Dutch courage


You need nerves of steel to sample the full range of Amsterdam’s beers, which can be mind-blowingly strong. For VOURNEEN TAYLOR, they’re best combined with some exotic flavours

EVERY TIME I return to Amsterdam I am thankful that the Dutch colonised countries with great food. Many people, for example, think the Dutch were mad to swap New York for Suriname. I bet they have never tasted the food from that part of South America, however. A chin- dribbling spicy chicken roti with lashings of sambal sauce – wearing a bib is highly recommended – would quickly change anyone’s mind, especially if it’s from Roopram Roti, my favourite Surinamese restaurant.

The beer in Amsterdam, where I lived for almost four years from 2004, is just as good. I had another chance to taste it, as well as other food and drink I had been craving, on a recent trip back to the city with my boyfriend, who is from The Netherlands, to mind the apartment of a Dutch Surinam Hindu friend for a few days.

As it was late afternoon by the time we arrived, and I wanted to have a few bottles to bring back to Dublin, I hurried to the off-licence, which, like all others in the city, closes at the ridiculous time of 6pm (and all day on Sunday). One thing I can never figure out is that at 8pm you can buy cannabis from a coffee shop but not booze from an off- licence.

My eyes widened at the sight of the selection: floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with different types of delicious frothy beer: Trappist, blond, bruin, abdijbier, dubbel, tripel and even quadrupel. As a rule of thumb, dubbel is more alcoholic than regular beer; tripel and quadrupel might blow your brains out, at a whopping 10 to 14 per cent.

After buying a few, and to celebrate our return to Amsterdam properly, we decided a pub crawl was in order.

We started by baptising ourselves at Brouwerij’t Ij (Funenkade 7, 00-31-20-3201786, www.brouwerijhetij.nl), in a windmill in the east of the city. As well as being the name of one of Amsterdam’s two principal rivers, ij is Dutch for egg. The microbrewery has an ostrich egg in its logo, and offers boiled eggs for its customers to snack on. As we drank a beer we recalled summers when everyone sat outside, looking out over the canal, eating boiled eggs.

Then we went to christen ourselves at Gollem (Raamsteeg 4, 00-31-6-46750155, www.cafe gollem.nl), in a lane off Spuistraat. (Gollem’s sister pub, in the Pijp area of the city, is conveniently located next to a Surinamese restaurant named Moksi, which is normally very handy but was too far to go on this occasion.) Gollem serves more than 200 types of beer, the names of which are written on blackboards. We asked the barman what we should have. He suggested something that had an unpronounceable name but was very strong and effective.

At that stage I was feeling peckish, so asked for a kaasplankje, or cheese board. It arrived, to my delight, with all my old favourites, including Gouda and Oud Amsterdam.

By the time we reached ’t Arendsnest (Herengracht 90, 00-31-20-4212057, www.arends nest.nl) we were confessing all our sins to the barman. This establishment takes its beer very seriously, serving each type in its own glass. For the novelty factor I asked for a Kwak beer, which comes in a glass with a spherical end – like a smaller version of a yard-of-ale glass, designed, in this case, by an innkeeper named Pauwel Kwak in the 19th century for coachmen – standing in a wooden holder.

The east side of Amsterdam, where we were flat-minding, has a large ethnic mix and a gritty urban vibe. The streets are full of food outlets: a Javanese deli, for example, a lively snack bar crammed with colourful locals or a Turkish bakery.

Starving, I made a beeline for the bakery, eager to feed my hangover. I ordered a Turkish pizza. The warm, thin base was smothered with herbs and tomato paste before being warmed in the oven. Then lettuce, onion and tomato were put on top. Drooling, I watched the friendly chef pour both garlic and hot sauce over the salad. He quickly rolled the pizza up, covered it in foil and handed it to me. The food warmed my hands as I ripped off the foil and devoured the contents.

We picked up a few groceries at the Javanese deli and at Albert Heijn, the local supermarket, to bring home with us. Our bag was full of cheese, sambal, sauces and other goodies that you can’t get in Ireland. The whole lot cost less than €10.

LATER, AS WE WALKED around the centre of Amsterdam, it was heartening to see the city’s landmark squats. As with many other parts of life, the Dutch take an unusual approach to squatting. If a building is abandoned for more than a year, and the landlord does nothing with it, you can use the space. This has breathed life back into many decrepit buildings.

I was hoping to go to a gig in Ruigoord (www.ruigoord.nl), but time was not on my side. This entire village, just outside Amsterdam, is squatted, church and all; it has become a cultural haven where artists are free to express themselves. You will find sculptors, circus performers, musicians, painters and lots of hippies hanging out in the village.

Squatters often invest significant time and effort in doing up buildings and opening restaurants, bars, galleries, studios and even cinemas for the local community. Many students who cannot afford to rent opt to squat. In Dublin, all the dust-gathering empty buildings seem such a waste.

For my last supper my Amsterdam friends suggested going to a local snack bar, the Dutch equivalent of a chipper. As usual they ordered kroket, or croquette, which I still cannot bring myself to eat even after all their explanations of kroket etiquette.

A kroket is like a sausage-shaped parcel of saucy meat covered in breadcrumbs. It comes with a sachet of mustard and a soft white roll. You break the croquette in half, mash the goo into the bottom of the roll, spread it with the neon mustard and top it with the rest of the roll.

Not being as brave as my friends, I ordered a portion of patatje oorlog, or “little fries of war”, which I had been craving since my last visit.

The fries come with unhealthy dollops of mayonnaise and satay sauce, and are finished with a garnish of onion. Once you try this there is no going back to salt and vinegar.

ON MY FINAL morning I made the most of the last bit of decent public transport I would be using for a while. It is the little things that make the difference. When you wait at a stop in Amsterdam you know the timetable is accurate; you can also consult a simple map that indicates every mode of transport for getting from A to B. Trams have conductors to take your change, and the tickets are valid for an hour, so you can switch trams, or hop on to a bus, without having to pay an extra fare. Dublin, is it really that difficult?

To get to the airport I simply had to hop on a train that leaves every 10 minutes from Central Station. The 15-minute journey reminded me of many evenings when I met friends to go intercity clubbing. Trains run all night between the main cities. Often, if a gig or club night was on in Utrecht or Rotterdam, I would just hop on a train to get there. Then, in the late hours of the morning, I would snooze on the train back to Amsterdam.

This time I nodded off on the flight back to Dublin, content in the knowledge that my luggage was packed full with all the foods and beers I had been craving.

See www.iamsterdam.com; for restaurant listings and reviews, see www.iens.nl/english

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Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus. com) flies to Amsterdam from Dublin, Cork and Belfast.