About Alef Arendsen

I kite, I snowboard, I cook, I walk the dog. And when I'm not doing that I'm trying to build teams to help change the world.

Elder Blossom Syrup

We’re closing in on what we’re calling a proper heat wave here in The Netherlands. Arguing about what constitutes a real heat wave aside, we’re drinking liters and liters of elder blossom lemonade last two weeks, a perfect drink to quench our thirst with.

We made a big batch of elder blossom syrup the other day and although all elder blossom has disappeared in favor of soon-to-be elder berries by now I didn’t want to keep our recipe from you.


Elder blossom can be found anywhere here in The Netherlands, in parks, alongside roads and bike lanes to mention a few places. Also, the flower is quite unique so you can’t miss it. We got ours from the Amsterdamse Bos / Forest.

Having harvested quite a bit (we took two large shopping bags), I put everything in a large pot and put in water just enough to make sure all blossom is under if pressed a bit. We made sure the blossom stayed under by putting a weight on top of it and left it there for 24 hours or so.

Next, we strained everything using a large sieve.

The next step involved adding sugar and heating it. We put little less than a kilo of (organic) sugar per liter of fluid, we don’t like things too sweet (in total we added some 5.5kg of sugar on about 7 liters of fluid). Next, we brought the whole thing to a boil (adding sugar in batches helped making dissolving it a lot easier) and boiled it for 20 minutes.

Next, we let the whole thing cool, added some lemon (two, cut up in pieces) and some citric acid and brought the whole things to a boil again.  In our case we added 6 grams of citric acid per liter. Various recipes call for 3 to as much as 20 grams per liter; depending on what you choose you can conserve it longer. It does make the syrups more sour of course. Also, we could have used lemon instead of pure citric acid, but would have had to add way more lemon to achieve the same effect.

With the substance brought to a boil, we filled carefully cleaned bottles almost to the top and put these in another pot with boiling water (cap closed), so that sterilization was complete.

Sure it was a bit of work (I’m estimating about 1 hour of harvesting and 3 to 4 hours of preparation, cooking and cleaning work). The beauty for me is though, the elder blossom grows in the wild and we didn’t need a whole lot else to give us a year of elder blossom syrup.

Now only if this heat wave wouldn’t last so long and only if the bottles aren’t such nice gifts to friends and family, we would still have our whole batch… We’re started with 20 half liter bottles and our down to 6 now, in only four weeks :(.

The blooming season of elder berry plant usually starts in May and runs until as late as mid-July, depending on temperatures, rainfall, et cetera. Get the flower when they’re fully open and white. The plants don’t only grow in The Netherlands, it’s pretty much everywhere!

P.s. the extra supplies we needed (bottles, caps, citric acid) we obtained from the beer/wine supply shop in Almere, called Brouwmarkt. Bottles like these go for €1,95 including cap but cheaper version are also available.

Wijnand Fockink

If there’s one place that deserves a separate post on this blog, it’s Wynand Fockink; in all aspects that is, ranging from time & money spent, alcohol consumed (by me), historic value (both of the place and for myself) and people behind the bar.

I was introduced to de Wynand (as we call it) somewhere in 2001 I think, by Leonard and Joost, two friends of mine and my god why an introduction it was. I arrived at around 5pm, left less than 4 hours later, went home to bed and didn’t wake up until 1pm the next day.

Wynand Fockink

Wijnand Fockink is a tasting room for liqueurs and jenever (gin). The liqueurs all have a story and some of them are brewed locally, in the same alley as the tasting room. ‘Naveltje Bloot’ for example translates to ‘Naked Belly Button’, a traditional drink to enjoy in the company of a pregant lady. Or maybe you like ‘Hansje in de Kelder’ (‘Little Hans in the Basement’) or ‘Volmaakt Geluk’ (‘True Happiness’).

Joost and I cooked up plenty of brilliant ideas for our business while enjoying a drink at the Wynand (well, back then we consider them to be brilliant, not so sure about that anymore right now).

The original distillery dates back to 1679 so it’s not only drinking one can do there; the historic value provides for a nice little excuse: ‘yeah… burp… I went… burp… sight seeing honey’.

A few tips & tricks for going there:

  • if you don’t like waiting, stay away from this place on Friday evenings; the bar tenders are awfully slow (especially ex-prima-ballerina Hans, the bald guy) and the place has gotten some attention in some of the tourist guides lately, so it tends to get really crowded;
  • take your jenever or liqueur with a big De Ryck beer. It’s Belgian beer that combines perfectly with the liqueur;
  • if you do decide to combine the liqueur with a beer, don’t take more than 3 of these rounds on your first visit; you’ll go home waste;
  • don’t spill any of the precious stuff. As soon as the glass is filled up, make sure to lean over and sip the first bit from the glass, without touching it;
  • the place closes at 9pm (and it’s good they do);
  • Wynand Fockink is located right behind the Krasnapolsky Hotel (on Dam Square). The address is Pijlsteeg 31.

Hangop with Fruit at Sterk Staaltje

Although I tend to cook a lot, sometimes I simply can’t find the time to drop by at the supermarket or simply don’t feel like it. This is when Sterk Staaltje often comes to the rescue. The store, run by a nice couple is a paradise for food lovers in a hurry. Opening daily at 8am it offers everything you need for a breakfast, lunch or dinner.

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You can find me at Sterk Staaltje most often in the mornings. Whenever milk or yoghurt ran out, it’s just a 2 minute walk to get some. And then quite often, I change the yoghurt for a bit of ‘Hangop met Fruit’. Hangop is a typical Dutch dessert, although Lin and me usually eat it in the mornings. It’s a creamy, very rich, strained yoghurt that also has vanilla. And it’s just… super delicious!

If your in the neighborhood, be sure to drop by at Sterk Staaltje (located on the Staalstraat 12) and get some Hangop with Fruit, or some of the other delicacies they all make themselves in the kitchen in the back of the store. Ready-made sandwiches, lasagnes, the best salads in town, it’s all super good!

Or, if your not in town anytime soon and still want to get a taste of handop, use the recipe below to get your own.

  • 1 liter full-fat yoghurt (yup, don’t do this if you’re on a diet)
  • clean kitchen towel (not a cheese cloth, you really need a towel)
  • seeds of a vanilla bean (please, don’t use extract)
  • sugar

Wet the kitchen towel, so that it’s just a bit humid. Next, put a colander in a big bowl. Pour the yoghurt in, put it in the fridge and leave it there for a night. The following morning, get the yoghurt from the fridge and get rid of the juice that came out. Add the vanilla seeds and some sugar (how much really all depends on your taste). Done!

Then, combine it with some fruit; strawberries, blue berries, raspberries, pineapple, mango, anything.

Yeah, I’ll Happily Pay €15 for a Pound of Beef

I’m on the verge of deciding to start paying more for products than supermarkets, airliners and retailers are asking for their products. I’m sick and tired of them not telling me what their products really cost. This may sound weird but hear me out.

Yesterday I attended a workshop on the topic of sustainable food and energy saving. A statement we discussed was “consumers will never pay a premium for sustainable food” and many attendees said they believed sustainable food should not induce a price premium. They fundamentally believed charging more for sustainability is wrong.

This is an interesting debate. When looking at the true cost of products, it is about much more than the manufacturing costs, costs for overhead and others costs you would find on a typical profit-and-loss sheet. When you factor in air pollution, deforestation, waste collection and many other externalities, the true cost will be much higher. Taking into account true cost is not happening in many sectors. 6 free range or organic eggs are much more expensive than 6 battery farm eggs, even though factoring in externalities would definitely compensate for this.

In a way I agree with not charging more for sustainability. On the flip side though I think we should start charging much more for unsustainable products.

Attending the workshop which was organized by THNK were CSR officers from Ahold (Stop & Shop, Albert Heijn), KLM, ING, Shell and IKEA and I found some of their beliefs striking as they are the ones partly responsible for what price we as consumers end up paying.

Later that day I was reminded of an article I read on HBR titled Companies Must Account for the True Cost of Their Products. Somewhere half-way the article:

It’s easy to understand why the business community is forever working overtime to reject this full-cost accounting and create ever more imaginative arguments against paying for externalities. According to a recent United Nations study, if the world’s biggest companies actually had to pay for the environmental harm they cause, the bill would come to $2.2 trillion a year and reduce profits by one-third.

The article is part of a debate on HBR from 2010 titled What Business Owed the World and it provides a wealth of insights, arguments and discussions on the topic of externalities, true costs and sustainability in the context of business.

I believe that if offered the choice between two more or less comparable products consumers will always choose the unsustainable over the sustainable one if it is the cheapest alternative. For a comparable flight from Amsterdam to Milan, people will not pay €200 instead of €100 solely based on the fact the more expensive option will not harm the environment. Taking this argument further, there are three options as far as I can see:

  • Leaving the customer no choice be simply not offering the unsustainable product – some companies such as Marqt (‘organic’ supermarket in Holland) do this but the majority doesn’t
  • All companies themselves and voluntarily taking into account the true cost of their products when pricing them for consumers – referring to the above it is safe to say this is not going to happen any time soon
  • Policy makers forcing business’ to pay for the true cost of their products (which will then in turn find its way to consumer prices) – I don’t see any signs this is happening in any but a few sectors

In the debate on HBR, especially in the article titled Embracing Externalities is the Road to Hell one can read a lot of information that helped me make up my mind about this.

I believe neither of the three options above will be happening on a large-scale anytime soon. This is quite pessimistic or so it may seem.

I think I’m going to have to take matters into my owns hand and take into account the true cost of the products I’m purchasing myself. Paying €15,= for a pound of beef is no fun, so my guess is, I’ll eat less of it as a result (this is in fact already happening, as I’m doing most of my groceries at Marqt, where a pound of beef is priced at around €15). Paying €300 for a return ticket to Italy instead of only €90? I’ll think twice about that. Paying €4 for a plastic bag at the supermarket instead of €0.35? No way.

I’m not sure what to do with the difference between the (self made up) true cost of anything I purchase and the market price (which is what I really end up paying). I’m sure as hell not going to give it to guys that I’m purchasing the products from. Should I put it into a savings account? Donate it to WWF? Give it to homeless people? Suggestions welcome. I’m also not sure if this helps at all. I’m also not sure how to end up at the true price I should ‘pay’. Suggestions here are also welcome.

Inbox Zero, I finally got there!

I’ve been struggeling to get to Inbox Zero for years now. I’ve tried Getting Things Done plugins, I’ve tried Priority Inbox in my GMail accounts. I’ve tried paper TODO lists, I’ve tried letting go and not care about countless emails in my inbox, but nothing got me to the point where I was comfortable with the way I handled email.

Somebody once said: “people fix problems, tools don’t”. Although I really believe that’s the case, I think the current set up I’m using with the various email clients, plug-ins and added services finally helped me to get to zero emails in my inbox, along with the right mindset to keep it at zero…

So, what am I using?

Google Apps

We’re using Google Apps at The New Motion, so that’s the first step for me. Although it’s probably possible with other email providers / systems, Google Apps allows me to access my email from anywhere on every device.


Sparrow is the new kid on the block. It’s a replacement for the standard Mac / iPhone email clients. First of all, Sparrow integrates really well with GMail. It support labels, supports Priority Inbox (if you use it, which I don’t), has support for threaded conversations and has little UI features that make handling individual emails a lot more efficient. There’s lot more to tell about Sparrow, so please checkout their website for all the details. It’s available from the Mac App Store as well as the iPhone App Store and it’ll only set you back a few euros.


I recently started to use Sanebox and for me this is the missing link. Separating email that matters from email that can be ignored or only dealt with later is really key to getting to an empty inbox in my opinion. Sanebox only shows you the important emails in your inbox and leaves the rest for you to read later (it sends a daily digest with unimportant emails for you to check). The next really helpful thing Sanebox helps me with is deferring emails. Either by adding a label to an email or by forwarding it to a ‘remind me’ address, it gets deleted from your inbox and only pops up again after a specified period of time. For example, if I reply to an email inquiring for more details and I need to check back in a week whether or not it happened, I label to original email with the @SaneNextWeek label and remove it from my inbox. In one week, the original email will pop back up in my inbox and in the meantime, I can completely forget about it. Sanebox provides lots of other features worth checking out, but these are the two most important ones for me. Sanebox does cost you a bit of money; about $5 per month; or, just one cup of coffee as they cleverly mention on their website. Totally worth it for me.

Why this post?

This post is really meant to give Sanebox a bit of love. Setting up Sanebox is a breeze; actually it’s not just a breeze, it’s a lot of FUN setting it up. They’ve created such a smooth signup process; every online service should look at it and take it as an example. That already justifies this post in my opinion ;-).

Why not Priority Inbox?

Priority Inbox is a feature provided by Google Mail and also separates important emails from emails that can be dealt with later. It works, although the algorithms Sanebox uses and the integration with LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter provide for more accurate filtering. But if you would ignore that difference, for me there are two other major differences. First of all, Sanebox has all these other features that make handling email a lot more fun. Deferring emails and getting them out of sight is a major one using the @SaneNextWeek/@SaneTomorrow/1month@sanebox.com features. The other is the fact that Sanebox is a paid for service and doesn’t mingle with my privacy. While I’m still using Google Apps and Google’s privacy policy still gives them access to all my emails, at least I know Sanebox is NOT poking around in my email for other reasons that helping me handle my email.

By the way, if you have any other tips, please do share!

Now it’s back to work again; I think I just heard an email come in ;-).

Yotam Ottolenghi versus Jamie Oliver

I’m not sure if you should compare the two, but I couldn’t help but do this after I accidentally made two very similar dishes this week, one by Yotam Ottolenghy and one by Jamie Oliver. Jamie’s iPhone app has a recipe for a Thai-style chicken salad. It has charred onions, chicken, mango, beansprouts, peanuts and more. Then, yesterday I ran into the recipe for a Vietnamese beef salad by Yotam Ottolenghi. Very similar vegetables in there and it also comes with charred onions, but then again, it’s chicken versus beef, a sour dressing versus a sweet-n-sour dressing, Vietnamese versus Thai…

So actually comparing the two is hard, but I still preferred the Ottolenghi recipe. Although both were very nice, the Vietnamese beef salad had flavors that were much more balanced and lingered much longer than those of the recipe by Jamie Oliver. Nice, really nice! (the picture shows the Jamie recipe by the way)

While we’re speaking about food, let me also share you my favorite breakfast dish as of last Sunday: quinoa with cinnamon, nuts and other niceties.

Cook your quinoa (black, white, red, that’s nice and colourful) according to packet instructions, add two cinnamon sticks to the pan before starting to cook. Remove the cinnamon once the quinoa is done (water fully absorbed, fluff it a bit with a fork) and put it in one or more bowls. Add cranberries, dried apricots, nuts (walnut, pecan), raisins, some maple syrup and some milk. There you go: breakfast of champions!

While we’re at it; I bought most of the ingredients for the breakfast dish at the Volkskruidentuin last weekend. Great store on the Kinkerstraat with the biggest collections of herbs, nuts, rice, dried fruits and grain products I know of in the whole of Amsterdam. No website, so a Yelp review will have to do.

Rifugio Guglielmina burnt down the ground

This completely baffled me. We’ve been to the Monte Rosa Ski resort once this year and are heading out once more in a few hours and while I was looking online I came across a news post telling that Rifugio Guglielmina has burnt down the ground during the night of the 22nd of December last year. I completely missed this…

Claiming to be one of the highest hotels in Europe once and opened 365 days per year, it was a marvelous place and I always went there to get some of the great food they served. Guglielmina had just restocked, so their fuel tanks were fully loaded and this only added to the speed the fire spread.

Due to high winds, there was no possibility to get helicopters to put out the fire. So although there were no personal injuries, the hotel didn’t stand a chance.

The refuge was first built in 1878 and recently renovated. There are no plans to rebuild it as of yet.

End of an era!