Monday, October 29, 2012

We eat most of Leiden

Mr Tabubil and I have just returned from three weeks holiday – a week in Holland, so that I might see a bit of his country and meet his family, and two weeks together after that in Italy.  Right now we’re in Holland.

Our plans to return to Amsterdam and visit the Rijksmuseum were scuppered when, Anneke and Pieter mentioned over breakfast that the nearby city of Leyden (or Leiden, as it is properly said) was holding its weekly market.  Mr Tabubil revised the itinerary.  There was still a very long list of Dutch foods that I hadn’t tried yet, and Leiden was only half an hour away by the local bus –
            So we rode the bus to Leiden, through green fields and fields of glass-houses, and canals filled with sailboats and over bridges that open up to let boats pass underneath and soon, we were driving down tree-lined avenues past schools with hundreds of bicycles parked in the schoolyard and old church steeples dotting the sky between the trees, and then we were on the high street of Leiden.
            Leiden is as Amsterdam, but built to a domestic scale.  

The houses stand only two or three stories tall below their pitched roofs, and there is a tremendous variety of styles among ‘em -  we saw the year ‘1540’ written over the lintel of a little brick house in the close of the Pieterskerk, and we saw much baroque froofery and Victorian gingerbread, quite a bit of the richly simple expressionist stonework (that you rarely see in Australia or the Americas).  

We even some lovely bits of art nouveau  - little houses tiled and gilded like jewellery boxes,  and all of it mixed in with stuff that the painter Rembrandt would have found familiar in the sixteen-hundred years. (Leiden is his town.)

Leiden’s market ran up and down both sides of a canal.  A proper mid-week market, it sold everything – shoes and clothing, bolts of cloth, reels of cotton, scissors and razor blades, bread and meat and fish, fruit and vegetables and flowers - 

Leiden's market on the Aalmarkt.

Mr Tabubil steered me to a stall selling breads and pastries, and bought me a roll filled with almond paste.  And then bread filled with apples and cinnamon, and then bread baked with cheese, bread baked with raisins, bread filled with egg yolk, bread filled with apricot paste –
            He was on first name basis with the blonde Dutchwoman running the stall before we were half-way done.
            He’d buy, I’d eat, he’d return to the stall –
            “And did she like that one?”
            “Loved it.  What else do you have?”
            “I’d try her on this next – “
When I could no longer stand, he rolled me to the edge of the canal and we sat with our feet over the water and resolutely refused to feed the ducks quacking optimistically underneath us, and when I could get up again, he fed me cheese, and fresh farmed raspberries, and picked herring, and kibbling – and here, filled brim-full as I was, I went into orbit, because just like with the French fries in Amsterdam, I’d found the One True Thing –
            Kibbling is battered fish.  That’s all.  But it’s battered fish done with style and seasoning and that special Dutch facility with the deep-fryer –it knocks Australian beer-battered fish into a cocked hat.
Australians (like the British) think a great deal about their fish and chips.  We Aussies think we’re especially fancy and gourmet because we do our fresh fish in a beer batter. (Yes, I am aware of just how much this says about the level of haute cuisine in my country.)  There’s a particularly good fish and chips shop not far from my family home on the Gold Coast in Queensland, and I’ve had conversations with Australians all over the world who remember Peter’s Fish and Chips with fondness and a longing for his beer batter, but whenever I’ve taken Mr Tabubil there, he’s never been all that impressed.  One evening I remember that he yawned.
            Having tasted kibbling, just as when I tasted mi suegro’s beloved dutch fries, I now understand.   There are degrees and there are degrees of fast food, and some nations have lifted it to the level of art.

More Art.

To soothe our digestion, we took a boat tour on Leiden’s canals in a canal-boat with a very dour boat driver.  He steered the boat about the water in silence, with the glummest of glum faces, and only smiled once, when a wave came over the bow of our little boat and swamped one of the guests.   

We spent a very pleasant hour on the water, puttering up and down the canals between parks and shopping streets and university campus buildings and little water-borne residential neighborhoods. 
There were masses of blooming flowers everywhere.

The canals were water as back alley, water as main street, water as garden and horizon – it was when we reached water as ‘swimming pool’ that I revolted.  It was city water - thick and turbid.  We passed by a row of houseboats, and from one of them, a gang of children was merrily cannon-balling into the water - 
            Mr Tabubil tapped my shoulder. “I know.”  He grinned.  “The tropical girl only goes swimming in clear and swift-running water.  Anything else makes her curl up and die inside.  Did I tell you about the time my cousins took me kayaking in the polder canals? Those canals are pure runoff – organic and goose-turd, but they all went swimming!”
            “I’ve seen the photos.”  I said, shuddering.  “Especially the one where they pushed you in, and your face was open-mouthed with surprise-”
            “And I survived, didn’t I?  Not even a head-cold.  This is a temperate climate - nothing is going to grow in our water!”  

Back on shore we ate more kibbling, and Mr Tabubil found the stroopwafels. Stroopwafels are  waffle-wafers the size of soup plates glued together by sticky golden syrup.  They are incredibly sweet - five bites and I found myself leaning against a tree, trying to screw my head back on and feeling as if I were lying at the bottom of a canal filled with molasses.  Only afterward I noticed that every person queuing at the stroopwafel stand was a silly foreign tourist, like me, or a Dutch child under the age of six.

When Mr Tabubil had run out of foods for me to try, we rolled ourselves back to the bus stop and  went home to have dinner with Mina – an old friend of the family, and her new gentleman friend.  We weren’t nearly close to hungry, but she fed us as one feeds friends who have traveled ten thousand miles to see her, without stopping for a snack along the way.  We nearly exploded. 

A the end of the meal she served up yogurt, which is a very Holland-ish way of ending a meal, but she served it up on big flat dinner plates, which isn’t.
And the yogurt was an unexpected flavor – coffee (locally known as hopjes vla) which was also a novelty.

So when Mina passed me an enormous crock of granola and made expansive spooning motions and said “EAT!” I shrugged and braced myself and poured myself a plate of cereal, topped it with a little more yogurt and dug in. 
I’m a good guest. 
After a time I noticed that I was eating amid a silence and looked up to see Mina and her gentleman friend looking accusingly at Mr Tabubil, and with deep sympathy at me.
It was all Mr Tabubil’s fault, apparently, for not letting me know that the dessert is the yogurt and the granola is a garnish.  One or two teaspoons are sufficient.  To add a crunchy touch.

We were offered a ride home after dinner, but we insisted on walking.  We needed it.

(Ed note.  12/1/12 - Mr Tabubil has just read this and made an enormous fuss. "Hopjes vla is PUDDING, not yogurt.  Potato, potato...  Looks like a duck... etc etc - it tastes same like yogurt down to the yeasty tang.  I'm sticking to call it yogurt.)

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