By Anne Willan
Brilliant painted flowers form the background to the foods of the covered market in Rotterdam, an ancient port city in the Netherlands where the soaring arch of the modern roof is decorated with stylized blooms in tulip colors, purple, crimson, scarlet, acid yellow, backed with brilliant green leaves. But the stalls soon catch your eye with their exotic fruits, Eastern spices, and alleys of hams and sausages dangling overhead.
I’m in the company of an expert, the Dutch chef of the Ullur, a Viking Line Cruise river boat, currently at anchor in the harbor, and Ronald Waasdorp knows every market stand, and many of the vendors. He gives the dark-haired lady at the Indonesian spice counter a cheerful smile and buys a tub of golden mixed spices for the evening’s rijstafel (an Asian rice dish served with a multitude of vegetables and sour, sweet and crunchy accompaniments). I count the freestanding mounds of spice, there must be dozens including cumin, coriander, ginger, turmeric, clove, cinnamon, four kinds of pepper, and many, many more including the customized mixes, all glowing with color and heady fragrance. Saffron, the stamen of the autumn crocus, brilliant yellow in little cellophane packages, is the most valuable of all, gram for gram it is more costly than gold.
We move on to the great cheese stand, manned by a stout fellow who shifts the huge 16-kg/35-lb wheels with ease. For practical household use he sells cheerful 250-gram miniature cheeses, many flavored with herbs or spices and enrobed in bright plastic wrapping. But I am going for the gold, a wedge of the half dozen versions of Gouda, the national treasure that is less salty than Parmesan, firmer than Cheddar, and way, way more complex. One of the Goudas on display is relatively young, perhaps 4 months old, (belegen, as the Dutch say), the rind yielding slightly to the touch, pleasant and forgettable, but the others are seriously aged at least a year, possibly much longer, giving time for the dense texture and full nutty flavor to develop. Gouda cheese, has a rich history, dating back to the Middle Ages, Dutch cities could obtain certain feudal rights, which gave them a total control of certain goods. Gouda acquired the rights for the cheese, and has the sole right to sell it in their famous market place. There are variations which bear names such as Gouda Rotterdamische and Gouda Komijn and a couple are dotted with seeds of cumin and my favorite caraway.
I am gradually learning about Dutch cheeses, but Chef Ronald knows it already and he steers me towards the butcher, where we nibble free samples of dried sausages. Further stands are piled with sacks of dried beans, dried peas, and the first baby potatoes, all staples of the Dutch table. As the cruise progresses, we will be taking a look at local specialties such as Soup with Meatballs (Groentesop met Gehaktballetjes) and Poached Pears in Red Wine (Stoofperen). Dutch cookbooks are full of potato recipes: potato salad with mayonnaise, yogurt and chopped parsley, or Huzarensalade of potatoes with slivers of cooked beef, pickles, and mustard. Potatoes come mashed with kale and sliced sausage, or perhaps with apples, onion and bacon.
Back at the ship, Roland disappears at once, dinner will start soon. What a pleasure it was to travel and explore on the waterways of Holland, the preferred mode of transport for the Dutch.
During the season, which lasts nine or ten months a year, he is on duty, then can escape for a couple of months while
the Ullure ship is laid up for maintenance. Roland is like all the multi-national, multi-lingual staff, he loves to travel while the ship is laid up for maintenance. At one stage in his life, he was cooking for an Antarctic station where supplies had to be ordered three months in advance. “Couldn’t forget anything!” he grins. Even when based on his home port of Amsterdam, all the ordering is done months in advance. On the Ullur he heads a staff of 12, including a pastry chef and the garde manger guy, specializing in cold dishes and salads. All tastes are indulged. At one lunch when a visitor requested a hamburger despite the lavish buffet display of cold meats and salads, the server departed to ask the chef. “It will take just a few minutes sir”, was the reply, and five minutes proved enough. Chef Ronald keeps a close eye on the Viking Ullur’s menu and he tastes everything. “If I don’t like it, I don’t serve it!” he says.
As we wind our leisurely way along the waterways of Holland, we pass every size of ship from little row boats to supertankers on their way to and from the giant port of Rotterdam, the busiest in Europe. The landscape is flat, so flat that windmills or a large tree stands stark against the skyline a kilometer away. Hectare after hectare of greenhouses shelter much of the greens and vegetables that supply the rest of Europe and we visit a vast installation that grows almost all the yellow bell peppers for the EU. The interior climate is constant thanks to excess energy supplied by Microsoft just the other side of the highway. So crucial are the immense dykes that hold back the North Sea, our river boat is four meters below sea level. At another stop we taste oysters, hollow, briny Belons and craggy Portugaises, gathered that morning from the waterway visible outside. When I baste the freshly shucked oyster with a squeeze of lemon juice, it seems to give a twitch, or is that my imagination?
DUTCH MUSHROOM SOUP
Creamy mushroom soup made with fresh button mushrooms is a Dutch favorite.
11/4 lb/600 g fresh mushrooms
6 tablespoons/90 g butter
Salt and pepper
1 onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons flour
6 cups/1.5 liters vegetable stock
2 sprigs thyme, chopped
3-4 sprigs parsley, chopped
1 cup/250 ml crème fraȋche
- Trim the mushroom stems and thinly slice the caps. Melt a tablespoon of the butter in a large saucepan, add a handful of the mushrooms slices, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook over low heat until tender, then set them aside for garnish. Meanwhile finely chop the remaining mushrooms.
- Melt the remaining butter in the saucepan, add the onion and celery cook until tender. Stir in the chopped mushrooms and cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the mushrooms are translucent and the liquid has evaporated, 5-7 minutes.
- Whisk in the flour, then the stock and thyme. Bring the soup to a boil, whisking until it thickens, then simmer 5 minutes. Take from the heat and stir in the crème fraȋche. Taste and adjust the seasoning. The soup can be made ahead and stored a couple of days in the refrigerator up to this point.
- To finish, reheat the soup and garnish if necessary. Spoon the soup into bowls. Stir the parsley into the warmed sliced mushrooms, sprinkle on the soup and serve.