Amsterdam: In praise of half-pints

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On the easyjet London Gatwick – Amsterdam flight, with an assortment of stag-dos in costumes ranging between Dutch milk maids in drag and two opposing teams of table football players, one might get the impression this was a poorly timed trip. While the double bank-holiday may bring many of our countrymen – and women – to the Netherlands in search of booze and the ‘high’ life, we feel it’s a shame that this city retains its misleading reputation. In fairness, all the stereotypes were there: the gang of giggly blondes waving obscenely turgid dildos; young men smelling so strongly of weed you feel you might get stoned from the smell of them; the awkward German family who were genuinely looking for just a coffee. And all this before we reached our rented houseboat!

We have both been travelling to Amsterdam for years and it is arguably our favourite city in Europe. While there will be a number of winks and nudges as to why that may be, it is genuinely one of the most civilised cultures we have experienced and most beautiful in terms of buildings, art, and, above all, food. Our Easter Saturday visit to Noordmarkt on Prinsengracht and Westerstraat is enough to prove this to anyone. In the 3 minutes it took for us to walk around before rushing off to buy more serious provisions for the holiday, we must have walked past (and tasted samples from) half-a-dozen cheese stalls, a number of fine bakery stalls and an oyster seller whose key customer was one  busily slurping 3-year-old boy.

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The cheese samples, in particular a lemony-sweet goat’s cheese covered in cornflowers was a highlight, as well as the oysters which, served with a tiny quarter-slice of lemon, were a perfect perk to the morning. On the day we visited the market, lunch consisted of the same goat’s cheese, a springy sourdough cob and some goudsalami; in other words, all you could ask for from a good couple hours of hunter-gathering to eat sat in a secluded harbour. While this was a great moment for us, what makes Amsterdam great is that all the lunches that we had out while wondering around the city were delicious. Whether it wasa bagel shop by the Rijksmuseum, with it fantastic collections of art from the Dutch ‘Golden Age’, or our toasty and beer sat at Cafe Heuvel watching the world pass by we were stumped to find a duff meal.

Which brings us onto another important point – beer. While Dutch beers may have attracted world attention through sponsorship of any number of sporting events, few drink it the same way – in dinky half-pints. Lager is infinitely fresher drunk this way and sinks down nicely. Undoubtedly, this is helped along by the fact that the brewery is only a short walk away, as in the case of Heineken.

In terms of evening dining, one of our long term favourites is Red, a surf and turf restaurant located on Keizergracht. As a place to eat it has an almost womb-like comfort to it, if you can imagine a womb dominated by vibrant green upholstery and a red haired woman with an apple in her mouth gazing down on your dinner. Surreal? Maybe, but the steak (our recommendation) is excellent and would be a serious contender for any top restaurant in London. Importantly it is also reasonably priced for such a good dinner; we probably escaped for about £80 for two with a bottle of wine and a glass of prossecco each to start.

Amsterdam is a city of contradictions in many ways. While the night life has limited its reputation in some quarters, it is also worth a visit for so many other reasons than just what the red-light district has to offer and food is definitely one of them. So next time you go on a stag-do or even think of planning a civilised weekend away, give Amsterdam some serious thought and remember to take in as many of the pots you possibly can and not just the one you want to roll up.

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