by Christine Karren
One of the great joys of travelling is the exploration of other cultures by way of their food. Countless cookbooks have been written detailing the culinary delights of various national kitchens, not the least of which was Julia Child’s The Joy of French Cooking, which influenced the world and even made its way into the cinema.
But for the common traveller, the simple necessity of filling one’s stomach can lead to an adventure–for better or worse–which most definitely broadens the mind.
I’ve always been interested in food; not just in its hunger-satiating aspect, but as a means of experiencing deep pleasure through that glorious sense of taste. I am still so amazed by the seemingly unlimited number of delicious combinations which can and are created by people on different parts of the globe. Sometimes that’s the main thing motivating me to travel…to taste the most authentic French, Spanish or Italian delicacies!
At home in the Netherlands we have the opportunity to taste many things we never even heard of in our native America. We all love Dutch pancakes and their mini-versions called ‘poffertjes’ which are never eaten for breakfast, but regularly for dinner, at children’s birthday parties, and as a snack at a festival or shopping area. Our children happily ate them at the Arnhem Open-Air Museum, shown above. The larger pancakes are something like crepes, but thicker and denser, usually fried in butter, and often made with fillings cooked-in such as: bacon, cheese, or mushrooms; or the sweeter options my children like: raisins, apple slices, or bananas. Dutch pancake syrup is a runny sort of dark molasses, and is used on savory and sweet pancakes alike! Powdered sugar is the preferred topping for poffertjes.
As I am always watching my figure, I am ever on the lookout for healthier, yet tasty options, and though Dutch traditional fare is quite heavy, Dutch chefs of today create some amazing dishes with attention paid to healthful, environmentally friendly, and locally grown ingredients. They are well-versed in international cooking styles and sometimes combine them superbly.
I regularly pick up the cooking magazine at my local grocer which includes vegetarian dishes and healthy options alongside the more standard meal ideas, all created by professional chefs. This lentil, pumpkin, and feta salad with chervil was a combination I found that way and was delighted with the result!
We have definitely been won-over to the Dutch way of dining out. A good meal in a Dutch restaurant (such as this in Brasserie Herengracht, near Amsterdam) takes at least two hours to enjoy and finish, since three moderate-sized courses will be served, with more attention paid to taste quality than portion size. (I loved these truffle-filled raviolis, which were the second course!) One leaves the restaurant satisfied but not overly full. Eating out here is more pricey than in the US, but considering that no tips are expected, and a full evening’s service is delivered, it’s worth it! No one here plans a date of ‘dinner-and-a movie.’
Authentically Spanish, French, Thai, or Indian dishes are also abundant in the Netherlands, often cooked by native chefs. This Spanish scallop dish above was served near our town of Maastricht in a restaurant called La Barceloneta owned and run by a native of Barcelona. As the Dutch are frequent international travellers, the demand is for high quality and great international variety.
Of course, it’s always best to try international dishes at their source. On a recent trip to Barcelona, Val and I stopped at the Mercat Santa Caterina to stroll through the rows of exotic and high-quality foods in amazing variety!
From octopus (called ‘Pop’ here),
to Portuguese-style Salt Cod, and every type of seafood and produce imaginable, this market is a mecca of culinary flavors.
The Mercat also features a great restaurant called Cuines Santa Caterina with a young atmosphere and fresh, local ingredients. There I tried the black wild rice with vegetables and mustard cream sauce. Divine! The next day I picked up several bags of black rice at the supermarket to fill my bags and try it at home. I adapted it to make quite a succesful vegan version with a non-dairy cream sauce made from cashews.
Elsewhere in Barcelona we found a sampling of Basque foods called ‘Pintxos’ at Txapela. This restaurant is laid-back but offers over 50 types of Pintxos, which are Basque-style tapas. They say, “As good Basques, we like to eat, and eat well!” Their pintxos feature ingredients such as chorizo, gambas, fois gras, crab salad, and various vegetarian options such as tortilla de patatas, mushroom, and asparagus with camembert.
My inlaws loved Pintxos so much that they replicated them at home. My mother-in-law, a fine cook herself, knew an ingredient for her mushroom-bacon-and-gamba pintxo was missing, so she asked the chef for advice during her next trip to Spain: the answer was garlic oil.
I’ve done my best to replicate my favorite Spanish dishes and have found some good recipes for Gazpacho and Tortilla de Patatas (see Sheila Lukins’ excellent All Around the World Cookbook.)
We travel to France at least once a year, and can’t get enough of their bread (pain). I mean, who wouldn’t want to wake up to this? It’s available from 7 am on nearly every corner.
And then, there are the desserts: chocolate mousse, glaces, and creme brulée.
Loaded with cream, so obviously we don’t do this every day.
During our last visit, our friend in Versailles picked us up for lunch, and because she hadn’t had time to prepare anything, she took us to her market in the center of Versailles to pick up some cheese, roasted chickens, bread, and ratatouille. She introduced us to a number of new cheeses, most of which have names I can no longer remember, but the pungent smell and flavors still sit in my mind as characters in a lovely adventure. They will forever be tied to that place in my mind.
Last week I visited Monschau, Germany, with some old friends who used to live in our area. Monschau is less than an hour away, so we packed our daypacks for an afternoon of sight-seeing, hiking, and picnicking.
My prudent friends reminded me that the old Historic Monschau Senfmuhle is still turning out delicious mustards, by which we might profit! I packed a cutting board, knife, and baguettes so we could sample the fig mustard I bought there with ease.
Still, something we dearly miss in Europe is good Mexican food. Each visit back to the USA brings us inevitably to our favorite Mexican havens, such as La Casita in Washington state, where our favorite dish is the fajitas. The cooks are Mexican, and have become old friends of the family because of our frequent visits. Someday we may actually make it to Mexico itself to find out how this northwest version compares.
Meanwhile, we can be sure that Grandma’s Northwest Chowder with local salmon is ‘the real thing.’
Whether we’re sampling a polish dog in Seattle, or Indian food in Europe, we’re appreciating the result of someone having enjoyed a good trip, and having broadened their mind, and ours, through taste.