By Sue Godsave
The Netherlands is a major food producer, processor and trader, and there are many food products on Dutch supermarket shelves that look ordinary, but turn out to have an interesting background, or to be unexpectedly different from their UK counterparts. There are also just a few British food products that make it into Dutch supermarkets. Here is a basketful of such special supermarket foods.
The Dutch equivalent to caster sugar, basterd suiker (bastard sugar!), is registered in the EU’s quality scheme as having Traditional Speciality Guaranteed status. So where does the name come from and what‘s special about it? In the 17th and 18th centuries, refined white sugar was an expensive luxury, sold in the form of loaves. Basterd suiker was a by-product of a process to get rid of the moist syrup from this refined sugar. The loaves were encased in pipe clay, and water was dripped through very slowly. The ‘bastard’ sugar that crystallized out of the syrupy residue had smaller-sized crystals and a higher water content than the pure sugar, so it was a bit stickier, and it formed layers from white to dark brown that were shaved off the loaf of pure crystalline white sugar. This by-product was sold relatively cheaply to bakers and they liked it, as the small sugar crystals dissolved easily, tasted good and baked goods had an appetizing colour and kept fresh for longer. At the end of the 19th century, methods were developed to make it directly, by adding invert sugar syrup (glucose + fructose) to milled refined sugar. Light brown and dark brown basterd suikers also contain molasses and caramel. As well as being good for baking, the Dutch like basterd suiker on bread and I’m told that it’s particularly nice on Frisian rye bread. British caster (or castor) sugar differs from basterd suiker in that it is just sugar that is fine enough to pass through a castor, a type of sieve.
If you still want to find demerara sugar you should look for rietsuiker and granulated sugar is kristalsuiker (crystalised sugar). At the time of writing, the only products in the UK with the same, Traditional Speciality Guaranteed status were Traditionally Farmed Old Spot Pork and Traditional Farm-fresh Turkey.
Coffee takes up more than twice the amount of space in the supermarket aisles as tea, and there are roasted beans and ground beans, pads and pots, as well as a few jars of instant coffee. It’s a pity I almost never drink it! The Dutch were the first large scale coffee traders in Europe and probably also introduced tea to Europe from Japan. In Britain it was tea drinking that caught on, but in the Netherlands coffee has been the number one drink ever since the mid-1700s. Ground coffee used to come in gold, silver and red packs, containing different proportions of roasted coffee beans of two types, arabica and robusta. The coffee from the red packs has the most robusta and should have a stronger flavour and quite a bit more caffeine and is by far the most popular.
The majority of the branded tea bags in my supermarket are from Pickwick, owned by Douwe Egberts, who also produce coffee. The origins of the company were a shop established in 1753 by Egberts Douwe and his wife, which sold colonial wares – principally coffee, tea and tobacco. The company introduced the Pickwick brand in 1937, and called it Pickwick because tea was considered very English, and the wife of the then director had just been reading The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. Pickwick now make about 35 types of tea, not including ice tea. There’s green, herbal goodness, fruit, delicious spices, rooibos harmony and (confusingly) ‘black’, made from the leaves of tea plants. There are several types of black tea, including English blend, introduced in 1957, Earl Grey (that somehow doesn’t taste like Earl Grey) and Dutch tea blend, which is advertised as being ‘lighter and more refined than the English tea’, and contains ‘pieces of orange’. Lipton tea also makes it onto the supermarket shelves, and their Earl Grey contains a ‘touch of Marigold petals’!
The Dutch East India Company (VOC) was established in 1602 and is considered to have been the first multinational corporation. It pretty much monopolised the spice trade throughout the 17th century and it stayed in business until 1799, after which the VOC’s territories came under the control of the Dutch government. ‘Land swapping’ and territorial expansion after 1800 led to the colony occupying a large part of present day Indonesia by the time of the Japanese occupation during World War II. This occupation effectively meant the end of Dutch colonial rule in South East Asia, as Indonesia declared independence soon after the Japanese surrender in 1945. Self-rule wasn’t agreed to without a struggle, but at the end of 1949 Indonesia’s independence was formally recognised by the Netherlands. Many Dutch people returned to the Netherlands in this post-war period, and this heralded the start of an increasing availability and popularity of Indonesian food in the Netherlands. Or I should say Indische food – a mixture of Indonesian and Chinese-Indonesian food, with European influences – original fusion cooking.
A major brand of herbs and spices on supermarket shelves is Silvo, whose name comes from its founder, a Dutchman called Cornelis Martinus van Sillevoldt. The company started in 1833 as a purveyor of baking ingredients and later became increasingly involved in grinding and trading in spices (and rice). The brand name was retained after a takeover by the American McCormick & Company in 2004, and some typically Dutch flavours stayed in its assortment. These include jeneverbessen (juniper berries, used in making the Dutch spirit, jenever), patat-frites kruiden (potato chip herbs, a mixture which includes nutmeg and ground chilli), bonenkruid (bean herb, or savory) and selderijblad (dried celery leaves, for use in soups and stews). They also sell nutmeg and speculaas spices, of course. Nutmeg is used a lot in the traditional Dutch kitchen, sprinkled on cooked cauliflower, brussel sprouts and beans, as well as in cakes and biscuits. Speculaas is the quintessentially Dutch biscuit, especially popular around Sinterklaas in December, and it’s flavoured with spices a bit similar to mixed spice in the UK. There is no single recipe for either spice mix, though cinnamon and nutmeg are always major components. It’s not mentioned as an ingredient on pots of Silvo ‘koek en speculaas’ spices, but many recipes for speculaas spices on the internet include white pepper!
At the beginning of the 19th century, chocolate was used mainly for drinks or for flavouring cookies. Then a Dutchman, Casparus van Houten, developed a cheap way to press some of the fat out of roasted cocoa beans and make cocoa powder. And his son, Coenraad, developed what’s called the Dutch Process, a way of treating cocoa mass, which modified its colour and gave it a milder taste, as well as making it easier to mix with water. These advances led to its appearance as a confection similar to chocolate, although the first bar of solid chocolate was probably made in Britain, by J.S. Fry and Sons in the mid-1800s. The Dutch are not as famous as the Belgians for their chocolate, but they’re the biggest importer and processor of cocoa beans in Europe and there are several major Dutch chocolate producers. One of these is Verkade, and if you’ve ever been to see the windmills at Zaanse Schans, you’ll probably have smelled their factory there.
Butter and Cooking Fats
Another food basic that is also a bit exotic is butter. A few months ago visiting friends commented on how nice our butter was, which seemed strange until I discovered that butter is not made in quite the same way in the UK and the Netherlands. Here, butter is made from cream which is churned and soured (by lactic acid) and many people prefer it unsalted, while a lot of UK butter is salty and ‘sweet’ (not soured).
There’s a fairly bewildering choice of fats for spreading and cooking in the supermarket, including special butter for frying from Campina, developed in 2010, which according to their blurb has been churned for longer and contains more air. I haven’t tested it, but apparently the protein and water in the butter rise above the fat, so that it doesn’t spit or burn as easily as ordinary butter. There’s also especially expensive butter made from the milk of cows from the meadow (grasboter), and at least the one from Campina is extra soft and easy to spread, and good for creaming with sugar for cake making.
When I first arrived in the Netherlands I tried making something sweet from a vegetable cooking fat that was probably for frying and it tasted horrible. Since then I’ve stuck to butter and cooking oils for everything, but it’s not really complicated – fat that has ‘bakken en braden’ on the label is for frying, smeren is for spreading on bread etc, and if a block of margarine says it’s for koken you can probably substitute it for butter in cakes and pies, and there’s a type of Blue Band for baking that is softer and has a buttery taste (and 1.5% salt) and is called Blue Band Cake & Koekjes. Blue Band also make two types of liquid margarine – a butter-flavoured one called Blue Band Roombotersmaak, and an everyday-type called iedere dag, and most of the baking recipes on their website (in Dutch) use these liquid forms.
Imports from the UK
I haven’t met many Dutch people who’ll admit to eating Marmite, but there must be quite a few out there, because I’ve never had any trouble finding Marmite in Dutch supermarkets. They also often sell pots of Chivers marmalade and Patak curry sauces, packets of Lipton’s tea and Weetabix, and bottles of Worcester Sauce. You might find Jordan’s Crunchy, Tyrrells Crisps, the occasional pack of orange Cheddar and boxes of After Eight Mints (actually made in Germany for the Dutch market), but that’s about it. So imagine my surprise when clotted cream turned up in my local supermarket a while ago! No scones yet, though…