(Editor’s note: The Things We Love is a series celebrating all our favorite aspects of our expat lives and the Dutch lifestyle. Because maybe Dispatches focuses a little too much on tech and visas.)
When we returned to the United States from Europe back about 2007, the whole locavore thing was just blowing up. Restaurants tried to out-do each other when it came to being “hyper-local,” claiming all their food was sourced from local farmers. (Who knew they grow avocados in New York!)
If you didn’t buy your $10 organic chicken and your $20 organic cheese from local farmers, you were a total sellout, man.
Well, I got news for you American foodies … the Dutch lifestyle really is local, so we buy quite a bit of meat, eggs, veggies and fruit from neighbors we know. But in the Dutch lifestyle, there’s no “movement,” no food shaming and no Instagramming. Just farmers doing what farmers do.
In our tiny farm village of Leenderstrijp (pop. 500) about 15 minutes south of Eindhoven, hyperlocal food is just part of the culture.
Do we get everything from locals? Unfortunately, no. We’re regulars at the local Aldi and Plus supermarkets because that’s where the bargains are. But this is farm country, and we buy a surprising amount of stuff grown, bottled or produced within a few miles of our house.
What blows my mind is, this bucolic culture lives in harmony with Europe’s most high-tech tech center, Eindhoven.
So here are the places we hit in a typical month:
• The Egg Lady has pretty much a monopoly on eggs in Leenderstrijp and is rumored to keep her Ferrari tucked away in her garage. She sells the eggs in a cooler in front of her house: 1.50 euros for 10, and 90 euro cents for six.
You’re laughing, but this is a mega-operation because she has a free-range flock inside a giant fox-proof mesh enclosure.
When the Netherlands had a pesticides-in-the-eggs scare last year, The Egg Lady suddenly became the most popular person in the hamlet, with a line of Mercedes and Volvos in front of her house all day hoping to score. True story.
I made the mistake of striking up a conversation – I speak little Dutch and she speaks no English – and ended up touring her production center, aka her garage. She really does have a little assembly line where she puts the eggs in those cardboard egg cartons. And it’s a pretty tight fit what with that Ferrari and all.
• Coop St. Jan is our tiny local grocery. My personal favorites are the strawberry tarts, but I’ve had to slow down on those because they’re basically butter and cream. Other delicacies include local artisan cheeses, lots of meats including top-grade paté fruit juices and fresh breads from a nearby bakery.
And can we talk about the fresh appelflappen? Wilma, who owns the coop with her husband Eric, is a pastry chef and makes the most amazing apple turnovers each morning. All our international visitors high-tail it to the coop every morning before they sell out. All the food is stellar, and Wilma and Eric are VIP community assets!
• Just down from the coop is Ton’s and Margaux’s potato shed where, for about 1 euro per kilo, we buy fresh spuds that are still dirty because they were in the ground a few hours before. Right now, they also have pumpkins, tomatoes and squash.
It seems like everyone sells something during the year, including the Honey Man, who has fabulous dark honey for sale outside his house, and the neighbors who have coolers full of cherries and peonies to sell early in the year, and sunflowers in the summer.
And it’s all on the honor system, so you just drop your money into the little box.
• This part of the North Brabant province is Porkland. There are big hog farms all around us and much of the sausage and ham for sale in the supermarkets is raised and slaughtered right here. There are also serious dairy operations, and again, most of the milk comes from cows we know personally and see every day.
• Leenderstrijp is also a mega white asparagus-growing area. Polish laborers come in every year to pick the crop, which involves special harvesting equipment, not to mention plastic and long rows of dirt mounds. Quite the process to grow the sun-deprived asparagus popular here in Western Europe.
Our next-door neighbor Ingrid is a chef and a wizard when it comes to taking locally grown ingredients – including the asparagus, pork and eggs (right) – and turning them into fabulous meals, which are the true highlights of our 80-hour weeks.
• Darn it, you just missed blackberry season. The entire area around us is thick with blackberry patches. We’re from Kentucky, so in late July, we head out to pick. This year, temperatures topped 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) and some of the berries literally baked on the vines. But we found more than enough juicy fruit for my wife Cheryl to bake two big Kentucky-style blackberry cobblers, which we tried out on our Dutch and Hungarian friends. This place will never be the same …..
• When friends come, we always have to take them to Achelse Kluis, a monastery a few miles from our house on the Belgium/Netherlands border. This is one of only 11 Trappist breweries left in Europe. The monks make two potent beers approaching 9 percent alcohol, a blond and a dark.
• Our landlords’ brother owns a huge mushroom operation and all of his fungi are for sale in the various supermarkets not just in the Heeze area where we live, but in the entire region. Again, you’re thinking, “Big deal.” But we see the first delivery of the morning leave for the supermarkets at 06:30 and it’s a huge tractor-trailer.
• Bennie’s and Franca’s Café de Hospes bikers café has good food and great local/Belgian beer. Try the Grimbergen Blanche beer and the beenham, literally a big hunk of pork on the bone. Dee-lish. Also, Bennie’s soups – bean, chicken, tomato and asparagus – are seriously hardy year-round.
The local farmers occasionally give Ben a wild boar they’ve killed (the government encourages culling the herd to keep the population under control) and he might cut you off a sample of the best thing you’ve ever tasted in your life.
Yes, the food is good. But it’s good for our souls just to take a break and hang out with Ben and Franca.
• We get our Christmas tree from Johan’s farm just down the road toward Leende. Johan lived in Michigan for a while and – for better or worse – is a total American. Every time we run into him, he always says, “So, how’s that Christmas tree doin’?” The great part is, we go to his house and pick out our kerstboom, then his son brings it to us, towed behind his bike. Because this is the Netherlands.
• Just down from Johan’s house is a huge farm with greenhouses where they grow things like strawberries and blueberries year-round. If the package reads, “Jansborg,” we know the fruit is local.
If this sounds like the Garden of Eden, it kind of is. You have to understand the Netherlands is the world’s second-largest food exporter just behind the United States. Where we live in Brabant is just a different sort of place full of industrious, clever people who have a penchant for doing everything just right, whether it’s raising chickens or producing tons of mushrooms for major supermarket chains.
The crazy thing is, we never picked this place because we didn’t even know it existed when we moved here from the States.
About the author:
Terry Boyd is co-founder of Dispatches Media, based in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Boyd has been a military reporter, business reporter and an entrepreneur, founding Insider Louisville, a pure-play digital news platform, in 2010.
Boyd & Family are long-time expats and have lived in Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.