Wandering through the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam around lunch time, I can’t help dwelling on the Old Masters’ ample record of Dutch cuisine in their brilliant still life paintings. The compositions appear so rich in the bounty of the day, and often with prepared dishes that clearly reflect a high degree of culinary accomplishment, surely rivaling what was coming out of kitchens in the other capitals of Europe at the time.
Today when we think of French or Italian cuisine, there is an almost immediate understanding of what those broad national categories entail. But what about Dutch cuisine? We are in Amsterdam and clearly there is such a thing. But nothing immediately comes to mind. Why do I draw a blank on a whole nation’s cuisine?
One theory put forward by Dutch Food Critic Karin Engelbrecht is that as the colonial might of the Dutch declined and the population growth of the Golden Age tapered off, frugality took hold in Holland. Girls in “Huishoudschools” – a kind of domestic science school which was widely promoted – were encouraged to cook simple and economical dishes with few spices, which were costly: an odd turn of events since the Dutch were major traders of spice at the time. Thus the distinctive dishes that might have developed were presumably suppressed for generations.