High in Low Countries and Potato Historians

High in Low Countries and Potato Historians

AYLİN ÖNEY TAN - aylinoneytan@yahoo.com
High in Low Countries and Potato Historians The Aula of Amsterdam University is packed full with scholars, students, researchers, historians, food writers, journalists; all to attend the one-day-only first “Amsterdam Symposium on the History of Food.”
The meeting titled “Cooking up the Low Countries, Textual and Visual Representations of Culinary Culture in Belgium and the Netherlands (16th-21st century)” is a joint organization of University of Amsterdam and FOST-Social & Cultural Food Studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. The event gathers all food focused people and scholarly historians alike, aiming at discovering more about the history of food in Low Countries.

Holland has always been a culinary experience for me, for its old Gouda cheeses, potent shots of Genever, apple tarts, spicy layer cakes, top quality spices, caramel wafers, but this time, I’m here in Amsterdam for the food history conference.

Food history is a relatively new field, only with a short history that can be stretched only as far as 50 years back. It was a field scorned with disdain, usually not taken seriously at all. Key-note speaker Peter Scholliers of FOST says only until a couple of years ago, he was nicknamed as the “potato historian” in his own university. Such a diminutive tag, of course, was not encouraging at all for young scholars to pursue studies on the history of food.

Food is all about human beings and relates to all aspects of humankind. The classical approach in history, with an inclination to omit the existence of the individual totally, no wonder stayed distant from food studies, considering it a part of ethnological studies and folklore. The only field related with food was economic history, and it was only interested production and trade. Peter Scholliers states between 1920 and 1960, economic history and folklore studies were two totally separate fields. The former was interested in food supply, hunger, food prices etc., and the latter was focused in cultural aspects, regional foods, the use of utensils, manners, rituals and traditions. By 1960’s the launching of social history, the or in other terms “history from the below,” redefined the approach toward food studies and gave way to the new concept of food history.

Nowadays, food history makes more room for multi-disciplinary aspects, which is overwhelming. The cultural turn in historical writings in the 1990’s attracted more and more people from other fields to write and research food. Now the “potato historian” is highly regarded and much respected. Learning more about food history shows us more about ourselves, the formation of our identities, the mix of cultures and the interaction between societies.

The Netherlands might be a tiny country, with its below sea-level low lands largely unsuitable for agriculture, but as a pioneer in sugar & spice, coffee & cacao trade, this small country effected and influenced world history greatly and eventually became a big agricultural country. A hub of overseas tastes with a mix wholesome European fare, food in the Netherlands is worth to explore. Thanks to one of the speakers at the symposium, my host Karin Vaneker, I shared a real Dutch dinner with goose and braised red cabbage at a local village restaurant with her friends. They told me how to cook a potato in the proper Dutch way. I think whether it be overly serious, or whether it is scorned as ‘potato history,’ after all food studies is fun... I’m happy to be in the land of “potato eaters,” in the company of the “potato historians,” attending an event on the new “high” topic of food history in the low lands. I should, maybe, pay a re-visit to the Van Gogh museum to see the famous “The Potato Eaters” once again, this time from the view of food only!

Recipe of the Week: The recipe of the week comes from the book from the same author for our book of the week. “Friese Dumkes” or “Friesian Thumbs” are very similar to anise-flavored biscuits we have here. Actually Gaitri prefers to buy her anise in Turkish shops in the Netherlands. Here is the recipe from the Dutch version of the book Sugar & Spice. Sift together 125 g plain flour, a pinch of salt, ½ teaspoons each of ground anise, cinnamon and ginger, add 1 tsp whole anise, 75 g caster or brown sugar, 50 g of finely chopped hazelnuts, 60 g of softened butter, 1 egg yolk and 1 ½-2 tbs. water; knead until it holds together. Roll into a 1 cm thick rectangle. Cut into fingers 2 cm by 5 cm. Place on a baking tray lined with parchment paper and bake in 180°C preheated oven for 15 minutes.

Cork of the Week: The spicy Friesian Fingers go well with a good cup of Dutch coffee, and a shot of Genever. Unfortunately, Genever is almost impossible to find in Turkey, but our local Gin is a close substitute. The tulip shaped tiny Genever glasses are hard to find too, so use any stemmed liquor glass, but make sure it is filled up to the brim till completely full, just as the Dutch do. Drinking it without spilling takes time to learn!

Book of the Week: “A book like no other.” That was the jury’s comment when Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra’s “Warm bread and Honey Cake” won the award of Cookery Book of the Year 2010, in London by the Guild of Food Writers. This wonderful baking book has significance for us. It has the first ever full coverage on baklava and leaf & thread pastries (yufka and kadayıf) in an English language book.

Including recipes like Old Ladie’s Neck (Kocakarı Gerdanı), Walnut and Cream Coils (Saçarası), Palace Rolls (Saray Sarması), Bird’s Eye (Kuş Gözü), Nightingale’s Nest (Bülbül Yuvası) Pistachio and Cream Triangles (Şöbiyet) and variations of baklava with all its intriguing relatives, all extensively described in full 48 pages. Gaitri not only gives recipes, but also covers history and culture with a personal touch, including her memoirs of tasting and travelling in various countries including Turkey. The book also has various savory recipes, again with a good number of Turkish recipes.