Oct 272017

The oldest document referring to the settlement of “Aemstelredamme” (‘dam on the river Amstel’), what is now Amsterdam, is dated on this date in 1275 CE. According to this document the inhabitants of the village were, exempted from paying a bridge toll in the County of Holland by order of Count Floris V. Some people now take this to be something like the date of the founding of Amsterdam: it is not. The origins of the city lie at least in the 12th century, when fishermen living along the banks of the River Amstel built a bridge across the waterway near the Ij, which at the time was a large saltwater inlet. Wooden locks under the bridge served as a dam protecting the village from the rising waters of the Ij, which often flooded the early settlement. The mouth of the river Amstel, where the Damrak is now, formed a natural harbor, which became important for trading-exchange from the larger koggeships into the smaller ships that sailed the merchandise deeper into the hinterland.

But settlements on this location are considerably older according to recent archeological evidence. During the construction of the Metro “Noord-Zuid lijn” between 2005 and 2012 archeologists discovered, 30 meters below street level, pole-axes, a stone hammer and some pottery, all dating from the Neolithic era. This means that Amsterdam or its predecessor was occupied from about 2600 BCE onwards although not necessarily continuously.

In 1204, the inhabitants of Kennemer invaded the first aggrem Aemestel, the castle at the Amstel dike, thus resulting in the destruction of the house of Gijsbrecht van Aemstel, who, by name of the Bishop of Utrecht, ruled the area. This event was later used by the Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel to write a historical play, the Gijsbrecht van Aemstel, which since then has been staged every first week of the new year. A hundred years later (1304), his descendent, Gijsbrecht van Aemstel VI, tried to claim his alleged rights over the Amsterdam regions, but ended up with his family banished to Flanders.

A more important year in the history of Amsterdam was 1275. While Aemstelland fell under the administrative jurisdiction of the Prince-bishop’s Sticht Utrecht, Count Floris V of Holland -the hindland of Aemstelland, granted traders, sailors and fishermen exemption from tolls. This document, dated October 27, 1275, is the oldest recorded usage of the name “Aemstelredamme” – Amsterdam. This meant the inhabitants from the vicinity of Aemstelredamme acquired a right to travel freely through the County of Holland without having to pay tolls at bridges, locks and dams. This was the very start of the later richness of the young evolving city: by not having to pay tolls, traders could sell merchandise, shipped to Aemstelredamme harbor from everywhere (Scandinavia, Denmark, Germany), at  more competitive prices in Amsterdam and the hinterland. After the murder of Count Floris V in 1296, Amstelland again belonged to the Sticht. By 1327, the name had developed into Aemsterdam.

In 1306, Gwijde van Henegouwen, bishop of Utrecht, gave Amsterdam city rights. After his death (1317), Count Willem III inherited the Aemstelland, whereby Amsterdam fell under the County of Holland.

In 1323, Willem III established a toll on the trade of beer from Hamburg. The contacts laid through the beer trade formed the basis for subsequent trade with cities of the Hanseatic league in the Baltic Sea, from where during the 14th and 15th centuries the Amsterdammers increasingly acquired grain and timber. In 1342, Count Willem IV awarded the city “Groot Privilege”, which greatly strengthened the position of the city. During the 15th century, Amsterdam became the granary of the northern low countries and the most important trading city in Holland.

According to legend, on 16 March 1345, the miracle of Amsterdam occurred and Amsterdam became an important pilgrimage town. The Miracle of the Host was a Eucharistic miracle which involved a dying man vomiting upon being given the Holy Sacrament and last rites. The Host was then, due to liturgical regulations, put in the fire, but miraculously remained intact and could be retrieved from the ashes the following day. This miracle was quickly recognized by the municipality of Amsterdam and the bishop of Utrecht, and a large pilgrimage chapel, the Heilige Stede (“Holy Site”) was built where the house had stood, and the Heiligeweg (“Holy Way”) as the major pilgrimage route to it.

Subsequently a Stille Omgang (“Silent Walk” or circumambulation) was performed annually to commemorate the event. The Stille Omgang fell out of an individual practice during the 17th century as a result of the Protestant Reformation, but was revived in 1881, imitating the medieval procession for the Miracle. During the 1950’s up to 90,000 Catholics, from all over the Netherlands, walked the Silent Walk, but nowadays usually about 5,000 people take part in it, following Mass in one of Amsterdam’s churches.

Two great fires swept through the city in 1421 and 1452. After the second, when three-quarters of the city were destroyed, Emperor Charles decreed that new houses were to be built from stone. Few wooden buildings remain from this period, a notable example being the Houten Huis (Wooden House) at the Begijnhof.

The period 1585-1672 is generally thought of as Amsterdam’s Golden Age. Ships from the city sailed to North America, Indonesia, Brazil and Africa and formed the basis of a worldwide trading network. Amsterdam’s merchants financed expeditions to the four corners of the world and they acquired the overseas possessions which formed the seeds of the later Dutch colonies. Rembrandt painted in this century, and the city expanded greatly around its canals during this time. Amsterdam was the most important point for the transshipment of goods in Europe and it was the leading financial center of the world until it was taken over by London.

Dutch cooking benefited from the far-flung colonies, notable Indonesia, much as English cooking was enhanced by the Indian raj. However, I don’t consider chicken tikka masala to be an English dish despite its popularity, nor would I label bami goreng as Dutch even though you’ll find it on most lists of “classic Dutch cuisine.” To be fair, Indonesian recipes have been popular in the Netherlands for centuries, and the Dutch East India Company was responsible for a huge influx of spices into Europe from the 17th century onwards. Nevertheless, I’m purist enough to want to keep Indonesian cooking and Dutch cooking distinct, inasmuch as one can.  Therefore, I am going to turn to hachee – a traditional Dutch beef and onion stew of venerable pedigree – as my recipe du jour. Its “secret” is in the fact that it is precisely half and half beef and onions (and the spice blend, of course).



2 lbs stewing beef, cubed
3 tbsp butter
2 lbs onions, peeled and chopped
¼ cup all-purpose flour
4 cups (approx) beef stock
3 bay leaves
8 cloves
8 juniper berries
8 black peppercorns
2 tbsp red wine vinegar (plus extra)
salt and freshly ground black pepper


Melt the butter in a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot with a lid over medium-high heat.

Pat the beef as dry as you can with paper towels, and then brown it on all sides working in batches. Transfer the browned cubes to a plate with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add the onions to the pot, plus a little more butter if needed, and cook until thoroughly golden but not deep brown. This step takes much longer than the standard recipes tell you. It may take 30 minutes or longer, stirring regularly with a wooden spoon.

When the onions are caramelized, add the flour and stir to combine. Add the beef back to the pot and just cover with beef stock. Add the seasonings and red wine vinegar.

Bring the stew to a boil, then reduce the heat to very low, cover, and simmer for 2½ hours. Check to make sure that the beef is in shreds at this point. Then uncover and simmer for another 30 minutes to thicken the sauce. Check the seasonings adding more red wine vinegar to taste if you wish.

Hachee is always served with mashed potatoes and sometimes braised red cabbage (with apples).

Jul 152013

remsel1  remself2

remself3  remsel4
Today is the birthday (1606) of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. I don’t feel the need to give you an art history lesson here. I’m assuming you all know what a Rembrandt looks like and that he painted Biblical stories, stories from Classical myths, and portraits (including lots of self portraits – some of which are pictured above). What I’d like to do is delve into his personal life because that’s the part that is less well known.

I’ll start with his name. The first name Rembrandt was—and still is—extremely rare. It is akin to more common Dutch first names such as Remmert, Gerbrand, or Ijsbrand. The way Rembrandt inscribed his name on his work evolved significantly. As a young man he signed his work only with the monogram RH (Rembrant Harmenszoon, “son of Harmen”); from 1626/27, with RHL; and in 1632, with RHL van Rijn (the L in the monogram presumably standing for Leidensis, “from Leiden,” the town in which he was born). At age 26, he began to sign his work with his first name only, Rembrant (ending only with a -t); from early 1633 onward until his death, he spelled his name Rembrandt (with -dt) and signed his works that way.

Rembrandt spent his formative years in Leiden and studied art there. At the end of 1631 Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam, which was rapidly expanding as the new business capital of the Netherlands, and began to practice as a professional portraitist for the first time, with great success. He initially stayed with an art dealer, Hendrick van Uylenburgh, and in 1634, married van Uylenburgh ‘s cousin, Saskia van Uylenburgh. Saskia came from a good family: her father had been lawyer and burgemeester (mayor) of Leeuwarden. Rembrandt and Saskia were married in the local church of St. Annaparochie without the presence of Rembrandt’s relatives.



Although by this time Rembrandt was affluent, the couple suffered several personal setbacks. Their son Rumbartus died two months after his birth in 1635, and their daughter Cornelia died at just three weeks of age in 1638. In 1640, they had a second daughter, also named Cornelia, who died after living barely over a month. Only their fourth child, Titus, who was born in 1641, survived into adulthood. Saskia died in 1642 soon after Titus’s birth, probably from tuberculosis. Rembrandt’s drawings of her on her sick and death bed are among his most moving works.



During Saskia’s illness, Geertje Dircx was hired as Titus’ caretaker and nurse and also became Rembrandt’s lover. She would later charge Rembrandt with breach of promise and was awarded alimony of 200 guilders a year. Rembrand could not marry because Saskia knew of the affair and had set up a trust fund for Titus that Rembrandt could draw on provided he did not remarry. In the late 1640s Rembrandt began a relationship with the much younger Hendrickje Stoffels, who had initially been his maid. In 1654 they had a daughter, Cornelia, bringing Hendrickje a summons from the Reformed Church to answer the charge “that she had committed the acts of a whore with Rembrandt the painter”

Apart from his relationship problems, Rembrandt also had financial problems. It was not that he was earning little, but that he spent more than he made.  His passion was collecting art works and other artifacts. To avoid bankruptcy he put up for sale the bulk of his collection.  The sale list survives and gives us a good insight into Rembrandt’s collections, which apart from Old Master paintings and drawings included busts of the Roman Emperors, suits of Japanese armor among many objects from Asia, and collections of natural history and minerals.

Despite his problems Rembrandt continued to complete major commissions up to his death.  He outlived both Hendrickje, who died in 1663, and Titus, who died in 1668, leaving a baby daughter. He died within a year of his son, on October 4, 1669 in Amsterdam, and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Westerkerk.


I will talk about one of his works because it pertains to today’s recipe. “The Flayed Ox” (also known as “The Carcass of Beef”) is one of his most celebrated works. It has been copied in various styles many times, down to the present day.  I first learnt of it at about age 17 when the headmaster of my school was teaching an enrichment class to students already too specialized in their subject fields for their own good. He brought a copy of the painting to class and spent the 40 minutes talking about why it was such an amazing painting.  First there was the subject matter itself – not a Biblical scene or portrait of a fine gentleman, but a gutted cow hung in a dark, squalid shed.  Then there was the technique – how the use of the variegated, thick impasto brings the carcass massively and magnificently into existence, particularly when contrasted with the thinner paint of the background. Next came the symbolism – reflection on life and death, the comparison with the grimness of the crucifixion . . . You get the idea.  I never forgot the painting, nor all that my headmaster had said.  So imagine my joy when about 6 yrs ago I was in the Louvre with my son (15 years old at the time), and there in a room wallpapered with Rembrandts was “The Flayed Ox” tucked into a corner dwarfed by much larger canvases (it’s quite small – 37”x 27”) I took him over and repeated my headmaster’s lesson. An amazing moment.

In honor of “The Flayed Ox” here is a classic Dutch beef stew – Draadjesvlees. Draadjesvlees means “meat threads,” describing the dish perfectly: stewing beef is reduced to threads bathed in a rich and spicy broth. You must use stewing beef to get this dish right.  That means (in the U.S.) chuck or bottom round – tough meats that become tender and flavorful after hours of cooking.

This dish is often paired with Rode Kool Met Appeltjes (red cabbage and apples), so I am adding that recipe too, free of charge. I’d suggest some boiled potatoes as well to complete the dish.



2 lb stewing beef cut into medium-large chunks
4 tbsp butter
3 large onions, coarsely chopped
3 ½ cups beef stock
1 cinnamon stick
4 or 5 juniper berries
3 bay leaves
4 whole cloves
2 tbsp vinegar
salt and freshly ground black pepper


Melt half the butter in a large heavy pot. Add the onions and sauté over medium heat until they are golden.

Remove the onions and set them aside.

Add the remaining butter to the pot and brown the beef over high heat.

Return the onions and add the stock, spices, vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste.

Bring the stock to the boil and then reduce the heat to low.  Cover with a lid and let the pot simmer gently for at least three hours.

Check periodically to be sure the liquid is not reducing too much. Add water if so. The ideal is to have a thick silky gravy when the meat can be pulled into shreds with a pair of forks. If the meat has not reached that stage, keep simmering.

If the meat is ready and the gravy is too watery, remove the meat and reduce on medium-high heat.  Then return the meat to heat it through.

Fish out the spices before serving.

Serves 4

Rode Kool Met Appeltjes

Ingredients for 4 people:

1 red cabbage
7 tblspns vinegar
3 ½ oz brown sugar
1 tsp allspice
1 tsp ginger
2 cooking apples


Remove the tough outer leaves of the cabbage and cut it lengthways into quarters.

Cut out the cabbage core, and then cut it into thin strips.

Wash the cabbage strips thoroughly and put them into a pot with what water clings to them.

Add the vinegar, sugar, and spices. Simmer until the cabbage is cooked to the tenderness you prefer.  This is very much a judgment  call.  I like mine al dente, others like it very soft. Do it your way.

Peel and core the apples.  Quarter them and cut them into small slices. Add the apples to the pot near the end of the cooking time so that they cook for 3-4 minutes only.

Before serving, check the sweetness and spices and adjust if necessary.

Serves 4