Chasing royal footprints at Paleis Soestdijk (Soestdijk Palace)

Paleis Soestdijk

The palace from the other side of the lake

Last Friday at noontime, we waited in bated breath for the news conference by the surgeons of the University Hospital Innsbruck to learn about the condition of Prince Johan Friso, the second of the three sons of Queen Beatrix. A week before the news conference, Prince Friso has been buried in an avalanche while skiing off-piste in Lech together with a childhood friend (the son of the owner of the posh Gasthof Post where the royal family has been staying for about 50 years of skiing in Austria). It was said in the news that he was not wearing the safety vest and that it took about 20 minutes to find and dug him out of the snow. From that time onwards, we did not have any news except that he is in critical but stable condition.

The news conference brought out the most feared prognosis on everyone’s mind. The prince who lay in coma may never regain consciousness again. The brain damage was just so severe due to lack of oxygen from the 20 minutes that he was buried in the snow and the further 50 minutes it took to resuscitate him. The doctors hoped that the mild hypothermia might have prevented that brain damage but that was not the case. A grim news to everyone and extremely much more to his mother, his wife, 2 little daughters and his brothers and their families.

Life is so fragile and happiness can be clipped in an instant. Here is a young and smart guy (he’s got MSc in Aerospace Engineering from TU Delft, who has the world at his feet and in an instant, everything has been transformed in such a nightmarish tragedy. I feel so sorry for his mother who I actually met in person last November at an affair in my former school. She attended the conference where President Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali gave a lecture on the democratization process in his country and in Africa. I was standing close to the queen in the ensuing cocktail reception and much to my surprise, we were sipping the same wine and eating the same snacks. She was not a snob, much to my amazement as she listened patiently and chatted animately with the MA students who were also in attendance.

So much for my sad news, I bring you one lovely place where we normally go for our Sunday walks especially in spring. We happen to live a mere 15-minutes away from this simple royal palace with a lovely garden.

A royal palace that used to be the residence of Princess Juliana and Prince Bernard (parents of the reigning monarch, Queen Beatrix), Soestdijk reverted to state ownership and was transformed into a museum after the death of Prince Bernard a few years ago (Princess Juliana died a few years before him).

This is a very simple palace (we’ve made a tour of its interior in 2009), testament to the simple taste of Princess Juliana in her lifetime. A place full of happy memories as this was the place where she raised her 4 daughters, received foreign heads of states as well as the Dutch people who came in droves to greet her on her birthday on the 30th of April with her husband, daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren. Happy occasions in the family were also celebrated here like the engagement of her daughters.

Late spring is the best time to be here at Soestdijk. On this visit almost 2 springtimes ago (May 2010), the weather was fantastic and the various types of rhododendrons were in full bloom.

Francesca had a great time today running around, doing her imaginary fishing and simply smelling the flowers. I love the sight of the lake lined by those rhododendrons of various colors. After a good walk through the palace grounds, I always enjoy a cup of cappuccino and some piece of cake at the Orangerie.

the lake

The enthusiastic little fisher and her father

Rhododendrons in full bloom

Rhododendrons

Ferns

The bridge

Red birch tree

Father and daughter

The chasing game

The little girl and the big tree

Orange rhododendron

Nature coming back to life

The fountain

One of the few sculptures inside the palace grounds

Trees coming back to life in spring

Father and daughter

Palace grounds

The little girl can be happy with just twigs

Father and daughter

The little girl and the palace

Palace grounds

Rhododendrons

Lilac rhododendrons

The Orangerie

An insect at work

The patient fisher

Yellow rhododendrons

Rhododendrons in full bloom

The little flower picker

Rhododendrons

Rhododendrons

Me and my little girl

Paleis Soestdijk

The Latin American favorite cookies called “Alfajores”

Alfajores

Up till I work with my manager who hails from Uruguay, I never heard of Alfajores. On her trip back to her country to visit her parents, she would normally hand-carry these delicate cookies all the way from Uruguay which is not a direct flight but passing through either Brazil or Argentina for her connecting flight to Amsterdam.

It was love at first bite when she introduced these cookies to me sometime ago and I would normally look forward to her trip back with these cookies. I got very curious that I decided that maybe this is not such a complicated recipe after all. I was right, this is indeed very simple as it just involves making the shortbread cookies, filling that with the dulce de leche and presto, I have my alfajores.

I got the recipe for shortbread cookies from my favorite Joy of Baking site.

Here are the ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 cup (226 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. salt
dash of nutmeg (optional and this is my own tweak to this recipe)

Filling:
1 can Dulce de Leche or caramel
1 cup toasted coconut

Pre-heat oven to 350F (177C). Bake the cookies for 8-10 minutes or until they are lightly brown on the sides.

Flour mixture is flour with salt and nutmeg.

1. In a bowl, beat the butter (with an electric mixer of a hand mixer) until smooth and creamy for about a minute.

2. Add the confectioner's sugar and beat until smooth for about 2 minutes.

3. Beat in the vanilla extract.

4. Add the flour mixture.

5. And stir until just incorporated.

6. The dough should now be flattened and wrapped in a plastic film, chilled for at least an hour in the fridge or until firm.

7. Using a rolling pin, flatten the dough to about 1/4 inch thickness.

8. Cut into hearts, rounds or other shapes.

My little helper enjoys the cookie-cutting process.

9. Place on the prepared baking sheet and put back on the fridge for about 10-15 minutes. This will firm up the dough so the cookies will maintain their shape when baked. Bake for 8-10 minutes or until the cookies are very lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack.


The filling is Dulce de Leche or caramel.

Which I am combining with toasted coconut.

10. Spread a generous amount of dulce de leche on one cookie and topped that with the toasted coconut.

A different kind of winter experience in Urk

The picturesque village of Urk

Our Valentine’s day out which was a few days late last Sunday was one that was very Dutch for we went on a date to the lovely fishing village of Urk without spending a single cent. Not that I am complaining. We were at my in-laws’ place to bring our little girl who would stay with them for a few days given the one week school holiday which the Dutch calls “crocus vakantie”. I suggested that we take a little sightseeing in the nearby Medieval city of Elburg. My husband insisted that we go to Urk instead which was also a mere 15 minutes drive from my in-laws.

Urk is a lovely fishing village which used to be an island in what was then called the Zuiderzee (South Sea) till the Dutch reclaimed lands that resulted to the creation of the Noordoost Polder and the Flevo Polder which now comprised the province of Flevoland. Noordoost Polder which was created before WWII attached Urk which since then ceased to be an island. The Zuiderzee after the construction of the Afsluitdijk, a 32-km causeway running from Den Oever in North Holland to the village of Zurich in Friesland became the Ijselmeer as it is no longer part of the sea but is now a freshwater lake.

Urk remains to be a very traditional, ultra-conservative and very religious village with the locals still going to the church several times on Sunday and business establishments are completely closed. Women still wear long skirts if not the traditional clothing. The village is picturesque that is why it attracts quite a good number of visitors. And it is also a protected area under the UNESCO World Heritage Site List.

We went to Urk because of one very amazing spectacle — the melting of the ice sheets in the Ijselmeer from the last 2 weeks of deep freeze here in the Netherlands which are then pushed onto the shores. I was so amazed seeing this sight of huge chunks of ice washed ashore. I enjoyed taking pictures because it was like being in the Arctic or the South Pole with icebergs.

On the drive back to Dronten, we took a detour via the Ketelbrug, went under the bridge to view Urk from the other side of the Ijselmeer. It was amazing to see Urk from the distance across chunks of ice sheets in the water. It was a great day out so who needs a very expensive and fancy lunch or dinner date.

By the time we were back at the in-laws in Dronten, Mam Sil has already my favorite Dutch dinner ready — the Dutch beef stew called “Draadjesvlees” which she served with boiled potatoes and beans. I brought the dessert which is a Philippine favorite called “leche flan”.

Ice sheets in the harbor

Huge chunks of ice that washed ashore

Feeling like he's in the Arctic

The lighthouse of Urk

Fun on ice

A memorial to those who lost their lives at sea

Urk in the distance

ice sheets

Ice sheets on the Ijselmeer

Modern windmills along the Ijselmeer

Disneyland and a side trip to the Chateau de Fonteinbleau

The upside of a trip to Disneyland Paris is that it is possible to combine other activities in the visit which we did. No, it is not a sightseeing of Paris itself because that deserves a separate and dedicated trip but some shopping and a castle visit can be on the itinerary. We took a side trip to Chateau de Fontainebleau which was just a half hour’s drive and then we also went to La Vallee Village, a chic outlet shopping complex just a mere 5-minute drive from Disney park.

Our little princess in Chateau de Fonteinebleau

Our family

Trees in full bloom

The little princess inside the chateau (we just went to the loo)


Being not such big theme park enthusiasts, we were soon bored by Disneyland. The little girl was also intimidated by most of the rides and the park started to become very busy as the day progressed. Long queues to the rides were also very discouraging. Thus, we opted to drive to Fonteinebleau to see the castle which I have read about in Catherine de Medici’s biography by Leonie Frieda. I’m very curious of the Renaissance French chateaus and palaces.

The town of Fonteinebleau was very charming especially in spring when the trees are in bloom and so are the many spring flowers. The weather was pretty pleasant when we arrived in the afternoon though later it became a bit chilly and cloudy.

We went to the chateau but debated whether to take the guided tour or just explore the castle grounds. Guided castle tours were of no interest to a 3-year old girl so we opted to just explore the castle grounds. Our little girl in her princess outfit was just so happy to run around, feeling ever bit the princess of this former royal haunt. We will definitely be back to this place another time and will explore every nook and corner of this castle.

Inner courtyard

She's fond of picking flowers

The horse-drawn carriage

The driver of the horse-drawn carriage has this well-groomed moustache

Inside the carriage while waiting for more passengers

The little princess fell asleep during the carriage ride

The garden looks pretty bare but this must be spectacular in late spring to summer

The chateau was huge and it has a garden which must be spectacular in late spring and summer and a lovely lake. We rode in a horse-drawn carriage that took us around the sprawling estate that also leads to a adjoining forest. My daughter loved the ride (but eventually fell asleep). Later we just went around the castle and viewed it from across the lake. It was a picture-perfect sight!

The chateau from across the lake

Found this sight of the boat with the chateau in the background so enchanting

Disneyland Paris in spring

My husband and I love to travel but before our daughter came, theme parks were off our radar screen. It is amazing how parenthood changes perspective. The places that we avoided then are the places that we seek out now. We’ve gone mainstream!

It was early spring last year when we went to Disneyland for a long weekend. Actually, going there was a last minute decision that crystallized after our little girl hinted of Mickey Mouse and Goofy. We were supposed to head south of The Netherlands for a 2-night stay in a castle close to Maastrict but cancelled that in lieu of Disneyland. We were able to find a good deal for 4d/3n stay in a 4-star hotel inclusive of the 3-day pass to Disneyland and Walt Disney Studio.

Spring blooms

Trees in bloom

The journey to France took a bit over 5 hours including the short rest room break that we took for Francesca mid-way. Spring is already very much on its way as we drove south. From Belgium to France, the sights of trees and shrubs exploding in pink, white and yellow blooms are simply enthralling.

We spent the first day of our French sojourn just relaxing a bit considering that Siefko did all the driving. He actually enjoyed driving through the French motorway (peage) because the speed limit at 130 kilometers is just great for those who love a bit of speed and hate the traffic jams that’s so common to small countries like Holland.

The hotel turned out to be nicely situated in the middle of a sprawling golf course. We simply loved the greens as European hotels are normally cramped and located in busy areas while this one turned out to be quite secluded.
We had a very pleasant stay at the Radisson Blu and will definitely chose it again next time that we go to Disneyland.

Radisson Blu @ Disneyland

Playing at the hotel's sprawling ground

Running around and hiding

Playing hide and seek at the hotel grounds

At the hotel's bar for drinks

The ever enthusiastic little dancer trying some of her moves at the hotel ;-)

Some of the buffet breakfast choices

Some of the buffet breakfast choices on my plate

The little girl at breakfast

In entering Disney, Francesca was immediately impressed by the princess outfits that many girls were wearing. Those dresses became an obsession that we ended up getting a princess gown for her too. That would be the only stuff that she would wear in the coming days.

First glimpse of Disneyland

Disneyland

Carousel ride

Carousel ride

Train ride

Train ride

My castle obsession did not go away altogether. From Disneyland, we also made a side trip to the stately Chateau de Fontainebleau which was a mere half hour’s drive. (This beautiful chateau will be a subject of my next post).

Our little princess at Chateau de Fontainebleau

El Nido, our little paradise on earth

El Nido at dusk

With the snow and ice gone, this last bit of winter is just such a drag. There is still more than a month to go before the official start of spring but I can hardly wait to move on into the new season. Even my little girl is already longing for the time when she can go outside and pluck some flowers because at the moment, there is hardly anything of color anymore.

The weather is not helping either to cheer me up. Today it is wet, windy, cold and grey. Thus, I am going down memory lane to a wonderful holiday we had way back in 2006 in the Philippines. This particular place is called El Nido (or the nest) in Palawan and is so-called because of the limestone cliffs that are so typical in this area which are home to a special type of swift, the cave swift that are renowned for building the saliva nests used for the Chinese bird’s nest soup.

This place is special to me and the Mr. because this is where our love story started with a coincidental meeting on its shores over 15 years ago. We call this place our own little paradise for being here is like no other from the wonderful things to see — beautiful uninhabited islands, pristine beaches, scenic limestone cliffs to amazing things to do — island hopping, snorkeling, scuba diving or simply relaxing on the beach listening to the gentle to and fro sway of the waves on the shores and the chirping of the birds and crickets in the trees (or at times being pelted with fruit stones by monkeys who do not like intruders). Add to that the pleasantly warm weather, the friendly people and the relaxed if not lazy pace of life which is a comforting interlude from the busy lives we lead back here in the west.

We enjoyed our almost one week stay in this paradise…island-hopping every day and having our simple meals by the beach. Though I have this fear of the deep water, I was caught up in the magic of snorkeling, oftentimes forgetting the time while observing the amazing world beneath the waters…schools of colorful fishes, beautiful corals, sea turtles, clams, and many more.

My husband when he first came to the Philippines has really made it his goal to see El Nido because Jacques Cousteau has remarked that it was the most beautiful place he ever explored. He described El Nido as having one of the most beautiful seascapes in the world.

I miss El Nido and I look forward to returning one day…that time with the three of us. I am sure that our little girl will in a heartbeat get fascinated by these islands and its limitless charm.

US on one of the many uninhabited islands

Early morning on the shores of El Nido town

El Nido at dusk

Island scene -- pristine beach, wild plants and flowers

Typical feature of the islands - white beach, coconut trees and limestone cliffs

Coconut trees

Mangroves

White sandy beach, coconut trees and limestone cliffs

Sea shell

a local fruit (not sure if edible)

Limestone cliff

Approaching an uninhabited island

Limestone cliff island

A local flower

Coconut trees

Wild orchids growing abundantly on the limestones

Fruit-laden coconut tree

A local plant

a lovely shell

Sea shell

Coconut trees along the beach

The limestone cliff up close

This monkey was maybe not happy with intruders to his world - he kept on pelting us with fruit stones ;-)

Lazy pace of life in the islands

An uninhabited island

My favorite custard cake

The custard cake


There is no denying to the Spanish influence in Philippine cuisine. Well, 333 years of colonial rule is something so every aspect of Philippine life has bits and pieces of that moment in our history. Too bad that we do not speak Spanish as a major language compared to the Latin Americans but many Philippine words are derived from Spanish.

One of the Spanish desserts that I love so much is the flan or creme caramel. When I was a child, I could only get to taste it at wedding parties or fiestas. The flan is really heaven to me then and even now. I just love that combination of the sweet caramel sauce and the creamy smooth flan, hence, I made it my mission to learn how to make it and master it. I’ve been making flan for a long time and it has actually become one of the most sought after desserts by friends and family. I decided that I need to bring this flan to the next level and that is the custard cake.

I started baking quite seriously only last year. Not that I enrolled in some baking class but just self-taught myself and scoured the internet for recipes. I started with recipes of food I remember from the Philippines and took off from there. I was so happy to stumble upon the site of Casa Veneracion and her recipe of the perfect custard cake. With a bit of experience on the individual components (custard and chiffon cake), I did a bit of tweaking but for the rest, I copied her recipe. What I like so much about this recipe is that the cake and flan are on 50/50 level compared to the ones in the Philippines where the flan is all but a very thin layer. To flan lovers like me, this is the perfect treat! ;-)

I made this cake for the first time on my birthday last year and brought it to the office for my colleagues who were stunned. They couldn’t believe that I made this myself. Here in Holland, the tradition is to bring cake on one’s birthday. The Dutch normally brings the apple pie or “vlaai” bought from the baker which are normally oozing with lots of whipped cream. I decided to be different on my birthday, bringing something homemade.

To make this cake, I divided the process into 3 parts: caramel, custard and cake.

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (177 degrees Celsius). This cake is baked au bain marie so fill a deep baking tray with half a level of hot water.

Caramel:
Ingredients:
1 1/4 cup granulated white sugar
1/4 cup water

Instructions:
1. Make the caramel. Place the sugar and water in a thick bottomed pan. Turn the heat to high and bring the water and sugar to the boil without stirring. Then lower the heat to medium-high and continue boiling. After about 8 minutes, the mixture will start to brown. Continue boiling until the liquid is the color of amber.
2. Pour the caramel in your baking tray. I am using a deep Pyrex oven bowl (either the 8 x 8 or the lasagna bowl will do).

Boiling the granulated white sugar and water to make the caramel

The sugar on its way to caramelization

Cooking the sugar until it turns amber

The caramel poured onto an oven proof bowl to cool down

Custard:
Ingredients:

5 large (or 6 medium) eggs (yolks and whites)
1 can condensed milk (397 gram)
1 can skimmed or full milk (397 gram)
1/4 cup white sugar
Finely grated rind and juice of 1 mandarin or 1/2 orange or citroen

Instructions:
1. In a bowl, beat the eggs.
2. Add the sugar, condensed and skimmed milks.
3. Add the mandarin or orange or citroen juice and the finely grated rind.
4. Pour on top of the cooled caramel.

The eggs

The custard poured over the caramel

Chiffon cake:
Ingredients:

3 large eggs, yolks and whites separated
1/4 cup minus 1 tbsp. granulated white sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 tbsp. canola oil
3/4 cup sifted cake flour
1/4 cup skimmed milk
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
1/4 cup minus 1 tbsp. granulated white sugar

Instructions:
Cake mixture:

1. In a bowl, beat the egg yolks with the 1/4 cup minus 1 tbsp. sugar until smooth and lemon colored.
2. Sift the flour and baking powder.
3. Add the milk and flour alternately, mixing after each addition.
4. Add the oil and beat thoroughly.

The cake mixture

Meringue (egg white mixture):
5. In another bowl, add the cream of tartar to the egg white and with the hand mixer, beat at high speed until the egg whites turn foamy.
6. Add yhe sugar little by little and continue beating until the egg white mixture is stiff.
7. Slowly fold in the cake mixture using a rubber spatula. Do this slowly until the cake and meringue are well blended.
8. Pour the combined cake and meringue mixture over the flan. The cake mixture is light and airy so it will float over the custard mix.
9. Baked au bain marie at 350F (177C) for 50 to 55 minutes or until a toothpick when inserted at the center of the cake comes out clean.
10. Allow to cool down and then chill in the fridge.
11. To serve, using a knife, trace the side of the cake. Take a plate that can hold the cake and place it upside down on top of the oven bowl. With one hand under the oven bowl and the other hand on top of the plate, invert the cake onto the plate.

The meringue (stiff egg whites) about to be mixed with the cake mixture

Folding the cake mixture into the meringue

The custard cake being baked au bain marie

Cooling the custard cake

Cross-section of the perfect custard cake - 50/50 flan and cake

Looking back to a Valentine’s Day celebration with a noble twist

It’s Valentine’s Day and I am actually thinking of what to post today. There’s no dinner date planned tonight because my husband is attending the company’s annual meeting which will be till 9pm and buffet dinner is also on the agenda. I told him that the big bosses are so insensitive to plan this annual meeting today of all days so I’m sure that many of his colleagues (the bosses included) will have ear-bashing from the angry wives, ha, ha, ha! He works for an engineering consultancy firm which is a male-dominated world so the guys there are quite the nerdy ones who can’t be expected to be romantic and remember to observe this day with reverence. ;-)

Anyway, my husband and I are pretty unconventional. Even without this annual meeting, we were not planning to have a dinner date somewhere with champagne and all the trimmings because we have a little girl who needs to go to bed early for school the next day. We are actually planning to have that dinner date next week, a post-Valentine date when the daughter is with the grandparents for a few days given the one-week school holiday then.

I take you back to our Valentine’s day celebration two years ago when Holland was covered in snow and we were out for our usual weekend stroll. We went to Kasteel de Haar (De Haar Castle) which was just a good half hour’s drive from our place. The castle belongs to the family of Baron Van Zuylen and that’s the noble twist ;-). I love going to that castle because of its sprawling garden and its amazing wooded area. I’ve been there at other seasons but was pretty curious as to how it look like with snow and all. It was magical though the sky was overcast. We enjoyed the stroll and in the end, rewarded ourselves with a nice snack at a small restaurant on the castle grounds. I told the husband that I was such a cheap date for I was happy with my spicy chicken and hot chocolate with whipped cream. He settled for his usual “broodje kroket” while Francesca had her “poffertjes”.

De Haar Castle

Our family

The little girl enjoying the snow

My daughter and me

Father and daughter

The little girl at the castle's door

Father and daughter

Father and daughter

The garden in winter

De Haar Castle

The chapel

The bench

The little girl at the castle's stairs

Father and daughter

View of the chapel from the castle's stairs

My daughter and me

The chapel

The bridge

Spicy chicken

Broodje kroket

Warm chocolate milk with whipped cream

Our little girl after the stroll


We had a great Valentine’s Day. What was important is being together as a family. Expect me to choose a fancy location for a cheap date. A castle no less.

The Dutch and ice-skating: Why the passion?

The Netherlands is at the moment in an ice skating frenzy. Every canal, shallow lake and river which has frozen from days of sustained sub-zero temperature are venues for ice skating. Some places are holding ice skating races and a colleague of mine told me that there was even an ice disco at her parents’ place in Almere. We even came close to having the almost mythical “Elfstedentoch”, that almost 200 kms. ice skating tour/race that spans 11 cities up north in the province of Friesland. The whole country waited in bated breath for the decision of the Vereniging Elfstedentoch (Eleven Cities’ Tour Committee) last Wednesday if the tour will push through (the 16th in its history which dates back to 1909 and the first this century). Even foreign members of the press descended in Friesland to cover this event and were also betting for a GO on the Elfstedentoch which is hailed as the creme de la creme, the tour of all tours and the race of all races in outdoor skating event not just in The Netherlands but in the whole of Europe.

Frozen canal across the road from our home

The little girl getting her beginner's skates on

Baby steps to mastering the ice

The country got caught up in maelstorm of emotions that it will have its 16th Elfstedentoch this winter when the oftentimes very reserved and sceptical Vereniging Elfstendentoch had its first meeting earlier in the week. Then a contingent of 50-man army members were sent to Friesland to prepare part of the route, clearing the ice of snow so that the sub-zero freeze will still enable the ice cover to further grow especially at night. The Friesians also rallied to the challenge, mobilizing everyone to do their share in clearing up the ice of snow cover either by hand or with the aid of some ice-clearing machine. The committee requires that the average ice thickness to be a minimum of 15 cm. in the entire route in order to be safe to accommodate 16,000 skaters (not including the enthusiastic public who also step into the ice to cheer the participants). With all the news focused on economic troubles across Europe these days, the idea of Elfstedentoch was a much welcomed diversion. Hotel rooms in Friesland suddenly became overbooked and overpriced. The Dutch Railways (Nationale Spoor) was offering special tickets to Leeuwarden (the capital of Friesland) with 40% discount. In every nook and corner of the country the talk was only about the Elfstedentoch.

I was one of the millions who waited in bated breath for the press conference of the committee last Wednesday. And I was one of the millions who felt disappointment and sadness afterwards. The committee after consulting all the ice masters (Rayonhoofden) decided against holding the Elfstedentoch due to weak spots in some areas where the ice thickness did not meet the minimum standard. Some places have just around 10-12 cm. which was deemed to be not sufficient enough for a large contingent of skaters. The weather forecast also showed that the worst of freezing is over and the coming days were not going to result in more ice growth. The ever enthusiastic skaters asked that the minimum standard of 15 cm. be lowered (ice skating is already OK at 8 cm.) but the committee was adamant to keep it, justifying that it was already a reduced one from the original 18 cm. in the earlier races in. Again, this shows the Dutch pragmatism who will not be swayed by emotions that were hitting the roof for a go on Elfstedentoch for no one want to have on their plates the blame in case something untoward happens.

Never mind if the Elfstedentoch is not pushing through, the Dutch en masse are still off with their skating shoes and that will stay till the ice start melting. The training and passion start early and that is for my daughter as well who actually surprised us this Friday when on her third time on the ice (2 other times were in the ice skating rink after Christmas), she just took off walking quite some distance without falling. She has conquered her fear and found her balance on the ice. I know that just like with walking and other phases in her life, it will only go from strength to strength from here onwards.

Finding her balance and conquering her fear...this little girl is catching the ice skating fever

Finding her balance on ice

Baby steps to mastering the ice...papa still in the background

Baby steps to mastering the ice

Start-up lesson in ice skating

There were other kids also getting their introductory lessons on ice

Start-up lesson in ice skating

Learning the tricks of ice skating


Falling on ice is part of the learning process

Baby steps

Teens hit the ice right after school

Birds contend with a very small unfrozen area under the bridge

This bird with its spread-out wings caught my attention


To explain the Dutch passion for ice skating is to take a deeper look at the country’s geography, geology and history. Two-thirds of The Netherlands lie below sea level. I remember that as a child when I was presented this fact, I found it extremely difficult to imagine. How can the country not be overwhelmed by water when the sea water level is higher? In the Philippines, the land is never below sea level but we still get inundated by flood waters on almost a regular basis. Why is it different in The Netherlands. Then came the story about the dike that protect a village against the water and how this one little boy stuck his finger in a small leak in the dike which made him a hero.

The Dutch can be considered as among the most ingenious of people in the world for having mastered living in this condition of most of its land being below sea level. They created dikes and levees. They even reclaimed land from the sea. How did they do it? The Dutch since centuries ago learned to pump the water from low-lying areas with the use of windmills and channel them to a series of canals. The canals then channel the water to the rivers which would eventually empty into the North Sea. That’s the reason why The Netherlands has many canals and how swampy places like Amsterdam for instance, became a habitable place and was used as inspiration by Peter the Great of Russia to create St. Petersburg.

These canals would get frozen in winter especially when the sub-zero freeze goes on for a sustained period of time. I guess it is because of these conditions that the Dutch became very passionate with ice skating and the history goes to as far as the 14th century when they started using wooden platform skates with flat iron bottom runners. The skates were attached to the skater’s shoes with leader straps. Poles were attached to propel the skater. Around 1500, the Dutch added a narrow metal double edge blade, making the poles a thing of the past as the skater could now push and glide with his feet (called the “Dutch Roll”).

While the Elfstedentoch is a “No Go” for now, the hope that it can still push through has not completely waned. THe temperature will warm up beginning end of Sunday till most of the week but by end of next week, there is a second freeze expected. Who knows, it might still happen…let’s keep our fingers crossed for now.

More pictures here:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The magic of winter


After the generous snow fall of the previous day (Friday), we woke up to an amazing Saturday morning. The initial temperature was icy cold at -15 degrees Celsius which eventually warmed up to around -5 degrees Celsius. The sky was blue with not a speck of cloud in it and the snow covered trees looked like they were decked in diamonds and glittered spectacularly from the sun rays.




Too bad that my husband had to leave very early in the morning and missed all the fun, off to tropical Jakarta where the temperature difference that would greet him was around 45 degrees Celsius. He was so sorry to leave and to be missing the much awaited snow but work commitment calls.

My daughter’s friend was by the door at 9am, ringing the door bell for the continuation of the fun in the snow from the previous day. There is no better day than this to enjoy the snow with the sun and blue sky altogether. This is cheap fun too! With the crisis that is currently besetting Europe these days, many have foregone the usual winter skiing holidays in the alps or in Scandinavia. Getting this generous heaping of snow brought that winter fun right at our doorstep so why not enjoy this wonderful days of snow and ice.












Nothing is more precious than to see pure happiness in my daughter’s face as she glided downhill on her sled over and over again. She hardly noticed the passing of the time till she was exhausted and ravenous from hunger.

More pictures here:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Fun in the snow starts


There’s nothing more fun for children in winter than to be able to play in the snow. After almost giving up that winter will ever put in a real appearance this year, the cold snap from the high pressures emanating from Russia and the Atlantic finally brought us the much awaited winter wonderland. Snow fell generously last Friday that finally there was enough coating to be able to enjoy real winter fun.



We live along the dike or actually more of a sound wall that acts as barrier to the noise coming from the A1 highway. This unique location means that we have this little inclined area which from spring to summer is a patch of green dotted with wild blooms and now in winter is one fun area for downhill sleighing.





We were out to enjoy the much awaited snowfall. Francesca got both the old-fashioned wooded sled and a plastic one. Of course, fun in the snow is not complete without friends to play with so we checked on her friends (Luuk and Job) if they were around and luckily they were. What a lot of fun it was as they glided downhill on Francesca’s plastic sled over and over again till they were cold, wet and hungry. I made some sausage rolls which they devoured in no time.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Bicol express: one spicy Philippine dish named after a train service

A cold snap is currently chilling Europe these days and the mercury has dropped and stayed at sub-zero levels in the last couple of days. At times like these, there is nothing that I like more than to eat something hot and spicy, something familiar. What came to mind was a very special dish from the Philippines (my home country) and specifically from the region where I come from, Bicol. This dish is called “Bicol Express”, coined from the train service that runs from Manila to the Bicol region. What makes this dish special even in the Philippines is its spiciness and use of coconut milk because in general, Philippine dishes are not spicy but lean more to the Spanish influence due to the ties with Spain which colonized the country for over 300 years.

The Bicol Express


When I first came to Holland, I didn’t know that making this dish will be a big thing to my in-laws, friends and colleagues. I made it for myself then for comfort especially when I start to pine for things back home. After introducing it to the people here, it became the most anticipated dish whenever we had gatherings.

The dish is simple and had very few ingredients which in many ways, make its taste pure compared to spicy curries for instance.

For this dish, I used the following ingredients:

700 grams pork belly cut in cubes
2 tin cans of coconut milk (I would have used coconut cream but didn’t have that on hand)
6 cloves garlic
1 onion, sliced
6 pieces long chillies, sliced
freshly ground pepper
Salted tiny shrimps (This provides the special flavor and if not available, can be substituted by shrimp paste but salt should be added.)

The chillies used for the Bicol Express


The ingredients: pork, chillies, garlic, onion, coconut milk, salted tiny shrimp

Cooking instructions:

Sautee the garlic and onion

Add the pork meat

Add the coconut milk

Let the stew simmer for a while

Add the salted tiny shrimps, check the taste as this is the seasoning used. No need to add salt.

When the dish is almost done, add the chillies

Let it cook for a short while

The Bicol Express

Serve with steamed/boiled white rice and some vegetable (boiled broad beans in this case)

The Dutch Approach to Sex Education

I’ve been toying for sometime to write about this topic because I know that this is one relevant issue that confronts parents, children and the society as a whole. With population growth exploding especially in developing countries and the pressure on precarious natural resources mounting, there is a big need to address the issues on sex, population growth, and the dire economic consequences if we keep on with the status quo.

I come from the Philippines, the only Catholic country in the far east where the view on sex compared to The Netherlands where I now live is like night and day. Sex is something that is talked about in hush-hush tones and contraceptives are such a no-no especially if the very influential Catholic Church will have its way. They even threatened to excommunicate the president of the country for showing favor to the pending bill in Congress on Reproductive Health which will promote responsible sex and use of contraceptives.

Condoms and the pill


The Dutch approach is completely the opposite. Sex is a non-issue and is tackled just like any normal physiological activity of the human body. It is not sensationalized or attached with malice like the way it would be in the Philippines so it does not become a “forbidden fruit” for which everyone then becomes tempted to pick.

Sometime ago, I remember a conversation I had with an aunt of my husband. Being from the old school, she was peeved to learn that her 10-year old granddaughter (as well as the classmates) were to bring bananas to school because the lesson will be a demonstration on how to apply the condom. Such a generation gap! Her daughter (my husband’s cousin) found it funny that her mother was overreacting. In the Dutch academic curricular, lessons on the human body and its parts are given at six. Kids are being made aware of their body and how to take care of themselves at such a young age and what other people can or cannot do with them. That awareness also helps them from not being abused or taken advantaged of. I see nothing wrong here. Information and knowledge are power. Most cases of child abuse happen because children being innocent, are not aware of what are acceptable and not acceptable to behaviors of adults around them so abuses can oftentimes go on for years because adults with moral ascendancy over them perpetuate ignorance and fear.

Awareness of sex and contraceptives do not make children promiscous as contrary to the arguments put forward by people who oppose the idea of introducing sex education. The opposite is even true where repression of any talks about sex and educating the youth about this all but natural human physiological activity make them more curious to experiment which oftentimes lead to unfavorable outcome. In this day and age where access to internet is a common thing, it is so easy to just google the subject of sex. The thing is that if we do a search on the topic of sex, internet leads us to unsavory porn sites and that is where all the problems start. Doing self education on this subject rather than getting a proper lesson in school leads to the wrong ideas and expectations.

Growing up in the Philippines and being educated in a school run by nuns, this topic has been such a huge taboo. We were made to believe that even just sitting in a place where a male classmate has sat down will cause pregnancy. You can just imagine us with fans or magazines that we would put over any place where we would sit. Extremely ridiculous!

The Dutch approach is just the opposite. When children of maybe around seven begin asking their parents about how babies are made, parents will not tell them of the stories of storks bringing them or of bees and birds. The subject will be approached with a very truthful and clinical explanation which to be honest, makes sex the least interesting topic in the world in the eyes of children.

Bees and birds approach to discussing the issue is ridiculous to the Dutch. Issue is approached with all honesty.


Here in The Netherlands, children are given all the opportunities to be children and to savor childhood innocence. This is especially true when you see the lengths that parents would go to perpetuate the concept of Sinterklaas, the bishop who comes to the country from Spain every year on a steam boat aided by the Zwarte Piets (Black Peters) with presents for the children. The children are told that their behavior the whole year through is being noted by Sinterklaas in his big book and depending if they are naughty or nice, will get the kind of presents they deserve. The naughty ones only get a bag of salt. The point I’m making here is that this moment in children’s life when they still believe in Sinterklaas is regarded as very sacred by the Dutch. Out here, there is a time for everything…to be a child and to grow up well-informed of the essentials in life.

There is always a time to be a child...to believe in Sinterklaas

and Zwarte Piets


Time flies. It will not be long that my daughter will be asking questions about this subject and many more. She will receive honest answers from us for I am sure that with the upbringing she has, she will be wise and discerning enough to follow the right path. This is my take on parenthood. What about you?

The Dutch winter fun begins

Just when I thought that from autumn we’ve skipped a season and progressed to spring especially as crocuses are already starting to peek out of the ground and bloom, winter suddenly puts in a very much delayed appearance courtesy of high pressures from Russia and the Atlantic that eventually found their usual winter rythmn. My mindset is already in a spring mode and now I need to shift back to winter which means thick and warm clothing lest I freeze. Brrrrrrrrrt!

There’s a lot of excitement sweeping the country with this weather development. Few more days of sustained sub-zero temperature will mean that outdoor ice skating will be the main event this coming weekend. In some areas up north, some shallow lakes are already covered with ice that is strong enough for skaters to skate on. In our place, the ice cover is still thin so we still need a bit more time. My daughter can hardly wait…

Our family on ice


The other times that there was ice, she was still too young for skating. Now at four, she is just at that perfect age to start learning this very Dutch preoccupation. I say very Dutch because ice skating has been a Dutch-dominated Winter Olympics sport especially the long distance (10-kilometer) category. This is not a surprise because this kind of skating is very much imbued in the Dutch tradition. Up north in Friesland in times of severe winter when there is ice, they have this special event called “Elfstedentoch” or Eleven Cities’ Race which involves skating through frozen canals, rivers and lakes between eleven historic Friesian cities covering a distance of almost 200 kms which should be completed before midnight. It is no easy feat but one that is eagerly awaited and has a long waiting list for would be participants as they have to be a member of the Association of the Eleven Friesian Cities. Some of the participants have even been registered at birth by their parents to ensure a place because the number of participants is capped at 15,000 of amateur skaters. Why is this the case? Well, we don’t get ice that can sustain this event that often. Even though there had been occasions of sub-zero temperatures in the last few winters, oftentimes they were not long enough to really ensure that the ice in the almost 200 kms. skating route would be thick enough (minimum of 15 centimeters along the entire route) and safe enough for the huge contingent of skaters. The last time that this race took place was in 1997 and before that was in 1985 or over 20 years earlier.

Another way of enjoying the ice


This canal is part of the almost 200 km. route for the Elfstedentoch


Francesca getting her skating lesson from her father


Over a year ago we were in Harlingen (Friesland) after Christmas visiting family and there was ice. Francesca got her first ice skating lesson. Me, on the other hand, didn’t skate but just walked over the ice. I tried ice skating before in my earlier days here in Holland and decided it was not for me. I can endure a few bruises and blue spots but the fear of broken bones was just too much. I’m just too old to learn the tricks of this sport and just prefer watching those around me glide through the ice with ease.

Every single Dutchman is out to enjoy ice skating when there is ice


I love the frenzied atmosphere when there is ice. It is akin to celebrating a national skating fiesta where everyone is out to just enjoy this fun for free. The Dutch, known for being wise with their money, welcomes anything that will not cost a cent and outdoor nature skating is one of them. Some very enterprising ones even get to earn extra bucks putting up stalls selling hot coffee or hot chocolate with heaping of whipped cream, such very much welcomed comfort amidst the chilly weather.

In our neighborhood are also shallow canals which froze two years ago. We were there as well though the little girl was still too small to skate so she stayed seated on her sled being pulled either by me or her father. She enjoyed watching the other kids showing off their skating skills and told us that when she’s older and bigger, she’ll do the same too.

Skating lesson from her papa starts this way


Skating aside ftom being a national passion is also an amazing bonding moments for families. Parents and their kids are just at their happiest on these times. It is amazing to see small children learning their ways into the ice from their patient parents who are dedicated to ensuring that this national passion lives on.

A chair is a beginner's essential


Most if not all towns and villages also have their ice skating associations. If skating is held in canals or lakes, they also have their ice masters or experts who check the quality of the ice and declare when is it safe to skate on the natural ice. Other villages are even more creative, creating temporary ice skating rinks by flooding a contained area like fields with a thin layer of water which then freeze a lot faster than the canals.

Bets are being made now (probability currently at 25%) whether we will have the Elfstedentoch this year as the sub-zero temperature is expected to continue until next week. If that happens, expect Holland to be featured on world news.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,653 other followers