Netherlands, in the Dutch language, literally means, “Lowlands.” Its name is fitting, as much of the land is actually below sea level. Centuries ago, the people from the Kingdom of the Netherlands began building strong sea walls, called dykes. You may remember the story from Hans Brinker, of The Silver Skates, about the little Dutch boy who plugged a dyke with his finger, saving the countryside below from flooding. Statues of the fictional boy have been erected in various locations throughout the country, mainly for tourists to enjoy. The Dutch used windmill powered pumps to drain the North Sea waters from behind the dykes. The pumps are used to pump the sea water out, leaving low lying land behind, called polders. Using this technique, they have actually been able to increase the size of their small nation. Their constant battle against the sea has given the Dutch a strong sense of national pride.
The Netherlands is often mistakenly referred to as Holland. This is because back in the 1800s, the area called Holland made the biggest contributions to the nation as a whole. Holland is actually just two of twelve provinces within the nation. Noord-and Zuid-Holland are what make up Holland.
The Netherlands is located in northwestern Europe. Its land borders with Germany to the east and Belgium to the south. It also has a large maritime border with the North Sea. It shares this border with its two land neighbors and also the United Kingdom.
The Dutch have a long and fascinating history dating back some 37,000 years. In 2009 a fragment of a Neanderthal skull was found partially buried in the sand on the floor of the North Sea. Anthropologists estimate this fragment to be from the earliest years of inhabitants in the area.
The Dutch war, in which they were fighting for independence, is often referred to as “The Eighty Years War” (1568-1648.) The first fifty years were between Spain and the Netherlands but in the last thirty years, much of Europe was involved and this segment is called “The Thirty Years War.” During “The Eighty Years War”, the Dutch provinces became the most important trading centers of northern Europe. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dutch were the most economically wealthy and scientifically advanced of all European nations. This time in history is referred to as “The Golden Era.”
The invention of the saw mill, allowed the Dutch to construct massive fleets of ships used for both trading and defense. Known as a seafaring people, they were also keen mapmakers. These undertakings allowed them to obtain an increasing position in world trade. In 1602 the Dutch East India Company was founded, and was the first ever multinational corporation. It was financed by shares creating the first modern stock exchange. You may have heard of tulip fever which also occurred during this decade. It was a bubble in the market when the price of tulip bulbs reached extraordinarily high levels and then crashed. During this time, the Bank of Amsterdam was also established, and is considered to be the first ever, central bank.
The Dutch shipping fleet hunted whales, traded spices in India and Indonesia, and even founded colonies. These colonies include New Amsterdam, which today is called New York in the USA, South Africa and the West Indies. The fleets conquered Portuguese colonies like northeastern Brazil, Angola, Indonesia and Ceylon. They even began a trade monopoly with Japan. They also dominated trade with European countries. By the 1680s, nearly a thousand Dutch ships each year were sailing in the Baltic Sea.
After the Golden Era, there were many ups and downs. In 1940, Germany took over the Netherlands, during World War II. The Netherlands was known for diversity and acceptance of people, so the Holocaust hit them hard. Approximately 107,000 Dutch Jews were deported to concentration camps and most perished there. In the capital city of Amsterdam, remains the House of Anne Frank, where she and her family hid behind the walls of the main residence in a tiny cell, during the Second World War. On August 4, 1944, the hiding place was discovered and all inhabitants were sent to concentration camps. Her diary and papers were given to the sole survivor of the family, Otto Frank, Anne’s father. Otto compiled her work and created “Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl.” This museum is one of Amsterdam’s most popular tourist attractions.
Amsterdam is one of the most visited cities in the world. It is known for its beautiful canal ring and the impressive architecture. There is a Museum Square which includes: the Van Gogh Museum, an art museum dedicated to his works and his contemporaries, the Rijksmuseum, home to many of the Dutch masters’ work, including Rembrandt and the Dutch National Art and History Museum, which ranks number one. Amsterdam has the highest density of museums in the world. Aside from art and history, one can enjoy a canal ride or shop at the authentic Nine Streets, visit the Red Light District or experience “coffee shops” where marijuana and hashish are sold, (Although it is technically not legal, it is unofficially tolerated). There is a cheese museum, as Holland is famous for cheese. The Dutch have been making cheese since 400 AD. Also one of the most famous beers in the world, Heineken, is brewed there and offers tours. In the flower market, they are famous for growing tulips and the tulip fields are always a big draw in springtime when the tulips are at their peak. It should be noted that the first tulip bulb was actually imported from Turkey although today the Netherlands supplies 75% of the world’s bulbs.
There are three other big cities in the Netherlands: Rotterdam, which is the second largest port in the world, Utrecht, and Hague. The Netherlands has the highest population density in all of Europe, with 487 people per square kilometer. Hague is the seat of the Dutch government, Parliament and the Supreme Court. It is also one of the select cities to host the United Nations. King Willem-Alexander became king on January 28, 2013. He represents the kingdom both at home and abroad and is the second youngest monarch in the world. The Royal Family will move to the Palace of Hus ten Bosch in Hague, when renovations are complete.
The Netherlands is the bicycle capital of the world. There are more bicycles than people. The land is flat as a pancake and thousands of kilometers of bike paths, called fietspadens, have been built. Pedestrians are not allowed to walk on them. The average person rides their bike 2.5 km per day. The Netherlands is also the windmill capital of the world. The 19 polder, draining windmills of the Kinderdijk are an UNESCO world heritage site. The Netherlands have used windmills for over 30 different uses; the most common use was for grinding grain and spices. Windmills are a national symbol of the country.
The official language in the Netherlands is Dutch, although nearly ninety percent also speak English. As far as religion, the Netherlands is mostly Roman Catholic and Protestant, of those who practice religion, however 2/3 of the people claim no religious faith. The Netherlands is known for their social acceptance and was the first country to legalize “same sex marriage” in 2001.
As we look into the cuisine of this nation, well let’s just say, aside from cheese, beer and gin, they are not especially known for their cuisine. Herring, with chopped raw onions and pickles is considered to be the national dish. Many people eat raw herring, straight down the hatch, with head and tail attached. The Dutch consume some 12 million kilograms of herring every year. Although seafood plays an important part in the Dutch diet, they are big vegetable eaters, with little meat consumed. Potatoes play a large role in the traditional cuisine. Grains, such as rye, are used for breads, as well as pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Often sausages, called rookworst, accompany mashed potatoes and vegetables such as curly kale, in a dish called Boerenkool Stamppot. Indonesian food is also very popular in their cuisine, as they had colonized Indonesia back in the day. Often times curry powder, and slices of pineapple or bananas are added to the stamppot, giving the oldest Dutch dish an exotic flair.
Dairy also plays a large role in the diet and only one percent of the population is believed to have lactose intolerance, the lowest in the world. It may also account for why the Dutch are the tallest in the world. Most believe it the combination of good DNA and dairy.
International cuisines can be found throughout the cosmopolitan country. Other favorite foods are: pancakes that are made both sweet and savory, called Pottertjes, snert a very popular pea soup especially in the winter (when made, the spoon should stand upright in the soup), mustard, pickles and sauerkraut are popular accompaniments, as is applesauce. Children are served applesauce with nearly every meal and they mix it in with the potatoes and vegetables for sweetness. For desserts, there are many: oliebollen is a famous dough that is fried and served on New Year’s Eve, stroopwafel is a thin waffle cookie with caramel in the middle, which is a national favorite. They also love “the Dutch drop” which is a black licorice that can be found everywhere. They make them soft sweet, soft salt, hard sweet and hard salt.
So let us enjoy a Dutch meal:
We set the scene with the color orange, as that is considered to be the color of the Netherlands. The flag is now red, white and blue but it used to be orange white and blue, as that was the livery colors of the Dutch prince, William of Orange. They even created a carrot, that was orange in color, to honor of their prince. We added to our decor, an anchor, representing the seafaring nation, a picture of a windmill and little wooden shoes, known as clogs, called Klompen. They are still worn by farmers, and gardeners are a popular tourist souvenir.
We began our meal with a pub fare, called bitterballen. These are deep fried, meatballs but inside they contain a mixture of bechamel and minced seasoned beef. Sometimes they are made as long sausages, instead of balls and are then called kroket. They are both served with spicy mustard and enjoyed with an icy cold, Heineken beer. These were so yummy and went especially well with soft gouda cheese, making for a lovely appetizer. The Dutch are actually the largest exporter of cheese in the world.
We said, “Eet samkelijk” which means, “Bon appetit” in Dutch. For the main course, we served their most famous dish, Boerenkool stamppot. This dish is made with sausage, alongside a mashed potato and curly kale. It was hard for me to make this dish as it was 105 degrees outside at my house and it seemed way too hardy to enjoy in this kind of heat. The truth is, we thoroughly enjoyed it anyway. It was a simple and delicious combination of flavors.
We served the main course with a Hussars salad, which is a potato salad that contains several other ingredients. Typically it is made with beef, however I eliminated the meat and kept it vegetarian. This is probably the best potato salad I have ever tasted. It was dressed with mayonnaise, toned down with white wine vinegar, making it much lighter than what I am used to. It was the apple that added the tart, lovely, bite in the mix. This salad would make a perfect lunch or light summer dinner. We loved it!
For dessert, it was appeltaart. This was probably the best apple dessert ever. Saying this statement is almost sacrilege. My grandmother, Agnes, made a mean apple pie and I often channel her spirit whenever I have to make a dough. She was beyond amazing in how she could just whip up a meal for eight or more people and bake three or four pies, after 18 holes on the golf course. I believe I got my passion for food from her. I thought of her often making this dessert. She was able to peel an entire apple with a paring knife, keeping the skin in one long, curling piece. I like to try this because it reminds me of her. This apple tart is similar to a pie but the crust is much softer than a pie, almost melting in your mouth. The flavor was divine. This dessert will be a staple in my home for years to come. We enjoyed it with a cup of coffee, as the Dutch are the world’s biggest coffee drinkers. They drink an average of 3.2 cups a day. They also were the first to import coffee to Europe on a large scale, way back in 1600s.
As we say goodbye to most fascinating country, I leave you with a lovely Dutch proverb:
“Gezelligheid kent geen tijd” which means literally ”Coziness knows no time” or an English translation is: “Time spent together is time well spent”.
Until next time,
“Vaarwel” which means, “Farewell.”