Food and Drink
The Dutch have a style of cooking that reflects their landscape: plenty of dairy products from the cows that graze the pastures of the polders; meat of all kinds from the many farms that dot the countryside; fish and shellfish from coast and coastal inlets; and eels from the inland waterways and lakes. Beer is the traditional alcoholic drink, although wine - imported from all over the world - is almost as popular.
If you think Dutch cheese is some kind of tasteless, rubbery product sealed in bright-red wax, you have clearly only experienced it through British supermarkets. In Holland itself, Dutch cheese is richly varied, subtle, intense, and often has a dense, almost grainy texture. Unlike France, Holland does not make a vast number of different cheeses, and they tend to be of the harder kind - more like English Cheddar than Camembert. Cheese can be either 'jong' (young, up to two months old), or 'belegen' (matured, or intermediate) or 'oude' (old, or matured beyond nine months). The most popular cheese is Gouda, found in all stages of maturity. Leidse (from Leiden) is flavoured with cumin seeds. Freise Nagelkaas ('Friesian Nail Cheese') is studded with cloves - a wonderfully fragrant throwback to the era of the Dutch East Indies. Look out for Boerenkaas, the equivalent of farmhouse cheese. Edam, by contrast, is treated with some caution (not to say disdain), as most of it is industrialised cheese destined for export - to those British supermarkets. The Dutch often use special slotted, metal scrapers to strip thin slices off a block of cheese. These are very sharp: watch your fingers!
Herring and eels
The Dutch celebrate Willem Beukels as the 14th-century genius who discovered a way of preserving herring for long periods by first gutting them, then pickling them in brine - producing not only a recipe for the much-cherished maatjesharing (see Only in Holland), but also the foundations for the historically important Dutch herring fleet. Seafood from the North Sea (mussels, prawns, sole, mackerel) remains a key part of the Dutch diet. Another speciality comes from the inland waterways, canals and lakes: 'gerookte paling' are eels smoked to a beautiful copper colour, bought whole, then stripped of their skin to reveal a luscious pink and fragrant flesh: excellent with a buttered slice of good country bread and a dab of horseradish sauce.
The eating habits of the worlds' nations are become increasingly homogenised with the spread of globalisation and fusion cooking. But breakfast seems to be more resistant to this trend than other meals. This is certainly true of the traditional Dutch breakfast: a fine meal of thinly sliced cheese, sliced cooked meats, good bread, and strong coffee.
Colonial history is written into the eating habits of the European nations: the British have their 'Indian' restaurants, the French have Vietnamese, and the Dutch have Indonesian, harking back to the days of the Dutch East Indies. You can eat delicious Indonesian food at all levels, from takeaway snacks (e.g. satay) in tiny streetside stalls, and modestly priced meals in an 'Indonesische Eethuis', to a super-luxurious 'rijstafel' (literally 'rice table') - a veritable banquet of numerous dishes - in a top Indonesian restaurant. There is a huge variety: noodles (e.g. bami goreng), rice dishes (e.g. nasi goreng), savoury pastries. Some are delicately spicy; others (e.g. beef rendang) are guaranteed to blow you socks off.
If you are in Holland for New Year's Eve, look out for these splendid little seasonal delights - golfball-sized pastries of made of deep-fried dough, sometimes with added apple and raisins, sprinkled with icing sugar. They are superficially similar to doughnuts, but more dense and flavoursome, and superb insulators against the winter chill.
Heineken, Amstel and Grolsch may be the best-known international brands, but Holland's 60 or so breweries and small brew-pubs offer far greater depth and variety that this would suggest. As elsewhere, many of the smaller brand names are owned by the conglomerates, but that does not necessarily make their products less distinctive. The most common style is pils or pilsener (e.g. Dommelsch), but in common with Belgium, brewers also produce Trappist and abbey-style beers (e.g. La Trappe), and witbier (white or wheat beer). They also have Oud Bruin (Old Brown) and the stronger, sweeter darker lager called 'bok', which is traditionally produced in autumn as a 'winter warmer'. Some names to look out for include Lindeboom and Budelse (both brewing since the 19th century), De Pelgrim, Schans and Us Heit.
The word 'gin' comes from the Dutch 'jenever', which in turn derives from its flavouring of juniper berries. Dutch jenever gin is a quality drink, produced by dozens of small distilleries in a mesmerising variety of forms, 'jong' (young) or 'oud' (old), and variously flavoured with lemon, blackberries, cumin, and much else. Jenever is drunk neat in small glasses, sometimes as an accompaniment to beer (i.e. as a chaser). You can try some in a specialist bar called a 'proeflokaal' - originally a bar attached to a distillery, where customers could come and sample the products.