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From Rotterdam to Gouda, Holland Keeps On Churning

From Rotterdam to Gouda, Holland Keeps On Churning
Martin Guttridge-Hewitt: There’s little to do aside from raise a bemused eyebrow when a middle-aged Dutchman offers to weigh you against some cheese.

Growing up in a caring, sensitive household, scales weren’t tolerated for fear us kids would become kilo-obsessives. And, in subsequent years, as a once-lean form entered its upper-twenties and stumbled into early-thirties, bringing about a losing battle against the inevitable bulge, the less I know about how heavy this hulking body is becoming the better.  
 
Without even a vague idea of what would be deemed a normal result, then, suddenly wheel after wheel is piled on top of one another on the counterweight to my right. Who knows who won, or indeed lost (me, probably), either way this throwback to an age-old practice in the traditional and largely unchanged Gouda weigh house (which now doubles up as a cheese museum) betrays a town that’s immensely proud of its own churned history.
 
Standing in the middle of the central square a little while earlier and this couldn’t be any clearer. Boring a course through the middle of this large but not imposing public space are several (read: loads of) wheels of cheese, the likes of which most people would joke about buying, or dare a friend to purchase, before wondering how the hell they would get the monolithic mounds home, whether they had budget-airline baggage restrictions or the luxury of a case in the hold. Next to these, and framed by typically Dutch-looking houses, stand a few horses, with matching carriages, nodding to the way the produce has been transported into town for hundreds of years.
A quiet, quaint place that seems to come alive each Thursday during summer for the world-famous cheese market, a tourist focused event that has recently seen a resurgence in popularity, despite the obvious laid-on elements it’s definitely an
From Rotterdam to Gouda, Holland Keeps On Churning
Jim de Jong
experience. Not least if you catch sight of two market traders engaging in a traditional wheeler-dealer moment; agreeing on the price of Gouda by trying to out-handshake (or, perhaps more accurately, out hand-slap) one another.
 
Of course the settlement itself isn’t all about fast times and fromage fantasies. As one of the best-preserved destinations in the country, we’re privy to the spectacular interior of the nation’s longest church, St. Janskerk, where stained glass depicts some surprisingly modern scenes from history. Then, just around the corner, there’s a former mental asylum-cum-gallery and museum set in its own relaxing gardens (Gouda Museum), and, surrounding both, a plethora of picturesque canal-side lanes that couldn’t have been built in any other country on the planet. Indeed, you can fully understand why the Tour de France decided this would be a great pre-proper-race stop-off.
 
Nevertheless, as we discover to our delight (and our cholesterol’s horror), it’s difficult to go far without someone trying to feed you something, usually made from cow’s milk. We stop off at the charming Museumhaven Cafe, a mouthful of a name that matches that in terms of portion size. Once a waiting room linked to the narrow boats making their way down the waterway just outside, these days it’s a tiny eatery and bar that serves a hearty fondue, which finds favour with us when accompanied by excellent seafood, breads and vegetables for dipping.
 
Elsewhere, and the delicacies come in a vastly different form. Patisserie Van Den Berg, a bakery set on one of the small streets in the town centre, represents a sadly dying breed. Specialising in stroopwafels (syrup-filled waffles the Dutch seem incapable of drinking coffee without) inside you’ll find a cake lover’s paradise that rivals some of our sweetest dreams. Back in the 18th Century, Gouda alone had more than 100 such cafes, but numbers have now dwindled to little more than a handful, although given the popularity of this particular establishment it’s unlikely to be going anywhere anytime soon.
 
As anyone who has visited will probably have noticed, though, other towns in the Netherlands and wider area have just as much of a penchant for filling the stomach. A firm favourite with FoodTripper (I won an award for the publication after my visit last year), Rotterdam, 30-minutes south west by train, proves this without a shadow of a doubt as we descend on one of two kitchens in town run by the notably young epicure, Jim de Jong. Having worked under the likes of Gordon Ramsey and Heston Blumenthal, his reputation precedes him.
 
His eatery, Restaurant de Jong, sits under the railway arches on the train route to Rotterdam Centraaal. It’s a prime position, with a host of new bars and venues having opened in the vicinity, like the intimate grub-serving club, Bird, which hosts well selected DJs and live acts- from house to jazz- on a regular basis, making this corner of the city a magnet for the hip, who are pleasingly un-hipster in comparison with regulars at similar haunts in London or Manchester.
 
Living up to his name, de Jong delivers a meal that’s easily capable of kicking many written up by this scribe into touch. Sitting down to not one or two, but five cheese courses, you might think such a proposition would be overwhelming (especially when it ends with The Greatest Question Ever Asked, “So, do you want to finish with a cheese board?”). But, amazingly, it’s not. Or at least not tonight.
 
That’s because the menu is simple but innovative, just like the establishment’s standard everyday offerings. de Jong explains to us the remit here is “all about good flavours, good products but in an unpretentious manner”. A modus which is easy to digest, what we’re given veers from soft cow’s cheese with artichoke and vivid blue nasturtiums, to green asparagus topped with delicate shavings of Texel, a sheep’s cheese from the Dutch (rather than Danish) Wadden Sea Islands; and the crème de la crème- pickled onions, shallots, radish flowers and goat’s cheese broth.
Sublimely contradictory, without exceptional talent at work that last concoction could be stomach churning. Yet it not only works, it ranks amongst the finest dishes we’ve had all year. And what makes this all even more impressive is the cost. Although this veritable cheese fest isn’t always available, de Jong specialises in two set menus, conceived each day, one purely comprising vegetables, the other vegetables with meat, both cooked to standards in keeping with those I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy, and sold for the ridiculously low price of €45 for four courses. Exchange rate fluctuations aside, it’s impossible not to realise this is incredible value for money.
 
A wonderful evening and truly memorable experience, we also have the pleasure of visiting Las Palmas, run by Dutch TV cook Herman den Blijker, and arrive by water taxi- a real must if you’re downtown and want to see Rotterdam’s iconic skyline from an unbelievably striking viewpoint. More bling than de Jung, the restaurant interior boasts a classic, decadent style with some intriguing industrial edges, including a steel-worked shark suspended from the ceiling- nodding to the city’s port heritage (presumably).
 
Less unique in terms of what’s on the plate, nevertheless the tuna sashimi is exquisite, with homemade wasabi adding much-needed fire, whereas the blackened angus beef fillet, which comes alongside pumpkin cream, cauliflower and potatoes, ensures we’re once again destined to have trouble sleeping. Not least after the blueberry cheesecake- our final churned treat, which is accompanied by fresh strawberry ice cream.
 
All that’s left, then, is to name check the destination we chose for our late-night ‘digestif’;  Ballroom, located on the popular Witte de Withstraat (a strip overflowing with bars and informal eateries). Here you’ll find some 52 different types of gin, including Holland’s own Bobby’s, an incomparable drink that boasts rosehips, cloves, lemongrass, and cubeb peppers, within a bathtub recipe rediscovered by the grandson of the genius who first came up with it. Best enjoyed neat on the rocks, an hour or so later we’re back in our hotel packing for a our return to London, bleary-eyed but convinced by the culinary delights offered by this comparatively unsung European foodie destination.
 
Still, there never has been any accounting for taste.
 
Martin travelled to Rotterdam with Holland Tourism For more information visit: www.holland.com
 
Return rail tickets from London, travelling with Eurostar and Thalys, were provided by SNCF. Fares from London to Rotterdam start from £116 standard class return per person with journey times from 4 hours 4 minutes.
 
Phone: 0844 848 5 848
Voyages-sncf Travel Centre, 193 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9EU
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5 August 2015
By: Martin Guttridge-Hewitt
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