Preliminary Report: The Food

I take this part of my research seriously. Given the time constraints, I have decided to focus on cheese and baked goods. The imminence of Christmas adds to the data to work through on the latter, but so far I’m up to it.

Cheese. Saturday markets are my preferred source, and I lurk around the ones that offer little plates of samples until they notice, and I have to buy something. Not that I mind. I tend towards the beleggen (mature) varieties, although there’s a fairly fantastic “St Aubin”, which is like camembert without the chlorine overtones. Boerenkaas is a staple, and for adventurous moments, the various spiced cheeses (cumin, fenugreek, sambal). I’m a little afraid of the pesto (bright green) and tomato (dark red) variations. The geitenkaas (goat’s cheese) is surprisingly persuasive – they somehow manage to strain the goat out of it.

On the baked goods front, I continue to rack up records in the stroopwafel department, although my speculaas sampling hasn’t suffered for it (standard biscuit variety; gevulde, which is more like a soft gingerbread with an almond filling; also the Starbucks speculaas latte for balance). My research in the Christmas field has not been exhaustive, but Sinterklaas (Father Christmas celebration on 5th December) is just around the corner. Precautionary intake restrictions have in the meantime been placed on chocolade kruidnoten (crisp little spicy biscuit balls covered with chocolate: you see my problem).

Naturally, the country can be relied on to provide the appropriate quality of accompanying fluids for these delights. Proper coffee grounds are standard office issue, which is very civilised, although I have some concerns about the attitude to dairy. They have something called koffiemelk, which is essentially Ideal milk, and feels a bit like a punishment for those who choose to sully their brew. It also has very limited transferability to tea, which seems culturally exclusive. Also, if you want coffee with milk in a café, you ask for Koffie Verkeerd (wrong coffee). I don’t think the Dutch establishment is as non-judgmental as they think.

But my greatest challenge to date has been the liquorice. Even getting past the disturbing terminology (drop is the generic term – also unfortunately the colloquial in the Eastern Cape for a common STI) – I just don’t seem to have the mental frameworks to interpret the stuff. It’s hard, and soft, and salty, even when they say it’s sweet, and some of it looks like chalk. Also endless variations called things like salmiak, which I can’t place at all. It doesn’t help that I’ve never been much of an aniseed fan in the first place. I’m going to have to enlist a cultural broker to talk me through it.

This is a minor issue really: overall, the fieldwork so far has been really quite blissful. Even the hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles, eaten on bread), which I had initial conceptual problems with, is justified in its popularity. And a nation that proudly eats chocolate for breakfast is to be admired, as far as I’m concerned. On the savoury side, Dutch ability to achieve a crisp crumb crust around a blob of sauce (croketten) is impressive (the charred and oily mess that ensued from my last falafel attempt leaves me quite in awe). Also, chips with mayo make a lot more sense than you would think, and they also offer an impressive array of coated peanuts. The latter tend to appear as part of borrel, which is drinks with snacks, generally in an atmospheric café by a canal. A solid concept, I feel.

All in all, satisfactory progress. My thanks to the cheese-masters at De Goeiesche Boer stall, the friendly baker ladies who guide my speculaas selections, and of course to my trusty informants and field guides in the junior researchers’ office.

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