We met our guide, Chris, at a brown cafe just a few blocks from our apartment. We had passed it repeatedly but never stopped in. It turns out to be a very old and beloved place, run by the third generation of the family. Chris got us started with a piece of the best apple pie I have ever eaten. The crust was not flaky like American crust but crumbly though not cake-like either. Served with whipped cream on the side, it was perfectly delicious.
Chris explained to us that the Dutch would eat a piece of apple pie almost any time of day, including breakfast – and here I thought the Parrs had invented the custom! Bill Clinton had stopped by here (in his pre-vegan days) and there was an article and a thank you letter from Bill on the wall to prove it. If it’s good enough for Bill, it’s good enough for me.
Here’s a picture of the enormous pie he cut our pieces from.
Our next stop was a little storefront that served Surinamese food. Former colony, you know. We had pom, a sandwich filled with a mixture of chicken and some kind of starchy root – good enough that we came back for take-out at the end of the day. The other thing was a delicious satay sauce served with something I’ve forgotten…
After this we wended our way to a butcher shop that has been in business since 1890 (or 1888, the owner asserted, “but we claim 1890″). Chris told us this was her favorite butcher and that she would travel from where she lives in the southern end of the city to come here for the best meat.
It was certainly beautifully displayed: ranks of sausages and salads followed by gorgeous cuts of meat. Yes, you have to like sausages to enjoy the photo above.
Since there were only two of us on the tour (the other two people never showed up), we got special treatment. I tasted the blood sausage, which has a very grainy texture but was good, and Alison joked that she would go for a spare rib. The next thing we knew, the butcher had pulled off a couple of glistening shreds of deliciousness from the spare ribs in front of him. Then we came to the planned tasting: oxen sausage (made with beef these days) and a meatball.
The sausage must be an acquired taste. Although it is smoked, it had the texture of raw meat. Not sure about that one. The meatball, traditionally served for diners at home on Wednesdays and the size of a baseball in traditional cooking, was fine but not remarkable. We left after taking pictures with the butcher, who grabbed a big hunk of raw meat to pose with.
Just down the street was another butcher, a shop called The Fat Pig. However, it’s recently been taken over by a halal butcher, so no pig can be found there any more…
The Barking Fish was our next stop. By this time it was after noon, so we were ready (apparently!) for a bit of beer and some bitterballen. The latter are like Dutch tapas, essentially beef croquettes that you dip into mustard. People buy them frozen and deep fry them at home. The crunchy outside gives way to a smooth inside that Chris described as stewed meat, but it’s better than that sounds – it has a very creamy texture. The beer was from a local Amsterdam brewery, an IPA that was light and a bit sour, very refreshing.
Chris described how this bar/cafe was known for its celebration of King’s Day (on the birthday of the reigning monarch). They make an affectionately mocking portrayal of the royals and turn it into a billboard (?) in front of the building. Apparently hundreds of people gather in their orange regalia and drink and celebrate. Last year’s billboard featured the queen photo-shopped into an image from Miley Cyrus’s wrecking ball video, which gives you a sense of the celebration. A good time is had by all.
Taking a non-food detour, we stopped inside a hofje, originally built by the church to take care of single women. The hofje is open to the public, though you are asked to respect the privacy of the inhabitants as you wander through the courtyard. This one had two gardens separated by a brick walkway with water spouts in the shape of dolphins. Above the doorway is the symbol of Amsterdam. Chris told us that hofjes are now quite desirable places to live, I guess partly because of the communal garden space. (Note the billowing Japanese anemones, which inspired me on last year’s trip to Wales to plant some of my own.)
But back to the food, if food you can call it. Mariska is the proprietor of a candy shop that purveys the old-fashioned candies that people remember from their youth. Primary among these is licorice. She admonished us not to call red licorice real licorice, it is simply gum and red food coloring (I’m with her there) and that real licorice is made from the root of the licorice tree. The roots are usually imported from Syria, but not lately, for obvious reasons. They come from somewhere else (Canary Islands??), so there’s no need to worry about a world-wide licorice shortage, in case you were wondering…
Mariska has dozens of varieties, and she had us try one with anise, one with honey and one salty. I can’t say I liked any of them though they were interesting to try. On instructions from Judy, I bought some licorice for the children: 100 grams each of mixed varieties including double salt. May they enjoy them!
More Than Fish was our next stop, a fish shop run by a Dutch man and an American. Chris told us that they went to the fish markets early every day to make sure the fish was as fresh as could be. Having tried some raw herring at a stand near the Bloememarkt, I was interested to see if I could taste the difference here. Indeed I could!
Chris came out with a big blue and white tray with raw herring and fried cod (side of tartar sauce). You eat the herring “with the flag,” spearing the herring, dipping it into the chopped onion, and topping it with a pickle. The fresh herring really was more delicate and delicious that what I had had before. And the fried cod was fresh, light, crunchy, delicious. As we said farewell, the proprietors pointed out their fishy doorknob. Bye-bye!
You would hardly credit that we could eat another thing, but almost four hours had gone by and we had really just nibbled (well, except for the apple pie and the bitterballen, which disappeared immediately). Our last stop was a cafe where we had pofferjes, little yeasty pancakes served with powdered sugar and maple syrup. They were so little that we kept having just one more until the two of us had eaten them all (one serving shared, I rush to point out). They were a delightful end to the tour.
We thanked Chris profusely for a fascinating experience, where we learned something about Dutch customs and culture as well as eating mostly delicious food. Though the history tours can be fascinating, there’s something about the food tours that makes them more fun. Could it be the food?