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Jul 20 14

Op de Tuin restaurant Amsterdam

by maxineclayman

Dine al fresco at Op De Tuin restaurant (the garden restaurant) Amsterdam

I’ve been wanting to go to the Op de Tuin restaurant in Amsterdam for ages. But I’d been waiting for a sunny day so we could dine outside at the Op de Tuin restaurant (it has a cute little outdoor area). With the recent heatwave it seemed like there was no time like the present to check it out, although typically the day we went to eat there the weather didn’t hold out.

Op de Tuin restaurant Amsterdam

Op de Tuin restaurant Amsterdam

Op de Tuin Amsterdam is definitely an Amsterdam hidden gem. Tucked away in a little street in De Pijp Op de Tuin restaurant has a distinct neighbourhood restaurant feel about it. Our waiter who I have a feeling may also have been the owner asked how we’d heard about Op de Tuin, as if surprised we’d wandered off the beaten track.

Op de Tuin restaurant Amsterdam starter

Sharps’ starter of guinea fowl pate

To whet our appetite a dish of creamy beetroot hummous arrived, served with crusty bread. This gave us time to deliberate over the menu. Op de Tuin means garden and this Amsterdam hidden gem tries wherever possible to use organic ingredients. The menu at the Op de Tuin restaurant changes each month to try and keep dishes seasonal and as fresh as possible.

Op de Tuin restaurant Amsterdam fish starter

Where possible, Op de Tuin restaurant uses organic ingredients

Sharps decided on the set menu, three courses for €29.50. As I’m not a fan of pastry (the vegetarian main dish was curried vegetables in puff pastry with goat’s cheese) I ordered off the main menu. Up first was my starter. Warm mackerel was marinated in five spices and citrus in a kind of sweet and sour sauce, served with cold pickled cabbage. There were no complaints from me. Sharps’ starter from the set menu was guinea fowl paté with onions and date bread that Sharps said almost tasted a bit like Branston pickle.

Op de Tuin restaurant Amsterdam fish main

My fish main

I’d chosen fish again for my main course. A huge hunk of soft cod topped with a parsley and anchovy crust, on a bed of garlic and saffron mash with cherry tomatoes, capers and pickled cauliflower. Again the combination of sweet and sour hit just the right note.

Op de Tuin restaurant Amsterdam set menu main

Posh KFC? at the Op de Tuin restaurant Amsterdam

Sharps’ dish was slightly less dainty. His poisson stuffed with clove sausage and barley, served with blackened carrots and lime butter sauce was a massive bird. He’d also ordered fries on the side so in effect it was a bit like a posh KFC.

Op de Tuin restaurant Amsterdam dessert

Trifle which was more like a boozy cheesecake

I decided to skip dessert. Sharps’ trifle of cookies, mascarpone with Sambuca and raspberries looked, and tasted, more like a very alcoholic cheesecake. The aniseed flavour of the Sambucca was quite strong.

Op de Tuin restaurant De Pijp Amsterdam

Op de Tuin restaurant from the inside

The service at the Op de Tuin restaurant Amsterdam was friendly and relaxed with not a tourist in sight. There was an older vibe to the place, with lots of couples and over 40′s enjoying a casual, local evening out. I’ll definitely be paying another visit to Amsterdam’s Op de Tuin restaurant. You never know, next time we might even make it out into the garden.

Jul 13 14

Alkmaar cheese market in Holland

by maxineclayman

Say cheese and pose for a picture at Alkmaar cheese market, the biggest cheese market in the Netherlands

I love cheese, usually the stronger the better, so on a recent visit to the Netherlands  I felt I was long overdue a visit to Alkmaar cheese market in Holland. A whopping 26,000 kg of cheese is weighed out and sent off to be sold every week at Alkmaar, I’m told making Alkmaar is the biggest cheese market in the  Netherlands, if not the world.

Gouda at Alkmaar cheese market

Say cheese, at Alkmaar cheese market

The biggest cheese market in Holland, and also the oldest cheese market in Holland, began in Alkmaar in 1539. Today Alkmaar cheese market is pretty much run for tourists, it’s Alkmaar’s most famous attraction. But don’t let that put you off checking it out as it’s still fun to watch men and women dressed up in traditional Dutch costume racing around with cheese.

Alkmaar cheese

Alkmaar cheese market

Alkmaar cheese market isn’t year-round. Starting each year in April, it’s held every Friday at Waagplein (the main square) and runs until early September. The action kicks off at 10am when a bell is rung to signify the opening of the market and then the fun begins. First the price of the Gouda is decided per kilo so when the whole cheese is put onto the scales people know how many kilos worth they’re buying.

Weighing cheese at Alkmaar

Weighing cheese at Alkmaar

Each lot of cheese is weighed on a set of scales inside the weighing house. Once it’s been weighed a pair of sturdy men, dressed in traditional costume, pick up the cheese in something resembling a wooden sledge and take it off to be loaded up into waiting carts. I was surprised at just how spritely these guys are. They run pretty fast with the cheese, possibly because it’s so heavy they don’t want to hang around with it. I had to dodge out of the way quite a few times to avoid getting mowed down by them!

Cheese run at Alkmaar

And they’re off…

Once the cheese is loaded onto the carts the men pick up a new load of Gouda and run back with it to the weighing house to start the process all over again. There are quite a few pairs of men, making their cheese relay races a real spectacle to experience. The cheese on the carts is then ready to be distributed and sold throughout the country. As you might expect the Netherlands used to be home to 120 big cheese factories. Now only two now remain.

Cheese ready for sale Alkmaar

The cheese is ready to be carted off

To make sure the cheese is of the highest quality there are inspectors who go round and check it. They told me that the outside of the cheese should have no stripes or irregularities on it. To see if the inside is up to scratch they make a hole and pull out a piece of cheese to verify the taste, texture and consistency as there shouldn’t be too many holes in the middle of a Gouda.

Cheese inspection Alkmaar

Gouda being inspected at Alkmaar cheese market

I’d read people complaining on TripAdvisor that the Alkmaar cheese market gets really rammed and it’s so busy you end up getting crushed or can’t see anything. I was lucky enough to be allowed inside the main area by the tourist board to take pictures but when we were there everyone in the crowd outside seemed quite content. I didn’t see any pushing or shoving and people all seemed to have decent views of the cheese market in action. We did get there quite early though so if you are concerned about being able to see it’s probably worth getting there before 10am to try and get a prime spot. Another alternative is to go as part of a group or tour. It may cost you a bit more but it does guarantee you access inside the barrier which will give you an advantage when it comes to taking photos (as you can see from my pics here).

Alkmaar cheese stalls

Cheesetastic stalls on market day in Alkmaar

Alkmaar cheese market runs from 10am to 12.30pm and if seeing all of the cheese whets your appetite there’s plenty of Dutch cheese available for sale to take home with you. Lining the square are numerous food stalls, many of which sell a selection of weird and wonderful flavoured cheeses. These include everything from nettle cheese to mustard cheese, ginger cheese, wasabi cheese and various herb cheeses.

Unusual cheese flavours at Alkmaar

Nettle flavour cheese?

Located just beside the cheese market, Alkmaar is also home to the Dutch cheese museum. Here you can learn all about how cheese is made and there are rooms that contain cheese memorabilia. It’s also worth noting that the cheese on display isn’t real – so don’t try to eat it.

Heeren van Sonoy restaurant Alkmaar

Looking down on the Hof van Sonoy restaurant’s courtyard

Seeing all that cheese definitely made me hungry so we decided to stop for lunch at a lovely cafe/ restaurant called Hof van Sonoy. A former convent, this Alkmaar restaurant has a large courtyard and while the lunch menu is pretty basic (sandwiches, soup and eggs in different forms) it’s a great place to sit and chill out on a sunny day. I’d read that you can climb up the imposing tower of the Hof van Sonoy. A quick check with our waiter confirmed this so we headed up its spiral staircase for views looking out across Alkmaar. It’s also possible to hire out the tower for an exclusive private dining experience too.

Alkmaar's canals

Wander along Alkmaar’s canals

The city of Alkmaar itself is worth a visit. Easily accessible from Amsterdam (it’s about 30 mins on the train) you can happily spend a day wandering along its canals, soaking up Alkmaar’s relaxed atmosphere. And it’s surprisingly good for shopping too. The Alkmaar tourist board has a walking tour (€2.50) you can pick up from the tourist information office (or I believe you can also download an app) that includes some Alkmaar hidden gems along with the history of Alkmaar’s main monuments and points of interest.

Alkmaar windmill

You can even spot a windmill in Alkmaar

A trip to Holland wouldn’t be complete without the sighting of a windmill and Alkmaar is no exception. You can find a windmill along the river bank close to the city centre. Cheesy it may be but a visit to Alkmaar cheese market and the city of Alkmaar is one of Holland’s hidden gems and makes for an interesting side trip from Amsterdam.

Jul 6 14

Grenache restaurant Manchester

by maxineclayman

I’d seen Grenache restaurant bandied about in various lists of Manchester’s best restaurants. Grenache restaurant is located off the beaten track in Walkden (close to Salford). To be honest, other than Grenache restaurant there really isn’t much reason to go there. Sadly I was only in the area because I was visiting my mum down the road in St Ann’s Hospice in Little Hulton.

Grenache restaurant Walkden Manchester

The best lamb in the world? at Grenache restaurant Manchester

I’m glad I called to book a table as it was a Saturday night and Grenache restaurant was fully booked. Our table for two was located right by the bar. As soon as we sat down one of the owners, Lindsey, came over. She was very helpful, without being too in your face. Lindsey talked us through the house wines, explaining that she had chosen them because she wanted to have a nice house wine even though it cost her more to buy it. She also noticed we had a wonky table and sent someone over to sort it out straight away.

Grenache restaurant Walkden Manchester starter

Sweet scallops with Bury black pudding

What I liked about Grenache restaurant was that despite it being one of Manchester’s best restaurants there was no pomp or ceremony. The inside of Grenache restaurant reminded me of someone’s house. It felt as if we were sitting in the front room in this cosy neighbourhood restaurant and the tables on the other side of the space, which was quite separate, was the dining room. The rooms were divided by a flight of wooden stairs by the entrance that led upstairs to a bar.

Grenache restaurant Walkden Manchester signature dish

Grilled mackerel with cheese, beetroot and orange was a pleasant surprise

The waiting staff were friendly and accommodating. When I explained that I don’t eat meat or shellfish they checked with the chef and said they could make a special sauce, without chorizo, to accompany my cod. I was told it may affect the balance of flavours in the dishes. I was prepared to take the risk. The other owner also came over to our table to apologise for the delay in service and gave us an ETA of when we could expect our starters.

Grenache restaurant Walkden Manchester dessert

Make sure you leave room for dessert at Grenache restaurant Manchester

Fortunately in the interim we had been sidetracked by an amuse-bouche of a vodka martini with lime granita, complete with an olive at the bottom of the glass. I was gutted as I couldn’t eat mine (it had jelly in it) but Sharps delighted in its freshness. I’d opted for the chef’s signature dish of warm mackerel with beetroot, blood orange and goat’s cheese to start. I was in two minds as to whether it sounded  bit odd. But the combination of textures worked well together. The citrusy zest of the orange offset the creaminess of the cheese so it didn’t overpower the sweet slithers of al dente beetroot and warm fish. Sharps went for a tried and tested favourite of scallops. As we were in North Manchester the generous sized portion came with Bury black pudding (which he described as pâté-like in texture), sweet pea shoots and slightly salty parma ham.

Grenache restaurant Manchester

My fish dish, minus the chorizo

My food envy reared its ugly head though when it came to the mains. But to be fair I had been warned. Sharps was presented with two huge slabs of medium-rare lamb, accompanied by a deep, thick, jammy beetroot purée and served with carrots, kale and hotpot potato (a stack of potato kind of a cross between dauphinoise and roast) cooked with meat and rosemary. The owner of Grenache restaurant had boldly declared the potato the star of the plate as well as the locally sourced lamb as being the best in the world. Sharps said it was pretty close.

Grenache restaurant Walkden Manchester outside

Grenache restaurant Manchester

Then came a surprise of a pre-dessert of mini chocolate eclairs. Again I was thwarted as I don’t like cream (or choux pastry) meaning Sharps tucked into both. I can only assume from him closing his eyes, the mming noises and saying ‘naughty but nice’ they were pretty good as they disappeared within seconds. Sharps also managed to fit dessert in at the Grenache restaurant. A chocolate fondant which could easily have been too rich was served with a tangy pineapple sorbet in a crispy sesame seed and sugar case, topped with a pineapple crisp which I could have happily eaten by itself. I wish my visit to Grenache restaurant had been under better circumstances. But its relaxed atmosphere and good food was a more than welcome distraction.

I wouldn’t have ventured to this hidden gem if it hadn’t been so close to St Ann’s Hospice in Little Hulton. I am forever indebted to the staff there for the care and compassion they showed to my mum. But for them to be able to continue helping others they desperately need funding. Here’s how you can make a donation.

Jun 29 14

The best Bed and Breakast in Ghent, Logid’enri

by maxineclayman

How a stay at the Logid’enri, the best Bed and Breakfast in Ghent, Belgium, changed my mind about B&Bs

 

I’ve never been a fan of B&Bs, until a recent stay at the best Bed and Breakfast in Ghent, the Logid’enri that is. There’s something about B&Bs that make me feel like I’m staying in my parents house. It’s all a bit too personal. In effect you’re a guest in someone’s home, I feel like I have to whisper and sneak around with Sharps, and I’ve never felt comfortable with it. Plus there’s the possibility of old-fashioned wallpaper, furniture and sheets and the prospect of having to make forced polite conversation from the well-meaning (but often incessant) owners . So when Visit Flanders who were kindly hosting me on a trip to Belgium told me they had booked me into a B&B I was nervous. Thankfully the Logid’ enri, the best Bed and Breakfast in Ghent, is nothing like I’d imagined and a real Ghent hidden gem.

Best Bed and Breakfast in Ghent Logidenri

The mezzanine room at the best Bed and Breakfast in Ghent

You could easily walk past the best Bed and Breakfast in Ghent without even realising it. The entrance to the Logid’enri is unassuming, a tiny sign on the front of the white door of an old Ghent mansion. Another reason you’d be forgiven for not spotting this Ghent hidden gem is that the Logid’enri is in Ghent’s less than glamorous Red Light District. Yes there are prostitutes in some of the windows as you walk along the street but don’t let that put you off as you’d be missing out. The area reminded me a bit of Soho in London, with a mix of seedy bars and clubs, next to designer furniture and clothes shops, restaurants and cafes. We never felt unsafe walking back at night, or during the daytime. Our host also told us that the local council is looking into prostitution (which is illegal) in the area and there are plans to try and clamp down and stamp it out.

Ghent best bed and breakfast

Besides, once you step through the front door you’re worlds away from the gritty streets. I was surprised by just how chic and modern the interior was. This may have had something to do with the fact that its owners Didi and Natalie are an architect and an artist respectively. The pair have been running the best Bed and Breakfast in Ghent for seven years. Chcck in at the best Bed and breakfast in Ghent isn’t until 4pm (until 7pm) but they do allow a window for you to drop off your bags at 11am so you don’t have to carry them round all day. We were met by Didi. He very helpfully gave us the lowdown on the area, with advice on where to go, what to see and his personal restaurant recommendations to avoid any tourist traps, without being intrusive.

Logidenri bed and breakfast Ghent

You’d be forgiven for walking past this Ghent hidden gem

Although it has just five rooms at no point during our stay did it feel claustrophobic. In fact it felt more like we were staying in a little boutique hotel. We were in the mezzanine suite, it was well worth the climb up five flights of stairs (there’s no lift) to get to our luxurious room. Spread out across two floors, we had an upstairs lounge area with its own desk, ipod dock and armchairs, that meant Sharps and I had some breathing space. Our room was also decked out with an alcove containing a Nespresso coffee maker (coffee and tea is replenished daily) along with a little welcome bowl of Belgian chocolate and a fridge and mini-bar.

Logidenri b and b Ghent bathroom

The ultimate in power showers

Apart from the ridiculously comfy and large double bed, which made it a struggle to get up for the breakfast spread in the morning, I also loved the bathroom which had a huge sunken tiled bath and a powerful rain-shower. This particular room is definitely one for couples though as the design of the bathroom means you can see right in (and hear everything) so doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

Breakfast at the Logidenri Ghent

Breakfast is served at the Logidenri

Then of course there’s the breakfast. A lavish affair by Belgian standards there’s a generous choice of fresh and dried fruit, cereal, yoghurt, a bread basket with various types of bread and pastries, mini cakes, cheese, ham, soft boiled eggs. You can even help yourself to Belgian chocolate. Often when writing this blog I’m (happily) proven wrong. After two nights at the Logid’enri, the best Bed and Breakfast in Ghent, I’d be the first to admit my doubts about a stay at this Ghent hidden gem were totally unfounded and we were reluctant to leave. While I now won’t automatically rule out a stay at a B&B whether it’s changed my mind about them on the whole remains to be seen…

For more info on Ghent check out visitghent.be

Jun 22 14

Pllek Amsterdam North’s hidden gem

by maxineclayman

More often than not, Amsterdam North gets overlooked by tourists visiting the Dutch capital. A shame as it means they miss out on Pllek Amsterdam North’s hidden gem. I’d been wanting to check out Pllek (which is Dutch for place) for ages, not least because I’d heard it has its own beach (Amsterdam surprisingly has three other beaches too). Most people are also surprised to learn that Amsterdam operates a free ferry service from behind Amsterdam Central Station and it’s this that makes Amsterdam North so easily accessible.

Pllek Amsterdam North view

View from the ferry on route to Amsterdam North

Just make sure you check where you’re going before you get on board  as there are a few different ferries. It only dawned on me that there may be more than one just as the back of the boat closed, meaning we couldn’t get off. Luckily the ferry we got on by mistake was only doing a five-minute journey so we just stayed on it, came back, and got on the right one (look for the sign that says NSDM) to take us to Pllek Amsterdam.

Remnants of the Netherlands shipping industry in Amsterdam North

Remnants of the Netherlands shipping industry in Amsterdam North

The NSDM Wharf was formerly home to the largest ship building company in the world. But when the industry went into decline the warehouses of the area were left derelict. In the last couple of years the area has been a centre of regeneration, with the NSDM Wharf in Amsterdam North attracting artists and craftsmen, becoming a bit of a creative hub. And it’s here that you’ll find Pllek Amsterdam, housed in a series of old shipping containers, which is easy enough to find as there are signposts as soon as you step off the ferry.

Pllek Amsterdam North

Pllek Amsterdam North

Inside is the main bar with couches and beanbags dotted around the room for people to chill out on. The Sunday we went there were also various stalls selling (hippy) clothes and in an adjoining room a yoga class was taking place and there were people giving massages. But what makes Pllek Amsterdam North’s hidden gem, special for me is when you step outside. Pllek Amsterdam has one of Amsterdam’s best terraces. Just beyond the wooden trestle tables and benches of the outdoor seating/dining area is Pllek’s very own (stone) beach, with views across the IJ, making it the perfect place to relax on a sunny day.

Pllek Amsterdam North beach

Chill out on the beach at Pllek Amsterdam North

The fun doesn’t stop when the sun goes down either at this Amsterdam beach bar as Pllek Amsterdam plays host to live music, festivals and DJs. We lucked out on our visit as there was a hippy festival on, and the atmosphere was brilliant, everyone was super friendly as you’d expect. As soon as the beats came on, carpets were rolled out and shoes were off with everyone dancing – it was like being at a mini-rave. The only thing I was a bit gutted about was that we missed the lunch menu as the cod fritters sounded delicious. To be fair it was 4pm, but we assumed they served lunch all afternoon, they stop it at 3.30pm and have a selection of not particularly enticing sounding light bites.

Pllek Amsterdam North coffee

Sadly I only got to try Plek’s mini cupcakes

I settled for a cappuccino instead, which to my delight was accompanied by a cute mini-cupcake. I did think I could hold off until dinner (which starts from 6pm) but as there was a special event on they were serving a set, communal type meal, later in the evening but I couldn’t hold out that long to wait.

Amsterdam North

Weird and wonderful installations dotted around Amsterdam’s NSDM Wharf

You think by now I’d be old enough to learn from my mistakes. Not content with getting the wrong ferry on the way over we inadvertently got on a ferry that wasn’t going back to Central Station, we  just assumed they all were. I still couldn’t tell you where we ended up but luckily we’d brought bikes with us and a nice man told us it was about a 15-minute cycle back to central Amsterdam. He pointed us in the right direction and we managed to navigate our way back to the centre from there, the final part of our Amsterdam North adventure. Admittedly the summer is probably the best time to visit Pllek Amsterdam. But the great ambience makes Amsterdam North’s hidden gem a pllek you should definitely check out.