Amsterdam: Fries, Pancakes, and Cheese, Glorious Cheese

I’ve written a lot about the rainy mishaps from my first trip to Amsterdam, but one thing I never touched on was the food. Here’s why: we didn’t really eat any of the classic Dutch staples during that trip. Fries? Nope. Pancakes? Not even. Herring? Sorry, but no.

In all fairness, we had our reasons. I had just come off three years of near-constant work travel, which means one thing: Marriott points. This in turn meant that, while our 2011 trip was usually more on the “budget” end of the spectrum, we were able to score really nice – and free! – hotels in Berlin and Amsterdam using my stockpile of points. In Amsterdam, our sweet Marriott accommodations came with a complementary daily happy hour that was unusually generous: free alcohol, an abundance of tasty appetizers, and miniature desserts. We were girls on a budget, and the weather was terrible, so our days in Amsterdam consisted of a lot of relaxing in the Marriott lounge, hoarding the good snacks, sipping wine, and watching bad television (the Kennedy miniseries starring Katie Holmes, anyone?)

While our days in the Marriott lounge will always be one of those inside jokes my sister and I look back on fondly, I knew that this time around, I wanted to actually get out and about and eat the food of Amsterdam. I found plenty of good restaurants on my own (and more on those later), but one of my best foodie experiences came with the Amsterdam Food by Foot tour with Urban Adventures.

What I loved about the tour was that we hit all the quintessential Dutch foods – pancakes, fries, herring, and cheese – with a few extras thrown in for good measure. We began with fries at Vlaams Friteshuis Vleminckx, where, after waiting in a long-ish line (the place is popular, and justifiably so) we got our piping hot, oh-so-tasty fries.

Vleminckx is overwhelming; there are over 25 flavors of sauce to choose from, and the portion sizes are huge. On the latter point, let me emphasize: we got the “small” sizes and they were BIG, more than enough for a snack for one. When it came time to choose sauce, I went with the citrus mayonnaise on the recommendation of our guide, and I was pleased with the choice as it was delicious and the perfect complement to the salty fries. This, by the way, was something of a surprise to me; I hate mayonnaise typically. No, let me amend that statement: I hate American mayo. Dutch mayo? Totally kicks American mayo’s ass. Well played, Netherlands.

After eating our generously-portioned fries, we headed to Cheese and More, where we tried samples of…cheese and more. You probably did not see that one coming, amirite?

The cool thing about Cheese and More is that the store offers samples of almost everything, so even if you just browse for a bit, you can sample a wide range of goodies. On the “more” end of things, the store sells sausages, nougats, chocolates, and various other treats. And on the “cheese” end of things, there was also a wide variety. Being the Netherlands, there was naturally plenty of Gouda on sale, but there were also a ton of other unique flavors. For example, I sampled a bright green pesto cheese. Verdict? Odd.

Our next stop was De Pannekoekenkelder for the much-anticipated (by me at least) poffertjes, or miniature pancakes. Our group had two heaping plates of these babies to share and we killed the plates in record time – they were delicious! Our guide told us that the Dutch have a huge sweet tooth, and it’s not hard to see why; I would definitely be tempted to eat these little guys on the regular.

Next, we walked to Reypenaer for even more cheese. While I was a negligent blogger here and didn’t take note of all the varieties we tried, here are two things I do recall. One, the more aged the cheese, the better I like it. And two, the little cheese guillotine cutting boards that this store has? Totally coveting. I’m soon too be living in a tiny New York apartment where, I’m sure, kitchen space will be at a premium…yet in my heart, I sort of want one of these gadgets, however impractical.

While some in our group were still sampling cheese, a few of us took an unplanned detour, popping across the street and into Puccini Bomboni for a little truffle treat. The selection here was pretty incredible, but I settled on a tasty port truffle, no doubt inspired by my growing affinity for port thanks to my experiences in Lisbon earlier in the semester.

At our next destination, we didn’t eat any food – but we looked at an awful lot of it. Where were we? A Dutch grocery store!

Now, I don’t know about most people, but, for me, poking through a grocery store is one of the more fascinating things you can do in any foreign country. You can browse blogs or read guidebooks, but those will probably only scratch the surface of local cuisine. If you want to see how people really eat, on a daily basis, hit up the supermarket.

One thing I noticed right away about the store was that, while our guide told us it was the largest grocery store in Amsterdam proper, it was still relatively small, especially by American standards. This boils down to practicality: this is Amsterdam, after all, and most people can only buy what they can carry home on their bikes. Also small? The meat section, which was nearly nonexistent, as Amsterdamers would go to a small butcher rather than a large grocery store to buy their meat.

One other fun detail: it was Easter weekend when I visited, which can only mean one thing: bunny-shaped butter for everyone!

Not far from the grocery store, we found Haringstal De Zeevang, where we sampled fresh herring and eel. The briny herring comes served with raw onions and pickles, making this a strong and pungent snack. I know knocking back raw fish isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but, as far as I’m concerned, everyone has to try it at least once while in Amsterdam.

To wrap up our day, we stopped at Wynand Fockink, a distillery and tasting room near Dam Square. One side of the shop was lined with large barrels, each labeled with the name of a restaurant or hotel and padlocked shut; these are the personal reserves of local establishments (and wouldn’t you like a barrel to call your own?). We settled on the other side of the shop, at the bar, where we each selected one liqueur to try. I opted for a raspberry flavored one, and as you can see, the folks at Wynand believe in a very generous pour, as each glass was filled to the brim.

At 36 euro, the Amsterdam Food by Foot tour was a bit more expensive than my former days squirreling away free appetizers at the Marriott, but for three hours of food and drink (not to mention all the new knowledge about Amsterdam’s food scene), I would classify it as a good deal. As for me, I’m glad I finally got out into Amsterdam and tried all the local favorites. I liked what I found.

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