To Leiden in the Netherlands for a four-day visit, spending my days walking the cobbled streets beside the canals in the delightful old university town. The handsome 16th- and 17th-century buildings speak of the civic wealth acquired during the glory days of Dutch commerce and power. This was Rembrandt’s home town and he remains the favourite son, though not entirely unopposed. Here, the first European tulips were propogated by Dr Clusius (the botanical gardens are still superb) and here gin was invented by Dr Silvius (we stand, we bow) in the medical department of the university.
My son will study there for a year (archaeology not medicine) and I envy him, though this is a bicycle town and he will have to be vigilant to avoid being run down by the regiments of tall, elegant young women who swoop past on their gearless bikes. The cry of gulls and the hurrying clouds remind me we are close to the sea; every hour or so a sun shower passes. Instead of graffiti, the high sides of 101 buildings have been inscribed with poems from the world’s great treasury, written in the original language. Turning a corner and glancing up, you come unexpectedly upon a Shakespeare sonnet.
What do people eat? Café and street food is all about bread—panini or sandwiches, pizza and bagels, heavy fried croquettes of meat also served on bread. Wednesday and Saturday are market days here, the stalls spreading themselves along the bank of the principal canal—all very civil and orderly. The food stalls offer staples of a pretty high quality—fish and meats, vegetables, rich, firm, yellow cheeses. Breads and sturdy pastries are meant to offer sustenance not titillation and there is little evidence of prepared food beyond a tray of floured and fried morsels of cod—very juicy and fresh. I ask some of the locals for the name of a good Dutch restaurant where I can find the famous local dish, hutspot. They make a face—half frown, half smile. No one eats hutspot until October 3rd. How about stampot, the famous Dutch dish of mashed potatoes, meat and vegetables? “That’s a winter dish,” they say. “You won’t find stampot.” The same goes for boerenkool met worst —farmer’s cabbage with sausage. Also a winter dish and therefore unavailable. So what are the traditional summer dishes, I ask. They shrug and tell me there are really no summer dishes as such. Giving up, I ask if they can tell me where I can find a decent, traditional Dutch restaurant. Again the nonplussed expression. “Dutch cooking is too simple for restaurants,” they say. “It’s just meat and potatoes… We have many Turkish restaurants. Or Italian or Chinese. The best ones, of course, are French.”
And so it proves. We go to dinner at a charming restaurant called Fabers, on a quiet lane close to St. Peter’s church (Kloksteeg 13, tel: 071-5124012). The building dates from 1580 but stood empty in 1986 when a Dutch movie director used it as a bookshop caled Fabers in a film. Henk and Marianne Van der Zee were living in an apartment upstairs, and, when the film crew left, they rented the ground floor and opened it as restaurant in 1987, leaving the prop nameplate, Fabers, above the door. These days they share front of house duties. The look of the restaurant is French country—scrubbed wood floors, old prints and pieces of sculpture, wicker chairs slightly undercutting the formality of the table settings with their heavy linen and silver, candlelight. The meal begins with an amuse of bresaola and steak tartare topped with truffled mayonnaise, the two styles of beef providing an interesting textural play. The cooking has a classical elegance—flawless little dishes such as sweetbreads with a soft golden crust set over subtle choucroute served with a shallot compote and a rosemary sauce. Or juicy beef carpaccio garnished with a curl of foie gras torchon (soft and rich as cool butter), slivers of smoked bacon, capers and chervil. Veal is the dominant protein on the menu. My main course features a slow-braised ragout of veal cheek, crusty slices of the pink fillet with a morel sauce and also, less successfully, a fried croquette of forked stewed meat. A spear of asparagus is the token vegetable; potatoes arrive separately in a ravier dish. My son orders a fillet of North Sea cod which arrives perfectly cooked, the fish separating into juicy white petals at the touch of a fork. A sweet grain-mustard beurre blanc is the sauce and again the vegetables are a reluctant garnish—a morsel of leek, a cherry tomato, four snowpeas. I ask la patronne to bring us some Dutch cheeses instead of the usual ooey-gooey French forms. She finds three—all cow milk. The first is a local production, aged a year and with the texture of grano padano but flecked with caraway —pungent, salty, delicious. The second is younger and more waxy in texture, also from a farm outside Leiden, and contains finely minced chives. The third is an aged gouda-like item from the outskirts of Amsterdam that fills the mouth with a sense of cream. Desserts are very good French classics—crème brûlée, chocolate mouse – and tiramisu.
“How would this restaurant do in Toronto?” asks my son. Of course, one can never tell. The young chef here has a style that falls somewhere between that of Didier Leroy and that of Claude Bouillet—perfectionist, in other words, and technically impeccable. Toronto Life’s star system would give it a strong three-and-a-half, I’d guess. It would find its way into my personal Top Twenty—maybe not quite my Top Ten. Would that ensure its success? Of course not. This kind of modern-classic French food doesn’t resonate very strongly with Torontonians these days. Which is our loss.
I leave my son with instructions to report on any local Dutch treats he finds. I leave you with a digestif of local genever gin, slightly yellow and tasting of spice and sweet grain, as if someone had crushed juniper, caraway and pepper over Weetabix and distilled it. Thank you, Doctor Silvius.