Saturday, 19 September 2009

Noordermarkt, Amsterdam, or a hymn to herring

For most people living in Britain today who are even vaguely interested in food and how it comes to being, tomatoes from Holland stand as an epitome of all that is wrong with today's intensive agriculture - tasteless and unripen 'vegetable-things', grown fast and too clever into a uniformity of perfectly-made 'products'. And this is not just an overgeneralising misconception - a weighty percentage of fruit and veg sold in the UK is in fact imported from Holland, from the fields of glasshouses and factories. My usual anticipation of wonderful new markets and fresh produce was therefore slightly blemished in anticipation of my recent trip to Amsterdam.

Ironic really, considering that the 'Low Countries' (the lands roughly comprising the present-day Holland and parts of the surrounding countries, so called because of their complete, pancake-like flatness, lying below the sea-level) pretty much caused the agricultural revolution in England in the 17-18 centuries! Holland and Flanders were eating well in the 17th centuries, thanks to their naval prowess - and as a consequence the wealth of spices, exotic fruits and everything that could be appropriated from the far-away 'primitive' lands; and engineering intelligence, allowing them not only to build big and lasting ships (in the meantime 'inventing' sauerkraut with its ample C-vitamin content that would allow sailors to be in the sea, scurvy-free, for more than 4 weeks), but also drain half of their country, leaving behind rich and fertile soil. The Dutch - Protestant and prosecuted - immigrated en-masse to the friendly England, taking their brains and hands with them. They brought along with them the new ways of cultivating land (planting clover and humble turnip on an empty land in rotation), all sorts of new vegetables (such as a 'normal' orange carrot, virtually unknown to the English before) and, of course, flowers. Holland still grows and buys more flowers, it seems, than the whole of Europe bunched up together. It makes sense (commercially at least), what else would you grow on the land so hill-free and so human-populated - tulips, veg and cows seem a good answer (the legend has it that the hormones that used to be added to milk are responsible for the improbable height of the Dutch - I'd rather think it's the liberal thinking or the pot, allowing for the democratic mix of genes).

The flowers are indeed a craze, even at numerous 'ethnic' markets spreading out across Amsterdam. Tulips and the well-familiar boxes of factory-produced tomatoes and pointless iceberg lettuces. One such market is on Mauritskade street, near the big and empty Oosterpark and by the curiously located Tropenmuseum that is dedicated to Holland's colonial successes. A fascinating, never-ending stretch of stalls: Moroccan-Turkish-Indonesian snacks mixed in with all for a euro offers and tables filled by freshly-arrived immigrants filling up with breakfasts after night shits. It felt quite familiar - young dark-skinned mothers exchanging phazes in Dutch with stall-holders with the same ease it happens in London in English; imported packages of food with signs from all over the worlds and a myriad of made-in-China's. But the market somehow also felt more 'real', more needed, perhaps because the surrounding area is mainly populated by immigrants, unlike in London where every district is broken down and interpopulated, allowing poverty to co-exist with relative wealth.

But then, of course, there's another side to Amsterdam and, just like in London, the desire for 'local, seasonal, organic' is making its strong mark. Some half an hour walk north, near trendy, Notting Hill like Joordan, there's a Noordermarkt. According to a guidebook, the market is 'unbeatable for second-hand clothes and accesorices'. That was all there, but more importantly, the whole area is taken by by an enormous organic farmers' market every Saturday. It is insanely popular by all sorts of crowds, partly perhaps because Amsterdam doesn't seem to have many other (if any) farmers' markets, partly because the mix of antics, second-hand finds, artistic finds and stall of local artisans and farmers creates an irresistible atmosphere of carnival and joyful matter-of-factness. The word 'bio', or organic, to me seemed quite a stretch applied to this place, since only about a portion of stalls were selling organic (or at least identifyable certified organic), however, the combination of bric-a-brac, quality hand-made titbits (I had to be dragged from an adorable scarf made out of a sleeve from a man's jacket) and small-scale producers were justifying the hype.

Then there was food: huge fluffy wild mushrooms, the yellow insanity of bulbous Dutch cheeses, Dutch pigs happily hanging on crooks and kranies. I particularly liked the flat tubes of dough made out of spelt flour, filled with dried strands of seawood - felt like eating up an essence of Holland! An earthy, down to earth layer of pastry filled with a salty, mineral-rich core - what if not a metaphor for the sturdy nation beating the force of sea!

My main reason to come to the market was to try what I miss so much from my blondy days in Estonian pastures and what the Dutch seem to be happily swallowing up any time of the day - herring. Actually, it is better described as herring sachimi, because the fish is not cooked or, in most cases, even marinated. It is simply spankingly fresh, briefly salted and served with bread, chopped onions and sliced pickled cucumbers. The taste of this oily, fatty, meaty fish can only be described as delectable. But then there's the texture - slivering flesh, round and tender, just sliding down your throat. Heaven. Especially when eaten cross-legged, on a pavement, by a canal, helped by a glass of fridge-cold sparkling wine, whilst eyeing up the passing-by boats and cyclists. A pity really that Brits have chosen to import the stale sameness of peppers and cucumbers, rather than the the fleshy beauty of a plump herring. The fish is plentiful, healthy, delicious and cheap - perhaps, we need another wave of the crafty Dutch to show us the way!

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