While biking into the wind on Friday with my plastic poncho flapping, I realized that my last study trip, and thus my eight months abroad, were coming to a close. Though bone tired—I had woken up at six and spent the day getting drenched on fishing boats and freezing along with the fish in a warehouse—I pushed harder on my pedals, speeding up so I could coast and look out at the flattest land I had ever seen, green carpets rolling out beyond the horizon. Sure, I was wet and cold and smelled like fish, but in that moment all I could think was, damn, I am so lucky. Lucky that the Fulbright commission deemed me worthy. Lucky that I spent six weeks this year traveling to places as different as Turkey and the Netherlands but seeking the same thing in all: a better understanding of our food systems. I will likely never travel this much in one year again.
Our last study trip to the Netherlands this week closed out my stint as a jetsetter. The trip was a study in contrasts: from the youth-led food movement to the lifer-led fishing industry, from multicultural bites to traditional dishes, from bikes to boats. Some people say that the Netherlands (like the United States) doesn’t have a national cuisine—they focus on the country’s widespread export agriculture (the bell peppers in your local grocery store are probably Dutch) and the prevalence of a meat-and-potatoes mentality. But from Amsterdam to the teeny island of Texel, we experienced a rich and varied food culture, tinged by an imperialist past and a new focus on preserving local products. Here are some highlights:
Throughout our stay in the Netherlands, we were hosted and toured around by members of the Youth Food Movement. Founded in 2009 by chef/food activist Samuel Levie as a forward-thinking, younger-minded branch of Slow Food, the YFM is committed to promoting good, clean, and fair food, with a focus on making teens and twenty-somethings more aware of what they eat. Rather than preaching about the downfalls of our food system or protesting outright, the YFM puts a positive and festive spin on all their events. And it works: you catch more would-be foodies with honey. They spread their message through events like eat-ins (basically mass potlucks), the Food Film Festival (an international food documentary festival), and Damn Food Waste (an upcoming free lunch for 5,000 people in Amsterdam’s Museum Square, cooked out of food that would otherwise be thrown away). When we arrived in Amsterdam on Sunday afternoon, we headed to the ‘t Hoofdgerecht Food Festival, where chefs were sparring in a Damn Food Waste cook-off to promote the big event at the end of the month. Chefs like Samuel Levie and the Michelin-starred Joris Bijdendijk faced off in a makeshift outdoor kitchen, where they were given thirty minutes to transform past-the-“best buy”-date zucchini and strawberries too old for the supermarket to sell into a multiple course meal. The resulting plates were judged restaurant-quality, and sent the message that food waste is just that: a waste of otherwise tasty resources. The cookoff was the centerpiece of the Food Festival, which also offered a highly-curated selection of food trucks. The trucks, which ranged from an Indian-themed stand complete with tandoori ovens and made-to-order naan to a spud-mobile that dished out patatas bravas, were all selected by Lotte Wouders of the Food Line-Up. Lotte, who also has ties to the YFM, founded the Food Line-Up last year out of frustration with the ubiquitous burger and french fry stands that dominate the grub offerings at festivals in the Netherlands. The Food Line-Up takes a DIY booking approach to catering events, acting as a middleman that puts together a cast of artisan food trucks for events. All of the Food Line-Up caterers adhere to sustainability and quality guidelines, coming up with ways to restrict their food waste (a coffee truck donates excess milk to a local pancake house after events, for example). I left the festival wondering why we don’t have an active Slow Food Youth Network branch in the US, and thinking that Philly could use a stellar DIY caterer booking system.
During our time in Amsterdam, we noted that Samuel Levie’s fingerprints are all over nearly every food innovation in the city, especially Brandt & Levie sausages. A few years ago—around the time that he started dreaming up the YFM—Levie learned that some of Italy’s best salumi are made from Dutch pigs, which are shipped southward to supply a demand for cured pork. He and Jiri Brandt decided to go to Italy to learn salsiccia-making from the pros, in an effort to keep Dutch pigs in Holland and provide a new high-quality product for the Dutch market. In 2010, they started doing just that, and they now offer an assortment of dried sausages (think fennel-seed studded and garlic-infused), coppa, pancetta, and patés. On Monday, we biked out of Amsterdam to tour their facilities, which they share with quality meat producer Lindenhoff. They use free-range, antibiotic-free pigs, which they hand-butcher and season. Though Dutch people in general don’t spend a lot of their income on food, they have responded well to Brandt & Levie’s pricey pork products, thanks to their humane treatment of their animals and careful production processes. I haven’t eaten much salumi since our binge in Emilia, but I have to say that these were some of the best cured sausages I’ve eaten in these eight Italian months.
We kicked off Tuesday with a bike tour of Amsterdam’s food history with Melissa Marijnen of the YFM. Melissa is half Indonesian, and she’s considered to be the expert on all things multicultural in Amsterdam, from the introduction of exotic spices in the 17th century (thanks to the Dutch East India Company) to the creolization of the former colony of Suriname and the resulting mishmash of Indonesian, Chinese, Indian, and African cuisines in Surinamese-owned food shops and restaurants in the Netherlands. We stopped at two grocers that supply the ethnic community in Amsterdam, both tucked into the Albert Cuyp street market. The first, Tropische Winkel, was a haven for those of us who miss plantains, cassava, bitter melon and okra. This mini mart was also the home of one of Melissa’s favorite dishes: a pot of blood sausages that cooks away for hours on a hot plate on the counter with spices and greens. After snacking on the sausages and plantain chips, we walked over to Toko Ramee, an Indonesian market, and sampled sticky rice rolls, sweet-salty tempeh, and spekkoek, a clove-and-cinnamon-spiced Dutch-Indonesian layer cake (so good that I’m still thinking about it).
We contrasted our roving lunch with dinner in a 17th century mansion, constructed during the Dutch Golden Age as a getaway from the smelly canals in the center of the city. The mansion—Huize Frankendael—is home to Merkelbach, the restaurant of acclaimed chef Geert Burema. Burema is a Slow Food Alliance chef, which means that he studs his menu with Presidia products like grey mullet from the Wadden Sea, and that he is committed to serving good, clean, and fair food. The notoriously wet Dutch weather cooperated on Tuesday evening, so we got to eat in the house’s English-style strolling garden. With tart white wine, plenty of bread and real butter, and delicate mullet and teeny tiny Dutch shrimps in lobster sauce, this was an ideal summer dinner. But I was most interested in the house itself, in its servants’ kitchen, preserved coach house, and art gallery. To me, Huize Frankendael represented the Kelly Writers House on steroids—a piece of historical architecture transformed to house a modern movement.
On Wednesday we shipped up north to the island of Texel (pronounced Tessel), the first Frisian island that caps the Netherlands. Surrounded by the Wadden Sea, Texel is home to some of the most prized traditional Dutch products, like lamb (from the indigenous Texel breed), those teeny tiny shrimps, and sheep’s milk cheese. Food writer and Slow Food Texel President Annette van Ruitenburg was our guide on the island, where she has lived for 18 years. We biked around half of the island’s sixty-some square miles, visiting farmers and food producers to both learn about the local cuisine and grocery shop for a dinner we would have that night at Annette’s thatched-roof cottage. We met with the cheesemaker at Wezenspyk, where sheep’s milk cheese is made much in the way it was 500 years ago on the island; the innovative strawberry farmers at De Zelfpluktuin, who use predatory insects instead of pesticides on their shiny red greenhouse-raised berries; shiitake grower Maarten Dijker, who sprouts organic fungi in a damp shed in the countryside, bringing the taste of Asia to the Netherlands; and the asparagus farm Keijser, where we learned how to harvest white asparagus on the last day of its season. That night at Annette’s, we shared one of the freshest meals we’ve had during a study trip, rounded out by a slow-cooked and then caramelized (with sugar and blowtorch) Texel lamb.
We finished up our last study trip with a day at sea. Well, first we started on land, in Den Oever, a town in the extreme northeast of the Netherlands mainland. Den Oever’s harbor hosts the Goede Vissers (Good Fishermen) society, a group of fishermen who respect the sea and strive to fish sustainably. This means that they only land adult fish, that they use methods that limit damage to the seafloor, and that they try to shorten the supply chain of fish by selling their own catch when possible. All of these initiatives benefit the fish, the fishermen, and the consumer: they prevent overfishing, ensuring a sustainable economic future for the fishermen and a quality product on our plates. We spent Friday morning in Den Oever’s fish warehouse with Jan and Barbara Geertsema, a couple who fish the Wadden Sea and North Sea for mullet and sea bass, using gillnets. Jan and Barbara toured us around the super-chilled rooms where the Den Oever fleet’s catch was being sorted: shrimps by size and quality, langoustine by size and quality, you get the picture. A giant ice machine churned out chips in a corner of one room where fish sat glistening in crates. Heavy machinery whirred around the warehouse, with men whizzing by on carts lifting box upon box of fish. The workers were preparing orders for that morning’s fish auction, which wasn’t your standard crying sale. The Den Oever auction is nearly silent: buyers sit at computers and click away choosing fish for restaurants and markets, hovering their mouses as the price drops (also backwards from your typical auction). Jan and Barbara bought fish in the auction for their Slow Fish café, which they operate on the weekends when they’re not at sea, simply grilling up what’s good. Once we thawed out from our warehouse and auction tour, we set out to sea to get even colder (and wetter)—we had to catch our dinner. We boarded the Deo Volente with Goede Visser Dries Wiersma, a small-scale fisherman who fixes his crab traps near a dike that separates salt water from freshwater. The traps are designed to limit by-catch, ensuring that Dries only pulls up mitten crabs and not small fish. We zoomed out to the crab traps in the rain and heavy winds on two small speed boats and raked in a load of furry-clawed crabs, which we boiled up that night and ate on yet another boat. And then we road back to our makeshift apartment, and I felt cold and wet and lucky.