Occasionally you might find yourself in Maastricht, right in the ancient heart of northern continental Europe. The town centre brims with shops and pavement cafés, bicycles and narrow streets. There are a few sleek modern buildings slipped between more picturesque old Netherlandish houses. Formally acknowledged Dutch in 1839, in the Middle Ages Maastricht was part of the high-living Burgundian empire that reached from the Swiss Alps to Flanders. Good food was a core value.
I was there for TEFAF, the European Fine Art Fair, and I had assumed that dinner-table conversations would revolve around which Ruysdael you had preferred and whether 16th-century Augsburg silver was more beautifully fashioned than silver from Nuremberg. Instead, the whispering at one end of the table centred on the cheese shop… Had it moved? Would it still stock that ancient Gouda?
The next morning, early, before the art fair had opened its doors, I set off with a colleague. With its smart contemporary grey stone and plate-glass exterior, and prime location besides the charming 17th-century town hall, on the edge of the Market Square, Maison Florop is not hard to find. It stocks the usual fare of an upmarket delicatessen: high-quality jams, condiments, hams and salamis, Limbourgese sausages, De Cecco pasta, wines and oils.
But the cheeses are the main draw. In a chilled cabinet, the nations of Europe are represented in a crowded display. France leads the way: you can find chabichou de Poitou for €4.95 each; crottin de chèvre from Chavignol for €2.75 each. But there is also Gorgonzola and Pecorino Toscana from Italy, Bleu Basque and Manchego from Spain, a curious but delicious Tomme de Brébis, made with Dutch sheep’s milk but matured in France (€3.25 for 100g) and even Stilton and a good cheddar from England.
The core display, however, is of Dutch cheeses – great rounds with their shiny waxed skins, piled high on shelves behind the counter. Here you can find Goudas of many provenances, ages and flavours. The venerable star is indeed an ancient Gouda, salty, sharp, nutty and intense (€16.90 a kilo). And that was what I brought home.