Burt Wolf's Table: Amsterdam - #203

BURT WOLF:  Amsterdam, one of the world's most beautiful and romantic cities. We'll tour the town's canals... discover the traditional foods... visit one of the finest hotels ever built... and learn some easy but great tasting Dutch recipes. Plus we'll discover the six-thousand-year- old secret that made beer drinking popular around the world.   So join me in Amsterdam at Burt Wolf's Table.

WOLF:  Some time during the 1100s, a group of herring fishermen settled near here along the Amstel River. That community eventually became the city of Amsterdam. So I think it's only fair to say that from the very beginning, the story of Amsterdam has been the story of something good to eat.  But the real golden age of Amsterdam was the 1600s.  Amsterdam was Europe's center for business as well as its cultural capital. It all started in 1595 when a Dutch trading ship landed in what was then called the East Indies: Indonesia, Bali, Java, Borneo, Sumatra; lands which produced some of the world's most valuable spices. Those were the places that Columbus had been looking for, and when the Dutch got there they took control of a spice trade to Europe that made many Dutchman wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. Actually, those dreams weren't very wild at all, because even then the Dutch were very structured and not showy. Much of the wealth from that spice trade was used to build homes along the canals of Amsterdam. Amsterdam was actually put  together by connecting islands with about five hundred bridges and most citizens get around on bicycles. The town has only seven hundred and fifty thousand people but a million bikes. You could, if you want, get from place to place just as well by boat.

Thomas Schmidt is the executive assistant manager of Amsterdam's Amstel Hotel. He borrowed one of the hotel's boats so we could take a tour of the city... a tour with two objectives:  first, to see the traditional sights, and second, to stop along the way and eat the traditional foods.

THOMAS SCHMIDT:  And here you have a very typical bridge...which is still operating.  If a boat passes through here, there are two bridge guards who will open up the bridge to you; every time you pass a bridge and he takes a bicycle and drives along the channel, opens the bridge and then he goes to the next.

WOLF:  Bicycle goes along with the boat.

SCHMIDT:  That's right.

WOLF:  And opens it up for you. That's really great.

SCHMIDT:  But most of the time the bicycle is faster than the boat, so that's no problem.


SCHMIDT:  Here we're going into the typically Dutch channel.  What you see on the right hand side, left hand side, houseboats.

WOLF:  People live on these...boats?

SCHMIDT:  People live on them, yes, that's right.

WOLF:  It looks like it's a nice place to live.

SCHMIDT:  It is. It is actually. You see even  the people create their own garden and terrace and they're trying to... to feel at home here you know. And there's another thing you probably have noticed, the... hook hanging on each house. This is meant to... bring up the corniches, and if you move from one to the other house, you bring it up from the outside, through the window.

WOLF:  Oh that's right. The stairs are so narrow in these houses that you can't bring a bed or a piano upstairs, and even today they use that hook on the top of the house to bring their furniture in when they move.

SCHMIDT:  That's right.

WOLF:  Amazing.

SCHMIDT:  That's right. You see also different type of the decorations. This one is... more of  the very heavy decorated and they have some more simple as well.  People showed the...their richness on the outside of the... house by building a gable which is more decorated or less decorated, and there's not much space in the small houses to show your decoration of your richness so the gable was a nice place to do that.

WOLF:  The ornateness of the crown.

SCHMIDT:  That's right. That's right.

WOLF:  One of the great pleasures of a canal tour of Amsterdam is that you can tie up, go ashore and see what's cooking in the streets. 

Each city around the world has its own customary street foods, and eating them as you move around the town has become almost a ritual for the citizens.  In Amsterdam there are a group of  very traditional street foods.  Maybe it's because Amsterdam was originally founded some seven hundred years ago by herring fisherman or maybe it's just because the Dutch love herring. We don't know, but we do know that Amsterdam has dozens of small street stands where people eat herring.  The fish is very fresh, lightly salted, cleaned and served on a paper plate with some chopped onion. The herring is held in the air above your head and eaten bite by bite. There are also street vendors for french fried potatoes, freshly cut and deep fried right in front of you. They're served with mayonnaise, a peanut sauce or ketchup.  The third classic street food of Amsterdam is the waffle.  They're freshly made by vendors who set up their stoves in the town's open markets. They're thin and crisp.  Two waffles are put together like a sandwich and the filling;  it's made up of a maple-based sugar syrup.   And licorice, an anise-flavored candy that they make both sweet and salty.  So those are the street foods of Amsterdam: licorice, herring, french fries and little waffles. What an unbeatable meal.

As you move through the streets of Amsterdam you will see at rather regular intervals the “Brown Cafes.” There are five hundred of them in the downtown area. The Brown Cafe is to Amsterdam very much what the pub is to London: a neighborhood gathering spot, an extension of the living room, a place to come in and have a beer or a coffee, to read a book or a newspaper. They're called Brown Cafes because the wood used in their construction is always dark because the lighting level is kept low, and because the  walls which have been stained with smoke and nicotine are never washed or painted. This is probably the most famous of the brown cafes.  It's Cafe Hoppe and it first opened for business in 1670. The Brown Cafes are an essential part of each of Amsterdam's neighborhoods and very often attract a particular clientele. One might be the place for writers to meet, another frequented by painters.  They even have a cafe where they will let television reporters come in.  They're a real reflection of the neighborhood and a great place to get to know the people of the city, which is not hard for North Americans, since English is the second language of just about everybody in Holland.   And the people of Amsterdam are anxious to test out their English vocabulary.

BARTENDER:  That’s what’s cooking today; He’s Burt Wolf.

WOLF:  See what I mean?

WOLF:  Amstel is the name of the river on which Amsterdam was originally founded. It's also the name of the city's landmark hotel which happens to sit on the bank of its namesake river. The Amstel Hotel was built in 1867 and immediately became the hotel in town. It was elegant. It was efficient and it did everything it possibly could to please its guests.  And from the very beginning it had an unusual association with good health. In 1870 a Doctor John Metzger decided to conduct his practice from the hotel.  Doctor Metzger believed that there was a direct relationship between exercise and good health, and so he had a gym built into the hotel. Remember this is 1870, very early for that kind of stuff. Eventually word of Dr. Metzger’s approach to well-being spread to many European cities, and the Amstel Hotel became famous as the place to go for rejuvenation. In 1990 the Intercontinental Hotels group closed the Amstel and spent two years and forty million dollars rejuvenating the hotel. Today it's like a country residence of a European nobleman, with a few features that are quite impressive even for European noblemen. There's a butler on each floor to take care of your needs twenty-four hours a day. To make sure you don't soil your hands on your morning newspaper, he irons them. That's a new one for me. Old Dr. Metzger 's love of physical fitness is carried on in the health center that offers a personal fitness trainer to all guests. The kitchen is under the direction of Master Chef Robert Kranenborg, who's made the hotel's restaurant one of the most respected establishments in the city. Robert produces the classics of Dutch and French cooking as well as a series of light dishes that fit right in with the health club. The hotel's wine list is rather unusual. They decided that the top price for a bottle of wine on their list should be a hundred gilders. That's about sixty-five dollars. And they searched the world to get the best wines under that price. They have a tea service but they are more serious about making good tea than any hotel I've ever seen. The water which the hotel uses to make tea is purified in a reverse-osmosis filter to remove minerals and other trace elements that might affect the taste of the tea. Each tea is taste-tested each day. They use a special pot that controls the contact between the tea and the water and the time of each brewing is carefully monitored. They have even developed a special tea which they hope will help their guests adjust to jet lag. One of the most talked about aspects of the hotel are the showers. The shower heads were made especially for the Amstel and they're about a foot wide. They give you the feeling that you are standing under a waterfall. Just another example of this hotel showering its guests with luxury.

Since Amsterdam was originally settled by fisherman, and fishing has been a major part of Dutch life for over a thousand years, it's only natural to find some excellent fish cookery in Dutch kitchens. Robert Kranenborg is well-known for his work at the Amstel Hotel, but he's also a respected author with a new book on fish cookery.

ROBERT KRANENBORG: Well, about fish cookery you have to know that the...you have a good confident supplier with very, very fresh fish and to cook it right away once you come home, the same day and...you have to know that...the temperature of the fish is very important. You have to stop cooking when your fish is at three- quarters of... cooking time. So the heat which is... which is in the fish...will spread and when you serve it it will be... exactly like it should... like it should be. 

WOLF:  During the 1980's, North America saw an enormous increase in fish consumption. Scientific evidence indicated that there were elements in fish that actually might reduce the risk of heart attack and the fish industry spent an enormous amount of time and money promoting the fact that fish in general is low in calories and low in fat. But the marketers of fish ran into one enormous problem; millions of home cooks felt that they just didn't know how to cook fish properly.

Chef Kranenborg demonstrates a very simple fish cooking technique from his new book. A little water is brought to boil in a saucepan. A heat- proof plate goes on top, a little oil in the plate and then the fish... whatever fish you like, but make sure the fish is cut to similar size so it will take about the same time to cook, and a second plate on top. Everything cooks for five minutes. Meanwhile a salad is made from strips of spinach, cucumber, asparagus, red onion, a little vegetable oil and a little vinegar. The salad goes into a serving bowl and the cooked fish on top. 

KRANENBORG:  The secret of this is that... china keeps...spread the heat very good so it will not cook but it will keep hot and that is what we want with fish. You have to taste the fish like it should be and not overcook it.  The thickness of the china is enough.

WOLF:  During the early 1600's there was an extraordinary increase in world trade.  Everyone in Europe who had a boat wanted to take off for some distant port in the hope of buying something and selling it for big bucks when he got back home.  That trade created a worldwide Dutch empire, and in Holland, an enormous amount of local wealth. Holland became the financial capital of Europe, and in 1602 the Dutch East India Company was formed, and in a very unusual move for the time, shares were offered to the general public, which allowed the general public to share in the wealth. Within ten years Holland was the largest importer of spices to Europe. The most important part of the Dutch empire were its holdings in what is now Indonesia, some eight thousand islands stretching over three thousand miles and packed with things to bring back and sell.  Spices were an essential part of that trade, but the Dutch also introduced coffee plantations that became quite significant. Most of the coffee was shipped back to Europe from a port known as Java.  It became such an important port that the world java is now a synonym for coffee. That four- hundred-year-old relationship between the Dutch and the East Indies has had an enormous impact on Dutch cooking.  A lot of the East Indian flavoring techniques are part of Dutch cooking today and there are Indonesian restaurants all over the country that serve great food from Borneo and Bali.

WOLF:  Holland's four-hundred-year-old history of trading with the East Indies has influenced the way the chefs of this country do their  work. Marcel Drissen, the sous-chef at Amsterdam's Amstel Hotel, illustrates the point with his choice of seasonings for his chicken curry. Two boneless, skinless chicken breasts are cut into bite-sized pieces and browned in a little vegetable oil for two minutes, and removed and held aside. Into the same pan, thin sticks of eggplant, a little curry powder, a cup of chicken broth, a few sprigs of thyme, a few minutes of cooking, quarter cup of coconut cream, half cup of sour cream (low-fat sour cream works just as well and so does plain low-fat yogurt), salt, pepper; the chicken goes back in, chopped tomato, a moment to warm everything up, but be careful... too much heat will separate the yogurt if you use that instead of sour cream. Into a serving bowl, a garnish of eggplant chips. Curry and coconut: you can certainly taste the East Indies in this dish.

The city plan of Amsterdam is based on three canals that form three semi-circles, one inside the other. Together they are described as the Canal Girdle. The outside canal in English is called the Prince's Canal. In the middle is the Emperor's Canal, and on the inside the Gentleman's Canal. It's interesting that the most elegant and ambitious of the three is the Gentleman's Canal, not those named with royal titles.  It's a reminder that for centuries the people of Amsterdam have loved the small businessman, the individual entrepreneur, and like most people, the owner of a small business tries to keep his taxes as low as he honestly can -- or at least to get the most for his money.

WOLF:  During the 1700's the people here paid their homeowner's tax based on the width of the front of their house, and that's why so many houses along the canals are so narrow.  But those same houses go up and they go back, and as they go back they get wider. A pie-shaped house with the thinnest part facing the street helped cut down on your taxes and let you keep a bigger slice of your own economic pie. That's the Trippenhuis,  built in 1662. It's like a Venetian palace. Across the street is the narrowest house in Amsterdam. The story goes that the Tripp family coachman was expressing his wish for a home on the canal, even if it was only as wide as the door of his master's house. Mr. Tripp overheard him and built him just that: a house as wide as the Tripp door. The extraordinary architecture of Amsterdam is one of its greatest joys.  The government has designated some seven thousand buildings in the old center as historically significant.  The character of these streets, which tells the history of the city for almost eight centuries, will be preserved. The people of Amsterdam have done a pretty good job of preserving their heritage.  Holding onto the old buildings was essential.

WOLF:  And they've built museums for just about everything Dutch that you can think of. They're also doing a good job of holding onto their gastronomic heritage. There are chefs all over this town who are researching old recipes, reproducing them and making the gastronomic past part of the present.  DePoort Restaurant, at the center of the town's oldest area, started as a beer brewery in 1592.  It was the place where Heineken was first made.  Today the restaurant offers some of the most traditional home foods of Holland:  Dutch pea soup, a meal in itself with a piece of pork and slices of sausage; herring in various forms; hotspot, which is a combination of mashed potatoes, sauteed onions and carrots.  Made me go out and get a pair of wooden shoes; a wonderful Dutch dish. And giant pancakes served with apples or preserves. These are the real Dutch treats. 

The Dutch city of Amsterdam is a visual treat, with its tree-lined canals, magnificent old houses and picturesque streets. Amsterdam can also be a gastronomic treat. The point is made at Amsterdam Amstel Hotel by Pastry Chef Jost Von Velsen as he prepares classic Dutch butter cookies. First ingredient into the  bowl is butter, only fitting for a butter cookie, then some sugar and some more sugar and an egg.  Flour is added in and everything is mixed together by hand.  Doing it this way, by hand, helps to blend the ingredients together more smoothly.  The dough rests in the refrigerator for an hour and is then rolled out to a thickness of about a half an inch. Three-inch rounds are cut out, placed onto parchment paper, given a quick paint job with egg wash, and a criss- cross pattern.  At which point they are placed into round cookie forms. You can buy these cookie forms or you can take a bunch of your standard food cans and cut out the top and bottom. Then into a preheated oven for twenty minutes and they're ready to serve.

WOLF:  KLM, the Royal Dutch Airline of Holland, is the oldest airline still operating. It made its first flight in 1920.  The concept of eating or drinking on an aircraft was unheard of; even when transcontinental flights were introduced, there was very little food on board. The airport in Amsterdam has an aircraft museum, and this an actual plane from the 20's. Just before you took off you were issued a leather jacket, a pair of goggles, a hot water bottle and a set of earplugs. The final destination might have been half a world away but the actual trip was  made up of many small flights. Very often the stops were scheduled around meal times. So you could get out of the aircraft and go into a restaurant or a hotel dining room and eat properly. These days, however, in-flight food is considered a major part of an airline's activities.

The average KLM 747 takes on five-and-a- half tons of food for each flight. They offer fourteen different types of special meals. The latest and fastest-growing  trend at KLM is for meals that reflect the public's interest in food for good health. You can order a low-salt meal, a low- cholesterol meal or a low-calorie meal...or you could live it up... in moderation of course.

WOLF:  Most airlines started by flying people around in their home country, from one local town to another.  But that was not true for KLM.  Holland is a country with such a small geographic area that you're almost better off getting around it by car or bike or canal boat. As a result of that fact, from the very beginning KLM has been an international airline and that's had an interesting effect on its approach to food. For over four hundred years the people of Holland have been trading with the Dutch East Indies, an area that we now call Indonesia. So KLM has two menus on its flights; one traditional European, the other Indonesian or Asian. They also have many other ethnic kitchens including Japanese, Italian, Indian and Chinese. They have some amazing equipment too. I thought this was part of a satellite dish system.  Not quite, it's the ultimate grinder, but then, so is television. This is the world's fastest slicer; six hundred slices per minute, good for any kind of meat. This is my favorite. It's a giant frying pan; the steak goes on, when it's done the steak is turned.  When it's ready, it's slipped on to a tray. Awesome technology -- but when forty thousand people are coming to dinner you need a little technology.

WOLF:  One of the most popular tourist attractions in Amsterdam is the old Heineken Brewery. The original facility was called the Haystack Brewery and it started its production in 1572. In 1863 it was taken over by Gerhart Heineken, who at the ripe old age of twenty-two decided he could make a better beer. Today the original plant is a museum devoted to the history of beer. They have an interesting collection of art and artifacts that tell the story of the history of beer making.  It starts with material from ancient Mesopotamia and takes you right through some of your major European painters.  They also have an extensive collection of beer drinking vessels, including this unusual number: Her Royal Majesty holds a bowl above her head from which you drink an aquavit or vodka.  Then she flips over and her base fills with beer. The main reason that beer has been so popular in so many parts of the world for so many centuries is because very often beer was the only safe thing for someone to drink.  The open water found in lakes and rivers was highly polluted, and though no one actually understood the concept of bacteria at the time, they knew from experience that drinking water was dangerous.  Experience also taught them that drinking beer was safe, and the reason is quite simple; when you make beer, the water that's in it is brought to a boil.  The boiling water kills the bacteria.  So people concluded that drinking water could kill you.  Drinking beer in moderation was quite safe.

WOLF:  Here are ancient stone carvings that go back over six thousand years and clearly show people making beer.  The ancient Egyptians even put beer into the tombs of their kings so they could have a drink in the afterlife; talk about a six- pack to go.  Here at the Heineken Brewery in Holland, you can see the process pretty much the way it's been going on for the past two thousand years. It all starts with a grain called barley that people have been eating since prehistoric times. Because barley grows well in soil, even if that soil has some salt in it and because it has a very shallow root system, it was one of the earliest crops planted by the Dutch when they reclaimed their land from the sea.  Brewers start the beer making process by taking the barley and mixing it with water. The process that results is called germination, kind of wakes up the sugar in the barley.  They let that go on for a week and then they stop the process by toasting the barley. The germinated and toasted grain is called malt. The malt is transferred into a big copper kettle mixed with water and heated.  The starch in the malt changes to sugar.  Hops, which are the leaves of a vine, are added to give flavor and help preserve the beer.  The solids are filtered out and the remaining liquid is called wort. The wort is mixed with a special yeast that converts the sugar in the wort to alcohol and you have young beer. The young beer rests in a storage tank for four to six weeks, at which time it's old enough to have its own  bottle.

WOLF:  Not bad for a town that started as a bunch of huts for herring fishermen. They still eat that herring in the street, but they also eat just about everything else -- and usually at a very high quality.  So if you like good food in a very relaxed town, this is the place for you.  Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for things that taste good and make it easier to eat well.  I'm Burt Wolf.