Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Amsterdam vacation I: Milking the experience

My gustatory impression of Amsterdam, in a word, is grass.

No, actually there was not much grass of the lawn variety to be seen, except growing atop houseboats as a living roof. That’s not the sort of grass I had in mind. I am referring to three specific types of grass, all ingested in one way or another by humans.

The first type is cereal grass—the grains from which beer and bread are made.

Netherlands cuisine seems to be the geographic average of the cuisines of other countries in the region. It’s somewhere between French and English, somewhere between German and Scandinavian. It is as if all those other countries’ styles rolled downhill into the Low Countries and blended smoothly together. I find it hard to point to any one dish I tasted that I couldn’t connect to an antecedent elsewhere.

Amsterdam, of course, has been a trading center for centuries. So the cuisines of the country’s former colonies and current trading partners are everywhere to be seen. But those are distinctly not Dutch.

In any case, getting back to the cereal grasses: Beer good! Bread, um, not so much. I tried several varieties of each, and the beer was better in every case. The bread, when I could choke it down, detracted from the appeal of whatever it touched.

The second type is forage grass
—the raw materials from which ruminants make milk.

The same Dutch soils and climate that produce poor grains for bread produce magnificent dairy products. The Dutch cheeses we can buy in the US are pale shadows of the cheeses I tasted in Amsterdam. Regardless of type—aged, soft-ripened, semisoft, fresh, chevre—they were remarkably sweet, rich, and buttery. I do not mean they all taste the same—far from it. I mean only that each was distinctive in its class and executed to perfection.

But set aside the cheeses. The butter was unlike any I’ve ever tasted, including European-style butters made in the US, imported Danish butter, or Australian butter eaten in Australia. Given the several miles a day we walked, I didn’t even feel guilty eating it; the only hard part was pretending I was eating it with bread.

The third type of grass is in an unrelated botanical family and is illegal in the US.

The coffee shops where it is sold and consumed often have their doors open to the sidewalk. These shops are scattered throughout the old city, and we inhaled enough just walking by that we didn’t feel the need to enter.

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