Limburg in the south of the Netherlands offers a complete rural contrast to the cosmopolitan charms of Amsterdam. When we recently picked up train tickets at Schiphol airport’s railway station to make the two hour journey, the friendly ticket master enquired, “are you sure you are going to South Netherlands?” On receiving an affirmative reply he very kindly printed out a suitable timetable for us showing us where and when to change trains. He was super-helpful.
Limburg is much more rural and the way of life is more relaxed. The flat landscape, interspersed with pretty towns and villages, is ideal for walking and cycling at an easy pace, especially along the banks of the broad River Maas.
Limburg residents are very sociable. This is emphasised by their greeting technique: not one, not two, but three kisses on the cheek. Left-right-left. Or right-left-right. Either is fine.
If you are lucky enough to visit a local home you will almost certainly be offered coffee and vlaai. Dutch coffee is always properly made ground coffee. Vlaai – also known as Limburgse Vlaai – is a tart. The base isn’t made from traditional flaky pastry but from a yeast dough which gives it a light, cake-like texture. Each vlaai comes as a big round disc of deliciousness, usually around 30 cm in diameter. It is cut into large slices for all guests to enjoy.
The traditional vlaai is a fruit-based tart, often with a latticed pasty top. Cherries, apricots, apple – all sorts of soft fruit can be used as a filling. It may also be served with a decadent dollop of rich cream.
And then there are more unusual variations. The gooseberry topped with fluffy meringue combination is both tart and sweet.
Berry mouse and meringue is also a great combination.
The rice pudding vlaai, with cream and chocolate shavings for added decadence, will keep you satisfied for a week.
Tradition dictates that visitors are offered coffee and vlaai and it is polite to accept. Apparently it is also considered to be a little bit rude not to accept a second slice. It’s possible that Limburgians have a secret second stomach as it is genuinely impossible to eat two slices of vlaai in quick succession, scrumptious though it is.
In 1575 the Bols family set up a liquor distillery in Amsterdam.
You thought gin was British? Think again! Genever was the juniper flavoured liquor from which gin eventually evolved and is specific to the Netherlands. There are two types: oude (old) and jonge (young). Oude is an older process and distilled from malt, jonge is the later type and contains more grain, giving a lighter flavour rather than the richly developed flavours of the oude.
You can visit the House of Bols in Amsterdam which is a combination of a museum and drinking emporium. It’s just round the corner from the Rijksmuseum, one of the world’s greatest art galleries. Handy tips: Go to the Rijksmusem first and admire the amazing art, then nip, via the eminently Instagrammable IAmsterdam park, to the House of Bols. Admiring the art whilst a little bit squiffy might not be the best way to appreciate Rembrandt and the other Dutch Masters’ finest paintings.
Obviously you need to be over 18 to partake of any alcohol on offer but the museum element is also interesting.
There are a variety of experiences you can choose from. Our ticket gained entrance to the museum, a cocktail at the end of the tour and two shots of booze from the enormous selection on offer in the shiny mirror bar.
The tour takes you on a journey through the history of the company.
You get to visit the flavour hall where you learn about how you taste and get to sample the multitude of flavours on offer. (Bear in mind that some of the flavour exercises you can try, given you are in Holland, may result in a liquorice-y taste sensation which really isn’t at all fun if you don’t like liquorice).
There is an amazing array of tastes to experience. Have a whiff then try to guess the flavour – the answer is given beneath the number on the wall.
Then it’s onto the technicalities of how to make genever and the history of distilling. This way…
And finally to the mirror bar.
You can choose a cocktail using the electronic machines which help you determine your ideal cocktail via a series of options and then ask the bartender to make it for you. Best Cocktail Ever: The Bols Bloody Mary.
And this particular incarnation had (vegetarians look away now)… bacon! Bols vodka, tomato, lemon juice, spicy Tabasco heaven WITH ADDED BACON. Deep joy.
Our ticket allowed a further two shots from the magnificent selection. You could try to recall which flavours had tickled your nostrils in the house of flavour but we found that a more interesting alternative was to try the neat genever shots so that we could taste the difference between the different types. You can, for example, compare an oude genever and jonge genever. Jonge is a clearer gin, more akin to vodka, whereas oude has a maltier taste with a complexity of flavour you might associate with whisky. Both hugely enjoyable though.
Sorry that the following photo is slightly out of focus but we were mildly sozzled when we took the shot of the shots…
If you’re interested in other cocktail recipes they can be found here: