My mom would like to make it known that we did have a cheese slicer at home growing up. She just didn’t approve (being of French rather than Dutch extraction), so it only occasionally made an appearance, as a cake lifter. Which, given that we were more of a muffin family (back in the day when muffins were stuffed with wheatgerm and raisins, not triple chocolate chips, so actually may have been healthier than cake), wasn’t very often. So I did know about cheese slicers, I just didn’t think they were for real.
The nice thing about being a foreigner is that you can choose whether to play the “When in Rome” card, or go for “But it’s my culture”. The space to manoeuvre between the two opens up excellent possibilities for creative food combinations. Dutch jars of pindakaas (peanut butter) come bearing suggestions that they are “mm met [banana picture]”, while sprinkling hagelslag over one’s pindakaas sandwich seems quite acceptable – both tried and tested selections that have earned me skeef looks in the past. I’m less sure about pindakaas with cucumber and chilli paste (although I realise Dutch people can also play the culture card to fool credulous foreigners), although for some reason oorlog (sate sauce with mayo and chopped onions) on frites is quite good. I suspect though that foreign countries may have the same effect as five-day hikes, in making things taste better than they ever will at home. Although I stand by fruit dainties and Melrose cheese wedges on Provita.
Cheese with a bit of mustard is another combo I’ve come to appreciate, particularly with a Belgian beer on the side. I was a late-comer to beer drinking, but the stuff I was treated to by Belgian friends a few weeks back was really worth further exploration. Kriek, the cherry variety, is so much lovelier than anything else in the fruity-alcohol category (banish any thought of alco-pops and student drink promos), and the framboise (raspberry) version does not disappoint. Lambic, brewed by Trappist monks using the wild yeasts which occur naturally in the air around Brussels, also lived up to its reputation – which makes me hope that someone is looking out for what global warming and air pollution might be doing to them wild yeasts. Although knowing even a little about European academia, I’m fairly sure that PhD’s are being written on the subject as we speak. There is also possibly a political party dedicated to their preservation, with an undercurrent of anti-immigration right-wingism on the side… (Sorry Belgians, I know your politicians are genuinely problematic these days, I shouldn’t joke).
Getting past the official local specialities, one of my favourite things about foreign food is browsing the supermarkets. It might take twenty minutes to locate the tinned tomatoes or lemon juice, but on the way you get to discover all kinds of goodness – like three shelves of custard varieties, and the potential to buy almost any condiment in a tube (I have garlic, chilli paste, tomato sauce, mayo and mustard, all in squeezable form. I seem to recall being able to buy caviar spread in this form in Sweden. It’s genius).
Contrary to popular belief however, the amount of cycling one does in a small Dutch university town does not really balance out all this culinary exploration. So I’ve joined the student gym, learnt how to use a treadmill without falling off, and made peace with the 19-year-old’s in skimpy outfits with iPod’s. It kind of feels like when I bought my first vacuum cleaner a few months back – a sobering concession to circumstances beyond my control. It’s just about manageable when I consider those 102 calories expended on absolutely nothing, as an investment in not expiring when I get home to my mountain…