Burt Wolf's Table: Holland - #218

BURT WOLF:  Holland -- the country that was created by its people when they reclaimed their land from the sea. It's the place to see the paintings of Dutch artists like Rembrandt and Van Gogh and find out what they are eating in those paintings.  We'll discover why Holland produces some of the world's best fruits and vegetables, and we’ll trace the creation of cheese right up to today's market in Gouda. So join me in Holland at Burt Wolf's Table.

WOLF:  The two most powerful forces in the history of Holland are wind and water. For over a thousand years, the people living in this part of the world have had an amazing ability to take advantage of these two forces.  Perhaps the most obvious example is the windmill.

WOLF:  The Dutch used windmills to turn the pumps that drew the water off the land, over the dikes, and back to the sea.  Much of Holland’s actual land surface was created by windpower moving water.  The farmland that evolved from this system formed the basis for Holland's extensive agricultural and dairy industries. It was also windpower that moved the Dutch ships across the surface of the seas during the 1600's and made Holland the most powerful trading nation of the time, and the absolute center of commerce and culture.  During the early 1600's there was an extraordinary expansion in worldwide trade. In  Europe just about everybody who had a boat wanted to push off for some distant port in the hope of buying something there and bringing it back home and selling it for big bucks. For the Dutch, it created a giant worldwide trading empire -- and back home in Holland, an enormous amount of money. A lot of that money was used to commission works of art. Art that the Dutch appreciated in terms of aesthetics, but that they also considered to be a great commercial investment -- and boy, were they right.

WOLF:  Holland's golden age of the 1600's was the time of Rembrandt -- not a bad investment -- and Van Dyke, Franz Hals and Vermeer. These works can give us a detailed picture of what Dutch life was like at the time, especially when it comes to food.  The Dutch masters have left us a picture of the period's menu: cheese, fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, fish, beer.  The same foods and drink that make up the traditional meals of today's Dutch family. Very often the way a food was shown was meant to tell a story. The Merry Family by Jan Steen looks like a great Sunday afternoon lunch with the kids -- but when you look at it closely you see that the children are following the bad habits of their parents: drinking, smoking, overeating. The painting is actually a warning against weak morals, a seventeenth- century cry for improved family values. The Dutch love of art has continued, and so has their ability to produce some of the world's finest painters. 

WOLF:  Vincent Van Gogh was born in Holland in 1853 and died in 1890. Almost all of his paintings were made during the 1880's, and though he was able to sell only a few of his works during his lifetime, his paintings have since become the most valuable in the international art market. In 1990 a Van Gogh sold for more than eighty million dollars. In the center of Amsterdam is the Van Gogh Museum, built to make his works available to the public. Over one hundred Van Gogh works are on continual exhibition.  Food has always been an important subject for Dutch painters and Van Gogh was no exception. This still life of apples and pears was a color study producing a completely yellow picture.  He also presented people eating and drinking in cafes and one of his favorite works was The Potato Eaters.

LOUIS VAN TILBORGH: He...he tried to do something with the light which is...very difficult.  I mean he... from the beginning...

WOLF:  Louis VanTilburg is the curator of the museum's Van Gogh collection.

VAN TILBORGH:  The Potato Eaters is an important painting because it's actually the first mature painting that Van Gogh really made. Before that time, that means from l880 until '80...'85... he made more or less studies. He didn't make... pictures which he thought were good enough for the market... for the art market. He was just learning the trade more or less, and with The Potato Eaters he first thought that he could launch own career... artistically and commercially. He thought that he could send it to...to an exhibition in Paris and could present himself with that picture to... art dealers.

WOLF:  It doesn't have any of the bright colors that so many of us expect in a Van Gogh.

VAN TILBORGH:  He... always like to exaggerate.  He did that in France and he also did that in Holland and in Holland at that time... gay colors were not in fashion but dark colors were, that he exaggerated.  I mean if you would compare  his pictures to the pictures of his... of his colleagues at the time... his... his pictures are much more...darker ...even...even more to say black.

This pic... picture... if you very... look very carefully at the... the hands... the way it is constructed it's very... I mean the people are sitting there... cramped. They're not looking at each other.  For instance, the lady on the right has to pour coffee.  Someone has to... take a fork and take in the potato. It's all very clear... very defined but as a total... it's not sensible at all because there is talk at a table.  They interact and they do that... don't do that in that picture and... I think he himself was aware of the fact that he did not succeed in that, because he never made a picture like this any more... five persons around the table that... was too... too difficult for him.

WOLF:  The fact that they were using potatoes to make an entire meal is an interesting reminder of how important the potato was to the European peasant farmer.  During the seventeen and eighteen hundreds it was very often the only food they had, and because of its high nutritional content, was actually enough to keep them alive. For Van Gogh, the peasant and the potato were examples of a purer and simpler lifestyle, but in the case of the potato that's only true if you leave off the sour cream.

Vincent Van Gogh painted The Potato Eaters  in 1885 and regarded the work as one of his best. He believed that the peasant was in many ways better than the more sophisticated people in the city and that there were lessons to be learned from them. When it comes to cooking, that may very well be true. There are a lot of things going on in the simple foods of the European farmer than can teach us a lesson about good cooking. 

Robert Kranenborg, the executive chef at Amsterdam's Amstel Hotel, has used Van Gogh's painting of The Potato Eaters as a starting point for a Dutch potato recipe.  Thin discs of potatoes and onions are overlapped in a heatproof serving dish.  A broth is made from chicken stock and a few juniper berries, an optional ingredient; if you have some and you like the flavor of gin,put 'em in.  In goes a bay leaf, a few slices of fresh ginger, five minutes of simmering, a tablespoon of mustard, then through a strainer and onto the potatoes and onions until they're almost submerged.  Then into a three hundred and seventy five degree fahrenheit oven for fifteen minutes.  And it's ready to serve. 

WOLF:  When Van Gogh lived in Paris during the 1880's, he would often pay for his meals at the local cafe by giving the owner a painting of flowers or food which was then used to decorate the restaurant. One of my favorite paintings of food by Van Gogh is The Flowerpot With Chives that he painted in Paris during the spring of 1887. 

VAN TILBORGH:  It...it shows you a...how Van Gogh's interested in little details...small, interesting details of...life. You see...just a simple pot with chives in it and that's...that's all....not more, not less but that's what it shows and... many people would think that it's easy to paint something like that. It isn't.  For instance, you have painters who... want to... are looking for motives and it's very difficult to find motives. You've got to artists ... art history can prove to you... that who are... go out the door and think “now I'll motive to paint” and they do not find it  because they're not actually satisfied with what they're finding. It does not fit. Van Gogh was not that kind of person. He went out.  He did see something and immediately his easel was there and then he painted it and that is...shows something of his remarkable attitude I think to life and nature. It was for him very easy at finding motives in real life and this is one of them because it's such a charming picture.

WOLF:  KLM Chef Paulo Arpasanna was inspired by this work and responded by creating a chicken recipe with chives.  Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are cut into bite-sized pieces and mixed with a little rosemary and garlic. A few tablespoons of oil are heated in a saute pan.  Some chopped onion goes in and cooks for two minutes. Then the chicken pieces.  When the chicken is browned, it comes out and it's held aside. Back in the same pan:  two cups of sliced mushrooms, half cup of white wine, a couple of tomatoes in their juices. The chicken returns to the pot. A little cream or milk.  Fresh chives are cut from a plant with a scissor and added to the recipe.  Onto the plate and it's ready to serve.

WOLF:  About an hour's drive into the Dutch countryside from Amsterdam is the small village of Zundert.  This is the building that put Zundert on the map. Zundert is where Vincent Van Gogh grew up and did his early work. They even have a small museum dedicated to him.  The museum has a small collection of things that relate to the period when Van Gogh lived in Zundert, as well as his other years in Holland.  Van Gogh made a number of drawings that showed the landscape and the people of the village. He was fascinated by the life of the peasant farmers who worked the land, and there are many drawings that depict them at work in the fields and in their homes.

Certainly a fitting tribute but the sweetest tribute of all is just down the street at the Luijckx [“Likes”] Chocolate Factory. Almost every morning you will find the shiny steel tank-truck outside the building, a tank-truck filled with twenty thousand gallons of the finest chocolate.  Chocolate that goes into the building to be molded. The free-flowing chocolate is poured into molds moving along a track. They're shaken to take out any air bubbles, then flipped so the form has only a thin coating. It's turned again and weighed to make sure it holds the proper amount. The chocolate cools and hardens to become little cups but the Luijckx system can form just about anything.  A substantial part of their business comes from producing special designs, things for Christmas, Easter, McChocolates, and the local specialty -- a reproduction of Vincent Van Gogh's self-portrait in chocolate. This is great stuff. It nourishes the mind and the body at the same time and it does it either in milk or semi-sweet chocolate. How few works of art can make that claim?

WOLF:  The idea of decorating a cake or forming it into a sculpture goes back for thousands of  years.  For centuries, cake makers and sugar workers were considered more as architects or builders than bakers. This is the preliminary design for the wedding cake at the marriage of the Princess Royal of Britain to Prince Frederick Wilhelm of Prussia.  All of these designs were great to look at but murder to construct.  But modern technology has changed that.  Machines have been invented that mass produce many of the forms used by serious bakers, and Luijckx Chocolate pioneered much of the technology.

They're able to make a mold in almost any shape. The mold becomes the basis for a process that's very similar to that used for making pottery, another Dutch specialty.  The mold is either filled or coated with chocolate, and then the shape comes off.  From then on it's up to the cake decorator. A chocolate cup gets filled with whipped cream, soft ice cream or frozen yogurt; then a disc of cake goes on top.  The cup is flipped over and a touch of whipped cream goes on, a decoration of chocolate and a few slices of fruit. The pastry specialist starts with discs of cake that he coats with whipped cream, covers with chocolate blossoms and decorates with chocolate shapes and fruit. 

One day back in 1887 a Dutch farmer took a boatload of his cauliflower to town. He tied up at the town market and got ready to do some business. Unfortunately cauliflower was not on anybody's menu that day, and so he developed a new way of selling his entire boatload of cauliflower.  He announced that he would yell out a price for the entire boatload. Nobody made a bid.  He would come up with a lower price a few seconds later.  The first one to respond got the whole boatload -- and that is how the Dutch Fruit and Vegetable Auction System got started. Today the farmer yelling out his ever-decreasing price has been replaced with a computer, and the purchasers have buttons next to their seats to signal their purchase.  Farmers bring in their products, each is checked for quality, which is a primary responsibility of the system, a particular batch is selected and the auction begins.  The buyer wants the price to  go down as far as possible but there is always the danger that a competitive buyer will press his button first, purchase the lot and force you to go home without the product that you need. Talk about a job with pressure.  So next time you taste a Dutch endive or tomato or pepper, remember that it was a man with nerves of steel that made it possible.


WOLF:  Holland's central location between Germany, France and England has made it a major export area for many centuries, particularly in the area of agriculture. The Dutch produce over a hundred and twenty vegetables for export as well as home use.  Chef Robert Kranenborg is well known for his Dutch vegetable cookery and he has some good tips for vegetable cooking in general.

WOLF:  How did you get into that?

ROBERT KRANENBORG:  Well vegetables ... I... I love to do fish but to give... to add to fish... beautiful flavors you come to... do herbs and vegetables and people are always thinking that in Holland we eat a lot of vegetables but vegetables are always a garnish with fish or meat and it's never or... very less in function of the taste of the fish and meat.  So that's why I... I specialize myself in vegetables and to give the flavor... the taste of each vegetable has to go with something and it is not only a garnish which you can put with everything.

WOLF:  What are some of the tips that I should know as a vegetable cook?

KRANENBORG:  The cutting of the... of the vegetable is very important. If you want it... crispy you have to cut it thin and cook very less and if you... not blanch always the... the... the vegetables because... you... you lose a lot  of... of... of flavor into the water. Steaming it...

WOLF:  And nutrients.

KRANENBORG:  Yeah and nutrients... vitamins... and... steaming... steaming... vegetables can be very good or... just... stir-fry.

WOLF:  When I was flying into Amsterdam I noticed acres and acres of greenhouses. How did that business get started?

KRANENBORG:  Well it is all about weather who... make changes... who  changes everything.

WOLF:  Right.

KRANENBORG:  And in a little country ...which a lot of people are living... we're very democratic and we want everybody to have tomatoes, endive... or bell, bell peppers. We have too less... too less beautiful weather to grow that... in season. So we wanted to have more of that the whole year.  So we started to build greenhouses and to cultivate with... with temperature and... and... moisture... controlling.

WOLF:  So it gave you a lot of control over the environment.

KRANENBORG:  Over the environment.

WOLF:  It's a lot like building the dikes.

KRANENBORG:  No, no, no.

WOLF:  (LAUGHS) The question I hear most often is when you get the green vegetables, do you cover them or uncover them when you cook 'em?

KRANENBORG:  Yeah, that's a rule.  Green vegetables... don't put a cover on green vegetables when you blanch them and what is very important that you have to... to salt the water in green vegetables.

WOLF:  Why?

KRANENBORG:  It keeps the color. It keeps the color very good and... it is... it is necessary to have... to have it not...without salt.  It is... better, better taste. 

WOLF:  What are your favorite vegetables?

KRANENBORG:  Oh my favorite vegetables is sweet... sweet bell pepper. I can do everything with that.

WOLF:  The Dutch are famous for their sweet bell peppers that they grow in dozens of different colors, and they grow them in hothouses. This recipe starts with a red bell pepper that's peeled, cut into big flat strips and cooked in oil for about ten minutes until it's soft. A little vegetable oil is heated in a saute pan and in goes a half cup of chopped red pepper, half cup of chopped onion, a sliced tomato with the seeds removed, a little water and a clove of garlic. That's covered and simmered for seven minutes.  And into another pan: a little oil, strips of fennel or celery, leeks, eggplant, mushrooms, carrots, cilantro, coriander, tarragon.  That simmers for seven minutes. A heatproof baking pan is used for the final assembly.  In go the flat strips of red pepper, then a layer of the cooked vegetable strips, more red pepper, more vegetable strips, more red pepper. That's heated in a three hundred and fifty degree oven for three minutes.  A mixture of onions and peppers and tomatoes go into a blender for sixty seconds.  The layered peppers come out of the oven onto a serving plate and the sauce on top. That's it.

Holland's mild climate, high quality marshy soil, and regular rainfall promote the year-round growth of excellent grass, grass which in turn produces excellent cattle, cattle that have been used to produce milk for at least four thousand years and cheese for a least a thousand.  The country's natural waterways played a big part in the development of the cheese business. Almost every farmer had a waterway touching some point on his land.  When his cheese was made, he would load it onto a barge and sail off to market.  It could have been a small town just down the canal from his farm or he could join up with a major river like the Rhine and end up selling his cheese in France or Germany. Because the Dutch sailors were such good navigators, they were able to develop a coastal trade and end up selling their cheeses as far south as Portugal and Spain.  At  one point in time, cheese became so valuable that it was used a form of money -- but it was very difficult to keep any small change in your pocket.

Over the years the technology of cheese making has changed some, but the story is more or less the same. Today Holland is the world's largest exporter of cheese. It ships out millions and millions of pounds of cheese each year.  So if you want to get an accurate picture of the history of the Dutch, just say cheese.

The Denboer family farm has been here in Holland for at least three hundred years. The land was reclaimed from the sea and a giant dike stands right behind the farmhouse, just in case the sea ever tries to get it  back. The Denboers raise their own cows and use the milk to produce cheese in the most traditional of  Dutch farmhouse methods.  The milk goes into a large tub.  An enzyme from the lining of a calf's stomach called rennet is added to the milk. The rennet causes the milk solids, called the curd, to separate from the liquid, called the whey.  The milk solids are taken out and placed into a form. Pressure is added to squeeze out additional liquid and give the cheese its shape. At that point the  cheese is submerged in a brine bath, really just salted water but it adds flavor to the cheese... and the cheese comes out of the bath and sits on the shelf to mature for two weeks.  At that point the cheese is ready to go to market.  Cheese is just an ancient method for preserving the valuable nutrients in milk.  All of the calcium and protein that's in the milk is not in the cheese but it's in there in a concentrated form. It takes about ten pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese, and in moderation, cheese is an excellent source of nutrients.

WOLF:  It's pronounced "houda" in Dutch and Gouda in English. It's the name of the most famous cheese produced in Holland, and it's also the name of the town where the cheese was originally developed.  Starting in the 1200s, if you lived in a Dutch town, you wanted that town  to have weighing rights; that is, the right to weigh the cheeses made by the local farmers and put the town's official seal of approval on those cheeses. It was the equivalent of today having a major league football franchise.  Big deal stuff.  And as soon as your town got weighing rights, it got a weigh house in which the activity was conducted, like building your own stadium.  Gouda got theirs in 1668.  It's right across the street from the city hall, which just serves to point out the importance of the cheese business to the town fathers. Most of the cheese exported from Holland is named after the towns from which it comes. Edam: skimmed milk, mild flavors, smooth texture, easy to spot because it usually comes in a red ball. Masdam: it's Holland's answer to Swiss cheese with a mild, nutty flavor.  And of course gouda: starts mild and creamy but becomes more robust the longer it's aged.  So check the cheese to make sure it has the town seal on it.  That's the only way to be sure it's gouda enough.

WOLF:  This the VanLoon House in Amsterdam, built in 1602. This is the master bedroom, the small bedroom, the painted room, the drawing room, the dining room, the smoking room, the garden room, no bathrooms, but a splendid garden and a coach house behind, with fake windows on the first floor. Curtains were painted on the glass windows so the coachman and his family couldn't look into the garden. These days it's a museum. 

It's also available for private parties. About twenty years ago KLM, the Royal Dutch Airline of Holland, figured out that they were throwing a dinner party every day for about forty thousand people. Just happened that that party was on board their airplanes.  Well, they couldn't hold on to all of that knowledge and keep it private so they opened up KLM Party Services. It's a catering operation that'll throw a party for you anywhere in Holland.  And because it's an airline, they'll fly your guests in from anywhere in the world. They'll do a big bash for twenty thousand businessmen or they'll do a small private candlelit party just for two in this romantic museum.  One thing, however, that they do feel very, very strongly about: during the romantic candlelit dinner for two, you must keep your seat belt lightly fastened at all times.

The VanLoon Museum is a fascinating restoration of a private home as it was in Amsterdam during the 1700's.  The dining room has a two-hundred-and-forty-piece Amstel china service, particularly impressive because it was purchased before the invention of the dishwashing machine.  Portraits of the VanLoon brothers as newlyweds with their wives... the perfect setting for a romantic supper.  And if you come to dinner here, one of the KLM master chefs like Paulo Arpasanna will cook any menu that you like.  Today he's preparing a Dutch cheese soup.

A little butter goes into a pot, followed by a cup of sliced leeks and two cups of peeled new potatoes. Two cups of sliced broccoli stalks, six cups of chicken stock. Cover goes on... and the soup simmers for twenty minutes.  Then the broccoli flowerettes go in for the last two minutes of cooking... nto the blender... touch of cream or  milk, back into the pot to heat up. While that's happening, a wedge of Dutch cheese is cut from a baby wheel and grated.  About a cup of  gouda or edam goes into the soup.  Stir that for a minute then into a bowl, a little garnish  and it's finished.

WOLF:  One of the reasons for all of the good food here in Holland was the Dutch approach to their colonies during the sixteen- and seventeen-hundreds.  When the English, French or Spanish would develop a colony, many of their citizens would move in and stay there.  But not the Dutch. They loved their home country too much. They would go to their colonies, do their business and come home.  And when they came home, they brought the best of that colony’s cooking with them. 

WOLF:  Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for things that taste good and make it easier to eat well.  I'm Burt Wolf.