10 things you probably didn’t know about Holland

holland While Holland is well known for its bright flowers, the canals of Amsterdam, and wooden shoes, there are still many surprises to discover about this region. To help expand your knowledge, here are some things you probably didn’t know about Holland.

1. Rotterdam is the only Dutch city with a true skyline. In fact, it is so impressive the area is known as “Manhattan on the Meuse.” In terms of architecture, Rotterdam has a superb reputation, making it no wonder that the Netherlands Architecture Institute was also founded here.

2. Holland is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Schokland, the D.F. Wouda Steam Pumping Station, Wadden Sea, the Defense Line of Amsterdam, the Beemster Polder, the Rietveld Schröder House, the Mills of Kinderdijk, and the canals of Amsterdam.

3. In the late 16th century, gin was invented under the name jenever in the Netherlands and was sold as medicine.

4. Dutch people are the tallest in the world with the men averaging 6 feet 1 inch and women 5 feet 6 and one half inches tall.

5. The Dutch love cheese. Annually, they consume about 32 pounds of it.

6. Holland has more museums than any other region in the world. In fact, Amsterdam alone is home to over 50 of them.

7. In Holland, it is common for families to hang a Dutch flag and school bag outside their homes when children pass their exams.

8. Almost every person, regardless of class or status in Holland, owns a bike and there is double the amount of bikes as cars.

9. While Holland is known for its tulips, they were originally brought from Turkey in the 16th century.

10. Once every ten years, one of the largest horticultural events in the world takes place in Holland, Floriade. Luckily, the event will be taking place this year from April 5 to October 7 in Venlo.

For a more visual idea of Holland’s unique culture, check out the gallery below.

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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.

European cheeses: holiday entertaining with the taste of travel

European cheeseI work part-time in a cheese shop, and I’m also a contributing editor at culture, a consumer cheese magazine. I can’t help noticing that, despite a still-sluggish economy, people don’t want to do without their cheese. Especially if they’ve fallen for a specific type during their (usually European) travels.

Not everyone who bellies up to the counter is a globetrotter or a cheese geek, but they’re all eager to try new things and learn about the animals and cheesemakers responsible, and what, if any, cultural role certain cheeses play in their country of origin. It got me thinking: why not show Gadling readers how to do a bit of armchair travel to Europe via their local cheese shop?

Cheese has long been associated with revelry, in part because of its cozy compatibility with beer, wine, Champagne, and certain spirits. With the holiday season upon us, I put together a list of some delicious, versatile, affordable European imports that will make any small party more festive. The best part? You don’t need to be any kind of cheese wunderkind to put together a banging cheese plate (suggestions coming up).

[Photo credit: Flickr user cwbuecheler]

European cheeseI usually allow about an ounce of each cheese per person, assuming there’s more food. If you’re throwing a big party, it may not be financially feasible to purchase certain products (and there’s nothing wrong with serving a mass-produced Gruyere or Gouda). Note that some styles of cheese are less dense than others, so depending upon price, you can get more dairy for your dollar.

If you can’t find these cheeses at your nearest grocery, Whole Foods (which have generally excellent cheese departments), or specialty shop, try online sources Murray’s Cheese, Cowgirl Creamery, Formaggio Kitchen, and Artisanal Premium Cheese. Click here for a national cheese retailer directory by zipcode.

In addition to picking some of my own favorites, I turned to one of culture’s co-founders, cheesemonger Thalassa Skinner of Napa’s Oxbow Cheese Merchant, for advice:

The Cheeses

France
Langres (cow): Traditionally served with Champagne poured over it (those decadent French!), this well-priced washed-rind is a little bit stinky, with a dense, creamy interior and tangy lactic finish. From the Langres plateau in the Champagne-Ardenne region.
European cheese
Holland
Ewephoria (sheep): Nutty, rich, with a hint of crystallization, this butterscotchy Gouda will convert even the ambivalent into cheese aficionados.

Switzerland
Appenberger (cow): This buttery Alpine-style cheese from the Schweitzer Mittelland region has a faintly grassy tang. A surefire crowd-pleaser.

Italy
Robiola due latte (a blend of cow and sheep or goat’s milk): A rich, mold-ripened number with a slightly sour, mushroomy finish, from the dairy-rich Piedmont and Lombardy regions. Top imports include those by Perolari due Latti, Robiola Bosina, and Robiola delle Langhe.

Spain
Leonora (goat): A loaf-shaped, mold-ripened cheese from the northwestern village of León. Creamy, tangy, and delightful, with a blindingly white, dense, chewy interior.

Portugal
Azeitao (cow): Yeasty, full-flavored, with a slightly bitter finish; a beer-lover’s cheese. From the village of the same name, in the Arrabida Mountains, near Lisbon.European cheese

England
Stilton (cow): Colston-Bassett makes perhaps the finest version of this historic, earthy blue cheese. It’s a classic British holiday treat, produced in Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire. Stichelton is the equally delicious, raw milk version; it’s a bit more fruity and crumbly. But for another British tradition, go for a robust Cheddar. Keen’s (cow) is buttery, with a horseradishy bite.

Ireland
Coolea (cow): This dense, buttery, Gouda-style from County Cork has a sharp, grassy finish. Unusual and delicious.

Belgium
Wavreumont (cow): A smooth, full-flavored, monastic-style washed rind. Trappist beer, anyone?

Cheese Plate 101

K.I.S.S.: This is a fun little acronym I learned in culinary school. It stands for, “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” A foofy, cluttered cheese plate with too many accompaniments just detracts from the headliner. You can keep sides as simple as some plain crackers or a baguette, or add toasted almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts, and some preserves, or honeycomb or dried frEuropean cheeseuit or grapes or slices of pear or apple (in summer, use stonefruit such as peaches or cherries, or berries).

You can also go the savory route with dry-cured or green olives (Picholine are my favorite) and some salumi (add grainy mustard, cornichons, and a hearty rye bread for a winter supper). Forget the sundried tomatoes, pickled onions, pepperoncini, artichoke hearts, tapenade, stuffed peppers, or whatever else the local deli has in its antipasti bar. It’s overkill.

Stick to three to four cheeses that increase in intensity of flavor. You can do whatever you want: all blues, or all goat cheeses. For a diverse, well-rounded plate, try: One creamy/mild; one semi-soft or semi-firm with some kick, or a washed-rind/ surface-ripened; one hard-aged; one blue or something really punchy (taste this last, because the stronger flavors will obscure your palate). Your cheesemonger can help you pick things out and explain these terms to you, or click here for a glossary.

When pairing cheese with beer or wine, a rule of thumb is to match the intensity of flavor of the cheese to that of the beverage. The following are some suggestions for some of the more tricky, assertive cheeses.

Goat cheese: A good rosé will almost always work, as will a light German beer like Hoegaarden.
European cheese
Big, stinky washed-rinds: Pair with sweet bubbly; the effervescence will help cleanse the palate and won’t compete with the flavor of the cheese. If you’re drinking beer, go with a light pilsner or lambic.

Blue cheeses: Go for a sweet dessert wine (not Port) or Lambic beer with fruit, such as framboise.

For additional cheese plate ideas, click here.

[Photo credits: Neal’s Yard, Flickr user foodmuse; Gouda, Flickr user manuel/MC; cow, Laurel Miller; grapes, Flickr user lakewentworth; goat, Laurel Miller]