Eating up all Dutch cuisine has to offer in Amsterdam
The young American woman reluctantly pops the tiny rectangle of herring in her mouth.
This first bite might be her last forever. Her eyes widen. Her mouth screws up at the corners as she chews ever-so-slowly. She is still unsure whether or not to swallow.
We offer encouragement: “Maybe add some of the pickles and chopped onion. They go so well together”.
The rest of us go for seconds and thirds on our Dutch flag toothpicks. We can’t get enough. But she’s having none of it.
Herring (Hollandse Nieuwe) is a specialty dish on the menu at Amsterdam seafood restaurant Tijger and de Vis (Tiger and the Fish) at Lindengracht 158 – one of the stops on our Eating Europe Jordaan Food Walking Tour.
New herring contains at least 16 per cent fat and is cleaned and salted the traditional way aboard fishing boats at sea. The uniquely Dutch process of preserving the herring is to gut all but the pancreas and let its enzymes go to work on the fish.
While herring is part of an everyday diet in the Netherlands, this traditional foodie experience seems lost on our new acquaintance. She finds the accompanying kibbeling (small pieces of cod deep-fried in egg batter and served with tartare sauce) much more appealing.
Amsterdam is one of the world’s great cities and the Eating Europe tour allows participants to dig a little deeper into its culture, history and traditions on a walking tour centred around a mini-degustation menu.
For more than three-and-a-half hours, we are treated to a feast for the senses as we stroll along canals, past monuments and landmarks, lingering inside secret gardens and stopping at shops and cafes.
When considering culinary capitals of the world, Amsterdam may not be the first to come to mind.
But its recipes passed down through the ages, proximity to some of the world’s most-respected cheesemaking towns, international cuisines brought by its migrant population, unique brown cafes plus rich traditional fare from artisans, including butchers and bakers, give the city more than enough foodie credentials.
That’s evident from the moment we reach our tour meeting point at Café ’t Papeneiland, situated on one the most picturesque corners of the city at the intersection of Brouwersgracht (Brewer’s Canal) and Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal). This gabled house dates back to 1642, now a national monument, and has been a café for centuries.
Timber-panelled historic brown (bruin) cafes like this are a community hub: a place to socialise with friends, neighbours and colleagues or wile away hours daily in people-watching and simple pleasures such as reading papers. Their name comes from smoke stains built up on the walls over centuries.
At Papeneiland, Royal Delft plates and handpainted tiles decorate a cosy wall by the fireplace, and we admire beautiful vintage ceramic tops on the kegs that are as old as the 200-year-old café itself. We sit around a rectangular table taking up a whole alcove by a large window to the canal and outside street. Above our heads, photographs and drawings tell the story of the café and the family behind it.
A thankyou letter from former US president Bill Clinton and framed newspaper clippings take pride of place, telling of the day in 2011 he, too, soaked up the convivial Jordaan hospitality, over coffee and apple pie.
Our guide Marjolein de Cleen immediately sets about convincing the mostly US tour group that apple pie is not an American invention. Recipes found in Dutch cooking books date back to 1500 – well before America started growing apples – although the British were the first ones to “discover” apple pie, another 200 years earlier.
Much fuller than the Australian/British apple pie, the Dutch version has layered and patterned pastry creating a thick crust bursting with a juicy mix of big slices of apple, raisins, cinnamon, lemon and maybe a little rum. “We eat it all day, always with clotted cream,” Marjolein says.
As we leave this first stop, we are introduced to the café owner: a lovely old gentleman named Tiel Netel, and I take a photo of him seated below a painting of his grandfather in the café. Tiel visits the café every day and is as much a part of the furniture as the coat hooks for customers under the bar or the magnificent chandelier dominating the main seating area.
Amsterdam’s distinctive architecture is never far from us as we head out on our snakes-and-ladders tour of the Jordaan. We marvel at the decorative gables, and the tall, narrow width of the 17th century canal homes (owners used to pay taxes on the width of their homes so built upwards instead, often with very steep steps).
Such homes may now be owned by four or five partners, with large apartments on each floor, and be worth up to a million euros.
By the time we arrive at JWO Lekkernijen cheesemaker at Tweede Goudsbloemdwarsstraat 1, we’ve already worked up an appetite. A selection of farmer’s cheeses, made from raw milk, is presented for our taste test: a young cheese (1-2 months old), a mature cheese (4-5 months old with cumin) and a sharp old cheese (10-11 months maturity). Sadly, a take-home pack of farmer’s cheeses would never pass Australian Customs so we make sure we get our fill here.
At Goudsbloemstraat 76, we visit Frans Louman butcher: a third-generation butcher with a marble counter front, old timber beams and doors. Among the selection of deli meats we try are a beef-and-pork mix grill sausage and oxenwurst (osseworst).
Osseworst, which is usually eaten with bread and pickles, is a smoked raw beef sausage originally made of ox meat. This speciality has its origins in the 17th century when oxen were imported to Amsterdam from Denmark. The spices in the sausage, such as pepper, cloves, mace and nutmeg, come from the Dutch East Indies.
Indonesian food is just as common as Dutch food in Amsterdam (Indonesia used to be a Dutch colony), so we stop at Swieti Sranang Indonesian takeaway at Westerstraat 113. There, satay chicken skewers with peanut sauce, pickles and prawn crackers (kroepoek) is a more-ish surprise. For the vegetarians, there’s a potato, peas and cabbage pastry like a pastie to wolf down.
Marjolein tells us another Dutch favourite snack is “Patatje oorlog: chips at war”: hot potato chips smothered in peanut sauce, mayonnaise and chopped raw onions served in a cone-shaped paper bag.
As for our American friend and herring hater, she finally finds a snack to her taste at Tom’s Bread and More (Tweede Egelantiersdwarsstraat 1): the stroopwafel – a light waffle wafer made from two thin layers of baked dough with a caramel syrup filling.
The stroopwafel was first made in Gouda in the late 18th century by a baker using leftovers from the bakery, such as breadcrumbs, which were sweetened with syrup.
But the Dutch delight most Australians would be familiar with is poffertjes (tiny fluffy pancakes eaten with melted butter and powdered sugar), which can be found at any weekend or foodie market worth its salt. And it is served up at our last port of call: Café ‘t Smalle: a former Dutch liquor distillery and tasting house, dating to 1786 and restored during the 1970s, which Lonely Planet describes as “one of Amsterdam’s most charming brown cafes”.
The bartenders here are all skilled in the art of pouring jenever (Dutch gin – the juniper-flavoured traditional liqueur of the Netherlands) right to the top in a tulip-shaped small glass without spilling a drop. This creates a test for the drinker, who must lean over the glass and sip cautiously. After nearly four hours, our bellies are full and we’ve eaten up every morsel of information and delectable titbit on history, traditions and the Jordaan’s foodie scene.
So, there’s only one thing left to do: drink up with a hearty toast of “proost” … and then try to walk off our very long lunch.
- The writer was a guest of Eating Europe.
AMSTERDAM began as a small fishing village around a dam in the river Amstel in 1275 and over centuries, the Jordaan became a melting pot of cultures as it embraced the working class, immigrants, refugees and those escaping religious persecution.
Living conditions became unbearable as the population of this area leapt from 30,000-80,000 at the end of the 16th century, with people living 10 to a room.
One block of up-market apartments today on Willemsstraat once was home to hundreds of people living in 57 corridors (behind a facade of houses) instead of rooms, affording no fresh air, light or sanitation.
To survive, people shared what little they had – from their food to their music.
From the 1970s, the city’s population began expanding rapidly. Old houses were demolished, people moved out of the inner city to newly built neighbouring villages and affordable property became scarce. The Jordaan started to become upscaled and funky, creating its own level of expensive real estate as Amsterdam’s version of Greenwich Village.
This northern part of the canal belt was one of the main channels for breweries, for example, to bring in their supplies. Marjolein points out the many-storeyed storehouses with shutters and gables with winches still intact that have become fashionable apartments (without elevators).
Brouwersgracht (Brewer’s canal) served as a site for ships returning from Asia with spices and silks. Therefore Brouwersgracht had many warehouses and storage depots for the ships’ inventories. Likewise, some officials of the Dutch East India Company lived here. Breweries were also prevalent in the area due to the access to freshwater shipments.
Today, the warehouses are now apartments — some of the most expensive in Amsterdam. Houseboats also are seen in the canal.
But behind the canal homes can be found secret gardens and rooftop terraces that the passing pedestrian would never know existed. And Marjolein takes us into one such pretty inner courtyard (nowadays there are about 19 of these inner courtyards left in this area) that was once known as “the bleaching fields” in the 1650s. Poor women – widows, and unmarried mothers – with no place to go found shelter here in a workers’ house which was formerly the Karthuizer Monastery.
Karthuizer Monastery (from 1392-1577) burned down. Then it became an inn and as of 1650, this courtyard was made into Karthuizer Weduwenhofje (hofje is the Dutch word for inner courtyard) to house poor widows. The old monastery garden became a graveyard which is now a playground for children).
The women were paid by the rich merchants along the Golden Bend at the Herengracht (Gentlemen’s Canal) to do their laundry.
Big water pumps, housed in brown brick walls like a small square turret, were shut down in 1930, but remain in the centre courtyard and surrounded on all sides by privately owned apartments.