Amsterdam sits on the edge of our collective unconscious. We have all heard of its canals, the tall, narrow gabled houses, its innumerable bridges and bicycles, the red light district where the girls sit in windows and the “pot” cafes. Amsterdam, as I discovered on my first visit in early October, is all these things and more. As well as its fabled museums, which house the great collections of Rembrandts and Van Goghs, this is also a 21st Century city with the streamline architecture of The Eye and Renzo Piano’s Nemo that resembles a vast green ship.
I came to Amsterdam at the invitation of Sofitel for a seminar on wine. This year, Amsterdam was chosen to launch Sofitel Wine Days 2015, a programme of events and activities that celebrates French wine, art-de-vivre and gastronomy throughout the Sofitel global hotel portfolio. These wine days have been going for many years and take place during the traditional harvest season, enabling guests to discover French wines at Sofitel hotels around the world through events such as dinners with French wine makers, wine appreciation classes and wine-based cocktail nights.
The seminar took place at the very exclusive 5 star Hotel The Grand Amsterdam, one of Sofitel’s 5 Legend hotels. The very tall and charming general manager, Remco Groenhuijzen, explained that The Grand had been, in the 17th Century, the headquarters of the Dutch Admiralty. In the 19th Century, the building became the City Hall before being transformed into a hotel in 1998. The City Hall period was an interesting one. Various works were commissioned for the building that are considered today of artistic importance and have preservation orders on them. Sofitel is proud of this heritage and has gone to great trouble and expense to restore and preserve these works. Close to the hotel’s one star Michelin fish restaurant, Bridges, stands a 1949 mural, “Questioning Children” by Karel Appel of the Cobra movement. Meanwhile the vast Council Chamber was entirely redecorated in 1924 with stained glass, wood panelling, Murano glass lights and fine examples of Art Deco carved wooden figures. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands was married here in 1966.
But the cherry on the cake must surely be the room where the seminar took place. This is the Marriage Chamber, completed in 1926. It is still used to celebrate marriages. I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite like it. Every inch of the ceiling was painted in intricate patterns, the walls covered with life size (albeit slightly menacing) Art Deco figures celebrating man and woman’s journey from childhood to marriage, the whole thing in a predominant colour of viridian green. The artist Chris Lebeau, an eccentric figure, shut himself up with his assistant for two years in this room, not allowing anyone access until the work was completed.
Within these extraordinary surroundings the seminar took place, hosted by Enrico Bernardo, Worldwide Best Sommelier 2004. He set out the conclusions of a global study involving seven countries (France, China, Russia, India, Australia and Brazil) carried out by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) to define how people appreciate wine. The IFOP study found that 76% of those canvassed drink wine. Interestingly, 92% of women in China drink wine, mainly white wine or champagne. 33% of people choose fine wines for special occasions. 51% of people in the study still associate wine with France.
Enrico, who had originally trained as a chef, realises the importance of matching wine with food. He has also noticed a significant shift in the way that we drink alcohol. The young (20 to 25 year olds) have moved from strong spirits to wine. Ten years ago, one person would choose the wine for lunch or dinner, mainly Bordeaux. Today, 64% of people choose wine to go with their choice of food. There is also a trend to drink important wines in a simple way – i.e. at a bar with finger food.
We were given an example of a Sofitel Wine Days dinner with accompanying wines. The sommelier explained why a particular wine had been chosen for a particular dish – either to complement or enhance the flavours. For example, Cour cheverny DeDe, Philippe Tessier, 2009 was served with red mullet, smoked capsicum jus and sourdough, whereas Meursault-Perrieres, Germain, 2009 was served with turbot and lobster, girolle and truffle.
I was put up at a new 149 bedroom 4 star hotel called The Ink which, along with Sofitel, belongs to the Accor Group. The general manager, Joachim de Looij, who was involved from the conception of the hotel to its completion, is 30 years old and the youngest hotel manager in the group. The hotel was opened in April and was completed in just four and a half months, which can only confirm the Dutch reputation for hard work and industry. Every detail has been thought through, from the very comfortable beds to the cutlery on the table. There isn’t one note that jars. The hotel is a conversion of an old existing building once the home of the Dutch equivalent of The Times, hence the name The Ink. Everywhere there are reminders of its journalistic past, from the colour scheme of black and white to the books lining the shelves in the bar area, and the anagram above the reception desk.
Concrete Amsterdam, the architects, oversaw the conversion. Their intention was to bring the street, in other words Amsterdam, into the hotel, by using outside materials within. This theme is carried through from the bar which leads in an open plan to the dining area and to the kitchen, where you can watch chefs busy at work producing quality fresh food. The effect is to make you feel relaxed and takes away the usual stuffiness of a hotel. What you see is what you get – but in a very good way. The whole place is stylish and the happy waiters are attentive and friendly. One has to wonder if this hotel isn’t the way forward and that the traditional commercial type of hotel has maybe seen its day (as it does seem terribly old hat by comparison).
On this note, I shall end and say that I came away feeling revived and optimistic. Amsterdam, with its historic past and its modern day creativity, still has much to offer the rest of the world. It definitely begs a return visit to explore the old and the new.
For further information or to make a booking, visit Sofitel’s website here.