Thursday, 26 April 2012

Apples of Amsterdam

A few weeks ago, I took a little trip to Amsterdam, zipping in on a British Airways flight (I forgot how awesome it is to fly an airline that gives you free drinks! And allocated seats.....).

Being on a bit of a savings jaunt at the moment, we thought we'd be clever, innovative, go back to our inner-backpacker selves, and stay at a camping ground in Amsterdam. Don't worry, I'm not crazy enough to actually camp on a city break weekend in March, but we did rent a cabin, or rather, a wagon. By the time we arrived at the central station from the airport, it was fast approaching midnight. We managed to find the right tram quickly - and luckily - because it must have been the last one that night. The tram whizzed along for about ten minutes, and we alighted (British transport word I seem to have picked up) in the middle of some suburb. Desperately trying to follow the directions to this camp, in the dark, with our wheely bags, we passed by waterways, hippy commune trailer parks, old abandoned cars - anything but a camping ground. Of course I was completely calm and chilled out about it all, I didn't start to panic, as we wheeled along the gravelly road at 1am, in between two canals, a motorway above us. I didn't start to think "If we can't find this place, where the hell are we going to sleep tonight?". Nope, perfectly calm. Thank goodness my calm attitude managed to last until we finally did find this mysterious camping ground between canals and lakes and rivers under the motorway. Phew. My British Airways G&T was starting to wear thin.

And yet, the test to my zen did not end there. We found our wagon, conveniently down near the lake, in damp two-degree evening chill. And we found that the wagon, I had neglected to note at time of booking, did not have a nice luxurious double bed with crisp white Egyptian cotton sheets. It had bunks, with very damp-feeling linen, reeking of the Netherland's infamous decriminalised plant. So it was that we spent a freezing night, underneath two duvets, plus a sleeping bag that we had the foresight to bring, squashed into one bunk for warmth. Is this what they call glamping?

The next morning, after a pleasant night's sleep, we took the tram into the city, immediately struck by what a charming city it was. And I had just one thing on my mind - nope, it was not sex (Amsterdam being famous for it's red light district 'window girls'), and nope it was not that plant either. It was apple cake. You see, the Dutch are well known for their apple cake (which not everyone seems to know actually - when I mentioned this to colleagues they gave me a little smirk and said "Oh... right... apple cake... uh-huh"). Anyway, prior to this trip, I consulted another apple cake fan who had spent some time in Amsterdam, for advice on the best apple cake to be found in this watery city.

The first recommendation was Villa Zeezicht, Torensteeg 7, not far from the Damrak. We were warmly greeted in the packed cafe, and shown to a table, where we ordered appeltaart with cream €5, and coffee. The appeltaart came in a huge wedge, with a thin, buttery crust, crammed full with sweet and tart, cinnamon-y apple. Served up still warm, with pillows of fresh cream. Apple heaven.

I'm a firm believer of when in Rome... so it was that we found ourselves in a 'coffee shop'. Coffee shop has a completely different meaning in Amsterdam to anywhere else in the world; it's not the kind of coffee shop you'd take your kids to on a Sunday for a fluffy. The sight of the bar-tender (barista?) casually pulling out ice cream containers full of fat crusty-looking heads of marijuana, or using a plastic chopping board and a kitchen knife to chop up chunks of hash, is quite honestly one of the most bizarre experiences I've ever had. It just felt so odd. I'd never seen so much marijuana in one place at one time. I found that the coffee shop was already so full of thick murky haze, that I didn't even need to smoke any of the neatly packaged spliff.

Later, that evening, after much walking amongst pretty canals and leaning, wonky buildings, I was extremely happy to find Dutch tiramisu. This was in a little takeaway pizza place, da Portare Via, on Leliegracht 34. Whipped, fluffy mascarpone, not too sweet and good balance of bitter and creamy with lots of cocoa on the top. And an ingenious little trick of a double cocoa layer - a thick layer over the sugar-topped savoiardi that gelled together to make a sweet chocolate sauce. Brilliant! Only €5, pizza looked fantastic, I was just so excited to have found tiramisu in Amsterdam.

Another excellent discovery that evening was Wynand Fockink, on Pijlsteeg 31. Distilling spirits since 1679, you can feel the years of drinking the flavoured liquors in the creaky wooden floorboards, dusty Dutch drinking memorabilia, and shelves aching under the weight of a hundred different flavoured bottles. Our favourites were the sloe gin and the lemon. Delicious nightcap.

The following day, we turned our attention to the second appeltaart recommendation; Winkel, on Winkel 43. Now if you google "best apple cake in Amsterdam", or consult any guide book, it will probably direct you here. I didn't want to like this place - it was too well-known, too typical. Inside, the decor was boring compared to the intimate atmosphere of Villa Zeezicht; plain wooden tables, forgettable grey walls, inattentive staff. We ordered cake with cream each, €10.80 for two. The appeltaart arrived and wiped away any reservations I had about the place. It was absolutely incredible, tart apples, lots of cinnamon, and sweet cakey pastry. I hate to agree with the guide books, but this is definitely the best apple cake ever.

If you visit Amsterdam, I urge you to visit both Villa Zeezicht - for the lovely romantic charm and good appeltaart, and Winkel - for the best appeltaart you will ever have in your life.

And so it was, in Amsterdam, that I found a new love. Appeltaart.  I might have to change this blog to "Love and Appeltaart", sounds pretty good I reckon.

This weekend, I am thinking about trying to make an appeltaart of my own; so watch this space.


  1. A very entertaining read!

  2. I loooove Villa Zeezicht. Used to go when I was at Uni in Amsterdam and literally just sent my parents there. I want a slice of that pie right now!!!

    1. I haven't been for a few years now, even though I now live in the Netherlands! Will add it to my list for next Amsterdam trip, better see if their appeltaart is still any good.....


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