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B!

B!

12 October 2000

Picture below taken at 6 weeks (30 August), but we’ve been waiting until
now to make the formal announcement. It’s now 12 weeks, and this puts us past
the main danger zone for miscarriage, so we feel (relatively) confident
that B will make its appearance somewhere
in the vicinity of 20 April next year.

Happy, me? <grin>

Car? What car?

Exactly.

Almost four months down the line, we still don’t have the car we won. I’ll
put up a full timeline of the ridiculous rigmarole once we actually have it.
For now, all we know is that Toyota failed to send Fuji the invoice for the car
in mid-September. Fuji only cut cheques twice a month, and the next run is at the
end of this week. So, supposedly, Toyota will have the money for the car at some
point next week, and will then be able to hand the car over to us. By that point
we will have had the car insured for a month, at a cost of £60. Seeing as we only
want to sell the damn thing as soon as we get it, we are highly unchuffed
with the whole situation.

MCSD ahoy!

To my surprise, Microsoft send me a letter saying that I am now an MCSD
(Microsoft Certified Solution Developer) a couple of weeks ago. I was surprised
because I had only sat three of the four necessary exams. (I passed VB Desktop &
Distributed earlier in September.) It turns out, though, that
some of the exams I sat about two years ago (WSA I & II) were still valid, and counted
towards my qualification.

Unfortunately, these exams were retired three days after I got the letter.

Fortunately, Microsoft give you six months grace to sit the necessary further
exams to bring the qualification properly up to date. I’ve got myself booked in
for the dreaded 70-100 exam next Monday. Fingers crossed.

-Martin.

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The Peat Inn

After a hard afternoon of spectacularly poor golf on a waterlogged course, there are few things better than a hot shower, a change of clothes, and a cold beer in the clubhouse. One of these better things is having dinner reservations immediately afterwards at The Peat Inn just outside St. Andrews in Fife. (Being able to have both is a distinct bonus, though. I’m sure the layers of caked-on mud would be a distraction to the other diners.)

Having studied at St. Andrews in the early nineties, my darling munchkin wife and I have known about the Peat Inn for a long time. It was always a top choice for graduation lunches and dinners and other fancy occasions, especially when you could get your parents to pick up the bill. Since then, we’ve had it recommended to us by friends, seen it glowingly reviewed in any number of publications, and time and time again we’ve said to each other “we must eat there some time.”

What we found when we dined there two weekends ago measured up to our expectations in every way. When you walk in the door, you find yourself in a small farmhouse style sitting room with comfy couches, heavy wooden tables and sideboards, and a roaring log fire. Even if I hadn’t been hungry already, I’m sure that the smells of food and woodsmoke would have lit the touch paper of my appetite. The Maitre d’ took our drinks orders (their gin and tonic was pretty good, but a little watery from too much ice), and left us to relax with the menus for a while.

Before we ordered, we were treated to a complimentary slice of onion quiche. Yes, I know quiche was supposed to have died at the end of the eighties, but if it’s all as good as this, I have no objections to it making a comeback. Its crust and base were both nicely firm, and the body was velvety smooth with slivers of sweet onion that fell apart in my mouth. It was a slice of “real food” done properly–not a fancy dish that looks good on paper but disappoints on the plate, and that sums up the Peat Inn entirely. The menu is full of wholesome dishes that wouldn’t look out of place on the blackboard of daily specials in a country pub.

Our table was in one of three dining areas, each holding about four tables, and isolated from each other to make the restaurant seem smaller and more intimate. The tables were immaculately laid with fine silverware and Wedgwood china. The wine we had ordered (a half bottle of mature and smoky 1989 Louis Jadot Volnay) was placed on the sideboard next to our table already decanted, with the bottle lined up aside it. Award-winning chef David Wilson is a wine connoisseur, and he insists on all red wines being decanted as near as possible to their storage place, and as soon as they are taken off the rack. My taste buds aren’t sophisticated enough to notice the difference, but I’ll take the advice of the experts on this one.

My starter was a julienne of pigeon breast on spiced pork (£8.50). I had come off the golf course feeling ravenous (and craving steak), so my choices were influenced by a desire for meat, and lots of it. The pigeon breast was tender and gamy. The spiced pork was flavoured only delicately, and a touch on the dry side, but that just allowed it to soak up the rich jus with more gusto. A few large flageolet beans, softened to perfection, were mixed in with the pork, and provided just the right amount of vegetable matter.

For my main course I had chosen a cassoulet of pork, lamb and duck with flageolet beans (£16.00). (Perhaps you see a trend developing here…when my body wants meat, it wants MEAT.) I have to say that I was a little disappointed to find the dish a bit more like a soup than a casserole. It was filled with plenty of chunks of lamb, cubes of ham, slices of home made pork sausage and an entire leg of duck, but in my mind I had been hopping for a thicker, richer ragout. Don’t get me wrong–the casserole juices were fantastic, and I didn’t leave a single drop on my plate. And although casseroled, the flavour of each meat (and the beans) was intact. Hearty and filling, I came away from this part of the meal with my meat cravings satisfied, and my hunger stopped dead in its tracks. Which left dessert to be savoured rather than devoured!

I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that banana and coconut is the classic dessert combination for the decade. Variations seem to pop up in every restaurant we visit these days, and every time I try one I am delighted anew. This time it was caramelised banana on banana cake, with coconut ice cream (£6.50). The slices of banana glistened and dripped with barely liquid caramel, and were packed on top of the round slice of banana cake. The cake was moist and just savoury enough to stop the ensemble from being cloying. Chunks of coconut were easily identifiable in the only just solid ice cream. Taken all together, they made a delicious mouthful.

A nice touch comes with coffee or tea after dessert. Beside your bowl of brown and white sugarlumps, you two also get a tiny silver dish with a pair of tiny silver tongs, and inside it are tiny little tablets of sweetener. Cute, but hasn’t your diet not just been wrecked already by the mounds of food? On the other hand, if you’re on a diet, then surely you won’t mind your companion tucking into your share of the delicate petits fours, will you? It would be a shame to put those lemon tartlets, chocolates, and chunks of melt-in-the-mouth fudge to waste….

Probably the only down side to the Peat Inn is the fact that it is at least a few miles away from anywhere you’re likely to be staying, so you may have to give up wine with your meal. Since 1987 they do have rooms (which look stunningly luxurious on their brochure), but at £145 for a double or twin suite, you may find them a little expensive.

In conclusion, then, I can heartily recommend the Peat Inn. Its reputation for fine food is richly deserved, and the country-style ambience matches the menu perfectly. My only regret is that we hadn’t visited it until now.

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Barenaked Ladies – Maroon

This morning, fresh out of the shower, I heard an ad on the radio for Maroon, the new album by the Barenaked Ladies, and I just had to run straight out and buy it. After I’d put on some clothes, of course.

I first heard of the Barenaked Ladies (five guys, in case you’ve never heard of them) in 1992, when I was sharing a student flat with Paul Stefiszyn, who was from Canada (drop me a line if you’re listening, Paul!). They had just released their first album Gordon to enormous critical and popular acclaim on the other side of the Atlantic. It didn?t make much of a splash over here, though. And despite turning out a string of clever, catchy pop tunes, it wasn’t until their album Stunt (1998) that they really made it big in Britain as well. “One Week” was the hit single from that album, a fast tune with rapped lyrics and a bouncy chorus. It’s perhaps not completely typical of the BNLs’ musical style, but the lyrics are unmistakably theirs, a blend of the humorous, melancholy and insightful:

“How can I help it if I think you’re funny when you’re mad
Trying hard not to smile though I feel bad
I’m the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral
Can’t understand what I mean? You soon will”

(from “One Week”)

Maroon picks up where Stunt left off. The first five songs are upbeat, infectious tunes that almost define the word “pop.” The beats are essentially simple (though Tyler Stewart on drums throws in plenty of interesting variations if you pay closer attention) and easy to tap your toes along to. The melodies are easy on the ear and sticky on the brain: even on a first listen you?ll be humming along to the choruses before each song is out. The lyrics are mostly lightweight, but written with a perfect ear for rhythm, pacing and singability:

“If you scream in your sleep, or collapse in a heap,
and spontaneously weep, then you know you’re in deep”

(from “Go Home”)

With deceptive ease, all of these elements come together in a series of neat 4-minute packages. The first single from the album, “Pinch Me,” is the third track, and is probably the most commercial of these first five songs. “Falling for the First Time” is my current personal favourite, though. It has a mesmerizing chorus to it that speaks of challenges suffered and overcome:

“Anyone perfect must be lying, anything easy has its cost
Anyone plain can be lovely, anyone loved can be lost
What if I lost my direction? What if I lost my sense of time?
What if I nursed this infection? Maybe the worst is behind”

(from “Falling for the First Time”)

In the second half (well, more like the second two thirds), the boys wander into styles that are reminiscent of their earlier work. The lyrics become less generic, more cynical, and start to work in a story-telling fashion: “Sell, sell, sell” is about fame, the media, and the movie business; “Off the Hook” is a cynical look at one partner constantly forgiving the other in one-sided relationships; and “Tonight is the night I fell asleep at the wheel” sort of speaks for itself. The tunes are a little more downbeat and sometimes dirgeful (“Tonight is the night…” would work well as a funeral march–I suspect this is intentional). Generally, they are a bit more difficult to get to grips with. I have no doubt, though, that they will grow on me like juicy grapes on the vine, ripening with age.

The album is produced by Don Was, master of the clever pop track (remember the unbearably catchy “Walk the Dinosaur” from the eighties? That was him. The album What Up, Dog? is an oft-overlooked classic). On previous albums the Barenaked Ladies have already proved themselves to be capable (co-) producers in their own right, and Was seems mostly content to let the BNL sound and colour speak for itself. His unique presence is felt most strongly in “Baby Seat,” with its basic beat and Hammond organ whirling away in the background. There are a few other tracks that have a slightly country feel to them, which could also be put down to his influence.

Maroon is more polished than Stunt, but has less of an edge to it. I feel this is a loss, because a lot of the Barenaked Ladies? appeal lies in their playful approach to their music and lyrics. Even on a bad day, though, the BNLs can knock out better tunes than 95% of the artists in the top forty. Maroon may be too smooth to be perfect, but it is nowhere short of excellent.

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The Grill Room at the Sheraton

Along with the Atrium, the Grill Room at the Sheraton Grand Hotel is one of only two restaurants in Edinburgh with three AA rosettes. After hearing some excellent recommendations, it’s been on my list of “must visit” places for a while now. Yesterday, to celebrate a certain special occasion (whose details I’m not at liberty to discuss…yet), my darling cutie wife and I gathered our appetites and set off in the direction of Lothian Road.

The setting is a little unusual. The Sheraton has two restaurants, the Terrace and the Grill Room. The Terrace looks out over the plaza in front of the hotel, and the Grill Room has windows that look out over the Terrace. (Even further inside is the Lobby bar, where you can go for a drink before your meal. It’s not cheap, but they do mix an utterly ravishing long vodka.) The decor is plush, with deeply sculpted ceilings, and walls inlaid with wood panelling and smoked mirrors. Original oil paintings depict scenes of country life: lots of dogs, and hunters stalking game on the wind-swept hills of Bonnie Scotland. (But in a tasteful way. Honest.) You are enveloped in an unmistakable air of luxury, but at the same time it didn’t feel too posh or highbrow. I was wearing my standard uniform of chinos, polo shirt and a light sweater, and this felt about right. Some of the other diners were wearing sport coats and open-necked shirts, but I didn’t think the atmosphere necessarily called for the formality of a jacket and tie.

The Menu Saison (fixed-price menu: £26 for two courses, £29 for three) is displayed prominently outside the restaurant, and features some splendid-sounding dishes, like smoked salmon with blinis, crème fraiche and chives; and tenderloin of venison, root vegetables, dauphinoise potato and balsamic jus. But it’s only when you sit down at your table that your waiter brings you the à la carte menu–and what a menu it is! For a restaurant of this style, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a large selection: it opens with ten appetizers and four soups, and then proceeds to shower you with a selection of twelve entrées, three of which are vegetarian. And that’s excluding the grilled sirloin and fillet steaks, which warrant a section all of their own.

The wine list is varied but restrained, and interestingly also features a separate supplement for wines served by the glass. A beautifully laid out brochure gives full descriptions of about fifteen whites and reds from all over the world, and makes recommendations on which wine is likely to go with what type of dish–a very useful feature for someone like myself who can narrow his taste down to a grape, but then chooses by whether the label looks nice. The idea behind the by-the-glass list is that if you’re dining on your own, you don’t have to order a whole bottle, or to just allow you to enjoy a greater variety of wines with your meal.

This tactic allowed me to enjoy a smoky Macon Lugny white (£4.75 per glass) with the complimentary amuse bouche (witch flounder with a julienne of carrot and courgette in red pepper oil) and my first course of langoustine tail with wild mushrooms and scallops feuillantine, drizzled with langoustine butter (£12). The langoustine tails were exquisite bites of concentrated shellfish flavours, and they went very well with the earthiness of the mushrooms–surf ‘n’ turf with a vegetarian twist. (Seafood is fruits de mer in French. So they’re fruit, and thus okay for vegetarians, n’est-ce pas?)

Choosing a main course was difficult, the menu being casually littered with things like whole grilled Scottish lobster served in its shell with vierge sauce, and roast lamb fillet with courgettes, tomatoes and olive and truffle sauce. In the end I went for home smoked and roasted Gressingham duck breast and confit leg with pickled ginger beurre blanc (£21), and didn’t regret it at all. The leg was crispy on the outside, and falling-apart tender within its salty crust. The breast was cooked pink and sliced thick enough to be perfect for swirling and daubing in the sauce. The pickled ginger flavour came through in the form of a Chinese twang: subtle, but enough to completely transform a traditional jus. The vegetables that came with it were asparagus, and a healthy pile of fresh garden peas and tiny cubes of potato and carrot. A single glass of Torres Gran Coronas (£4.75) formed a perfect rich, smoky accompaniment.

My wife, who had chosen a more moderate selection of dishes from the Menu Saison, was full up by this point, but I was only just getting started! I was forced to polish off her “pressert” (a surprisingly light and palette-cleansing chocolate sorbet) as well as my own. And then I just had to try the raspberry and strawberry millefeuille with Chiboust cream and raspberry coulis (£6.50). This arrived on a plate with the coulis arranged in geometric patterns, outlined by thin chocolate borders. The millefeuille itself was a towering inferno of fresh berries and crispy pastry slices supported by clumps of the thickest, richest vanilla custard you can imagine. The strawberries were juicy, and the raspberries were tart. A bite of both, slathered with the Chiboust was like summer itself exploding in my mouth.

So does the Grill Room live up to its reputation? I certainly think so. The setting is marvellous, and the food is prepared to a very high standard. It’s unquestionably one of Edinburgh’s top restaurants, and after yesterday evening I can recommend it highly, and without hesitation.

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Restaurant Martin Wishart

The Shore area in Leith used to be dingy and disreputable. The lisp-inducing enunciation exercise "The Leith Police dismisseth us" probably arose because they were too busy processing prostitutes and disposing of dope-dealers to spare a few moments for the poor speech therapist in question.

A decade of urban renewal has seen off this seedy image, though, and the Shore is now packed to the rafters with trendy loft apartments, restaurants, bars, cafés, and design agencies. Restaurant Martin Wishart sits on the Shore itself, with a view out over the picturesque (and only slightly smelly) Water of Leith. Last Friday a couple of colleagues and I were entertaining a client before an afternoon meeting, and this was the recommended venue.

I was wearing a pair of chinos and a (rather stylish) company polo shirt, but I felt quite underdressed as soon as I walked in the door. The people already seated for their lunches were wearing jackets and ties, or smart dresses. Of the rest of us, only one was wearing a suit, though, so I didn’t feel too bad. We were seated by two French-accented staff, and throughout the rest of the meal I’m sure we were attended by at least three others. It’s a small restaurant, seating about thirty at a push, and I’m a bit confused as to how they managed to squeeze them all in at the same time. As a result, though, the service was excellent, and we were never short of a pair of hands to refill our water glasses. (Yes, water–this was lunch, after all. Surely you don’t think I’d drink during office hours?)

Unfortunately, the food didn’t match up to this standard. I started with a ravioli of salmon, in a light curry and mussel jus and French beans. The jus was indeed light and tangy, and went very well with the mussels (I’ll have to try mixing these flavours myself at some point), but the salmon inside the ravioli was an unrecognisable paste, with hardly any flavour of its own. The homemade white bread on the side was very good, though, and sopped up the just very nicely.

My main course was a daube of beef on a bed of creamed potatoes, with glazed vegetables and a sweet jus. Again, the rich, gamy jus came off best, but the heart of the dish disappointed. The beef was cooked to the point of flakiness but it tasted, well…stewed (if that’s not too much of a tautology) and watery. I don’t think it had been near this, or any other kind of gravy until it hit my plate.

Given the excellent reputation Martin Wishart enjoys, I couldn’t help but feel let down by my meal. Their lunch menu is £13.50 for two courses, £15.50 for three (£1.25 extra for coffee or tea); a three-course dinner with coffee or tea will set you back about £32.50. Their presentation is unquestionably good, and it was a very pleasant location in which to partake of a business lunch. However, given the huge choice of other restaurants nearby, the quality of the food would discourage me from coming back again. Pity.

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Maastricht

When I was growing up, we lived on the outskirts of Heerlen. This is a fair-sized town of about 100,000 people, but the nearest big city was Maastricht. At no more that half an hour’s drive or train journey away, we would go there to shop, have a bite of lunch, and stop off at a cafe for a drink.

Now that I’m living in Scotland, and my parents have moved back here as well, I don’t go back there much. In fact, this weekend is the first time I’ve visited since 1995, and oh, how I’ve missed the place! The narrow streets, the white-painted brick houses, Dutch language all around me…. Even simple things like street signs made me ridiculously happy with floods of childhood memories. (So bear in mind while you’re reading this review that my opinion is probably heavily coloured by nostalgia.)

Also note that this is a long article, but I won’t be offended if you bale out early. I’ve split it into the following sections for your reading convenience:

  1. General
  2. Travel/Getting There
  3. Hotels
  4. Eating
  5. Drinking
  6. Conclusion

1. GENERAL

Maastricht is located in the very southernmost tip of the Netherlands. If you check it out on a map, you’ll find that there’s a province called Limburg attached to the body of the Netherlands like a tail. It burrows down between Belgium and Germany. Maastricht virtually spreads out over the Belgian border, and is so close to Germany that the local airport has now been renamed Maastricht/Aachen Airport. You’ll get to Aachen faster from there than getting from Heathrow to the centre of London.

This part of the world is famous for a number of things. Food is one of them, but for the historically minded, there are Roman excavations and dozens of medieval churches and abbeys. This area used to be a hive of roman activity, and in the centre of Maastricht it’s almost impossible to do any building work without hitting the remains of a Roman villa, barracks, or bathhouse. (Famously, excavations once held up work on a city centre hotel’s basement for three years. Eventually the hotel just gave up and integrated the site as a tourist attraction.)

Under the hills of Maastricht and its surroundings (no, this part of the Netherlands is not flat) you will find miles and miles of caves. Some of these are natural, others are man made. These were used as hideouts during the wars, and in the fifties and sixties some were converted into nuclear fallout shelters. The nearby town of Valkenburg is a tourist trap of the first water, but it does have good guided tours of some spectacular examples.

Having just mentioned the wars, there are several American and British war cemeteries nearby that are worth a visit, too. Ask at the local VVV shop (tourist information) for more details.

Although there is much more to Maastricht than its city centre, this is where most of the “action” is: cafés, restaurants and shops, all in a gorgeous setting of atmospheric pedestrianised streets and cobbled plazas. There are a few department stores (Vroom & Dreesman is the main one) and large chains (like C&A), but not too many. Most of the shops are small-to medium sized, with a continental boutique feel to them. It’s great for clothes and shoes, house and kitchenwares, leather goods, and food and drink. At the moment, most clothing is between 25% and 30% less expensive than you’ll find in Britain, and it’s all in a trendy, continental style with brands and labels that will make your friends think you’ve spent a lot more money than you actually have.

For me, an ideal day out in Maastricht would consist of wandering around the town, just browsing the shops in the morning, then sitting out in a café for a beer and some lunch. The afternoon would take care of t
he hard work of shopping (actually *buying* stuff), followed by a few more drinks on a café on the Vrijthof. Drop the shopping off at the hotel, clean up, get changed, and go out for dinner. Weather permitting (Dutch summers are sunny and warm, but a little humid), the evening would be rounded off under the awnings of yet another café.

Note that Dutch shops are generally closed on Sundays, and on Monday mornings. In large tourist areas (like Amsterdam or Maastricht) you may find some places open on a Sunday, but don’t count on it.

Maastricht is also a perfect base for mounting excursions to nearby locations: Aachen, Cologne, Brussels, and Luxembourg are within easy reach, as, of course, is the rest of the Netherlands. Even Paris is not an impossible destination, but you will spend a large part of your day travelling.

If you’re worried about not speaking a word of Dutch, relax. It is quite rare to find a Dutch person who does not speak any English. It is of course polite to learn the phrase for “Do you speak English?” (“Spreekt u Engels?”), but when the reply is “A little bit,” chances are this “little bit” will contain flawless grammar and perfect idiom. Restaurants often carry English versions of their menus, and it is not uncommon for waiters or shop assistants to start talking to you in English if they’ve overheard some of your conversation.

2. TRAVEL/GETTING THERE

As I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, there is an airport nearby, but it’s small, and you might have trouble getting a good fare straight into it. Flying to Amsterdam (Schiphol) might be a better bet. There is a train station right inside the airport. The Dutch adore public transport, and you’ll find the trains to be regular and punctual. A single ticket from Schiphol to Maastricht is fl 51 (£15). Alternatively, you can hire a car and drive down in just a couple of hours.

Also, although they’re in different countries, Düsseldorf (Germany) and Brussels (Belgium) airports are actually closer than Amsterdam, and you might want to check out fares for these two as well.

If you’re taking your own car from Britain with you, Maastricht is within a couple of hours’ drive from the ferry ports at Hoek van Holland and Zeebrugge in Belgium; even Calais in France is only 3-4 hours away.

3. HOTELS

Seeing as we only stayed in one hotel, I can’t really give an exhaustive list of where to stay. However, if you’re only going for a short break, it will be very much worth your while to get someplace near the centre of the city. Key location markers are the Vrijthof and Onze Lieve Vrouweplein, which are right in the heart of the old town. Anything within five or ten minutes walking distance of one of these squares will make it easy to saunter back home after a late night beer.

We stayed at Hotel Botticelli on the Papenstraat, just round the corner from the Vrijthof. This is a lovely little hotel done in an Italian style. It has a luxurious lounge, a stylish breakfast room, and a small courtyard, covered in plants, where breakfast is served if it’s a nice morning. The rooms are medium-sized, well decorated, cosy and extremely comfortable. Ours was quite warm at night, but an almost silent fan kept us cool while we slept. Breakfasts are typically Dutch, with lots of bread rolls, cheeses and sliced meats. Given its location–right in the centre of a major European city–the price of fl 160 (£45) per room per night is impressively good value. Breakfast is fl 22.50 (£6.50). You will need to book well in advance, though: we only just managed to get in a room over a mid-August weekend by booking in May.

4. EATING

Three magic words: Frites with mayonnaise.

If you’re used to thick, chunky chips with salt and vinegar, having mayonnaise on them instead may sound ever so slightly disgusting. It isn’t, though! Dutch and Belgian chips (“frites”, “friet”, “patates frites”, “patat”, etc.) are thinner and crispier than their British counterparts, and are deep-fried to a perfect golden colour. The mayonnaise is yellower and thicker, and tastes richer than British mayonnaise, too. To be honest, I don’t find the thought of a spoonful of Hellmans on a plate of soggy British chips very appealing, either, but if you’re going to be in the Netherlands, do give it a try. Chip shops (“fritures”) and snack bars are all over the place.

While you’re at it, you might want to try some of the other things the Dutch have with their frites, like a frikandel (a long spicy sausage), a kroket (meat paste inside a crispy breadcrumb shell), a loempia (like a huge spring roll), or sate (pork or chicken kebab sticks in peanut sauce).

Down in the South of the Netherlands, the cuisine has soaked up Belgian and French influences like a piece of bread soaks up warm garlic butter. French restaurants abound, though they’re not always labelled as such. Take for instance the restaurant “‘t Plenkske”, whose name means “the little plank” in the local dialect. It’s a local name, but the food is French, done in a local style. When we went there this weekend I had snails in garlic and herb butter to start with, guinea fowl with mashed potatoes on a bed of green beans and mangetout for my main course, and crème brulée for dessert. The rest of my companions had things like smoked salmon salad, steak, bouillabaisse, and veal and pork stew. It was all utterly gorgeous, and the portions were huge.

How much for this feast, do you think? Between £20 and £25 a head, excluding wine. And we’re talking a top Maastricht restaurant here. Don’t let anyone tell you that “the continent” is expensive.

Another favourite place of mine, and almost a Maastricht institution, is the café/restaurant “In ‘t Knijpke.” It has a wonderful cellar bar downstairs, built into the ancient sewers and vaults. We didn’t get a chance to go this time, but the menu doesn’t vary much. This is the place to go for the best French onion soup, snails, frogs’ legs, and cheese boards in Maastricht. (Actually, I’m not sure if they still server frogs’ legs: the species of edible frog was in danger of extinction about seven or eight years ago, and the restrictions on catching them may still be in place.)

5. DRINKING

The café is a huge part of Maastricht culture. The locals have evolved café-based relaxation into a true art form. If you go in the summer, most cafés will have some seats outside. Grab yourself a table, sit down, and usually a waiter will come and attend to you shortly. If you’re just having a drink, or a cup of coffee, custom is to pay when your drinks arrive. If you’re settling down for lunch, your waiter will usually scribble your orders down on a little tab which he or she will leave on your table.

As for the drinks themselves, I am reliably informed that Dutch coffee is very good. It’s not anything special like Turkish coffee, just freshly brewed, high quality filter coffee. Most places will server cappuccino or espresso as well.

Beer is the other national drink. There are a truly vast number of breweries around the Netherlands, only the biggest of which have made a dent internationally. Everyone knows about Heineken and Grolsch. Fewer people are familiar with Oranjeboom and Amstel. My personal favourites, though, Ridder and Brand, I’ve never seen outside of the Netherlands. Like pubs in Britain, most Dutch cafés are affiliated with a particular brewery.

If you ask for just a beer (“een pilsje, alstublieft”) you will get it in a 200ml glass, with (if it’s perfectly poured) two fingers of head. If you ask for a large one (“grote pils”) it will probably come in a 400ml glass. These may seem like small portions, but remember that most Dutch beer is stronger than the average British pint

If you’re up for trying something a little different, try a white beer or a dark beer instead. White beer is made with wheat, and is very popular right now. It has the same golden colour as pils, but it’s cloudy rather than clear. Dark beer (Ridder Donker, or Brand Oud Bruin) is my own drink of choice. It is dark in colour, but light and sweet in taste, like caramelised lager. It goes down so easily, you could almost mistake it for a beer-flavoured alcopop.

For a stronger tipple, try a “jenever”, which is Dutch gin. Very strong, flavourful stuff, it tends to be drunk on its own rather than with mixers. (And it comes in very pretty ceramic bottles if you want to take some home with you for a gift.)

One very pleasant thing to be aware of on a warm summer evening is that cafés don’t suddenly kick you out at 12 o’clock because it’s closing time. On a Friday and Saturday evening, most of them stay open well into the night, and only shut down when the last customers leave, or when the staff decide to close up. And if you want to keep drinking, chances are that in a place like Maastricht, which has a large student population as well as lots of tourists, there will be another café open just down the street. During the week, of course, they do tend to close earlier.

6. CONCLUSION

Well, I hope I’ve given you a taste of what Maastricht is like. Most of what I’ve been talking about applies equally well in summer and in winter–except the parts about sitting at the outside tables of the cafés. If you go just before Christmas, you get a festive atmosphere and Christmas markets (Aachen and Cologne are especially good for these); if you go in February or March you can catch the Carnival (not my favourite time, but you might like it).

Check it out at your travel agent, or on the web. If you decide to go, remember to come back and write about what you thought!