Nearby (and sometimes so far away)
France, spring of 2008, on our way to Burgundy to visit a couple of winegrowers. Conversations in the car were mostly about eating and drinking. That makes you seriously hungry and thirsty. To freshen up after the first 400 kilometres, at Reims we took the exit in the direction of Epernay and set course for Ludes to Ployez-Jacquemart, my favourite champagne producer. The dust of our car hadn’t settled yet or Laurance Ployez opened up a bottle Liesse d’Harbonville from 1996. So many flavours, twelve years old and still completely fresh. Next, we headed into the cellar, familiar grounds, but every time it is still impressive, those endless corridors of carved out limestone.
Often when I’m in France I get that I-want-to-stay-here feeling, to live among people who completely get it. Naturally, there was lunch after the tour. After a ride through the rolling hills of the Champagne region, we arrived at restaurant Les grains d’argent in Dizy, a suburb of Epernay. The restaurant lies at the edge of an appalling centre commercial. In France, they do mess up from time to time. Luckily, the dining room offered a view on the vineyard. Laurance understood that after a hardy tasting, you should eat lightly. The chef offered fresh dishes that were still good in savour. A great way to start the trip, we got into the spirit alright.’
‘The French road trip ended in the Beaujolais, in Fleurie. Fleurie is mostly known for its flamboyant Beaujolais grown in granite soils. On the village square is Auberge Du Cep. Supposed to be a good place. It didn’t start out well. When the black clad and bespectacled owner handed me the wine list, containing nothing but bottles of Beaujolais, I had the urge to make a scene. I have a thing for fat Burgundies. Non, she didn’t have any and she didn’t want to arrange for them either. The chosen wines would go perfectly with the meals. I know that story. Anyway, you’re on their turf and sometimes you have to accept the unacceptable. The woman first put a bowl of gougères on the table, puffs filled with Gruyere cheese. They turn out to be very good, so I asked for another tray. A few minutes later, the lady came back with four puffs. While passing around the handwritten menus, she said with a friendly smile: ‘I take it you want to something from the menu as well?’ Message understood. We were apparently dealing with an intelligent woman with some zest in her. She turned over a new leaf years ago and started working with nothing but local products, traditionally prepared. This approach always piques my interest. No fiddling or tinkering, but the product as at the centre of attention and recognisable: which only works if you can really cook. The fried frog’s legs were amazing: nice and full and thick, tasty, not that watery stuff. The creamy ragout with crayfish tasted like a classic, the crayfish were fresh and of the best quality. I was getting pumped. The suckling lamb was a small sensation: very tasty, cooked to perfection. The red wine sauce accompanying the medallions was just shy of perfection.’
‘During diner, we came to talking about the book. In which direction are we supposed to go? Ideas aplenty, but still lacking a clear theme. Far away in Le Cep everything became crystal clear. This restaurant was the only one we visited that cooked with pure regional products and served only the best food. Understandable, because it’s close to home: you can visit your supplier and consult with him. Product which don’t travel far, tend to be fresher. Fruit and vegetables can be harvested much riper.
The book could stimulate the use of good local seasonal products. And only when there is no other option, food and drink can come from far away, such as lemons, spices, and wine. Dutch farmers who do their best to produce, grow, or breed something special could use the attention. Because in our country we too often see unripe, defrosted, and juiced-up products from Timbuktu or coming from companies for which profits are more important than quality. It’s fun to be able to buy good stuff in the region from good, hard-working professionals who make money without sacrificing quality, soil, and animals. This gives people a voice who give the hobby cook and professional chef the opportunity to get to know their products with a variety in flavour and quality. They show what potential the Netherlands have as a producer of quality food. Headstrong fellows with a vision who can be an example to others and who take risks as real entrepreneurs. If lean pork is all the rage, they’ll breed a fat breed. It’s only logical, right? Because fat equals flavour. This meat did the trick for me and, for the first time in twenty years, I wanted to work with a piece of pork. There are plenty of hobby cooks with a decent palate, so there is a market for beautiful meat like that. Can you compare Holland with France? Why not? In a land undergoing a culinary awakening, the taste awareness grows.’
‘More and more, I see little marketplaces where farmers offer their own vegetables, chickens, cheeses and fruit. Even home gardens are sprouting up everywhere. The fresh outdoor air and the home-grown tomatoes, courgettes, and lettuce growing, full of flavour. Nearby is not a deliberately elite book about product that are barely available. But you have to make some effort in order to get them. That isn’t the fault of the hard-working growers, farmers, or breeders. Most people interviewed in this book, sell their products door-to-door, at marketplaces, and in a few shops. They would love to have more outlets, but continue to face barriers. I love helping to break down those barriers and create demand. To enable more people to enjoy Dutch quality products.
That seemed like a good idea.’