Contributed by Peter Easton of www.VeloClassic.com
Heading east across Belgium, as one leaves the windswept fields of Flanders and northern France and the lingering pain of riding across the pavй, the E40 is the dividing line between the flatlands of Flanders to the north and the hillier Ardennes to the south. Bordering Belgium on its far eastern reaches and squeezing itself between Germany and Luxembourg is the Dutch region of Limburg. While it is true most of Holland is flat, this southern most part is littered with hills that are crisscrossed with the tiniest of roads- a landscape that is as beautiful for cycling as it is utilitarian for farming.
The capital of the region, Maastricht, proudly hosts the Amstel Gold Race every year, and while the event comes and goes, the city prides itself more on its reputation for exceptional cuisine. And while Amsterdam may be the tourist spot and may attract some of the world’s best known chefs, Maastricht takes pride in offering locals and visitors a unique taste of Holland that extracts the best out of its undulating landscape- something the rest of the country cannot claim. The result is good enough to make it one of the most highly acclaimed culinary regions in Europe, a label taken so seriously by the city they’ve created a culinary organization- the Maastricht Culinair- to ensure the highest of standards are kept in the world of eating well in Southern Holland.
Maastricht is an eclectic city, bounded by a young university crowd, supported by large tech businesses, and held in high regard as the oldest city in Holland. That it was the location for the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 signaling European Unification and the single euro currency is held less significant these days, at least when it comes to the most important topic of conversation about this vibrant and charming city- food. The city contains a number of varying neighborhoods, each offering a distinct culinary experience that ranges from the simple to the sublime.
The Vrijhof is the beating heart of the city, and is loaded with cafйs serving mainly traditional dishes and sweets, which includes various types of stews, local asparagus, frites, pancakes and waffles and of course ice cream. T’Bassin is the small inlet that weaves in from the River Maas, and is dotted with a fine selection of regional and international restaurants ranging from seafood to Italian. But it takes a connoisseurs’ taste to uncover the truly special restaurants among the offerings, led primarily by seeking out a certain atmosphere and of course, cuisine.
There are two primary types of cuisine that stand out in both Holland, and more specifically, Maastricht. French cuisine has traditionally been the haute cuisine of Holland since the 15th century, but originally was, like other countries, meant solely for aristocracy. Southern Holland took its influence from traditional Burgundian cuisine, which is a Dutch idiom invoking the wealthy Burgundian court which ruled the Low Countries in the Middle Ages and was renowned for its splendor and great feasts. This historically provoked the southern area to develop its own haute cuisine which is based primarily on exceptional cuts of beef and sauces made from local products including vegetables and dairy.
While finding an exemplary restaurant serving each type of cuisine may not sound difficult, understanding how it fits into Dutch culture helps determine which the preferred location is. And if you’re like me, I always follow my motto “never put your appetite or addictions in the hands of those who don’t take them as seriously as I do.” Fortunately, in Maastricht on the eve of the Amstel Gold Race for the past eight years, this has never been a problem.
Just off the Vrijthof, on a narrow cobbled pedestrian street lined with restaurants and cafйs all offering outdoor seating, is the small, welcoming T‘Bokes, which translates to a “buckwheat cake”, which was a traditional peasant dish. The name is in recognition of the culinary tradition and warm hospitality in Maastricht that has its roots in the simplicity of traditional Dutch life. But the food, and the atmosphere, is anything but simple. The small dining room is dripping with ambience, helped by the revolving artwork that is on display which gives the room a vibrancy that matches the energy of the staff.
The menu consists of numerous Dutch specialties, with diligent preparation and artful presentations. The ossenhaus carpaccio, which is taken from the prime cut of beef, is paired with a sharp, salty parmesan and drizzled with a tomato pesto dressing that brings out the richness of the raw beef. I have eaten carpaccio in too many restaurants to count, and this is one of the best.
A more unique creation is the cappuccino soup with prawns, with the coffee essence adding a delicate twist to the wonderfully fresh prawns. Dining here last year with Garmin rider Martijn Maaskant, who is Dutch and lives a stone’s throw from Maastricht, offered some perspective- Martijn agreed the restaurant does a terrific job in maintaining Dutch culinary traditions, while at the same time not being afraid to be spurred by youth to make a creative interpretation.
Martijn Maaskant (center) with Lien Crapoen and the VeloClassic group.
Oscar Freire and Carlos Barredo – Copyright: Efried.
Eating here a few days ahead of the race provided the rare opportunity as well to step out onto the Platielstraat and encounter a few Rabobank riders, specifically the Spanish contingent of Oscar Freire, Carlos Barredo and Luis Leon Sanchez, who were nearby for an after dinner coffee. Some traditions hold true, whether you’re Dutch or not, and even more so on the eve of the city, and the country’s, biggest cycling event.
A few blocks off the Vritjhof, in the direction of Maastricht University, is the Tongerseweg, another street lined with a classy blend of restaurants. Stepping through the doors of Mes Amis, one is always greeted by the owner and sommelier, Annaline Doelen. The wine themed restaurant, which was awarded the best in Maastricht, offers haute cuisine in French fashion in a modern, hip dining room that is typical of the newer breed of restaurants in Holland.
Roland van Laarschot is the head chef, and his attention to detail underlines his understanding of truly great French cuisine. With each course artfully paired with Annaline’s personal wine selections, the pairings are as perfect a match as the ambience is with the personalized service that sets Mes Amis above the rest. Roland’s version of carpaccio, for instance, is dressed with a truffle oil, and is paired nicely with a Chateau Panis from Corbieres in southwestern France. As a carnivore, it’s difficult to turn away from the lamb fillet, a traditional dish that is topped with a creative honey and thyme sauce and paired with a robust sangiovese from Tuscany. Van Lardschot’s artful presentations are not too much, just simply well thought out to enliven the visual senses before tempting the olfactory senses.
On the eve of the Amstel Gold Race, when the Rabobank team and the others are sound asleep after eating in their hotels, the city of Maastricht continues to bustle with the anticipation of race day, while remaining fully in the moment of enjoying the best food in Holland. If it’s kept a New Yorker coming back eight years running, then there is certainly something to the traditions and innovations of Dutch lifestyle in this tiny part of the country.
• Peter Easton is hard at work bringing a unique perspective to the world of bicycle travel. Savor the experience on the roads of Europe with Velo Classic Tours by contacting Peter at 212-779-9599 or www.VeloClassic.com