Every year around the holiday season, my mother used to make bitterballen. These little morsels are a savoury Dutch meat snack that (in our household at least) disappeared faster than Mom could make them.
In the Netherlands, bitterballen are served as bar snacks alongside alcohol. (A direct translation of bitterballen would be “balls to eat with bitters.”) I’ve had tapas in Spain that look exactly like bitterballen but are made with fish. (Which makes me wonder if the Spanish introduced the snack to the Low Countries. You know, back when they were the boss of them between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries?)
Another version of the same Dutch snack in cylinder form are called kroketten (croquettes). These you can buy for a couple of euros in vending machines all over the Netherlands. You can imagine our delight when my brother and sisters and I saw kroketten so readily available on our first ever trip to Holland as kids. Christmas treats in a vending machine!?! How cool was that?
There’s a story behind the first time I made bitterballen myself. I was going to a party hosted by an Italian-Canadian friend of mine where there would be many other Italian-Canadians, and I wanted to bring something special. Now, I have to confess that, as a child of Dutch immigrants, I didn’t always like identifying myself as Dutch-Canadian. I would firmly tell my mother when she insisted I was Dutch that I was not. I was just a plain Canadian. No hyphens, please.
But back to the party. Hanging out with my Italian-Canadian friends had shown me a group of Canadians who completely and firmly embraced their heritage in a way that I had not been comfortable doing. Following their example, I decided it was time for me to embrace my heritage. And so, I brought a plate of bitterballen to the party and proudly placed them on the table beside the cannelloni and tiramisu.
The bitterballen were a hit and I’ve made them every Christmas since, sharing them with my friends of all ethnic origins. I find it ironic that it took a bunch of Italian-Canadians to help me appreciate my Dutchness, but there it is. I’m grateful to them for it.
2 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, chopped
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
2 cups ground cooked meat*
1 1/2 cups grated Gouda cheese**
2 tablespoons water
1 1/2 cups bread crumbs
1. Melt butter in a saucepan.
2. Sauté onion in the butter until soft.
3. Add flour, blend well, and cook for 1 minute.
4. Slowly add the milk. Cook until thickened, stirring constantly.
5. Add parsley, salt, Worcestershire sauce, curry powder, cooked meat, and cheese. Cook for another 5 minutes, then allow mixture to cool.
6. Mix the eggs and water together in a small bowl, and pour the bread crumbs into a second small bowl.
7. Shape the cooled meat mixture into small bite-sized balls about an inch in diameter.
8. Roll the balls in bread crumbs, the egg-and-water mixture, and bread crumbs again. (If you intend to freeze them, use three coats of bread crumbs.) Chill balls for at least an hour.
9. Heat the vegetable oil in a small sauce pan, then fry the bitterballen until golden brown (about 2 minutes). Drain on paper towels, and serve with your favourite mustard for dipping.
*Ground roast beef is traditional, but use whatever type of meat or seafood you fancy. My mother used ground beef because there was rarely leftover roast beef in our home, and I do the same.
**Mom didn’t add Gouda cheese, but the recipe I use does and I like the flavour. The cheese also gives the meat mixture a firmer consistency for rolling.
***I find I usually need more than 2 eggs. Simply add another egg and tablespoon of water to the bowl as needed.
Last night was one night I regretted showing up late to the party. Monk McQueens at Stamps Landing on the south side of False Creek has been a Vancouver landmark ever since it opened during Expo 86. And yet, I’d never been. The announcement that it was shutting its doors for the last time on December 31 of this year was what finally motivated me to experience this famous fresh seafood and oyster bar for myself.
I made an occasion of it by reserving a table for the same night a friend from Boston was going to be in town. And so, five of us gathered last night to enjoy a leisurely dinner and a bit of a catch-up. Our table in one of the corner windows gave us a terrific view of False Creek.
The food was delicious. My Bostonian friend and I shared a half dozen oysters on the half shell. For our mains, our party of five sampled almost every type of seafood on the menu: halibut, sea bass, sablefish, lobster, and scallops. We washed it all down with a very nice bottle of wine, and finished with coffee, brown sugar vanilla bean cheesecake, and Calvados. I can’t think of a nicer way to spend four hours with good friends on one of the last nights of the year.
Mahony & Sons Public House is moving in after Monk’s vacates the premises and will open sometime next summer. As much as I enjoy a good public house, it won’t be the same. Last night was proof that just because an establishment has been around since the Dark Ages (aka the 1980s) doesn’t mean it should be taken for granted. Pity I did.
A co-worker of mine went to the Czech Republic earlier this month. When I found out where she was going for her holidays, my eyes lit up.
“The Czech Republic?!” I said. “Are you going to the Christmas markets?”
She smiled. “Of course!” she said.
She explained that the main purpose of the trip was to visit her grandmother who lived somewhere out in the Czech countryside, but her family also had plans to stop off in Prague, and were going to make a special trip to Nuremberg, Germany, just to see its Christmas market.
Christmas markets have been around since the Middle Ages. They are common throughout Western Europe and are especially prevalent in Central Europe. In recent years, they’ve been popping up all over England and North America, too. Common elements include chalet-like stalls set up in town squares, which sell handicrafts, toys, Christmas ornaments, lots of tasty treats, and the ubiquitous Glühwein (mulled wine).
I can’t remember when or where I first heard of Christmas markets, but a couple of years ago when I knew I would be spending the winter in Paris, I was determined to experience as many as I could.
The first Christmas market I came across that winter was unexpected, as it was mid-November and Christmas was far from my mind. I was in Seville, Spain. The market was in the square near the massive cathedral, and contained stall after stall selling wooden nativities. The nativities were works of art, truly. Each figure was sold separately and cost far more euros than I had to spend.
In Madrid, the Christmas market in Plaza Mayor dates back to 1860. It too was filled with stalls selling wooden nativity figures.
Steps away from Plaza Mayor, I stumbled across a smaller market in Plaza Santa Cruz with a more light-hearted carnival atmosphere. Its stalls were selling costumes, wigs, and accessories for Dia de los Santos Inocentes on December 28. (This is the Spanish equivalent to our April Fool’s Day, though its origins are rather sombre: the day commemorates the massacres of the “Holy Innocents” ― the children murdered by Herod in his search for the newborn king the wise men had told him about.)
In Paris, there are Marchés de Noël in almost every arrondissement. I made it to three. The market at Trocadéro is probably the most picturesque as it’s situated across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. It also has a popular skating rink.
Saint-Germain-des-Prés is a much smaller market, with stalls nestled along Boulevard Saint-Germain and around the church of Saint-Germain-des- Prés.
The market along Avenue des Champs-Elysées is massive, and runs all the way from the giant Ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde to the Franklin D. Roosevelt métro station. It consists of several blocks of stalls selling vin chaud, crêpes, chocolate, sausages, and all sorts of handicrafts. Every block or so there was a heater where you could warm your hands. We walked the entire length of this market on Christmas Eve.
Although Paris is a magical time to be in December, the Christmas markets I was most excited about seeing were in the Czech Republic. I was thrilled to see the Old Town Square of Prague once again, but I could never have imagined how pretty it would look at Christmastime.
The lights were impressive, and there was an enormous Christmas tree as well as a nativity, a stage where children were singing Christmas carols, and hundreds of red-roofed stalls selling food and toys and ornaments.
I enjoyed a trdelník ― a sweet pastry baked over hot coals and sprinkled with sugar and nuts ― and later a massive slab of spit-roasted ham. To keep warm, I bought mug after mug of Glühwein ― in Czech, it’s called svařené víno. There was another, smaller market in Prague’s Wenceslas Square with much of the same, although not as prettily lit.
The next day, I travelled to Český Krumlov. Its small, intimate Christmas market had the feeling of a neighbourhood bazaar, with local artisans selling their handiwork, and the local school putting on a Christmas concert after dark.
I don’t know if I will ever make it to Nuremberg, the granddaddy of all Christmas markets ― my co-worker said there were over 200 stalls there ― but, even so, seeing the Spanish, French, and Czech Christmas markets was something already. If you need an excuse to visit Europe in December (seriously? who ever needs an excuse to go to Europe?), I highly recommend going for the Christmas markets.
Yup. It’s been a year. That’s 89 posts posted, 282 photos uploaded, and who knows how many words written.
To celebrate, I’ve bought the domain for thereandbackagain.ca. If my tech skills are any good, you all should be able to find me there within a day or two. (The old address will continue to work, but traffic will automatically be redirected to the new address.)
And if I can just say this for the record: I had no idea when I started this blog and picked the name There and Back Again that Peter Jackson was intending to release his first Hobbit film the same weekend I’d be celebrating my first blogiversary. All I can say is: very odd coincidence, that.
After a year, however, I can also say that I still like the name very much, despite the teasing from a friend who, a few days after my first post a year ago, looked at it on his iPhone and said to me, “You started a blog about hobbits??”
The name There and Back Again suits what I envisioned this blog to be: a place to post photos and tell stories about my adventures while off on walkabout, but to also show off my town to anyone on the Interweb who’s considering a visit to Vancouver. It’s a beautiful world out there, and it’s a beautiful city right here.
So, here’s to a year of blogging. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey as much as I have. Stay tuned: there are lots more photos and stories to come.
Every once in a while, this time of year, the rain stops for a day, and you get a peek at what all that precipitation has done to the local mountains. I took this photo two days ago.
I’m always glad to see the back side of November. I know, I know ― it’s a miserable month everywhere in Canada, not just here, but for some reason, out of all the places in Canada (and elsewhere) I’ve wintered, I find Vancouver’s Novembers the hardest to get through. Which is pretty ironic given the Lower Mainland’s nickname: “The Tropics of Canada.”
As soon as I flip the calendar over on the morning of December 1st (metaphorically speaking, of course, since I don’t actually have a wall calendar anymore), I feel so much better. December is when I shake off my November blues, and realize that the city has put on its glad rags when I wasn’t looking. Even the Scroogiest of Scrooges cannot help but feel a little festive.
Here’s an example: Robson Square. I’ve loved its light displays since my first ever office job in downtown Vancouver as a fresh university grad, when I would wander through the square after dark on my way to catch the bus home. The ice rink ― shut down for many years ― was refurbished for the 2010 Olympics, and has been open every winter since.