The first major freak-out I had in The Netherlands was before I had even officially moved over. I’d surprised my Dutch lover with a surprise weekend visit, calling him from London Heathrow just before boarding to ask him if he’d fancy meeting up in about an hour at Schipol airport. He almost choked when he realised that I was being serious, then followed with nervous laughter whilst making some quip about whether his nearly ex-wife, and mother of his two lovely kids, would murder him upon finding out about my visit. Of course, he was also delighted to see me given our cross-Channel relationship.
My first culinary experience in The Netherlands was a pleasant one. My partner took me to a lovely restaurant called La Promenade in the village of Baarn, with a mellow, romantic feel to it. We had good food of the nondescript European variety, something you would easily find in a nice local restaurant in London, my home town. (I don’t remember exactly what it was, but something along the lines of a pan-fried white fish on a bed of brightly coloured steamed veg tossed in olive oil.) So far so good.
Here’s where I must elaborate a little on my eating habits: I am a self-confessed health nut. I am obsessed with organic, sustainable, preferably local, nutrient dense food. I am dairy-intolerant (dairy results in me flaring up with weird skin allergies and acute bloating) and I avoid wheat wherever possible. My diet, for the previous five or so years, has been based on 100% natural whole-foods and a small collection of super foods. I love to cook and experiment in the kitchen with flavours and reinventing traditional recipes with a non-dairy, super healthy twist. Well thought out, vibrantly coloured dishes excite me, as does simple, organically grown produce, which I just can’t live without. I typically eat between 8 and 12 portions of mostly veg and some fruit each and every day. Why? Because if I don’t I get tired, I get lethargic, I get moody, I get constipated, I look ill and I’m generally not a nice person to be around. Real food keeps me sane. I have a long string of testimonials from my clients that can vouch that it’s the same for them.
So, re-entering the story, the first evening passed without any drama. The next morning is when it all began…
Problem number 1:
Breakfast. Here’s where I found out that Dutch people have very little imagination when it comes to breakfast. It goes a bit like this: bread and cheese, bread and peanut butter toped with “hagel slag” (the chocolate decorations that the rest of the world normally puts on cakes) and… erm… [tumble weed]… Oh yes, the kids had Coco Pops and Jordan’s Country Crunch (laden with sugar and starch from refined grains). I hadn’t been in the presence of such nutrient poor foods in years!
But I managed to keep my cool. I was O.K. There was just a little adapting to do… (Had I mentioned that despite this being my first visit to The Netherlands to see my partner, I had already committed to moving over?) I concentrated on keeping my cool and not making a big deal of the fact that there was absolutely nothing that I wanted to eat on the breakfast table, or in the fridge for that matter. (I believe that, other than ample versions of mostly processed cheeses, processed meats, ready made sauces and sugar-, rather that fruit-, based jams there may have been a few pieces of sad looking chicory and a couple of onions.) “Well,” I told myself, “Intermittent fasting definitely has health benefits!” I had a herbal tea (something the Dutch do much better than the Brits) and bit deeply into my tongue.
The intention was for me to then jump on my plane back to London, however, on arriving at the airport on this balmy summer’s day I realized that I had left my beloved, purple polka dot mac back at the house. With my passport in the pocket. Oops! It’s lucky that both of us are spontaneous (after all, it could have caused us our first couple’s fight) and we re-booked me on a flight several hours later. So then, we had to rush back to do some food shopping for lunch and be back on time for my partner’s daughter who was at hockey practice. (Who knew that the Dutch were so into field hockey?)
Problem number 2:
I do not do supermarkets. Apart from when I’m really desperate of course. In the UK I had myself a great system with ordering my organic veg and eggs online with Riverford, an organic farm cooperative, I got meat sometimes from them or sometimes with Laverstoke Park (biodynamic) Farm, and, whenever I could, a trip to Wimbledon Farmers’ Market which stocks all manner of chemical-free goodies, such as raw buffalo meat, milk and yogurt, whole wheat and spelt sourdough breads (my naughty treat), fish fresh from the sea, delicious greens of almost all fathomable varieties, home-made soups, pestos and sauces and loads of flavoursome fruit and veg. Heaven!
So, entering Albert Hein (the Dutch equivalent of Sainsbury’s) did not impress. This is also when I first discovered what we now call my partner’s “efficiency mode”. This means pure focus on the task, no room for conversation, discussion, pondering, acclimatisation…
“We’ve only got 20 minutes. Just grab anything you want and let’s go.” he threw at me.
I looked around me in trepidation. There was NOTHING familiar, comforting or enticing. I felt the heat rise in my body, then my face as tears threatened to rain down. I did my best to hold them back, but I was totally paralyzed, stumped, terrified of what I’d let myself into. My partner witnessed the lightning change, and thankfully came out of “efficiency mode” to tenderly ask me what was wrong. In an embarrassingly squeaky pitch I managed to whimper that I hadn’t shopped in supermarkets for years and that there was nothing I wanted there. Kindly and patiently he led me round whilst he procured what he needed, me in tow like a little lost pup. Incidentally, there was a moment of silver lining when I saw that the supermarket also stocked almond milk – a dairy-intolerant girl’s best friend (stay away from soya milk, it’s nasty stuff). There was hope, after all!
By the way, since that day Albert Hein is now fondly called “Evilmarket” in our house. And I can now laugh over my overreaction.
Problem number 3:
Lunch. The next shock for me was that the Dutch not only lack imagination when it comes to breakfast, they also lack imagination when it comes to lunch. There’s apparently a saying that goes something like this: “The only difference between breakfast and lunch for a Dutch person is 4 hours.” Yep, lunch was an exact repeat of breakfast: crappy processed bread with cheese or peanut butter with hagel slag, or there was the sugary breakfast cereal, of course. Ok, so I kinda get the whole idea of sandwiches at lunch time (even though in my mind it could do no harm, and add to the flavour of a sandwich, if it had some lettuce and tomato, maybe thinly sliced cucumber), but cereal? Surely that’s what students do when they’ve used up their budget for the month and can’t afford real food, or maybe too lazy to go through the palaver or layering bread. [Read with intended sarcastic tone.] At this point I was really wondering whether Dutch people get any fruit or veg at all in their diet let alone the recommended 5 portions!
Another interesting aside: The Dutch eat their open sandwiches with a knife and fork. I’m quite fond of table etiquette, but isn’t this over-doing it?
If you’re wondering if I ate anything that day, the honest truth is that I can’t remember. It may be that I gave in to the low quality peanut butter and the supremely processed bread, but I couldn’t tell you for sure.
Needless to say, since moving over to The Netherlands, I, the health nut, have discovered that this country is not exclusively dedicated to processed, lifeless, uninspiring food. There is, in fact, a significant organic movement (of which my partner, up until then, was not a part of) with organic supermarkets – bio markts or natuurwinkels – in all Cities, towns and even in our village. I was totally delighted to discover that a cooperative of locals had in recent months set up an organic farmer’s market a short bike-ride from our house, where we could do almost all of our weekly shopping. It’s become a lovely Saturday morning ritual for us and we love the community feel – so much so that we’ve become members of the cooperative and volunteer as stallholders every once in a while.
Another interesting thing I’ve noticed is that despite my dear partner’s devastatingly malnourished household (at that point), Dutch users of health food shops are mad about their super foods; you get a far more abundant selection of these here than in any health food shop I’d ever been in in the UK (and I’ve been to many). To give you one example, you can easily get 2.5 litres of coconut oil in a GLASS JAR here! (No PCBs! Hurrah!) I’d never seen those proportions of coconut oil in glass in the UK; it’s actually difficult to get anything over 500ml in one container. I also recently found out that Amsterdam is the “Raw” capital of Europe. (Raw food is a popular vegan health movement which I enjoy but am not committed to.)
Finally, I have to appreciate that, even as a Brit, I’m unusually dedicated and focused when it comes to health. British supermarkets aren’t hugely different to Dutch supermarkets and our eating habits are only marginally healthier, probably thanks to the rise of Jamie Oliver (love!), Master Chef and the plethora of food programmes dominating the airwaves. Brits just seem more into cooking than the Dutch, from what I’ve seen.
Now, it being about 9 months since my supermarket melt down, I feel a lot more comfortable with my food options here in The Netherlands. I’m still to discover a restaurant that is as satisfying to the palate as to the soul as my favorite London eatery, Wild Food Cafe in Covent Garden, but I have hope. And it’s really not all that bad here. We have dedicated cycle lanes after all!