Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Favorite foods of the Dutch Golden Age

Joachim Antoniszoon Uytewael, a painter from Utrecht, painted the above kitchen scene in 1605 -- that is, quite early in the Dutch Golden Age. (Click on the image to see more detail.) His chaotic kitchen suggested the wide range of ingredients that went into Dutch cooking: fowls and garlic braids hang from the wall; fish, cabbages, carrots, and baskets of vegetables are on the floor and on the work table; ewers and cooking vessels appear on shelves and tables; and beyond the kitchen door is a banquet table where people are consuming the food. If you read the popular accounts of a modern chef's life, you get the impression that this chaos hasn't disappeared from the lives of professional cooks.

In The Embarrassment of Riches, Schama provides a wide ranging description of the diet of people in Rembrandt's era, including what they ate for breakfast, for dinner, for lavish feasts, and for pious fast-days. Floris Gerritsz. van Schooten's breakfast still-life (left) suggests the range of bread, cheese, pastry, and fruit for this meal. Schooten was a painter of still-lifes, market scenes, and other food depictions.

A favorite Dutch dish was called hutsepot, a beef or mutton stew. Schama provides a contemporaneous recipe for this dish. The principal ingredients were mutton or beef; greens, parsnips or stuffed prunes; and liquid -- juice of lemons, oranges, or citrons, or just "strong, clear, vinegar." Of course, every cook and every family had a personal favorite way to make it -- probably semi-secret. The quoted recipe continues: "Mix these together, set the pot on a slow fire (for at least three and a half hours); add some ginger and melted butter and you shall have prepared a fine hutsepot."

Schama characterizes hutsepot as a dish that was "copious rather than gluttonous, modest rather than mean, ... the perfect way to sanction abundance without risking retribution for greed." He points to the varied origin of the ingredients: meat, vegetables, and butter from local Dutch farmers; spice -- ginger -- from the Indies; and citrus, prunes and vinegar from the Near East or the Mediterranean. (Schama, p. 177) I haven't tried this recipe, and I imagine that it needs some imagination to guess the secrets of the cooks that made it 400 years ago.

The Dutch were very much a sea people. Fish -- especially herring -- were a big part of their diet. Scenes of selling fish were another significant genre topic for painters, including this one by Adriaen van Ostade. Painters also concentrated on dike building, maintenance, and sometimes dike breaches -- an important fact of history during that era. Scenes of oyster-eating, still lives with fishes, and other genre works contrast to Rembrandt's hanging ox.

Jan Steen's painting "Girl with Oysters" is both realistic and symbolic, as was his usual custom. Schama refers to "the potential naughtiness of the innocuous ... that blurred the moral contours of the household." (p. 462) Steen was himself both a painter and a tavern keeper, so we often see scenes like this: suggestive and beautiful at once. Oysters were undoubtedly an innocent pleasure, as well as a tempting danger.

1 comment:

Jen said...

The dish you describe reminds me of the regional flavors of winter borsch - each area makes it a bit differently, as does each family.