Sunday, July 22, 2007

Things that are typically Dutch

I was thinking this week about all the things, good and bad, that I’ve seen/found/used in the Netherlands and would never be able to see/find/use back home. Although you’d think that culturally the Netherlands and the UK aren’t that far apart, and that through the process of globalisation, everything is becoming the same anyway, there are still some things that are simply Dutch and you won’t find anywhere else. In my opinion, these are they:

Kaasschaaf (Cheese slice)
This is a really clever device the Dutch use everyday to ensure they get perfectly sliced thin layers of cheese for their lunch-time or breakfast bread rolls or sandwiches. It’s typically Dutch of course because it means that you take only the exact right amount of cheese, there is no room for greedily taking a slightly thicker slice of cheese, the only way to get more is to slice off a whole extra piece, but that is too obvious to people around you.

My only concern about Cheese Schaves (?) is that when you get to the end of a piece of cheese, and you’re working with just a centimetre or two of cheese before the rind, the cheese schaaf does become a bit dangerous. Many a time have I almost cheese schaafed my wrist open while trying to get that last remaining bit of cheese off the rind. This tool is in fact the ultimate suicide device.


There is no English translation for the word vla, it simply doesn’t exist in England and I have not seen it in any other country than Holland, although I expect the Belgians probably have it too. The only parallel I can draw with English stuff is to compare Vla to a slightly runny low-fat Ambrosia Devonshire custard (don’t tell my husband I said this, but it does actually taste exactly the same and I’ve just found a recipe for making it which uses custard powder as the base – he’ll be devastated ).

So vla has a “vague resemblance” to custard, but you can get away with eating a whole bowl of vla, by itself, for pudding and no-body will blink an eye-lid. Magic.

White Asparagus
This is another thing that I had never seen or heard of before I came to Holland (in fact everything in this list falls into that category). White asparagus is a delicacy in the Netherlands and Belgium, and when they are in season you can’t escape them in supermarkets and restaurants. They look similar to their green relatives but they are longer, much fatter and totally anaemic looking. They are white because they are deprived of sunlight when they are growing up, and from what I can tell are basically nurtured in the same way as mushrooms.

I have cooked them a couple of times and the hassle factor, compared to green asparagus, is considerable. First of all you have to peel them (I’ve actually used my cheese schaaf to do this), then you have to steam them on a bed made of their own peeled-off skins for about 15 minutes. All the recipes I’ve ever seen for these ghostly vegetables are based on, or totally limited to, butter and cheese. I still prefer the green ones.

Milk at lunch-time
This is less of a “thing” than a massive cultural difference between NL and, let’s face it, the rest of the world. In the UK you are given milk at lunch time as a child at primary school. You wouldn’t be seen dead drinking it at lunch time at secondary school. And, as an adult, milk simply isn’t available to you at a work canteen or in a restaurant. But in Holland, you are a weirdo if you don’t drink milk at lunch time, no matter what your age. My husband and his family always have a glass or mug of milk with their lunch time bread and cheese.

Even more amazing to me, however, was my first few experiences of lunch in an office canteen. The canteen sold 300ml plastic cups of milk (with foil caps) and these were the hottest selling items going. Every single (Dutch) person in the canteen bought a plastic cup of milk and it was so strange to me to see fully-grown men, often senior managers in smart suits, drinking milk in a way I had not seen since I was 11 years old. Every day I would buy a can of diet coke and for the first three weeks or so I was ridiculed for being “so American” and totally unhealthy, or asked “Don’t you drink milk? Don’t you like it?” To answer that question again: yes I do drink milk, but through eating my breakfast cereals every morning. It seems Dutch people don’t eat breakfast cereals, they normally eat bread so the first milk they get in a day is at lunch.

Hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles)
For all the English-speakers reading this blog, the next few lines are basically referring to the chocolate sprinkles, or hundreds-and-thousands, that are, in most countries, the reserve of cakes, pastries or donuts.

Who in their right mind would also sprinkle hundreds-and-thousands onto buttered bread?

…the Dutch that’s who.

Extraordinarily, there’s a whole food industry built up around these polished up little mouse poops. Unilever makes them, there’s a premium brand “De Ruijter” and all the supermarkets sell their own brands too. Unlike buying breakfast cereals, you can buy family-sized boxes of hagelslag, which last my two-person household at least six months. And you can even buy mini-boxes of De Ruijter hagelslag, which are just the right size to sprinkle on one slice of bread. These mini-versions are available in multi-packs in supermarkets and sold separately in work canteens and hotels.

But hagelslagen(/s) aren’t limited only to the chocolate, shiny mouse poo shaped variety. There must be getting on for about thirty variations on the theme, including:
  • Bigger, flat, chocolate flakes
  • Dark chocolate sprinkles (and flakes)
  • Fruit sprinkles (pictured right - not sure how much actual fruit they contain)
  • Aniseed sprinkles (which are white with little tails and called mice)
  • Powered aniseed sprinkles (which are the mice, but ground and called stamped on mice)
  • Pink mice (which are a special treat reserved only for the birth of a baby girl)
  • Blue mice (reserved for the birth of a baby boy)
  • Easter sprinkles (in spring-like colours)
  • Etc, etc

Brand new motorways, major roads and sign posts
This is, again, less of a thing, than an observation and something I wondering whether any other expat in Holland has noticed too. All the motorways and major roads here look like they are no older than 10 years old. All the road surfaces are immaculate, all the paintwork is perfectly neat and still bright white. All the road signs are hung above the motorways in exactly the same way, throughout the entire country (the metal construction on which they are placed is identical where-ever you go). The road signs within cities, and those for bicyclists, are also placed on posts that are exactly the same where-ever you are in Holland. The signs for cars are hung on blue and white painted posts (immaculate as if they were painted yesterday) and for cyclist these post are red and white.

It is as if one single company has spent the last decade building all the roads, using an unlimited supply of exactly the same parts. The roads are built as if they were made by some model-building enthusiast playing with an entire country.

If you are an expat like me, look out for this and marvel at how it’s possible and the huge amount of money it must have taken. If you’re Dutch, open your eyes to this rather unique phenomenon and let me know if you think there is any other evidence that you have been living in a model country all your life (it reminds me of that film “the Truman show”). The only problem I can see it that in the next 10 years or so every major road in Holland is going need replacing. What a job. I’m not sure I want to be here then.


There are other things that to me are “typically” Dutch, but I’ve been writing this post for about an hour and it’s getting too long. The other things include: Beschuit (cheapo breakfast biscuits used to celebrate birthdays), Slingers (cheapo party decorations, used on birthdays), front door signs (everyone has their name on their front door), clogs (need I go on)…


Anonymous said...

A kaas schaaf is a dangerous item indeed!
...and in an effort to curb suicidal tendencies in English chicks running out of cheese, the Dutch now sell sliced cheese in convenient packages at your local Albert Heijn. Time to put the kaas schaaf out to pasture!

Paola Westbeek said...


I just came across your blog and wanted to tell you I really liked it. I'm also an expat (from the US) and your post really made me laugh.


willem said...

Looking for blogs about the Netherlands in English I also just found yours. And found it very amusing!
I also absolutely hate the kaasschaaf, but my wife always uses it. I always figured women in particular prefer the kaasschaaf, because they are afraid of knives. Sexist me, I guess.

As for the roads, the uniformity of it all most likely goes back to a big fat book called RAW Bepalingen, published by Rijkswaterstaat (the national authority regulating and financing roads and so on). In the manual it is exactly prescribed what a road should look like and how it must be built. Not many people know this.
The road signs were, until very recently, all put in place and maintained by the ANWB (the autoclub). Hence they all look the same.

Good luck with your blog, I will certainly check in again!

Anonymous said...

I have a kaasschaaf in London and my missus has become an expert using it ;)

Unknown said...

a kaasschaaf dangerous? good grief (and sigh...). I think it's dangerous to cut cheese with a normal knife, I have a nasty scar on my thumb from doing that when I couldn't find my cheese slice.
Practise makes perfect hah??? Just keep trying!

Anonymous said...

Well folks few things the kaasschaaf cheese slicer you can buy in wikinsons £1.79 vla is available in chocolate and vanilla in yoghurt style pots made by dr otker in many super markets in the uk 4 seasons pepper and stroop waffles in lidl uk and cocktail nuts in asda if you look around you do find things and hagel slag is called chocolate sprinkles even my local shop sells the dutch almond cake slices lidl and aldi are gr8 places to kijk

Heidi said...


Really nice blog, enjoyed reading it!
Though I wanted to say that the plural of 'kaasschaaf' is 'kaasschaven' (so with an -n in stead of an -s) and there is no plural of hagelslag. But if you are really desperate to use a plural for that, you could say 'hagelslagjes'. ;)