I’ve been spending much of the day getting ready for my flight to Amsterdam tomorrow morning. It’s very much a spur-of-the-moment break, booked on impulse only a couple of weeks ago. I’d been reading Jesse Burton’s wonderful book, The Miniaturist, set in 17th century Amsterdam. One night, reading it in bed, I had a sudden and strong yearning to return to Amsterdam. I know it well from many years of going there regularly, when I was married and my ex was based in first, Amsterdam, and then The Hague. So I tend to describe the time as ‘sort of half living in Amsterdam’. Which may be a slight exaggeration but nevertheless I did spend enough time there to have a ‘local’ butchers and bakers and be able to jump in the car and drive into the centre of Amsterdam and know where to park the car. We also used to often cycle in along the Amstel river from Ouderkerk ann de Amstel where we ‘lived’. I returned for the first time in years last March with my daughter, Nicola, and has a fabulous time, loving being back in this city that is so laid-back, so relaxed, so pretty, very alternative and full of wonderful arts and culture.
Pausing in my read of The Miniaturist that night, I remembered that earlier in the day I’d received an email from British Airways about their sale and one of the things in the sale were city breaks – including Amsterdam. Now, a steady stream of holiday deals comes through my inbox and most of the time, for the single traveller, they don’t in the end represent much of a bargain. They are nearly always priced for two people travelling so that tantalising ‘from’ before a tempting price, turns out to be about half of what the single traveller must pay! I think I expected the same as, having come back downstairs at nearly midnight and sat, clad in my dressing gown, at my computer and clicked on the email and then ‘Amsterdam’, I looked at the deal. But I met with a happy surprise. I could choose return flights from nearby Heathrow (only a bus ride away) travelling at very civilised times, stay in a 3* hotel recommended by BA in the Jordaan – my favourite – district in the centre of Amsterdam … for just £166. For just another £7 I could upgrade from single room to standard double. Bargain! It really was a bargain. I didn’t book then. I slept on it. I also counted the weeks until Jonathan and Lyndsey’s baby is due. I didn’t want to miss the arrival of my first grandchild. I decided that going on Sunday 25 January for 2 nights should be fine.
In many ways, there is no good or bad time to go to Amsterdam: Amsterdam is always fantastic. But January isn’t the best. The weather in Holland is pretty awful in winter. The winds howl across those flat lands and rain sets in for days. But hell, it would just be nice to be there! Now, about to go, I see the weather forecast isn’t great and I’ve been joking with people that I can just install myself in a nice brown café with a good book and drink coffee and eat Dutch apple pie. Bruin cafés – brown cafes – are a Dutch institution. The name originates from the brown stains that came from many years of tobacco smoke lining the walls. In common with most European countries now, smoking is banned in bars, but the name, brown café, persists. It’s less about smoking (and of course there are those other ‘smoking’ bars, euphemistically known as coffeeshops, selling marijuana), but the cosy atmosphere that is created in the best brown cafés. They’re often much like old-fashioned English pubs. The floors are usually wooden with an eclectic mix of furniture. The tables are traditionally covered in rugs. People linger for hours. It’s the closest to home-from-home you’ll find anywhere. You can get drinks, simple food. And you can always get apple pie. Even in remote areas of Holland, you can stop at a café or bakery and find apple pie. In Amsterdam, people will go out to eat apple pie with coffee for breakfast. Or order it in the afternoon, as I did last year when I took this photo.
Many countries have some form of traditional apple pie but for me, this is one area of cooking where the Dutch excel and surpass all others. In general, my experience is that Dutch cooking on the whole isn’t great. You can certainly get great food in places like Amsterdam, as Nicola and I did last year (click here and here), but at lunchtime you’re likely to be offered a rather uninteresting ‘toastie’ or croquettes, traditionally made with leftover meat or fish. And, then of course, there’s cheese. Go into a cheese shop in Holland and there’s Gouda … and Gouda … and Gouda.
When I was there a lot, I got to understand which cheese to order – ranging from mild young and creamy Gouda to delicious, nutty and dark old Gouda. The Dutch also have a huge passion for smoked eel as well as smoked salmon, and herrings. I used to love driving out to Harlaam on the coast, or up to Marken, and buy rolls filled with herrings from a stall by the sea and then walk along the beach. I even got to like smoked eel.
But apple pie is my great love and so when I joked about being able to eat it in a brown café and being happy, even if the weather was bad outside, I was being honest. Of course, some good weather would be very nice, but it’s not something you can order – especially in January!
Dutch pie is always very deep. It has a wonderful, buttery crumb base – more cake-like than pastry – and the apple slices are flavoured with cinnamon, and sultanas are often added too. It’s usual to find it has a lattice topping but sometimes it has a crumb topping, and you’ll often be offered some cream or ice cream to go with it. It’s been eaten for centuries: an early Dutch cookbook, dating from 1514, has a recipe and an apple pie appears in a Dutch painting from 1626.
So, I’m hoping the sun will manage to put in an appearance at some stage of my break but whatever happens, I’ll be sure to find some appeltaart! Watch this space and see what I find in Amsterdam over the next three days.