The Netherlands Finds Its Flavor

Posted: August 30, 2010 in Cuisine
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A growing trend toward seasonal, homegrown produce is helping to reinvent Dutch cuisine


In much of the food world, seasonal cooking means succumbing to nature’s whims. Local soil dictates what’s on the menu, even if that means no tomatoes for much of the year, and hardly a trace of the tropics. The seasonal ideal, however, runs into what can be called natural opposition in the Netherlands, where the best-known local produce is the hydroponic tomato, grown in heated industrial greenhouses without a speck of soil.

At a typical Albert Heijn supermarket, the country’s dominant chain, there is essentially one season: refrigeration. In chilled, shiny aisles, plastic packages of strawberries, bell peppers and tomatoes of every conceivable size show off the best of Dutch greenhouse technology every day of the year. Marjan Ippel, an Amsterdam food writer and food trend analyst, is not impressed.

“Even now in summer, supermarket tomatoes are hard and tasteless,” says Ms. Ippel, who grows her own vegetables in her houseboat’s nearby floating garden. This year she has begun to organize what she calls “underground farmers’ markets.” Using Twitter, Ms. Ippel brings together local microproducers who want to bypass supermarkets entirely.

Ms. Ippel is part of a growing number of Dutch foodies who are taking a hard look at the country’s booming agriculture industry, where nearly two thirds of all fruits and vegetables are produced in greenhouses without any soil.

“A grass-roots movement is growing in the Netherlands,” says Willem Treep, a former employee of Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch food-industry giant. In 2009, Mr. Treep and his Unilever colleague Drees Peter van den Bosch, left the corporate food world behind and started a local produce distribution network in central Holland.

“We have strict rules for what kind of produce we sell,” says Mr. Treep, 35 years old. “It has to be locally produced in the ground,” which means, he explains, grown in an area 40 kilometers from a point of sale. “We draw a circle around a supermarket,” he says, explaining how he matches farmers with stores.

Another corporate renegade is Quirijn Bolle, who worked for Ahold, the Dutch supermarket conglomerate and owners of Albert Heijn and Stop & Shop, an American grocery chain. Two years ago, Mr. Bolle opened an upscale supermarket called Marqt in Amsterdam’s trendy Oud West neighborhood, where he tries to specialize in offering exactly the opposite as Albert Heijn. Now he has three stores, located in Amsterdam and Haarlem, and he anticipates opening 20 more across the country.

“There are still farmers in Holland,” says Mr. Bolle, contrasting traditional methods of planting in fields with heated greenhouses. “They are smaller, and they pay a lot of attention to growing. We started Marqt for them.”

For many of Holland’s seasonal food advocates, an important source of inspiration comes from chef Jonnie Boer, whose three-star Michelin restaurant, De Librije, located in the small city of Zwolle, uses produce, fish, and meat from the Dutch heartland as the building blocks of a radically inventive cuisine.

“We do it the old-fashioned way,” says Mr. Boer, of his collaboration with a local farmer, who provides nearly all of his fruit and vegetables. “With soil,” he says.

For Mr. Boer, whose restaurant made its fist appearance this year on the celebrated “S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list, compiled by the U.K.’s Restaurant magazine, the wider discovery of homegrown Dutch produce has led to the growing interest in Dutch fine dining. The Netherlands now has over 90 Michelin-starred restaurants, only slightly fewer than gourmet bastions like Belgium and Switzerland.

“Ten years ago,” he says, “Everyone was saying that the Dutch don’t have a cuisine, they don’t have good products, they don’t have good cooks. I knew it wasn’t that way.”

In 2008, Mr. Boer opened up a nearby luxury hotel, housed in a refurbished 18th-century women’s prison, and an adjoining restaurant called Zusje, where many of De Librije’s experiments migrate after a season or two on the menu. Within six months of serving its first meal, Zusje received its own Michelin star.

A standout seasonal dish now on offer at De Librije is a dessert called “Gin & Jonnie,” which relies on the trace of sweetness in local cucumbers.

Even though he is the leading voice of Dutch seasonal cooking, Mr. Boer doesn’t want to give up on greenhouses entirely, deferring to that other traditional local product — Dutch ingenuity.

“There is no value in not using a greenhouse,” he says, speaking in the private dining room of De Librije. “‘Local’ in Holland means greenhouses.” He is also open to new varieties of seeds, not just heirlooms, like many seasonal advocates.

“We have found a new beetroot,” he says, “When you eat it raw out of the greenhouse, it tastes like a cherry.”

Holland’s other three-star Michelin chef, Sergio Herman, also relies on personal connections with local farmers to find the best produce, and he will also go into the greenhouse as a way to maintain local food sourcing in the winter months. At Oud Sluis, Mr. Herman’s restaurant near the Belgian border, not far from Bruges, you can find tropical fruit on the menu in winter, but the rest of the time, local fruits and vegetables have pride of place.

After recently discovering the carrots of a Dutch farmer near Amsterdam, Mr. Herman was moved to invent a new dessert course called “Bugs Bunny,” which features carrot cake, carrot ice-cream, and carrot chips flavored with cumin. “The taste is so different,” he says of the carrots. “If you eat them one time, you will never eat the other ones.”

Greenhouse technology is not to blame for a lack of taste, says Olaf van Kooten, a professor of Horticulture at the Wageningen University, the leading agricultural research institution in the Netherlands. The problem, he says, is that industrial growers sell their products by the kilo, so there is an incentive to increase the level of water, which can dramatically decrease the taste. He refers to the “watery tomato strike” in Germany in the 1990s, when Germans, who make up Dutch agriculture’s largest market, rebelled against the products coming out of Dutch greenhouses.

He says that Dutch horticulture has managed to create the most productive greenhouse technology in the world, but that it is only now coming around to developing ways of increasing actual taste. He believes that the growing trend toward seasonality among selective consumers may lead to an even wider Dutch demand for better tasting produce.

Greenhouses are the star attraction at the Amsterdam restaurant De Kas, which actually means “greenhouse.” The restaurant, which opened 10 years ago, is also an important trendsetter in Holland’s seasonal cuisine movement. Housed in the city’s former municipal greenhouse, the stunning interior is presided over by potted fig and olive trees, and guests are encouraged to walk through the restaurant’s private greenhouse, where heirloom tomatoes and several kinds of basil regularly appear on the single set-menu meals.

In season, up to 80% of the restaurant’s produce comes from its own greenhouses and gardens, says owner Gert Jan Hageman, a chef who gave up his Michelin-starred Franco-Italian-style restaurant in Amsterdam to open De Kas. But Mr. Hageman isn’t averse to serving tropical fruit in winter, or looking for the best new seed varieties coming out of Dutch horticulture.

Marije Vogelzang, who opened a new Amsterdam seasonal restaurant this summer, called Proef, draws the line at tropical fruit. “We never use anything like pineapple or coconut or avocado,” she says, noting that her original ambition was to source all her food within five kilometers of the restaurant. However, she adds, “One thing that I cheat on is lemon. I love lemon in every dish.”

A conceptual designer, Ms. Vogelzang initially used food in her installations. A catering business then led to the new restaurant, where even the cocktails are seasonal, she says, citing this month’s “Full Frontal Flower Shower,” featuring local elderberry syrup, gin and fresh peas and edible flowers.

“I wish the restaurant was in California,” she says, admitting that “Full Frontal Flower Shower” will soon have to come off the menu, in spite of its popularity. “It’s such a shame when summer has passed.”

Find the original Wall Street Journal article here.


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