Saturday, November 27, 2010

Stuff of Life

There are food snobs and then there are Food Snobs, the former being people who know that there is better food than McDonald's but love the occasional large-fries-with-ketchup (real ketchup) anyway, and the latter being people who think that "take out" means going to Saveurs.

Most of the grad students I run into fall into the first category. When I meet other European (by which I mean Continental--sorry, Brits don't really count) expats who come from countries like Spain, Italy, Greece, etc--countries where food is more than merely "stuff you eat", but "stuff you enjoy"--I can usually count on at least one rant about how terrible Dutch food is. This isn't entirely fair to the Netherlands--Dutch food isn't haute cuisine, this is true, and meat-potatoes-something-once-green can get rather dull. On the other hand, I would argue that it's a damn sight more palatable than deep-fried tarantulas.

One thing that even Germans rant about (and you know it's gotta be bad when the Germans go off on it) is Dutch bread. And here I have to confess that yes, the complaints are perfectly justified. Wonderbread and its ilk is fine if you want sandwiches, but it's less-fine if you want it as a complement to your meal. For that, you need Real Bread: crusty, tasty, full of nutritive goodness. Real Bread, in the Netherlands, is not a staple like milk and eggs. It's a luxe item, purchased at select bakeries, and then only at those bakeries that actually bake their own bread. (Most bakeries receive half-baked loaves made in a factory on a daily basis, so they just pop those into the oven every morning for "handmade bread")

The reason for this, according to my boyfriend, is that after the Second World War--seriously, Dutch history ends and begins within these four years--the combination of bombings, hungry armies, pestilence, and whatever-else had pretty much wiped out the farms. For the first few years after World War II, the Dutch relied on airdrops for things like canned stews (my boyfriend's dad still remembers eating that stuff) and fluffy white bread. Once things started picking up, food-wise, the fluffy white stuff stuck around.

In Nijmegen, we are fortunate enough to have The Windmill. The Windmill is no longer wind-operated, but it still mills stuff. It now houses a pet store in the front, and a baker's paradise in the back: flours of all types and grinds can be gotten here. You can even find spelt flour, although if you want oatmeal you still have to find a Turkish store. It's where I buy the flour to make the bread in the picture, in all its splendid and aromatic glory. I'm not exaggerating: the rosemary, salt, and olive oil flavors combine to make it nothing short of heavenly.

Sometimes I do find myself wondering whether this is worth the cost of the flour and the effort to get it: a 1-kg bag costs something like 8X as much as your average bag of white flour at the supermarket, and it's a good 40-minute walk each way, now that I no longer have a bike in Nijmegen. It's not something that a zuinige huisvrouw would do. But then again, it's not something that a pennypincher would appreciate, anyway.


  1. Delurking to completely agree about fluffy white bread. I am one of the Continental Europeans now living in Ireland and bread here is one of my main pet peeves - only choice is fluffy white or soda (which I don't like). So my solution is exactly the same as yours: I buy (rather expensive) spelt flour (only available in fancy health shops, not in normal grocery shops) and bake my own.

    PS: great blog, as a fellow expat I enjoy your stories very much.

  2. Soda bread always seemed a bit weird to me--there was a recipe for it in my mom's "Good Housekeeping" cookbook from the 80s, and it just seemed like an enormous biscuit.

    And thanks! I'm always pleasantly surprised when ex-lurkers come out of the woodwork :-)

  3. I love Dutch bread. The options here are so much better then what we get in England.

  4. There's a reason why I specified "Continental"...

  5. The windmill makes great stuff: I discovered it by accident a year ago and go there now when there's a special occasion or guest coming through. 'Should make more of a habit of it, but I don't yet have the time to go to separate shops for food every few days.

  6. I know of the watermill in Maastricht, but are we talking about the same windmill? Because I can't imagine going to Nijmegen every few days from Maastricht just to buy flour, even if it is divine...