Now, the question on my mind, is why does Holland have such a…well, less than prestigious reputation for its food? Van Gogh called his people a bunch of “potato eaters.” I want to paint their faces “the color of a good, dusty potato, unpeeled naturally”, Van Gogh once said.
But maybe he meant this in a good way – after all, Van Gogh does consider The Potato Eaters his most successful work.
Well, as a country of farmers and fishermen, Dutch cuisine follows suit, and consists largely of seafood, and simple cuisine made with locally produced ingredients. A typical meal at home – simplicity being the key word – would consist of potatoes, fresh vegetables, meat or fish, followed by dessert (often milk based). But, why so simple? After all, didn’t the Dutch once control the spice trade?
But once the Dutch lost their colonial prowess to the British during the 17th century, frugality became the name of the game, simply out of financial necessity, and due to the strain on natural resources. A trend begins to emerge at the turn of the 20th century, where families send their little girls to Huishoudschool (housekeeping school), to learn to be good, efficient, domestic servants. Housewives, as we call them today. Goodbye haute cuisine and a passion for cooking, Hello cheap, simple, efficient meals. Many traditional family recipes were also replaced with thriftier alternatives.
Anyhoo, while specialties vary from region to region, the Dutch are known to dabble in rich cheeses (from Gouda to Edam); to snack on French fries (patat) with mayonnaise (a surprisingly delicious combination); to lunch on uitsmijter (bread with cheese, meat and fried eggs); and of course, there’s always time for a borrel (a drink), perhaps a beer, or Dutch jeneva (gin).
And all around Amsterdam, if you look out for them, one can find herring stalls, little pockets of blue with flags protruding triumphantly from the rooftops.
I order the Hollandse Nieuwe – raw herring served with fresh, crisp onions and pickles so piquant my lips instinctively purse in delight. Lekker! (as the Dutch would say). The fish is juicy, (though also a bit slimy textured), salty to taste – Mr herring man informs me that the fish naturally acquires this salty taste when left in the cold storage.
For those less inclined to dabble in raw fish, the smoked red herring is an alternative – interestingly though, there is no such fish as “red herring”; red is simply the colour a kipper fish turns, once it has been smoked.
Of course, the misleading name distracts you from the truth of the matter, (which is the fact that the fish is a kipper, not herring), which leads me to think that the concept of the “red herring fallacy”* may just be named after this little delicacy. Google helps me out in my investigation, and tells me that the origin of the red herring fallacy name, is actually the practice of using the scent of red herring, to train hounds! Fascinating stuff! Right?
Ok. I digress.
Anyhoo if you’re all herring-ed out, you could try the smoked eel (you know you want to) – musky and salty, it goes much better in a sandwich, where the taste of the eel is…milder. The texture of the eel, however, is not quite as fleshy as the raw herring.
Speaking of fleshy…
We look around, to find that we have stumbled into Amsterdam’s famous (or infamous) red light district! And after a wee nibble, our batteries are recharged, and we are ready for action (which could be a bad thing, considering our current location)…….
*a red herring is a (sneaky) fallacy used in an argument, where an irrelevant issue is brought up, to divert attention away from the issue at hand, and towards another topic.