Sunday, October 31, 2010

Meet the Oliebollen

There were a few Halloween posters in pub windows on our way to the city tourist office yesterday to see what kind of scary things would be going on in Alkmaar for Halloween.    We had seen some interest in the holiday at our children's school, but that turned out to be because of its international enrollment.

When asked about Halloween activities in the city, the answer was,“Oh, we don’t do that here in Holland,” from a tourist office employee who did not want to be identified because they were not authorized to speak about pagan holidays.  However, I've learned that there is something similar coming for the kids coming on St. Martin’s holiday on November 11 when children take to the streets with lanterns singing songs for treats.

With no Halloween celebrations now in sight, I stopped along with two kids at a local bakery to get something to drink. My timing was good but I didn't know it. The pleasant ladies behind the counter had placed 3 baseball-sized pastry balls for us to take as samples as we were leaving.  Ok, thanks and nice but no huge deal I thought as we stepped outside.  One bite into the gooey, yet semi-fluffy and very tasty Dutch doughnut made me curious what it was.

They are the oliebollen - plural for the oliebol - deep fried pastry balls made from flour, cinnamon, apple and sometimes beer.  Served with a dusting of powdered sugar, oliebollen are eaten from the beginning of November to the end of the year, and are popular items to carry when the Dutch are visiting on New Year’s Eve.   This was a fun find in a land that is not famous for its culinary enthusiasm.

 “We make them now and give them out for free so people can taste and see how good they are.  Then at the end of the year they buy them,” said Hein Beerse, owner of Beerse Brood and Banket in Alkmaar.

I asked if there was a superstition of prosperity or health linked to them.  I was thinking about the Southern U.S. tradition of eating hog jowl and black-eyed peas on New Years Day for good luck.  “No, it’s just a habit,” was the reply.  The rest of our group with seven children soon joined us at the bakery and devoured their samples.

Just down the street near the Alkmaar train station was a stand selling the oliebollen.  A group of five well-dressed Dutch men in their thirties were buying a bag, and I began to wonder if the doughnut balls become part of the party.  I’m thinking that Americans might start throwing the baseball looking doughnuts if they were around at a New Year’s party.  Several beers and baseball doughnuts?  You bet that sounds like a good time!

But “no,” the oliebollen customers cautioned me, “they are only to eat.”  Well I guess that sounds normal enough.  I continued by asking one of our Dutch neighbors about them and she confirmed that no such horseplay exists. 

After a few minutes of Web search, I did find something unexpected about the oliebollen on Wikipedia.  “They are said to have been first eaten by Germanic tribes in the Netherlands during the Yule, the period between December 26 and January 6. The Germanic goddess Perchta, together with evil spirits, would fly through the mid-winter sky. It was said Perchta would try to cut open the bellies of all she came across, but because of the fat in the oliebollen, her sword would slide off the body of whoever ate them.

Wow! Damn right I’m going to eat some oliebollen. They taste great and protect from disembowelment.  Maybe the tribes threw the oliebollen at the flying spirits?  Probably not, but I’m still trying to frame it in an American holiday atmosphere with alcohol spirits present instead.

Do try some of these Dutch doughnuts when in the Netherlands at the end of the year.  And of course there are recipes online.  Please let me know if anyone has an unusual oliebollen story.  I know that one is out there.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

What is an Alkmaar?

The city of Alkmaar  sits 40km NNW of Amsterdam and is reachable with a 30 – 40 minute car or train ride.  Its town charter was granted in 1254 and the city became known in 1573 by a turning point battle against the Spanish where “the city used boiling tar and burning branches thrown from its new city walls”  to repel the attackers.  A parade of hundreds of children carrying lanterns passed near our house  during the annual celebrations on October 8th.

That’s maybe the best tourism slogan I’ve heard, and tourists in the old city center can’t seem to get enough of  the cheese market on Fridays from April to September (baseball season?) where the old style cheese carriers and weighing masters keep the tradition.  And maybe it’s a good thing that Expatica states that the Dutch have the “lowest incidence of lactose intolerance in the world,” because Dutch cheeses can stand toe-to-toe with French counterparts.
The cheese weighing house in Alkmaar goes back to the middle of the 14th century, and then became more prominent in the late 16th century as Alkmaar was enjoying its national hero status for sending the Spanish into retreat.  And the cheese museum sits like a large cow in the middle of the city center with the tourist office inside.

Alkmaar is sometimes called a mini-Amsterdam,  and  several canals that run through the city center and the larger North Holland Canal that wraps around the center (centrum) to make it an island of its own.   And instead of an entire red light district, there’s one street, Achterdam, that has windows with working women selling their mojo.  Oh, and this is just around the corner from the cheese museum, but I haven’t seen an impact or spillover to the surrounding areas.

There are also several coffeeshops rolled into the city.  For any who might not know, coffeeshops sell marijuana to be consumed on the premises or for carry out.  Although there usually seems to be customers inside the coffeshops here, it’s not the ‘party till you puke’ atmosphere like the tourist districts of Amsterdam.

In addition to the cheese museum, there is a beer museum, a Beatles museum and frequent outdoor markets.  Of course I appreciate cheese and music, but the beer museum is high on my list of places to visit.  Maybe I can get more on that soon.

And yes, there’s nightlife in the row of pubs line up behind the cheese museum and several others are within stumbling distance.  Pushing and shoving goes unnoticed as twenty to thirty something customers jockey for a spot to drink  Heineken in the crowded pubs on the weekends.

So Alkmaar is a lively, but not overwhelming small city of about 94,000 with an interesting old center.   It seems we have two police officers in the city center, a man and a very tall woman, who often stroll about and are happy to answer questions.  Doors are normally locked, but it doesn’t seem to be a big deal if one is left open for a bit.  The people here often say hello to strangers in the street and are not usually in a big hurry. 


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Weather So Far

Double rainbow in Amsterdam last Sunday.
 The weather in the Netherlands “is pleasant throughout the year. Stretching out over a mostly flat landscape of reclaimed land, the charming country of tulips, windmills and bicycles experiences mild and maritime climate.” <>  Sounds pretty good, huh? 

We are often asked the question, “What brought you to Holland?”   My wife likes to quip, “the weather!”  This response often draws a laugh or sneer as many locals regard the weather as a bit dismal; cold and always prone to rain. 

So far I’ve been mildly sunburned while playing with our kids in the park, and I’ve had to change wet clothes three or more times in a day – even with some rain gear – after being soaked on my bicycle about town.  The fun thing is that this can all happen in the same afternoon.

Alkmaar is only about 10 kilometers from the North Sea shore.  I can walk out our front door to a blast of sunshine, while a heavy dark cloud can be approaching from behind to dump about 4 and-a-half minutes of rain on our back garden.  Sure we get the occasional high or low pressure system that will  bring sun or rain consistently until it’s nudged along by the North Sea forces, but it’s interesting how often there will be a mixed bag of conditions in a short period of time. 

One instance was biking last week under a pea-sized hailstorm while being able to see blue sky and sun not far away.  Growing up in Mississippi we used to say that when it’s raining and sun shining at the same time, that the Devil is beating his wife.  I suppose a hail storm and sun would mean that the Devil has progressed to knocking his Mrs. around with a baseball bat. 

Alkmaar at sunrise
All that considered, when it’s sunny and nice here, it’s something to see.  The colors  of the landscapes and cityscapes bolt out like a scene from a Van Gogh canvas.  Maybe that sounds a bit like a tourism commerical, but others I’ve spoken with agree that “when it’s good, it’s really good here.”   Maybe it’s no coincidence that our decision to move over here was taken while sitting along a canal in Amsterdam under the hot June sun.  That’s really no mystery.

It has been a small meteorological adjustment to North Holland after living in Paris.  While not famous for it’s beautiful weather – except maybe Springtime – Paris offers just a bit warmer average temperatures and more sun.  Paris averages 1800 hours of sun annually compared with 1580 hours in Amsterdam (40 km from Alkmaar).    The annual average rainfall in Paris is 585mm, while it mounts to 776mm in Amsterdam. 

Yes there’s a small difference between the two cities.  But it can be interesting to really put it into perspective when comparing the Amsterdam area weather to somewhere like Nice, in the south of France. I guess the name of the city says a lot while weighing in with 2775 yearly hours of sunshine.  But yes it certainly does rain in Southern France with Nice averaging 862mm of rainfall per year.  It obviously rains harder and faster there than in North Holland, because even though Nice has the most yearly rainfall of the three cities, it has the least number of days with rain annually; 86 rainy days compared to 164 days of rain per year in Paris and 185 days in North Holland. (source:

Average temperature comparisons are perhaps less clear indicators because the best question is “what’s the temp now?”  At 16h30 today, the numbers come on weigh in at:
Alkmaar:  12.2 celsius  (9.7 C average annual temp - Amsterdam)
Paris:  13.8 C  (11.5 C average annual temp)
Nice : 17.2 C (15.0 C average annual temp)

Back in my former U.S. home city of Orlando, Florida : 26.7 C  --- with 1221 mm annual pecip. in Orlando.  (Mornings/early afternoons there are hot and humid, then thunderstorms roll in almost daily around 16h00 and dump a lake's worth of rain on the area.  Evenings are often less humid and cooler.)  Avg. annual Orlando temp. 22.8 C

So what’s the final opinion?  So far the weather here is not so bad if you don’t mind occasional showers, and its even often downright picturesque.  But be sure to bring the all-weather gear when headed this way.   Locals are warning of the coming winter and speak often about ice-skating on the canals when they freeze over.  I believe them when they say the canals freeze, but so far that doesn’t seem to fit with the temp data I’ve seen. 

I’ll keep an eye on the canals this winter and will be sure to update when I see Tonya Harding doing figure 8’s on the canal in front of our house.  By the way, I think the Devil would need more than a baseball bat to have a chance against a Mrs. like her.


Batter Up

We woke up last August to find ourselves in Alkmaar,
Netherlands  After spending ten years in Paris, it seemed like a small hop over to the neighboring EU state.  Many things have indeed gone smoothly and some other things have circled around the house several times before finding the key to open the door.   What brought us here?  What's it like compared to the French life?  How does this country - or at least this area - look similar to the United States? 

This is the lead off entry for the Luna North Holland blog.  I'll look at the culture, daily life, tourist spots, business, nature interests and family aspects of living in the Netherlands. The country is small, but seems to pack a lot into its place on the globe.   And of course my ex-pat view on this region is hard to escape.  I've lived as a foreigner in France for the last decade and it continues here.  Hopefully that perspective will translate into - at least mostly - objective views on the region primarily as seen looking from the outside, but seasoned with local knowledge and opinions.