Cooking coach Karen Vivers offers her top tips to getting the best out of the produce that the Netherlands has to offer.
I understand, not only from my own experience, but perhaps even more so from the experience of my expat clients and friends, the frustration of trying to put together a healthy, tasty meal from what is on offer in the standard Dutch supermarket.
At first, I thought I was the only one who wandered the aisles of the supermarket, looking at my shopping list, unable to match the produce on the shelves to my recipes or the flavours I was used to. I remember feeling totally uninspired by the fruit and vegetables, which were either under-ripe or over-priced. The meat and fish, which bore no resemblance to the animal of origin, was dry and unpalatable and the cheese; soft cheese that was hard and unripe, hard cheese suffocating in its plastic wrapper that exuded its chemical flavour into the product. Don’t get me wrong, this is not an anti-supermarket article, the Dutch supermarkets do some things very well, but it’s just that other places do other things much better. The trick is to understand who is good at what.
So, after countless unsuccessful shopping trips and unsatisfying meals, I decided it was time to change strategy. I decided to step out of the supermarket and find out what else was on offer. Here are my top tips to getting the best out of the produce that the Netherlands has to offer.
1. The Supermarket. I thought it only fair to start here – so what do they do well? They have a very good milk, yogurt and cream section, good choice and quality. Tinned and canned goods are fine, although the assortment can be limited. Things like sugar, flour and other basic baking ingredients are easy to find here. In some supermarkets which are located in an area where groups of non-Dutch are known to live you may even find that they have a decent food section catering for that group. You can find pasta and rice, noodles, all of which are fine. When it comes to the supermarket, the trick is managing your expectations and knowing what they do well. In general Dutch supermarkets have a smaller range and choice than supermarkets in other countries.
2. Markets. I rely on markets a great deal for seasonal vegetables that taste great and are good value for money. I find that markets are also great for fish. With the exceptions of a couple of fish specialists, I go to the market for all my fish. They tend to have more variety than a lot of shops, have great knowledge and are always very helpful.
3. Ethnic Stores. This is another great way to shop. If you understand who lives in your area, you will almost always find stores that cater to the neighbourhood cultures. I couldn’t live without the great Turkish shops in Amsterdam where I buy spices, herbs and all sorts of great flavour makers. This goes for Chinese, Indonesian and Japanese stores too. Even although you may not be familiar with that cuisine or how to cook it, you may be surprised to find that they have just the ingredient(s) you have been searching for all these years.
4. Cheese Shops. The Dutch pride themselves on their cheese. Although, if you have only sampled cheese bought it from the Dutch supermarkets or the shops at Schiphol, you really haven’t tasted Dutch cheese yet. Go to your local supplier, and ask them if you can taste some “Boerenkaas” or farmers cheese. This is the real deal. Once you know what you are buying, a great tip is to get it at the market, as it will often be much cheaper. As an ex-cheese shop owner myself, I know that the markets often sell exactly the same cheese as in the speciality shops. The difference is that the market stall holder may buy in an “opportunistic” way. By this I mean that he/she will buy what is available in bulk to keep cost down. This is perfectly ok, but it means that you may not be able to get the same product each week at the market. A good specialist cheese shop will be able to offer consistency, and a greater assortment.
5. Meat. The only recommendation I can give, is to get to know your butcher, try a couple of things out with different butchers and see what you like best. There is a huge difference in quality between butchers, so don’t be afraid to ask if you can taste things.
6. Get to know your local shopkeepers. The more they recognize you, the more they will help you find what you want. Often, they will even be willing to order produce for you.
7. Stop trying to find things that just aren’t available. I have fallen into this trap of looking for typically British products. The danger is that they may be out there, but usually of inferior quality and at greatly inflated prices. Work with what you have.
8. Get to know the seasons and local specialities. Admittedly, this is a bit easier if you speak some Dutch. Follow the local newspapers, they often have great tips on restaurants and stores, often, expat sites such as Expatica will pick up on relevant events and news relating to food as well, so this may help if your Dutch is not great. Also if you know your local shopkeepers, they will help you with this. Or, if you have Dutch colleagues ask them about where to find the best. It’s great when you find a gem this way, like an old family favourite of theirs.
9. Ask the shopkeepers in your area or the stallholders on the market. Don’t be put off if you think that your Dutch is not good enough or nonexistent. Any good shopkeeper will be happy to explain their produce to you. If they are good, they will want to share their passion. Don’t worry about tasting; this is part of the culture here, try before you buy! Just remember, you are a customer and want to give them money – don’t you? You are important to them.
The best tip of all is to take one of The Cooking Coach Culinary tours which are specially designed to cater to Expats in Amsterdam. For details see website www.thecookingcoach.eu