, if the squealing school groups crawling all over it were anything to judge by.

Some locals have complained that the remodeled museum has been “dumbed down”, and while I applaud the many exhibitions specifically directed at children, I have to agree the museum lacks a certain something. There’s a large amount of wasted space and as I finished every floor I was left with the feeling “that’s it?” Yes, the displays are artistically lit and well labeled, and the whole execution is well conceived, yet I was left feeling I’d missed out on something.

Another problem is the price–a tooth-grinding 15 euros ($20.23) for adults and 7.50 ($10.12) for kids and seniors. Thankfully I had the I amsterdam City Card, which got me in for free. If you don’t have the card, I’m sad to say that unless you’re a serious history or nautical buff, the price simply isn’t worth it. It’s a shame the high entrance fee will drive people away, because there are some really beautiful artifacts and works of art here.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Tasting gourmet Dutch cheese in Amsterdam!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Amsterdam’s booming Eastern Harbor

Amsterdam
Amsterdam is a beautiful city famous for its narrow canal houses that during its golden age served as both homes and warehouses for merchant families waiting for their ship to come in. The historic heart of Amsterdam is an architectural treasure, and the Dutch didn’t stop building innovative spaces in the modern times. One of Amsterdam’s newest expansions is the Eastern Harbor Area.

A century ago this area served freighters and steamers, but with the larger ships of the modern age, that industry has shifted to the Western Harbor. Now many of the old buildings have been converted into homes and apartments and new ones have cropped up, designed by leading Dutch architects.

The area isn’t far from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station and is best seen by bike. I rented a bike from Mac Bike, conveniently located in the station, and set out on a typically overcast Dutch autumn day with a city guide. While it was helpful to have a guide along, Mac Bike has a good map/brochure of the area if you want to go solo.

I love seeing Amsterdam by bike, and the Eastern Harbor Area and Amsterdam’s Eastern Districts are much more open than the historic center. They offer sweeping views of the harbor and the bike lanes are free of drug tourists, who have a bad habit of shuffling zombie-like in the middle of bike lanes in the city center.

%Gallery-139393%The first landmarks you see heading east from Centraal Station are the Maritime Museum’s traditional 17th century facade and the decidedly ship-like modern building for NEMO, Amsterdam’s science center pictured above. This mix of old and new continues as you go eastwards.

Several old warehouses have been converted into apartments, and a hotel that once took emigrants to the New World now serves tourists and business travelers. I found the modern buildings to be more interesting since they’re so unlike what you usually see in Amsterdam. City planners hired different architects to build different buildings on the same street so that you get a wide variety of style within the same view.

Stylized modern bridges take you from one island to the next and offer views down various canals where homeowners dock their boats. Fountains and little parks offer open areas. All in all it was a fun ride and something to consider if you like architecture or just want a healthy two or three hours away from the city center. Try to pick a better day than I did, though!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Amsterdam’s Maritime Museum!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Preserved human flesh at Amsterdam’s Tattoo Museum

preserved human flesh
This is exactly what it looks like–the preserved human flesh of a tattooed man. Judging from the style and subject, I’d say it’s from a nineteenth century American sailor. I spotted it sitting on the director’s desk at Amsterdam’s Tattoo Museum.

Ah, Amsterdam! I’ve visited you so many times and yet you always have new surprises for me.

Amsterdam is a great city for museums. There are two sex museums, a marijuana museum, and a heap of world-class art museums. In a city known for extremes, it’s hard to stand out, yet the Tattoo Museum manages to do just that.

The product of three decades of collecting by local eccentric and celebrity Henk Schiffmacher, the collection includes everything and anything related to tattooing that Henk has been able to gather up from God-knows-where.

I have dim memories of a previous visit to this museum back in 1993. Then it was in a small space crammed with odd artifacts. It’s been closed for the past several years and now it has just reopened in two rambling old mansions. When I visited they were still setting up and the exhibits were spread out in disarray. Henk was running around screaming at the contractors for being behind schedule while a local TV crew dogged his steps. I wandered off on my own to explore.

%Gallery-139057%It was fun to see this half-completed museum-in-the-making and while most of the collection was still in boxes, there was no shortage of curiosities to study. The Tattoo Museum covers the entire history of skin art and has artifacts from all over the world, including needles, old shop signs, photographs, flashes (ready-made designs), and freak show posters. Some of the items, like the statues from the South Seas and the stuffed monkey, show that like all true collectors, Henk can’t resist a cool item even if it doesn’t exactly fit in his collection. To my disappointment I didn’t see any shrunken heads. Maybe he hadn’t unpacked them yet.

The new space allows much more room for displays and the upper floor is being turned into a tattoo parlor where several expert skin artists can give you a memento of your visit. Henk is a tattoo artist himself and if you’re lucky you might even get him to pick up a needle and mark you. Much cooler than visiting the gift shop!

As a fan off all things macabre, I was attracted by the preserved human flesh, one of the few things I clearly remember from my previous visit. There are several of them in the museum’s collection. These pickled tattoos aren’t unique. London’s Wellcome Collection has 300 specimens of preserved human flesh bearing tattoos collected by a French military surgeon who cut them from the bodies of dead French soldiers. I’ve come across examples in other collections too.

A cynic might say they’re fake, and some of them undoubtedly are. Unscrupulous carnies or salesmen could produce them easily enough from animal skin. Yet I believe most are real, like those from the Wellcome Collection. Back around the turn of the last century there was a craze in collecting human remains, whether to study the shapes of skulls or preserving scalps or for various other reasons. It would have been easy enough to collect tattooed skin from cadavers. One hopes that the next-of-kin received compensation, but that probably didn’t happen most of the time.

Rather than see these human remains as something disgusting and demeaning, I find them rather life-affirming. The common working Joe is forgotten soon after he dies. How many nineteenth century sailors can you name who weren’t famous explorers? Yet their self-expression through body art lives on. We can look at these samples and catch a glimpse of someone who has long been dead.

Like the guy whose skin adorns the top of this post. There he is, with his patriotic wife and his ship. Do the letters “A.R.” stand for his name, or hers? Or do they stand for “American Republic” as the U.S. was sometimes referred to back then? We can’t know, but this man hasn’t been entirely lost to history. I know about him now, and thanks to Henk, you know about him too.

I wandered around for two hours and Henk was still bustling around with his contractors. I decided he was too busy to bother. When I go back to Amsterdam next year I’ll arrange an interview, because I’m dying to talk with the man behind such a unique collection.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Amsterdam’s booming Eastern Docklands!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own. I have no idea what the Tourism Bureau thinks of preserved human flesh.