Monday, February 8, 2010

De Zeeuwse Kust*

Almost four years ago I had the great opportunity to live in Antwerp for a month.   I took a language class and got introduced to the subtle and then not so subtle differences between Dutch and Flemish.  Think of it as first learning English in Great Britain and then heading to the U.S. for your next language class.  You would think the very close geographic location between The Netherlands and Flanders (the Flemish speaking part of Belgium) wouldn't create a great difference in the language, but there is a distinct shift in the sounds and even word choice the farther south you venture.  I thought it was really fun to learn the differences and to hang out in Antwerp.  That sounds perhaps a little more exciting than it actually was, because my language course was located outside the center of Antwerp in the little village of Wilrijk.  It was a charming place complete with lots of winding dirt paths and roosters that crowed every minute of every day.  Those roosters were cute for about the first hour I heard them, but then after that...ugh nothing more annoying than hearing a rooster crow constantly during my listening skills lab.  A bunch of us in the program rented bikes from a local farmer for the duration of our stay, and that was our main transportation to get us to class in the morning and into the city for the afternoons and evenings.

During my time in Antwerp, I spent a lot of time walking around trying to take it all in.  If you ever have the chance to visit the place, you should.  I meandered along the river and took in all the great architecture from the last 600 years.  I also got quite the overdose of Rubens' paintings in the main cathedral.  I guess when you're a really famous artist, you can show your love for your Church by plastering your buxom, lily-white ladies all over the main cathedral.  No offense to Rubens, of course.  I had just never seen so many of his works in one place before.  On top of all the artwork and beautiful buildings I got to see, I also noticed the same two advertisements hanging in bars and restaurants: De Koninck and Mussels with French Fries.  De Koninck is Antwerp's signature beer, and while not my particular favorite, I didn't leave the city without trying it out in one of its signature chalice shaped glasses.  After passing about thirty restaurants that cater to the tourist crowd and watching families dive into big black pots and wax paper cones in the center of their tables, I finally made the connection between their meals and the signs advertising moules-frites.  "Ah, this must be how mussels are served here," and, "Wow, that is a lot of mayonnaise based dipping sauces on the side."

The Belgians are apparently famous for their mussels and fries.  I say apparently, because every guidebook I've consulted on the matter (which is about two books in total, so really not a large sample size) insists that travelers should try the Belgian delicacy.  Even here in the Netherlands, they sing the praises of Flanders; the best fries I've had are advertised as Flemish fries (Vlaamse frites).  I was dying to try some good shellfish, but my language teacher advised not to eat them out of season in the summer.  The rule of thumb here is that they are best in the months ending in "er," so it would really be quite a while before I was going to get that experience.  Besides, it was the hottest summer on record when I was there, and I really felt more like eating salads and ice cream than a steaming bowl of mussels and piping hot fries.

Little did I know that, really, the meal is incredibly popular here, and Dutch love their mussels just as much as their southern neighbors.  The province of Zeeland (in the southwest of the country right on the North Sea) produces the bulk of the mussels for sale in The Netherlands.  My parents and I had some delicious mussels a few Christmases ago in the town on Middelburg, the capital of Zeeland, and I remember it as being one of those perfect restaurant experiences.  What's better than a welcoming meal in a warm restaurant after a day of walking outside in the wind and the cold?  Um...probably nothing, that's what.

So, last week just before Regan's sister left overcast Holland for sunny Nigeria, Niek and I decided we should send her off with a good, winter meal.  We were both fairly certain that there would be few french fries and even fewer shellfish waiting for her in Ibadan, and I was craving a nice serving of fried carbohydrates anyway.  Off to the Albert Heijn we went!  There was luckily one pack of mussels left.   We steamed them in a bit of water, white wine and a winter mix of vegetables while the french fries turned golden in the oven. I cheat with my fries and always buy the frozen ones in a bag, because even the promise of a delicious end result is not enough to convince me to buy a deep fryer and make my house smell like a McDonald's for a week.  We're not in a month that ends in "er" anymore, but I figured the end of January was close enough.  Oh, and before anyone asks, yes, mayonnaise was served on the side, and we all relished dipping basically everything on our plate into it.  I would have taken more pictures, but I was too busy stuffing my face with amazing, Dutch goodness.

*The post's title is just a little shout out to the Dutch music group, Blof, and their awesome song, Aan de Kust, which is all about Zeeland.  I just love this catchy tune. 

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