lamb, curry, cream; living and cooking in amsterdam

Our kitchen in our third-floor Amsterdam apartment looked out on a wide, flat roof under which the ambulances of the city were parked. The white-blue Chevy Van ambulances would hoot their jolly Dutch warning melody (a 4-6 chord c-a-f-a) into our living room whenever they roared and squeaked out of their cave. This experience belonged to the front of the house. The roof at the back was owned by the cats and usually relatively quiet. Cats have a mind of their own. They would howl at nights, chase the gulls, fall off balconies with astonished faces, but they refused to touch the rat while it was fresh, that had experienced a major roof-climbing mishap. Legs asplay, it first slowly increased in diameter for a week or so, and then needed a whole summer to vanish. Looking out while doing the dishes or chopping onions was, in other words, an exercise in selectivity.

Another gourmet-discouraging factor of living in that particular house in the mid-eighties was the small Kroketten factory downstairs (look here, if you wonder about Dutch Kroketten). The company was run by the son of the house owner, a short, balding guy in his mid-forties in blue work pants and a white-and-blue striped shirt, who had the knack of looking completely inconspicuous. Quite a neat trick for someone who chops a lot of meat and makes food out of garbage. His sidekick was a huge man in a battered leather apron with a small, sun-tanned head and eyes of a startling translucent green – I never met him after nightfall, and that is probably why I haven’t become a Kroket myself. These gentlemen arrived every workday at five thirty with a solid clang of the heavy iron entrance door. Their job was to boil cheap soup meat, mix spices and chemicals, store leftovers for a few days too many and make Kroketten for an unknown market. Our apartment, our books, our harpsichords and our clothes smelled of cheap soup, taste enhancers and too-old bones.

This was the time when I got a cookbook by Paul Bocuse as a present and defiantly started buying outrageously expensive butter sticks and chickens from France, found a source for Italian Farina OO for handmade pasta, walked through half the city to a tiny cheese factory for some Dutch-Italian handmade cheese, or in the other direction to the most expensive butcher for entrecotes, and started a collection of high-end Bordeaux wines (all gone – even the Pauillac from 1976 that today could buy me a new Volvo).

One evening, I made lamb curry with apples (Paul Bocuse La Cuisine du Marché, German translation, p. 215). He browns 1.5 kg of lamb in large cubes together with 2 tablespoons or so of curry powder and some chopped onion in butter, adds first some flour and then a few French herbs and water, moves everything into the oven to create a 2 1/2 hours stew, selects the nice bits of meat, pours the sauce through a strainer, takes off the fat, reduces it by a third, adds a healthy dash of crème fraîche and finally adds apples and bananas that have been separately cooked in butter.

The result does not belong to any tradition in particular, but is heavenly nevertheless. Also, the straining, selecting and removing of one kind of fat only to add the other one makes you feel like you’re doing real quality work. I still have to experiment with different kinds of curry powder – maybe I ought to make my own mix: apart from the touristic touch of the apples and bananas, this lamb stew should perhaps not be too mellow.

Mellow or not, on that day the fumes from my stew managed to shove the stale kroketten-vapour out of the door. I put on some background piano music (Schumann’s Humoresque in the earlier of Valdimir Ashkenazy’s two recordings), fetched the plates, opened the wine; and then a pipe in the locked, empty, unheated room above one of the harpsichords burst and let down a brownish rain of cold water. We carried the harpsichord out of the room. I silenced Ashkenazy. I went upstairs, kicked through the door and tried to bend the lead pipe to stop the water flow. That didn’t work as well as tying together another part of the water line that, for reasons of its own, had been replaced by a bit of garden hose. We called the house owner, started wiping and finally we had cold lamb curry á la Bocuse, while outside the ambulances were hooting as always.

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