As luck would have it I found myself with a spare couples of days and a yearning for culinary escape from these shores. Following my nose has always served me good stead in the past and as I’d read a few things that caught my eye it was to Groningen in the Netherlands that I travelled for this next installment of food and adventure.
I could have arrived at London’s Southend Airport some early ‘o’ clock to start my trip to Groningen in northern Holland, but why do that when I could have a comfortable night right next to the airport at the Holiday Inn? Dining at the 5th floor 1935 restaurant on a fine meal of steak and a sublime vanilla and ginger cheesecake all with a perfect view of the airport seemed preferable.
Refreshed and eager to get going things didn’t hang around at this airport for long. Security took about three minutes, then a quick call into the newly expanded Skylife Lounge for fresh pastries and a cup of tea. I could have taken that further with some bubbles but though it best to save myself.
As there is nothing in the sky between Southend and Groningen the planes have no stacking time. The result is flying for less than 50 minutes by the time I had walked to the arrivals hall my bag was on the belt. The same as it takes to get from London to the airport. This is rapidly becoming my favourite departure point in UK.
My first stop was a place I’d heard about but couldn’t book in the conventional way, as they don’t have a website. Practically on the Frisian coast, Kleine Oestertje at Oldenhove could be mistaken for a house. It sits in an unassuming residential street not looking like a restaurant. Inside it has motifs of the sea across the walls and a warm welcome from chef and proprietor Peter De Zwaan. He is from the region but has spent stints in South Africa during his 15 years as a chef. This is seafood heaven and his travels are reflected in his cooking style.
Oysters, razor clams, langoustines, mussels, cockles, octopus, sardines and much more just kept on coming served on large platters. No holding back here, just dig in and get on with it. A fine lunch in a restaurant that knows its customers and what they want, hence no website, they don’t need it, all this for just €35 a head.
The Noordpolderzijl mud flats are a famed wildlife and nature spot in Groningen, perfect for blowing away the cobwebs or working off a good lunch. I went there to do just that and learn a little about foraging the local super foods. Samphire, sea Astor, sea wormwood and sea mickwort and many others are all present on this inlet. There is a high tidal rise, so a mix of salt and fresh water is the ideal environment. The fishing culture here is also of note. They favour line caught, small boats with low impact on the environment. Oysters, eel and grouper are popular here and harvested in a sustainable way. You’ll find them in most restaurants in the region.
Having worked up an appetite I was ready for a good evening meal. Little did I know how good it was going to be, Onder de Linden in Aduard is the only restaurant in the province with a Michelin star. The tasting menu, I have to warn you, was vast. Proclaiming to be only five courses there are lots of ‘snacks’ that kept on popping up. This was an eloquent display of high-end culinary skills that included smoked eel with Iberic ham, leeks and potato, pork belly with tomato and artichoke to white chocolate with yuzu, mandarin, puffed rice and matcha ice cream. It was a devilishly good meal with matched wines. The food was a very reasonable €70 and another €8 per glass for wines. This was an epic experience that was worth seeking out. They have some rooms for those who might require them afterwards.
Tea isn’t something you’d expect the Dutch to excel at but when you think about it they have a long history of trading with the Far East so it came as no real surprise when I visited De Theefabriek in Houwerzijl that not only do they have a lovely small museum and well appointed shop and restaurant but they import and blend some excellent teas. I particularly enjoyed a local apple cake called poffert, made in a Bain Marie over two hours it had a sweet, soft sponge feel and they serve it with melted butter. Their top tea for my money was a blend of orange and rosemary, not unlike Lady Grey but slightly more vital.
To offset the expanding girth, I called into the excellent Groningen Museum for a couple of hours of intellectual stimulation. Two major exhibitions were showing, a significant David La Chapelle collection with many large-scale pieces with his usual twist on history and fame and an intriguing collection titled De Ploeg or The Plough. It looked at avant-garde movement 1918 -1928. Examining the turn from impressionism to surrealism and the beginning of cubism I found it enthralling.
Another amusing pursuit is a beer tasting canal cruise. Over the course of hour, I tasted quite a few beers, some delicious, some best left alone and others very drinkable. A selection of 26 beers are available with an enlightened talk from Peter Giezen who has been doing it for 10 years, it’s good value too at €17.
My final act of gastric hedonism was a very cool bar, Mr. Mofongo. This place is on several floors, serves food that smokes and pops and bubbles (all the usual culinary trickery at play) and best of all a robot arm to mix cocktails. Yes really, it made a mean Old Fashioned. It whizzes around accessing a bank of spirits behind the bar staff and can mix two simultaneously. One last thing to mention I stayed at what must be the hippest hotel in town called The Student. It has mixed housing so there are students living in the building and visiting guests like me. There’s a little restaurant, bar, and table tennis table in the foyer … of course there is! Central and inexpensive this is the place to stay with everything within walking distance. There are so many little roads with interesting shops and some wonderful architecture in Groningen.
Neil Hennessy-Vass is Contributing Editor for Our Man On The Ground as well as a widely-published globetrotting food and award-winning travel writer and photographer.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass