It is a good few years since we were last in The Netherlands. Though we love the country and the people, the food was rubbish then and not a lot has changed since. (Perhaps that is a little harsh and I do admit to being fairly partial to street food – mussels, smoked eel and those lovely bits of deep fried fish served up with a dollop of mayo). The Dutch are mostly big and beautiful, fit as fleas and strangely stately as they ride the streets on their ‘sit-up-and-beg’ bikes. They are very stylish, great designers and free thinkers. Their buildings are beautiful, their waterways efficient and their commitment to inland shipping second to none.
They are so civilised – so why do they go and spoil it all by being such rotten cooks?
As ever much of the answer is to be found in their history.
Though we walked the streets of Den Bosch, which was heaving with restaurants, we found not a single one which could boast a substantially local cuisine.
All described themselves as ‘contemporary cuisine’ or ‘international’ and basically featured the same old hotch-potch of dishes from around the world, mostly cooked rather badly. One or two aimed higher with menus full of clever modern dishes, beautifully presented, but still it was food we could have eaten in almost any European city; all too often these are platefuls of disparate flavours vying with each other for attention. I wanted a simple traditional Dutch dinner (whatever that might mean) but the nearest we got was an Indonesian ‘rijsttafel’. It was tasty enough and is what the Dutch always recommend you try when visiting their country but it wasn’t what we were looking for
Den Bosch has been around for hundreds of years. Hieronymus Bosch was born here in 1450 and while the city today has little obvious connection to his life and times there is a bit of a frenetic feel to the place and a slight whiff of weirdness – which is good and quite refreshing after a sojourn in respectable France. There was lots going on and clearly they have better things to do than waste time on food. I’m sure they do. That’s why they look in such fine fettle: tall, strapping, healthy and strong. I’m envious. Even the old looked young!
So back to history which tells us that during the ‘Golden Age’ of the 17th century the wealthy Dutch ate wonderfully well, profiting from foods and spices imported by the Dutch East India Company and a close relationship with Burgundian France. The ordinary people ate much the same food that they had always eaten – simple soups of cereals and legumes and heavy bread made from rye. Around this time the potato became established as the basic sustenance of the poor and was eaten at every meal. They were served with salt, sometimes vinegar, but without gravy or any other fat, making for a diet of incredible monotony.
The end of the good times for the wealthy middle classes came when the Dutch lost many of their colonial possessions during the Anglo-Dutch Wars. Without the cushion of wealth and at the same time burdened with a growing population the country’s own natural resources came under huge pressure which led, increasingly, to a more frugal way of life for the whole society. The influence too of a puritanical Lutheran church which required the people to live a somewhat joyless life of austerity, piety and hard work was reflected in the food – abstemious and simple. Then in the early part of the twentieth century there came huge educational reform. New schools arose and one type in particular, the housekeeping school, became popular with all levels of society. Young women sent to them were trained to become domestic servants and taught to make cheap and simple meals which though based upon traditional Dutch cooking became plainer and increasingly uniform.
The schools taught frugality, proper manners and healthy eating. Given what followed – two World Wars, enemy occupation, famine, major economic depression and food rationing – it could be argued that they gave the Dutch people the means for survival during a period in which at least two or three generations experienced little but relentless austerity. Even today in the world rankings of daily food consumption The Netherlands comes in at 59th compared to the UK’s position of 20th.
Interestingly my researches show that in the province of North Brabant where we were staying, its ‘Burgundian’ legacy, dating from that time during the Middle Ages when the Burgundian court ruled the area, takes the form of rich pastries, soups and stews and is part of the only region of The Netherlands to develop a distinct culinary style. It seems to me that this culinary tradition began to reassert itself in significantly simplified form after the long years of austerity and that dishes in which meat – beef or pork – and two veg figured (one being potatoes) came to be regarded by the Dutch as the height of good cooking. It is really only in the last fifty or so years that the Dutch have been in a position to properly explore their own culinary history and build upon it without recourse to or reliance upon so-called ‘international‘ cuisine. The love affair with the spicy Indonesian ‘rijstaffel‘ too is all but over.
And there is one culinary invention, the Dutch oven, which the Netherlanders can claim as their very own. We might refer to it – a heavy iron or ceramic pot with fitted lid capable of withstanding the highest of cooking temperatures – as a simple casserole dish and dismiss it with barely a thought. Yet it was the invention of the Dutch oven which allowed meat and veg to be cooked together over the embers of an open fire or left to develop into a rich stew in the dying heat of a bread oven. It is those lovely rich soups and stews enlivened with spices well-known since the glory days of the East India Company which need reviving.
Hopefully Dutch cooking has at last recovered from the iniquities heaped upon it in the past. Simple but tasty meals made with fresh ingredients are after all what, nowadays, good food is all about. The time is surely right for a renaissance of the traditional Dutch cuisine of earlier times.
Then perhaps next time we visit this great country the residents will be looking a little plumper and I’ll find the food I’m hoping for.
These are a small selection which I have enjoyed making and eating downloaded from https://www.thespruceeats.com Perhaps a little hearty for this time of the year but worth bearing in mind for when the colder weather comes.
Bruine Bonen Soep
145 g smoked bacon, cubed
1 tbsp butter
5 shallots, chopped
1 large carrot, finely diced
1 large leek, thinly sliced
1 tbsp ground paprika
1.3 kg tinned brown beans (or pinto beans), drained and rinsed
375 ml tomato puree
500 ml beef stock (use good beef stock cube if necessary)
2 bay leaves
Sea salt, black pepper and Indonesian ketjap manis to taste
1/2 cup chopped celery leaves
In a large soup pot, fry the bacon in the butter. Add the shallots, carrot, leek and the paprika. Stir around and sauté gently for a few minutes. Add the beans, tomato puree, beef stock and bay leaves.
Bring the soup to the boil, cover and turn down the heat to just simmering for 15 minutes. Remove the bay leaves. Season to taste with salt, pepper and ketjap manis. Then, blitz the soup half smooth, using a stick blender or food processor. The soup should have texture. Add the celery leaves immediately before serving.
This is a great soup, a thick sticker of ribs and anyway who could resist something called ‘snert’?
Made with green split peas, plenty of vegetables and pork, traditionally this tasty pea soup is served on New Year’s Day in the Netherlands. It is customary to serve snert with slices of smoked sausage and rye bread topped with katenspek, a type of Dutch bacon that is first cooked, then smoked.
1.75 litres water
300 grams dried green split peas
100 grams of thick-cut bacon
1 pork chop
1 vegetable, pork or chicken cube
2 sticks celery
2 to 3 carrots, peeled and sliced
1 large potato, peeled and cubed
1 small onion, chopped
1 small leek, sliced
1 cup celeriac, cubed
500 grams of smoked sausage or frankfurter/wiener sausages
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
1 handful chopped celery leaf
In a large pot with lid, bring the water, split peas, pork belly or bacon, pork chop, and stock cube to the boil. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally and skimming off any foam that rises to the top.
Remove the pork chop, debone, and thinly slice the meat. Set aside.
Add the celery sticks, carrots, potato, onion, leek, and celeriac to the soup. Return to the boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for another 30 minutes, adding a little extra water if the ingredients start to stick to the bottom of the pot.
Add the smoked sausage for the last 15 minutes of cooking time. When the vegetables are tender, remove the bacon and smoked sausage, slice thinly and set aside.
Purée the soup with a stick blender. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Return the meat to the soup, except for some slices of smoked sausage.
Serve in heated bowls or soup plates, garnished with slices of sausage and chopped celery leaf.
Curly endive (otherwise known as frisée) is used in the Netherlands to make a traditional winter dish called andijviestamppot. The contrast between the slight bitterness edge of the leaves and the creamy richness of the potatoes works well.
Many traditional recipes simply combine mashed potatoes and raw curly endive with a bit of butter, milk, nutmeg and seasoning. Good classic comfort food at its simplest. Add small cubes of young Gouda cheese to enrich the dish if you fancy. Here it is served with small strips of pan-fried smoked bacon and can be happily eaten as a hearty stand alone lunch or supper dish. It can also be served as a side dish with meatballs, sausages, and gravy.
You will need a large soup pot, a salad spinner, a sharp chef’s knife, a potato masher and a wooden spoon.
1.5 kg. floury potatoes (Maris Piper, King Edwards or similar)
250 grams curly endive
300 grams thin sliced smoked bacon
475 ml. milk
2 tbsp. butter
Pinch of nutmeg (freshly grated)
Sea salt and white pepper to taste
Peel the potatoes and cut into similarly sized pieces for even cooking. Then in a large soup pot, boil the potatoes in salted water for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, wash the head of curly endive thoroughly under cool running water to get rid of any gritty soil. Trim off coarse stems and discard any brown leaves. Dry the salad leaves. With a sharp knife, cut the curly endive into thin strips.
Fry the bacon in a frying pan, until just crispy. Drain on kitchen paper and crumble into small pieces.
Warm the milk in a small saucepan.
Drain, shake and dry the potatoes with kitchen paper before mashing – ideally for a smoother mash use a ricer. Working quickly, add the warm milk and butter. Season to taste with nutmeg, salt and white pepper.
Mix the raw curly endive through the cooked mashed potato mixture. Add the bacon, mix again, and serve piping hot.
Stamppotten met Rookworst
Kale has always been a staple ingredient in the Dutch winter kitchen, where it’s known as boerenkool, or “farmer’s cabbage”. Even so it is a seasonal vegetable and will only be available in the Netherlands during the winter months. As with Brussels sprouts and parsnips the Dutch believe that kale is at its best after the first frost when some of the starch in the cabbage is converted to sugar and it tastes sweeter.
Most emblematic of all is its use in this traditional boerenkoolstamppot met rookworst, which, arguably, could be considered The Netherlands’ national dish.
Comfort food to be eaten when Arctic winds howl across Dutch peat bogs, this is a dish of mashed potatoes and curly kale served with a spicy smoked sausage, known as rookworst. (Here in France I tend to use a Morteau sausage instead, in the UK a smoked Polish sausage does the trick but like most things today a search on the Internet will turn up the real thing).
In strictly traditional recipes, the boerenkool is boiled, but sautéing the curly kale in a little butter keeps its colour, texture, and flavor intact. You can use bags of pre-cut curly kale or bunches fresh from the garden.
Stampotten is both frugal and filling and very healthy as well. Potatoes are packed with potassium and vitamin C, while kale, which is a richer source of vitamins thas any other leafy vegetable, contains many health benefiting polyphenolic flavonoid compounds such as lutein, zea-xanthin, and beta-carotene.
1.5 kg floury potatoes (Maris Piper, King Edward or similar)
2 bay leaves
3 tbsp. butter
750 g curly kale
2 rookworst or similar smoked sausage
475 ml milk
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
sea salt and black pepper to season
Peel the potatoes and cut into similarly sized pieces for even cooking.
In a large soup pot, boil the potatoes and the bay leaves in salted water for 20 minutes.
Prepare the curly kale, wash to remove any gritty soil. Trim off coarse stems and discard any brown leaves. With a sharp knife cut the curly kale into thin strips.
Peel and chop the shallots.
Melt 1 tbsp. of butter in a frying pan and sauté the shallots for a few minutes before adding the kale and 2 tbsp. of water. Season and cook for about 10 minutes, or until tender.
Warm the milk.
When the potatoes are cooked drain, shake and dry the potatoes with kitchen towels, removing the bay leaves, before mashing with a potato masher or ricer. Working quickly, add the warm milk and the remaining butter. Season to taste with nutmeg, salt, and pepper.
Mix the cooked curly kale through the cooked mashed potato mixture.
Top with slices of the smoked sausage and serve hot with your favorite mustard.
Chicken Cooked in a Dutch Oven
I don’t know if they actually cook chickens like this in The Netherlands but this is my classic go-to recipe when we have friends to dinner and I want to serve a one-pot meal using my ancient ceramic Dutch oven. It is so old and discoloured from years of cooking food in the embers of a hearth fire. The moistness of the chicken and the depth of flavour when it is cooked in this way is a revelation and certainly in its simplicity is in the Dutch spirit of things.
Approx 1.5kg whole roasting chicken
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
a couple of carrots peeled and chopped
a stick of celery finely chopped
one wineglass full of dry white wine
4 cloves of garlic, crushed with the flat of a knife then finely chopped
A good handful of flat leaf parsley, stems removed and finely chopped
2 tablespoon (or more) fresh tarragon chopped
1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper
Sweet smoked paprika
If you are using a ceramic Dutch oven soak both top and bottom of the pot in cold water for at least 10 minutes.
Do not preheat the oven.
Put the wine with half of the chopped onion, the carrot, celery, half of the chopped garlic, half the parsley and a tablespoon of chopped tarragon into the base of the pot. Mix well and lightly season.
Rinse the chicken in cold water, pat dry with paper towel. Lightly oil or butter the outside of the chicken and sprinkle salt & pepper inside cavity and on the outside skin. Place chicken breast side up in clay pot and fill cavity of chicken with the rest of the onion, garlic, parsley, tarragon, and oil. Sprinkle the chicken all over with the paprika and lightly rub it into the oily skin.
Cover with the lid and put in a cold oven.
Turn oven to 220C/425F/gas7.
Bake for around 90 minutes. Remove the top during the last 10 minutes of baking to brown. Check that it is properly cooked all through. (Liquid should run clear when pierced between leg and carcass with a sharp knife).
Remove from oven and place on hot pads or a towel. Do not put on a cold surface.
Remove the chicken to a warm place to rest – do not leave it in the pot or it will continue to cook.
Make a gravy with the wonderful juices lurking in the bottom of the pot adding more wine or chicken stock if necessary. Before serving drain off any surplus fat from the gravy.
I like to serve this with a delicious buttery mash and whatever vegetables are in season.