Sunday 17 October 2010

Best of both worlds

We've recently been to Australia - 2 years and 8 months after our previous trip. This is the longest duration between visits, and this time, the differences between the two countries seemed to be more apparent. During our holiday, I noted a few things that I think the Dutch could adopt from Australia, and vice versa. Here is just a couple that seemed to really stand out:

What the Dutch could adopt from Australia

1. Gold Class Cinemas
After having been to a Gold Class Cinema, I must admit it is hard to go back to the regular cinemas. It is like the business class of film viewing. The cinemas are small, seating only about 30 patrons, but everyone gets a reclining, lounge-type chair, with a small side table and the option of pillows and blankets so that you can enjoy the film in the utmost of comfort. These cinemas also offer a more comprehensive food and beverage menu (not just popcorn and sweets), and your order is brought to your seat. Of course these privileges do come at a price, but are worth it!

2. Up-front payment at cafés
We were of course eating out a lot while we were away, and many cafés make use of an up-front payment process. Sometimes, we were given a number to place on our table, while in other places the tables are already number and you just let them know where you are sitting when you place your order. The food is still brought to your table, but you don't have to flag someone one down to place the order or pay the bill. As it is not unheard of for people to walk out of Dutch cafés without paying the bill, such a system could be quite beneficial in the Netherlands.

3. Wine selection in pubs
It seems to be almost standard now for pubs in Australia to offer quite an extensive wine list. OK, there is the advantage of having such a large selection of local wines to choose from, but having said that, they are not skimping on their choices. The wine that is offered is typically of very good quality, although it is probably more expensive than the beer selection. However, I would be willing to pay more for a glass of wine in a Dutch pub, if I knew that I was getting a decent drop.

What Australians could adopt from the Dutch

1. Free Wi-fi in city centres
Admittedly, it is only recently that Rotterdam has established a free wi-fi network within the city centre. But they have taken that initiative, and it is fantastic. While we as locals often make use of this service, it also allows tourists to search for local attractions/restaurants etc within the city. Here's hoping that the construction of the National Broadband Network will facilitate more free wi-fi access across Australia.

2. Cookies with coffee
Go to any café in Australia and you will be inundated with cake choices, it is almost overwhelming. However, the cake servings are often pretty big, and there are the odd occasions where one does not want (or need) a large piece of cake. The Dutch have the perfect alternative - they typically serve a small cookie, piece of cake or brownie upon ordering a coffee/tea and in many cases it is just enough to satisfy the sugar craving while not overdoing it. It is a little treat, without the guilt :)

3. City-airport train links
The Dutch train network brings you directly to the Amsterdam airport terminal - and in less than 1 hour from leaving home, I can be checked-in and ready for the flight. We visited 3 cities (and 4 airports!) in Australia, only one of which has a direct train link to the airport. Sadly with this service, the last train leaves at 20:00, so those on later flights have to find alternative transportation to the city centre. Although a train link to Melbourne airport has been considered, it does not seem to be a high priority. Pity, as there is ample space and would be very convenient for accessing the city.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

The blender saga... finally over, almost 9 months after it began. It all started a few weeks before our house warming party, which was to be held the first weekend in December last year. The plan was to serve cocktails, but I noticed that there was a crack in our blender goblet. The blender was part of a Kenwood food processor, which was only about 3 years old. Needless to say, everything else was in working order, and the broken blender goblet did not warrant purchasing an entirely new food processor. So I began the hunt for a place that sold spare parts in the hope of replacing the blender.

There didn't seem to be any Dutch supplier of spare parts, and so I subsequently began my search in the UK. Although there were more options, many had strange payment systems or did not deliver to continental Europe. I then found to another UK on-line supplier of spare parts - they had the part, it would be €64 in total and would be shipped within 2-3 weeks. So I placed an order and just over a week later, received an email confirmation that the package was sent.

Given that deliveries from the UK typically take about a week to arrive, I expected my package to arrive within a few weeks, at most. But more than a month later and no sign of the order (and no blended cocktails at the party). It was getting close to Christmas at the time, and we received a number of packages, but not my spare part. After sending a few emails with no response from the vendor, I was starting to get a bit annoyed. And since the original confirmation email had no tracking number, I had no means of knowing what had happened to my order.

While I was trying to find another way of contacting the vendor, I came across a forum with not so glowing stories about this particular on-line supplier. Furthermore, the stories sounded very familiar - orders not received, no response from the vendor and no indication if and when they would get their part. My heart sank. What to do now.

I decided to send a formal letter to the vendor, but also contacted the European Consumer Centre. They act as a mediator in trying to resolve issues related to purchase within the EU - and this service is free! And they were very willing to help get to the bottom of the situation. So while they started their investigation, I continued to try to get in touch with the vendor.

Early in March, I finally received an email from the spare parts supplier that the package had been returned to them with a note saying that it had not been picked up, although a card would have been left in our box requesting us to do so. Despite receiving a number of packages in December, I don't think we missed the card from the postman. The on-line supplier then mentioned that they would have to charge me for redelivery. At this stage, I just wanted my money back and certainly didn't want to pay another €19 to have the package reshipped and run the risk of it not being delivered, again. So I requested a cancellation of my order and a full refund.

Their response was that the postage and handling is not refundable and they would be deducting a 33.3% restocking fee - thus the refund would be approximately €25. What!! A restocking fee!!! For a part I never received let alone used!!!! I was livid. About the same time, the ECC had also had got in touch with the vendor, to which they received the following response.

Even in this day of pampering consumers to the detriment of suppliers, surely she has to take some responsibility for her lack of action when this card was left (which it undoubtedly was - TNT are a reputable organization and would not have said they tried to deliver if this was not the case)?

Given some of my more recent experiences with TNTpost, I am not sure that they deserve such praise ;) But seriously, isn't this vendor's whole livelihood dependent on consumers? And is refunding my money pampering me? However, we came to an agreement. I would waive the postage and handling but receive a full refund for the part I ordered. The next catch? They only refund by cheque, which Dutch banks charge a fee to deposit. Upon receiving the cheque, I did notice that they had written the address incorrectly; they had put the number before the street, while the Dutch convention is the reverse. Could this have been the initial problem?

So after many months of blood, sweat and tears to get my blender goblet or money back, I ended up being out of pocket €40. In the meantime, I did eventually find a Dutch spare parts supplier (although I am sure they didn't exist in November). On Sunday, I placed an order with them for a blender goblet - it was in stock for €28 (including shipping) and would be sent within 24hrs of placing the order. Today, we received it! And so ends the saga.

Sunday 7 March 2010

Breakfast and brunch

I was asked by a friend the other day if I could recommend a place for breakfast in Rotterdam. This question really stumped me as it is not often that we go out for breakfast/brunch these days. I always had the impression that not many places in Rotterdam do breakfast and I don't hear many people suggesting to meet for breakfast or brunch.

When I consider the other cities in which I have lived, I was spoiled with breakfast/brunch possibilities. Melbourne even has a whole website dedicated to the breakfast spots in different areas of the city. In America, the breakfast options were almost endless, from breakfast burritos and huevos rancheros in New Mexico to all day breakfast at places such as Yours Truly. It was nice to know that every once in a while, I could treat myself to a breakfast out.

So what are the breakfast options in Rotterdam? The Irish pub, O'Shea's, offers an all day Irish breakfast (from 12:00 noon!) and the rumour is that the new Urban Espresso Bar West will also serve an English breakfast. Cappucino, Bagels&Beans, Bagel Bakery and Mockamore serve bagels while Dudok and Picknick have quite extensive breakfast menus, served well into the afternoon. For a Turkish/Mediterranean breakfast, there is Bazar and de Olijventuin. But of all these places, only a few are open before 9am during the week and 10am on the weekend.

As I have the impression that the Dutch are going through a gastronomic revolution, I can't help wonder whether there may also be an increase in breakfast and brunch spots in the near future. Here's hoping...

Monday 1 March 2010


It has been over a year since I wrote anything on this blog. In part, this is because of a lack of focus. The original intention was to use it to discuss the things that struck a chord - things that resonated with me - which included my research, food and Rotterdam among other things. However, a year ago, I started a new job where I could no longer discuss my work publicly. Also, we moved house, and were putting a lot of time and effort in to getting that all set up. But now, a year later, when things have settled down a bit, it seems a good time to revive it.

Yet, there is still the question of what to blog about? Any suggestions?

Wednesday 28 January 2009

Two articles about polyelectrolyte complexes

In the last month, I have had two articles published related to the work a BSc student did with me on polyelectrolyte complexes. The first article, published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry B, investigates the effect of the complex composition on the physical properties of the materials. We observed that complexes of two different polyelectrolytes in the ratio 20:1 showed higher proton conductivities compared to the pure materials, without compromising the structure or stability of the material. These results are of particular interest for fuel cell applications, where tough materials with high conductivities are required.

The second article, published in Soft Matter, examines the material structure upon adjusting the ratio of the two polyelectrolytes used in the complex. One component is a rigid polyelectrolyte that has shown preferential alignment in a specific direction. Complexing this material with a second, more flexible polyelectrolyte was expected to reduce the degree of ordering. However, the results indicated that the alignment was retained for polyelectrolyte ratios up to 10:1. Such behaviour may allow for tuning the structure of polymer films, which may then be applied as fuel cell membranes, filtration membranes, and sensors.

Thursday 4 December 2008

Smoking Ban Defiance

From the 1st of July 2008, a smoking ban was imposed on all pubs and restaurants in the Netherlands. During the summer months, most smokers were happy to make use of the outside terraces, particularly on a balmy evening. But as winter approaches, many pubs are defying the ban and allowing their patrons to smoke inside. In some towns, publicans have collectively agreed to ignore the ban, with many smaller places struggling to make ends meet due to a decline in customers. Such resistance would appear to be gathering momentum, with other pubs around the country also turning a blind eye to those who smoke inside. The health minister, however, has indicated that he will take a tough stance on places that do not uphold the law. But with the threat of a 300 euro fine for an inital offence, it seems that many publicans were willing to take that risk. However, through unfair competition laws, pubs may face fines of up to several thousands of euros, with repeat offenders facing (temporary) closure of their establishment.

Last night, we decided to go for a pub meal at one of our locals (but not a regular haunt). Of the 25 or so people that were there, ALL but about 4 people were smoking. Although there were no ashtrays on the bars or tables, people were using the candle holders. And given that almost everyone that walked in was holding a cigarette packet, it would seem that the word had got around that this pub is ignoring the ban. After experiencing several months of smoke free bliss, it was just horrible to sit there in the smokey atmosphere, particularly as we were eating. Had we not ordered food, I think we would have left. And if they continue to allowing smoking, I will do my best to avoid going back. Fortunately, we were not there long as we had another event to go to, at a pub down the road where smoking is NOT allowed. And although the place was filled with students, there were also many other patrons enjoying the smoke free atmosphere. Thanks Cambrinus for upholding the ban - we will be back!

Sunday 21 September 2008

Chocolate Fondant

One of my favourite TV shows is 'Masterchef', a BBC program whereby amateur chefs have a chance to show off their talent in a series of cooking challenges. After completing these challenges, the person who has demonstrated the best technique, presentation, and of course the best tasting food, is the winner. Having watched several series of Masterchef, there seems to be one dish that can either make or break a contestant - chocolate fondant. The key to chocolate fondant is that the outside should be cakey in consistency, while the inside should be gooey, molten chocolate. The stumbling block for many of the contestants on Masterchef is that they either undercook it, such that it collapses into a runny mess, or overcook it so that it is cakey all the way through. After seeing so many people fail to prepare a proper chocolate fondant, I was curious to see how difficult it is to make. Funnily enough, this month's edition of the Dutch delicious. magazine has a recipe for Chocolate Fondant, so I thought I would give this recipe a try. Upon looking at the list of ingredients, I was skeptical as to whether it would work. However, to my surprise, the puddings were a success! Compared to the contestants on Masterchef, I had the advantage of time. I could leave the puddings in the fridge for several hours, which seems to help to maintain a liquid centre upon cooking. I was very pleased with the result and will definitely be preparing this chocolate fondant recipe again sometime...

Chocolate Fondant (serves 6)

200g high quality dark chocolate
240g unsalted butter, in blocks
4 eggs
90g caster sugar
30g flour, sifted
powder sugar

Break the chocolate into pieces. Put the chocolate and butter into a heat-resistant bowl and melt in the microwave on medium power for about 3 minutes, stirring after 2 minutes. Stir to make sure the mixture is smooth and let the mixture cool to room temperature.

In another bowl, beat together the eggs and sugar until the mixture is light and foamy. Fold in the chocolate mixture and sifted flour. Spoon the mixture in to 6 greased and floured souffle ramekins of 185ml or 3/4 of a cup in volume. Place the ramekins in to the fridge for at least 2 hours.

Heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius and bake the puddings for 10 to 12 minutes until they have a cakey surface. Take the ramekins out of the oven and leave for a minute to rest. With a knife, carefully run around the outside of the pudding and turn out on to a plate. Sprinkle with powder sugar and serve with berries, cream or icecream.

Sunday 17 August 2008

The Red Apple

We have bought an apartment! - a three-room place in a new building in the centre of Rotterdam. The building, known as The Red Apple, is located on Wijnhaveneiland (translation: Wine harbour island) just minutes from shops, restaurants, public transport and other amenities. The building consists of two parts - a tower and a head block - and we were able to buy a place on the 10th floor of the head block. It is 93m2, with two bedrooms, a bathroom, a large open kitchen/living room and a separate utility room. The apartment has wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling windows, with views to the north and north-west along Wijnhaven towards the city centre. As the building is still under construction, we wont be able to move in until the 2nd quarter of 2009. In the meantime, we are busy looking at kitchen layouts and floor coverings. Some pictures of the current status of the building can be seen here.

Our place is outlined in red!

Tuesday 22 July 2008

NMR study published in 'Fuel Cells'

Last week, I received an email with the table of contents for the most recent edition of the journal 'Fuel Cells' to find that in this edition, they had published an article I had submitted to the journal. The article presents the findings of an NMR study of the proton transport mechanisms in a phosphoric acid doped polymer that has potential as a fuel cell membrane. The polymer consists of two components - one crystalline, the other amorphous - and the results suggest that the proton transport takes place more readily in the amorphous phase. This work was completed during a six month project with the Polymer Electrolyte Membrane Fuel Cell group at the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN). Being one of the major energy research institutes in the Netherlands, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with them, and also to be able to publish the work we did together.

Tuesday 8 July 2008

Page Turners

In 2000, some friends of mine started the reading group 'Page Turners'. We were mostly friends from uni, with a few joining by association, and eight years later the group is still going strong. From the 12 or so original members, many are still regular participants in a group that now consists of about 18 members. We have covered a number of genres in our book selections, including classical and contemporary literature, fantasy and sci-fi, biographies, non-fiction, comedies and graphic novels. In many cases, it has been a great way to read something that you would otherwise have never even picked up at a bookshop or library. Since I moved overseas in 2001, I have been a member 'by correspondence'. I have continued to read most of the books, after which I send my thoughts to the group via email. It has been a great way to maintain a presence in the group, although I am not physically able to attend most of the meetings. What I have missed, however, is being involved in the discussion, and to hear what other members thought of the book. Or at least that was the case, until now. Just recently, the Page Turners blog was established, where members of the group can post a comment on the book we have just read (and discussed). Already, there have been several posts on the books of the last 2 months, and it has been great to be able to read the impressions/interpretations of others. I'm certainly looking forward to more comments on the future book selections in the months to come.

Sunday 6 April 2008


Over the years, I have acquired quite a few books - some of which I love and could happily read over and over again, but there are also others that I am less fond of. More recently, however, I find myself refraining from buying books, simply because I just don't have the space to store them. One alternative would be of course to buy a bigger book shelf, but I had also thought about parting ways with the books that I probably wont ever read again. Rather that just throwing them away or giving them to a second-hand bookstore, I am considering releasing them into the big wide world, sending them on a literary adventure. Some time ago, I heard about a worldwide book sharing service called BookCrossing which simply involves registering a book, and then leaving it somewhere for someone to pick it up and read. The books can be left in cafes, hotels, on buses or park benches, and whoever picks up the book registers its new location. Once this person reads the book, it can once again be left for another unsuspecting reader in a new location, and the travels of the book can be tracked on the BookCrossing website. I think this is a really novel idea (pardon the pun), and as the BookCrossing website states, by participating you "Help make the whole world a library and share the joy of literacy." It will be interesting to see where my books end up...

Monday 24 March 2008

Hot Cross Buns

During Easter, I would always have Hot Cross Buns. As they are not readily available here in the Netherlands, I decided to make some myself this Easter. Once again, Donna Hays 'Modern Classics Book 2' provided the recipe and around 4pm on Easter Sunday, we were enjoying butter smothered buns straight from the oven. On other occasions, the same recipe can be used to prepare a simple fruit bun, without the cross.

For the buns:
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup caster (superfine) sugar
1 1/2 cups lukewarm milk
4 1/4 cups plain (all-purpose) flour, sifted
2 teaspoons mixed spice
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
50g melted butter
1 egg
1 1/2 cups sultanas
1/3 cup mixed peel, optional

For the cross:
1/2 cup plain (all-purpose) flour
1/3 cup water

For the glaze:
2 teaspoons apricot jam, strained if desired
2 teaspoons water, approximate

Place the milk into a bowl and warm in the microwave (or on the stove) on a low setting for 1-2 minutes until slightly warm. Sprinkle over the yeast and 2 teaspoons of the caster sugar. Set aside for 5 minutes during which time the mixture will start to foam, indicating that the yeast is active.

Add the flour, mixed spice, cinnamon, butter, egg, sultanas, mixed peel and remaining sugar to the yeast mixture and mix using a butter knife until a sticky dough forms. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface for 8 minutes or until it feels elastic. Place in an oiled bowl, cover with a tea towel and allow to stand in a warm place for 1 hour or until the dough doubles in size. Divide the dough into 12 pieces and roll into balls.

Grease a 23cm square cake tin and line with non-stick baking paper. Placed the dough balls in the tin, cover with a clean tea towel and set aside in a warm place for 30 minutes or until the buns have risen.

Preheat the over to 200 degrees Celsius. Combine the flour and water for the cross, place in a piping bag or a plastic bag with one corner snipped off, and pipe crosses on to the buns. Bake for 35 minutes or until well browned and springy to the touch.

Combine the jam and water in a bowl and heat in the microwave for 1 minute. The glaze should be syrupy but thin enough to brush onto the buns. Add more water if necessary. Remove the buns from the oven and brush with the warm glaze. Serve with butter. Makes 12.

Friday 8 February 2008

Authorship Order

When preparing a scientific article for publication, there is often the question of who are the authors, and in what order should they be listed. In some cases, it is easy - the person who conducted the research (and in many cases, this is also the person who wrote the article) is listed first, while the supervisor is listed last. When there are more than two authors, however, the additional authors are usually added in order of their contribution and/or seniority between the first and last authors. As this is generally the accepted order of authorship, it is immediately apparent to the reader who did the work and who oversaw the research. But is the order of the authors important? Within a scientific article, reference may be made to another publication, e.g. "In previous studies, Smith et al. found...", and in most cases, the citation refers to the first named author of that publication. Similarly, when discussing an article with a colleague, we often referred to it as "the so-and-so paper" according to the first named author. Furthermore, when searching for articles using a bibliographical database, the results are listed by both year and the first named author. However, it has been brought to my attention on a number of occasions that having your name last on an article is even more important. As the last author, you are assumed to be the innovator behind the research, which attests to your ability as a project leader. Consequently, it is also used as a quantifier of productivity and excellence, where not only the number of publications is important but also how many have your name last. Making the transition from first to last author can be difficult, particularly when seniority and politics come into play. But unless alphabetical ordering is adopted, this authorship hierarchy is unlikely to change.

'Piled Higher and Deeper' by Jorge Cham is the popular comic strip about life, or the lack thereof, in grad school. Check it out by going to

Wednesday 16 January 2008

Raspberry Tiramisu

One of my favourite desserts is Raspberry Tiramisu, the recipe of which comes from Donna Hay's 'The Instant Cook' book. It is so simple, yet so yummy, that it is difficult to refuse a second helping. A perfect dessert for almost any occasion!

1 3/4 cups of cream
500g mascarpone
1 cup of dessert wine (I use Port)
600g defrosted frozen raspberries
1 pkt sponge finger biscuits (10-20 biscuits, depending on the size)

Place the cream in a bowl and whisk until soft peaks form. Fold through the mascarpone and set aside. Place the dessert wine into a shallow dish. Quickly dip both sides of half of the biscuits into the dessert wine and place them in a single layer in the base of a 10 cup (2.5L) serving dish (such as a lasagna dish). Distribute half of the raspberries over the biscuits followed by half of the cream mixture. Dip the remaining biscuits into the wine and place on top of the cream layer. Distribute the remaining raspberries over the biscuits and spread over the remaining cream mixture. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving, although best made the day before. Serves 8-10.

Tuesday 20 November 2007


Australians enjoy good food, and the availability of produce and the variety of restaurants in Australia is testament to this. But what I am noticing more frequently is that Australian chefs are also receiving recognition on the international stage. Out of the World's 50 Best Restaurants, two are located in Sydney. In my local bookstore in Rotterdam, there are recipe books by Donna Hay and Bill Granger - translated into Dutch! Donna Hay's magazine (English version) is also now available at some Dutch newsagents. Even the delicious. magazine, established in Australia, is now published in the UK and the Netherlands, with both issues including recipes from Australian chefs. As the Dutch are not known for their cuisine, it is so exciting to think that Australians may be helping to bring about a gastronomic revolution here in the Netherlands. And with kangaroo meat being stocked in the local supermarket, it almost feels like I am dining in Melbourne again...