In the latest of his international culinary explorations, artist, writer and epicurean Cedar Lewishon reports from the Low Countries on the delight s of peasant pastries, stinky cheese and food made from the bits of animals you don’t want to know about.
I’ve been in The Netherlands for around five months now, enjoying a one-year residency at the Jan Van Eyck Accademie in Maastricht. Food in Holland, it seems to me, is viewed largely as fuel – I’ve been told on several occasions that this is all related to the country’s Calvinist history. There is fine dining, of course; Maastricht, although a small provincial town, boasts several Michelin starred restaurants (not that I have stepped foot in any of them: I’m more of a peasant food/peasant budget kind of guy). I have, however, been undertaking various types of research into the history and cuisine of Maastricht and the Limburg region, my JVE colleague, Joris Lindhout, helping out with certain aspects of the research.
One of the first experiments Joris and I organised was to invite fellow JVE participants to go out into the world and find some food indigenous to, or produced in, Maastricht. The inability of several members of the group to grasp this, let’s face it, rather simple task, went some way to proving my long-held theory that most artists cannot follow the most basic of instructions. Perhaps that’s the reason they are artists. Those that did manage to comprehend the concept brought back an interesting selection of products, which, together, paint a culinary portrait of the city.
First up (although it was actually eaten last), we had vlaai (or Limburgsevlaai), which is basically a tart or sweet pie with various options of filling (cherry, apricot, strawberry, plum and a kind of solidified rice pudding, which we had). What, I think, makes vlaai unique is its brioche-like pastry, but it’s pretty subtle. There are two or three bakeries that make vlaai in Maastricht, and locals will argue for hours, sometimes days, over which is best; but, to my palate, they all taste the same. It is, after all, basically a sweet pie.
One artist who made a noticeable effort to our little Maastricht food-tasting project was Sanne Vaassen. Having grown up near Maastricht, the dishes Sanne brought to the table all had some personal meaning for her. Zurezult, for example, which is a type of pork pâté, made with blood and all the other bits of pig you don’t want to know about. Definitely not kosher. Sanne also brought some Baltussen haring zondervel met zoetstof – sweet traditional herring, in other words. The herring sparked a heated debate among various Scandinavians and Dutch at the event, who could not agree the right time of year to eat this popular little fish, if it is best enjoyed smoked, raw or, as in this case, preserved in vinegar. Things nearly got out of hand when agreement on the best type of plate upon which to serve herring could not be reached. For a moment, while listening to these impassioned cries, I understood what it must be like to work in the European Parliament, and even had a bright idea about a fish dish to serve at the next UKIP fundraiser. But I soon changed my mind.
Holland is, of course, famous for cheese: Edam, Leerdammer, Gouda and my favourite, Leyden (that’s the one with cumin seeds). Maastricht, too, produces its own cheeses, some of the particularly pungent variety. Two artists in our group brought examples of the latter. Limburger, or Le Herve, is best described as ‘stinky’. But, if you can get past the odour, you’ll enjoy a very satisfying, soft salty cheese.
Another artist at the meeting who made a noteworthy contribution was Nina Thibo, who simply brought truckloads of Maastricht-produced alcohol, and very popular it was too. Among Nina’s veritable cabinet of boozy delights, there was Auxerriois (Apostelhoeve) white wine; Hoeven Nekum (another white wine); Bams Jonge Jenever (also known as Dutch gin, which weighed in at a daunting 40 percent proof); Hoeven Nekum Rosé; and a bubbly Riesling Brux provided by artist Francois Dey. To borrow a phrase from Charles Bukowski, “The drinks went down easy…”
After all that liquor, it was time for our final tasting: frites and horsemeat. This Maastricht speciality was provided by design/curator Matylda Krzykowski. Zuurvlees, as it is known, might come as a shock to delicate British palates, and those who’ve only come across equine flesh when it’s smuggled into their frozen lasagne, but it actually tastes pretty good, particularly after a few drinks. Basically, it’s very similar to stewed beef, except, it’s horse… Smakelijk eten!