Holland: From Still Life To Pea Soup
by Fred Ferretti
"This is an ascetic painting," suggested Marceline Kortenbout van der Sluijs,
stopping in front of a huge and vivid still life by Joachim Bueckalaer,
a Dutch painter of the mid-sixteenth century. In the oil in question, peaches,
apples, pears, artichokes, cauliflower, cucumbers, turnips, and olives are
piled upon a dining table, framing chickens, rabbits, ducks, pheasants,
and a partridge waiting to be prepared for roasting. "All of the food represents
the temporal world, a world we must face before we can attain the spiritual
world," continued Ms. Van der Sluijs, an art historian who had offered to
walk me through several galleries at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum and talk about
the early Dutch painters and their preoccupation with food and its symbolism.
Joachim Bueckelaer's foods in the painting are so precisely rendered,
so real in color, so true, however, that I confessed to Ms. Van der Sluijs
that I was having trouble sensing their spirituality. Was it not difficult
for people of that time to bring their minds heavenward when faced with
all that gastronomic richness, I asked?
"I suppose so," replied Ms. van der Sluijs. "But perhaps it should be
looked upon as a trial. Look there, see, beyond the table in the background.
Martha roasting a chicken on a spit and Mary plucking a chicken? They
are reaching for spirituality."
Of course they were.
"These were to remind you of what you must do to get to heaven," she
said, pointing out the various panels of the next painting, a 1504 oil
by the painter known as Meester van Alkmaar, the Master of Alkmaar. Within
the painting she pointed out "well dressed people giving food to the needy"
while others "refresh the thirsty, dress the poor, and lodge the homeless."
These were perfectly straightforward messages.
Not so Pieter Claesz's 1627 still life, an utterly sensuous painting
of a cloth-covered banquet table, on which are arranged a pewter platter
filled with oysters; a turkey pie, or pasty, cut open to show its rich,
brown interior; fresh breads; a pot of wine and half-filled Venetian stemmed
glasses; and a porcelain bowl — "Chinese, not Delft," according
to Ms. van der Sluijs — piled with apples, grapes, and walnuts. I said to
her that those glistening oysters, the breads, and that baked turkey pie,
all rendered so deliciously, would, it seemed to me, contrive to make
the passage of one's senses through worldly considerations quite trying.
"That is the message of the painting," she said.
A 1650 still life by Floris van Dijck was filled with religious symbols,
she pointed out. "Grapes and bread are the Eucharist. The apples stand
for Eden, for paradise. The nuts, their shells are the body of Christ;
the nutmeats, his nature." And Abraham van Beyeren's mid-seventeenth-century
still life — of Ming dynasty plates, silver serving dishes, a gold pocket
watch, and gold-edged crystal glasses, as well as a whole crab, a melon,
oranges, cherries, grapes, and pears — was a "teaching painting."
"The crab is a symbol of instability, and the melon means 'don't eat
too much.' The watch is mortality, and the cherries are paradise. I call
this sensual moralism."
We agreed on that one.
Then we came to Jan Steen's "The Merry Family." Steen, who lived from
1626 to 1679, was "a most moral painter," Ms. van der Sluijs said. In
his painting, elderly people, the oldest in the family, are eating, drinking,
and laughing at the table. A middle-aged man is playing a flute. There,
in a corner, a little boy is drinking wine from a goblet and a little
girl is smoking a pipe. "Steen is talking about a way of living, how we
must care how we live, for children imitate their parents," Ms. van der
"Most moral," I remarked, though I still found it difficult to reconcile
the essential sensuality of these Dutch paintings with the lessons Ms.
van der Sluijs said they were attempting to teach. And I confess that
I found no answers later when I ate a hete bliksem (hot as lightening),
a preparation of potatoes mashed with sweet-and-sour apples and peppers,
at Die Port van Cleve, a restaurant with old-style Dutch food but no lesson
Serious tastings of Holland's vegetables — of various lettuces and cabbages
from Zeeland, of endives and carrots from Westland, and of apples from
Betuwe — have been in order for the last several weeks in the Hotel des
Indes in The Hague. Extensive tastings of raw vegetables is not the sort
of gastronomic exercise that the hotel's cooks usually undertake in their
kitchens, but then it is not every month that brings with it the Haagse
Paardendagen, the "Horse Days of The Hague."
These "horse days" of riding, jumping, and carriage handling are held
each June in the Lange Voorhout, the lovely, long wooded park in front
of the Hotel Des Indes. At the east end of the park is one of Queen Beatrix's
residential palaces, the Paleis Lange Voorhout. The equine observance
dates back to the Middle Ages, to a time when the Lange Voorhout was The
Hague's fashionable promenade, a place where the horse-drawn carriages
of the wealthy and titled paraded. These days, the horses are in the shaded
park only once a year, in June, and spectators, in temporary grandstands,
sip Champagne as they watch performances by expert show jumpers from Spain.
Horses from royal stables, brushed to gleaming and dressed with knotted
ribbons in their manes and tails, are shown as well. There is even a horse
market, at which all manner of saddles, bridles, riding boots, and riding
crops are sold.
It is also a time of honor for horses, when some of them, chosen by
the organizing committee of the Haagse Paardendagen, are fed in grand
fashion, with perhaps as much elegance as are their titled riders and
owners. Traditionally this "Feast of the Horses" is a breakfast, a buffet
prepared by the kitchens of the Hotel Des Indes.
A vast square table is set up in the Lange Voorhout directly in front
of the hotel and covered with fresh starched white linen cloths. Around
the table a circular retaining fence is erected. The horses to be honored
are led into this circle and to their places. Then, at a signal, a line
of cooks walks from the hotel's entrance to the table, followed by waiters
all wearing white gloves and bearing large silver trays — each piled high
with carrots, lettuces, cabbages, endives, and apples, and some with freshly
roasted oats. These are set before the horses. Candles, in silver candelabra,
are lighted, and each horse receives a personal bucket of cool water;
the buckets chosen being silver wine coolers. Brunch has been served.
After the horses have had their first course, dessert is brought out.
An immense "cake" made entirely of lumps of sugar is carried to the table,
cut into pieces, and served to the waiting horses.
After eating, the horses, hugely content, are walked slowly about the
Lange Voorhout. "It is very dignified, very dignified," said Bernard Felix,
then general manager of the hotel. "As it should be."
The feast of the horses is also perfectly in keeping with the long history
and the spirit of the Hotel Des Indes, a small yet quite grand hotel built
around the circle of a striking Grecian atrium. Originally it was the
home of the Baron van Brienen, Lord of Dortsmunde, but became a hotel
in 1881. Over the years its guest list has been a most international olio — Cecil
Rhodes, Czar Nicholas II, Eleanor Roosevelt, Leopold Stokowski, Igor Stravinsky,
Thomas Mann, Dwight Eisenhower, and Haile Selassie, not to mention Mata
Hari and Anna Pavlova. In fact, the Russian ballerina died in the Hotel
Des Indes, and a suite honors her memory.
"We are a hotel of great tradition," said Bernard Felix, much of which
has to do with the Haagse Paardendagen when it was a time of horse auctions
and shows in the Lange Voorhout, "down to the time of our baron." The
feeding of the horses from the hotel's best silver was an event added
later to the observance of the hotel. "We were asked if we would like
to participate," he said. "We wished to, yes, but we of course did not
want the horses inside the hotel."
A historical and gastronomic crossroads known as the Vrijthof, or "Free
Place," is to be found on the western side of the Maas River in Maastricht,
that small city in southeastern Holland where the European Economic Union
signed that gastronomic contract so hated by French farmers. To reach
this wide, irregular plaza quickly and directly, you need only cross the
river over the Saint Servaas Bridge, the oldest stone bridge in the Netherlands,
and walk along Platielstraat for about four blocks.
Better, though, to detour briefly, after crossing the bridge, down Stokstratat,
the oldest urban thoroughfare in the Netherlands, where people have lived
since Roman times; better to enjoy the look and feel of its ancient and
sturdy buildings, constructed from the odd stones quarried and cut in
the hills around the city; and better to feel under your feet its stones,
like polished black eggs, embedded since it was a Roman iter, or "way."
As you reach the Vrijthof, you are drawn to the basilica of Saint Servatius,
referred to in Maastricht as Sint Servaaskerk. Built on the stones of
a sixth-century chapel, it is a massive Romanesque church subsequently
adorned with some neo-Gothic arches. Sharing the Vrijthof with the church
and its ring of old gaslights is the Spaans Government House, once the
home of the Flemish dukes of Brabant; later, when Maastricht was ruled
by Spain, it was the residence of two kings of that country, Charles I
and his son, Philip II.
It is to the Vrijthof that all Maastricht comes to enjoy its history
and its many fairs. In such cafés as Panache, Chez Rachel, and Brasserie
Britannique, citizens rendezvous under the umbrellas to drink thick, black
coffee, cold beer, the gin called jenever (often flavored with black currants),
and Maastricht's own, and only, wine, the Riesling-like Apostelhoeve,
bottled at the vineyards of Hugo Hulst.
Maastricht's people also come to the Vrijthof for tastes of traditional
Dutch farm cookery. They dine at Chez Math, where the snert, or pea soup,
is a thick as puréed potatoes and well flavored with onions; at Restaurant
Grand-Mere, which promises "regionale keuken" on its banner; and at In
Den Ouden Vogelstruys, a fixture of the Vrijthof since 1730. It was to
this last place that I went with my friend Hendryk for the restaurant's
sjeutelke vaan ama, or "grandmother's plates."
After a glance at the chalked slate menu, Hendryk suggested we have
one of "grandmother's soups" — either a groentesoep, a mix of carrots,
cauliflower, celery, leeks, Brussel sprouts, and parsley in a thick pork
stock; or kervelsoep, a similar soup with the addition of chervil, pork
meatballs, and barley. We ate bowls of both, and I could not help but
entertain the thought of how good the soups were in spite of residual
smoke from the gas lamps in In Den Ouden Vogelstruys, with its wooden
ceilings and walls hung with portraits of Maastricht's poets and artists.
"Were they famous, these men of the arts, before they died?" I asked
"Died?" he replied. "Why would we hang pictures of dead people? They
are all living. Why should they hang there if they are no longer here?"
I had no time to roll that around in my head, because Hendryk had called
for the grandmother's plates, one for each of us. On each platter were
two thick slabs of pork, one smoked and one boiled, around which were
arranged peas, carrots, leeks, cauliflower, potatoes, and onions, all
touched with a dense, grainy sauce based on mustard seeds. The plates
were followed by two cheeses from Limburg — Maastricht's province — a soft
farmer cheese called boerenkaas and a sharper, harder cheese, rommedou,
which we ate on bread with apple syrup poured on top.
A lunch with as much history as there was pork.
But I had not yet tried, Hendryk said, bitterballen. Which are? Pieces
of beef folded into mashed potatoes, rolled into balls, dipped into beaten
egg and bread crumbs, and fried. Goodness! But we had to taste them, Hendryk
said, if only to further my research. In Den Ouden Vogelstruys did not
have bitterballen, but Chez Math did, and he led the way.
And what about vlaai? Hendryk wondered. Vlaai is a thick-crusted pie
of fruit or rice, covered with large crumbs and sugar. I simply could
not, I told Hendryk.
"Of course you can," he said. "Think of research." He called for two
vlaaien, and we ate.
"I can't think of anything we've missed, can you?" Hendryk asked.
"No. Except, perhaps, the basilica, I thought."
A KEEPER OF THE BREW
For Brother Lode, the brewing of beer is not necessarily a holy occupation,
but it is a sacred trust. "How we brew is a juridical question," he says.
"The 'direction' of our beer is important. The dossiers must be followed."
Guided by principles established centuries ago, Brother Lode and a group
of other Cistercian Trappist monks and lay brewers supervise the production
of beer in his southern Belgian monastery, Abbaye d'Orval, within the
forests of the Ardennnes.
Before he became a monk, Brother Lode was Lodewijk van Hecke, of Flemish
ancestry and a student at the Catholic University of Leuven. Today he
is master of novices at the abbey and president of a second, smaller committee,
called an amicable, or "friendship group." Composed of monks, novices,
and a few of the abbey's lay workers, the amicable discusses beer, among
other topics. Novices are made well aware of the significance of beer.
"They should be interested in beer," Brother Lode says.
In times past, virtually every village and every abbey in Belgium had
a brewery. "There was not the right climate for wine and no good water
to drink. Beer is cooked, and bacteria are killed by the action of yeast
and hops," says Brother Lode. Sixth-century bishop Saint Arnou, the patron
saint of brewers, even advised drinking beer rather than water. For these
contemporary monks who watch over the beer making, beer is considered
a good and healthful food, a nourishment that belongs on their refectory
We are chatting, Brother Lode and I, in the brewmaster's office of Abbaye
d'Oval, and the aromas of pungent hops and fermenting yeast seep into
this small cubicle in a building that sits above the brewing vats. It
is part of an imposing complex of structures, built of chiseled yellow
stones, that includes the ruins of the original eleventh-century abbey
along with today's turrets and spires, cloisters, bread bakery, and cheesery,
all enclosed by high walls.
Brother Lode is a slim man of forty-five whose eyes appear to be steeped
in some private humor. His angular face seems on the verge of creasing
into a smile. The cowl of his black and white cassock inches upward on
the neck that supports a head of thinning, light-brown hair. No tonsure.
The impression he imparts is one of controlled energy, and he speaks of
a busy life.
"We have our music and our liturgy," he explains, "and there is our
cheesery. We have our bread. All of us must work, for the order and for
the abbey. In our order manual labor is essential to our lives. We are
silent, but it is not an absolute. We exist in an atmosphere of prayer.
We can speak at work for practical things — this is not a prison, after
all. And we have humor, I hope. To have humor in a monastic vocation helps."
His faint smile widens.
"Also, we have very good table beer, half the strength of our Orval.
We do not drink the Orval, except at Christmas and New Year's. It is a
real treat." Orval beer, or, as bottles of it are labeled, "Orval Trappist
Ale," is a true Trappist brew. Though there are many beers in Belgium — a
country of hundreds of beer brands, beer festivals, and beer museums,
where adults drink an average of three hundred pints of beer each year — that
proclaim themselves "abbey" beers, only five monasteries make beers that
can be called "Trappiste" under Belgian law. These are Chimay, Rochefort,
Westmalle Westvleteren, and Orval.
Abbaye d'Orval, 926 years old, traces its history to a group of Benedictine
monks who, in 1070, migrated from Calabria in Italy to the forests of
what is now called the Val d'Or, the "Golden Valley" of the Ardennes.
The ruler, the suzeraine, of the region at the time was Countess Matilda
of Tuscany, a woman much beloved by the Benedictines because she welcomed
them and often visited them. On one such visit, she dropped her wedding
ring into the wellspring that gave the monastery its water. As it sank,
she began to pray to the Virgin Mary for the ring's safe return. The monks
say that at that moment a trout leapt from the water with the countess's
ring in its mouth, whereupon she cried out "This is truly a val d'or."
Hence the abbey name, Orval. In honor of Countess Matilda a small well
in front of Orval's chapel bears her name. It contains the same pure underground
water that goes into the beer. And on the labels of Orval beer is the
image of a trout rising with a ring in its mouth.
These monks of Saint Benedict, whose history can be traced to the fifth
century, were joined in the twelfth century by members of the more austere
Cistercian order, which originated in Citeaux, France, and grew out of
Benedictine rule. In the seventeenth century some of them became the even
Throughout Abbaye d'Orval's history, the monks have produced medicines,
vegetables, and wheat, cheese and bread; forged iron; and, from 1931,
brewed beer in a natural fermentation of malt, hops, sugar, and yeast.
Each bottle of Orval is labeled with the day, month, and year that it
is drawn from the fermentation barrel. It is fermented further in the
bottle, and although it can be drunk after two months its fermentation
continues for up to nine months. (The younger beer will not be quite as
full-bodied.) The beer is best stored at about 58° F, and the abbey
recommends serving it in its own wide-mouthed, thick-stemmed goblets.
Brother Lode insists I try some Orval. It is a heavy, amber ale, slightly
bitter, mouth-filling, its head as thick as a dollop of whipped cream.
All of the Orval beer must be of this particular quality, Brother Lode
tells me. "When our amicable meets, we talk about beer. Is it good? Is
it consistent? One of our brewers, not a monk I must tell you, often says,
'It is so very good. I swear it on the head of my children.' We meet six
or seven times every year. Always we ask each other what we need for our
beer. Do we taste? Of course." Brother Lode's smile escapes again.
He is not, except for these small excursions into pleasure, a demonstrative
man. Nor will he talk, except in a perfunctory manner, about his early
life in a town near Bruges before coming to Abbaye d'Orval. "I studied
philosophy for four years, theology for three, before I decided to follow
my vocation," he says.
"Most of us in the abbey were professionals before. But to become a
member of our order is not simply to have had a profession once. Rather
it is a question of attaining maturity."
The Trappists of Orval — whose day begins with 4 A.M. prayers and ends
with the Salve Regina at 8 P.M. — are not strict vegetarians, but they
eat no red meat. "Our diet is vegetables, fish, eggs, our bread, and our
cheese. If we are ill and need meat, we eat meat," Brother Lode says.
"And we drink beer, our beer, which someone has called, quite intelligently,
liquid bread. It is a characterization I agree with."
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