For years Anna Hyman had known that Maastricht and Limburg in the Netherlands were renowned for food and culinary flair – as well as being famous amongst other things for its eponymous 1992 treaty and the introduction of the Euro, along with several famous sons including Andre Rieu and van Eyck, but had she realised just how special it was she would not have delayed her visit for so long.
Limburg is the most southern of the Netherlands provinces. It’s long, and in places narrow, sharing borders with Belgium and Germany. Certainly at its most southerly point, where we were, it’s a province of pretty lanes, little hamlets and villages, farms and gentle rolling countryside with hillsides cloaked in orderly rows of vines.
During winter the dormant vines will have been neatly pruned and as the days get warmer, and thanks to the mineral rich soil, they will grow rapidly bearing plump sweet grapes that when picked and processed will make excellent wine.
Wine has been made in Holland since Roman times
Few of us associate the Netherlands with wine – beer and jenever for sure; but wine? But why not; after all wine has been produced in Holland since Roman times.
However, it wasn’t just vineyards that we three friends discovered in our brief trip to Limburg, we also discovered honey, coffee and fabulous food, and a quick glimpse of the enchanting city of Maastricht.
A Vinteur Wine Tour
Our guide through the vineyards was Maurice Wernier who runs Vinteur Wine Tours. Maurice’s passion and enthusiasm for wine, and especially for the local wines, is infectious. Several of the wines in the Limburg Maasvallei he told us are so special that they have been awarded PDO status.
He went on to explain that some of the vineyards prefer to grow the traditional/classic grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But others prefer more modern grapes like Johanniter, Cabernet Cortis and Pinotin resulting in new style Limburgian wine.
Maurice introduced us to two vineyards that afternoon – Wijngaard St Martinus and Domein Steenberg.
Domein Steenberg is a family run affair, and working amongst the vines we came across one of the owners Luc Creusen.
Luc explained that the grape varieties they grow are chosen for quality and not quantity, the wine quality further enhanced by limiting the number of bunches on each vine.
As we walked down the hillside to the Hotel Creusen where we were having a wine tasting we couldn’t resist picking one or two of the dark plump grapes– they were lusciously sweet.
And later as we sat round the big wooden table sampling some of their Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Riesling wines we agreed that the Domein Steenberg wines are excellent.
The next vineyard Maurice took us to was award-winning Wijngaard St Martinus which produces white, red, rose and sparkling wines made chiefly from new grape varieties.
St Martinus started in a very small way in 1988 producing its first wine in 1990 using no fewer than eight grape varieties. It is now one of the largest vineyards in the Netherlands and is run by Stan Beurskens who studied wine making both in South Africa and Germany.
It was at St Martinus that we were introduced to one of their charming oenologists, the delightful Wiebke Nedderman. Wiebke showed us round the four floors of this modern winery before escorting us to the tasting room so we could truly appreciate the full St Martinus experience. Incidentally the St Martinus sparkling wine is made by the méthode traditionelle – just like champagne.
Limburg for fine food
With its fertile soil it is hardly surprising that Limburg has gained a reputation for fine food. It’s a real farming ‘community’ – priding itself on providing field to fork fresh ingredients.
Comparatively new to the Limburg food scene but making a name for himself is Kenny Essers.
There can be few people in the Netherlands who know more about bees and honey than Kenny.
We found him, and his company BEEing Pure, on a small holding down one of Limburg’s leafy lanes close to Maastricht.
BEEing Pure Honey
Kenny showed us round telling us about his chickens, herbs, fruit trees, shrubs and wild flowers, along with his small ponds designed to attract amphibious creatures, insects and whatever wildlife is passing.
At the same time he explained the life cycle of bees, the role of the queen bee, the drones and workers. And in one of the outhouses he explained what went on inside a hive and how he actually makes the honey.
The honey that Kenny sells is pure and natural – it’s not heated or filtered. We asked if we could taste some. It is delicious. I think of Kenny most mornings as I spread it on breakfast toast!
Perfect on breakfast toast
One of us liked the mild and light coloured honey, another preferred a stronger tasting and darker one, and I loved the delicate Limburg honey. There were many more to sample including a delicious lime flower honey, one with a more herbal taste and one with a hint of lavender.
Kenny also runs workshops – they must be fascinating. His small holding tour is really worthwhile, but if time is short you can find him selling honey at various Maastricht markets.
In spite of loving honey I don’t actually have a sweet tooth, but there are exceptions, and one of them happens to be a slice of cherry vlaai.
Vlaai is one of Limburg’s specialities comprising fillings, usually fruit, spread onto a pastry, yeast-dough, base, and then baked. They are fantastic.
A 7th century mill
In the heart of Maastricht is the ‘Bishop’s Mill’ (Bisschopsmolen) and bakery. It’s the oldest working water mill in the Netherlands dating back to the 7th century. Today its water wheel can still supply the power to grind the spelt used by the bakery for the loaves, and vlaai.
The day we toured the mill one of the fillings for the delicious vlaais was cherry, arguably my all-time favourite fruit pie filling.
A bookshop in a church
We could have stopped and had coffee in the café, but it had been suggested we walk over to the Boekhandel Dominicanen, once a Gothic church and now a bookshop, which also has an excellent cafe. (The Dutch rightly take their coffee and cake very seriously).
Behind the heavy steel door on which the word ‘book’ appears in 25 languages are wall paintings dating back to 1337, painted ceilings, and leaded windows. Every inch of the nave thanks to raised walkways is a book worm’s idea of paradise.
Coffee and Maison Blanche Dael
As we walked along Wolfstraat there was the most wonderful smell of roasting coffee. It lead us Pied Piper of Hamlin-style to a small shop – the Maison Blanche Dael – in one of its windows an exceedingly large coffee roaster.
The shop came into being in 1878 when Guiliaume Dael started a shop selling items like soap, preserves and luxury goods but at the beginning of the 20th century they started roasting coffee.
Not long before Guillaume’s death in 1928 his youngest daughter Blanche married Louis Boesten and the company name was changed to Maison Blanche Dael. The couple remained connected to the company until 1969 when it was bought by their coffee roaster specialist – Jean Erkamp.
Tea, coffee and peanuts
Now the family-run store sells coffee, tea, peanuts and associated items. Behind the shop is a small room its shelves laden with teas and coffees.
Roasting coffee correctly as we were to learn is an art in itself – as indeed is its brewing, the water for instance has to be just below boiling point. Even the bags in which the coffee is sold are special, made just as they have been for the last 100 years.
It was fascinating tasting some of the different coffees. But if tea is your preferred brew – Blanche Daal also specialises in teas – black, green, herbal, fruit, floral – there are nearly 100 varieties to choose from. And why do they roast peanuts in the coffee roaster? It’s a great way to keep it clean.
So apologies Limburg and Maastricht I should have come visiting sooner. And next time, and this is a promise, it will be for longer.
Accommodation: Hotel Kruiseheren – modern design meets former Gothic church oostwegelcollection.nl/kruisherenhotel-maastricht
We ate at
Restaurant Gerardushoe, Epen – good food, good cooking, good service. http://gerardushoeve.nl/
Mes Amis, Maastricht – stunning fine dining meal with superb local wines. https://www.mesamis.nl/en/
Brandweerkantine, Maastricht – great for imaginative tasty light lunches. https://brandweerkantine.nl/
Honey: BEEing Pure beeingpure.nl
Cherry Vlaai: Bishop’s Mill www.bisschopsmolen.nl