Oct 032013


On this date in 1574 Dutch forces were able to relieve Leiden from besieging Spanish forces who had been slowly starving the trapped citizens. The anniversary of this event, known as Leidens Ontzet (the Relief of Leiden), is still celebrated every October 3 in Leiden and by Dutch expatriates the world over. Traditionally, the celebration includes a meal of hutspot met klapstuk/stooflap (hotchpotch with chuck roast/beef shoulder chops), as well as haring en wittebrood (herring with white bread) for reasons I will explain in due course.

The Siege of Leiden occurred during the Eighty Years’ War in 1573 and 1574, when the Spanish attempted to capture the rebellious city of Leiden, and ultimately failed. In the war (eventually called the Eighty Years’ War) that had broken out, Dutch rebels took up arms against the king of Spain, whose family had inherited the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands. Most of the counties of Holland and Zeeland were occupied by rebels in 1572, who sought to end the harsh rule of the Spanish Duke of Alba, governor-general of the Netherlands. This territory had a very high density of cities, which were protected by huge defense works and by the polders, which could easily be put under water because they were reclaimed lands that lay below sea level, protected from flooding by dikes.

leiden kaart3

The Duke of Alba tried to break resistance using brute force. He used Amsterdam as a base, as this was the only city in the county of Holland that had remained loyal to the Spanish government. Alba’s cruel treatment of the population of Naarden and Haarlem was notorious. The rebels learned that no mercy was shown there and were determined to hold out as long as possible. Holland was split in two when Haarlem was conquered by the Spaniards after a costly seven-month siege. Thereafter, Alba attempted to conquer Alkmaar in the north, but the city withstood the Spanish attack. Alba then sent his officer Francisco de Valdez to attack the southern rebel territory, starting with Leiden.

William the Silent

William the Silent

The city of Leiden had plenty of food stored for the siege when it started in October 1573. The siege was very difficult for the Spanish, because the soil was too loose to establish siege works, and the city defenses were hard to break. The leader of the Dutch rebels, William the Silent, Prince of Orange, tried to relieve Leiden by sending an army into the lowlands. Valdez halted the siege in April 1574 to face the invading rebel troops, but Sancho d’Avila reached them first and defeated the army of Orange in the Battle of Mookerheyde.

Valdez’ army returned to continue the siege on May 26, 1574. The city considered surrendering, because there seemed no chance of relief with the rebel army defeated and supplies dwindling.  Besides the rebel held territory was tiny in comparison with the size of Spain’s holdings. William, however, was determined to relieve the city. Therefore he sent a carrier pigeon into the city pleading for it to hold out for three months. To help fulfill his promise he asked the citizens to break the dikes, allowing the sea to flood the low lying land so that the siege could be lifted using the rebel fleet. But the damage to the surrounding countryside would be enormous, and therefore the population resisted the breaching of the dikes. In the end, the Prince prevailed and the dikes were cut on August 3. Previously, two hundred small ships and a large store of provisions had been collected in preparation to lift the siege. Unfortunately, soon after the dikes were broken, William, who was the heart and soul of the rebel cause, came down with a violent fever and so the relief effort ceased. In addition, the flooding of the polders took longer than expected because the wind was not favorable. On August 21, the inhabitants of Leiden sent a message to the Prince saying that they had held out for three months, two with food and one without.


It was not until September 1, when the Prince had recovered, that the relief expedition began again. Over 15 miles lay between the rebel fleet and Leiden, but they were able to cover ten miles without difficulty. But then the fleet encountered heavy Spanish resistance, uncut dikes, and shallow water.  Eventually the fleet, unable to use local canals because they were too heavily fortified by Spanish troops, ran aground. Meanwhile, in the city, the inhabitants clamored for surrender when they saw the fleet aground. But Mayor van der Werff inspired his citizens to hold on by offering his arm as food. Thousands of inhabitants died of starvation. In the end they held on because they knew that the Spanish would kill them all to set an example, as had happened in Naarden.


Finally on October 1 the wind, which had previously blown from the east pushing the water out of the countryside, shifted to the west and blew the sea water into the countryside. Then the rebel fleet was afloat again and they advanced. Now only two forts blocked the way of the relieving force: the forts of Zoeterwoude and Lammen, both of which were strongly garrisoned. The Spanish garrison of Zoeterwoude, when they saw the Dutch fleet, fled and their fort which was occupied by the Dutch. The last fort, Lammen, still blocked the way to the rebels, but on the night of October 2, the Spanish retreated from their fort and lifted the siege. Ironically, the same night, part of the wall of Leiden, eroded by the sea water, fell, leaving the city completely vulnerable.

The next day, October 3, the relieving rebels arrived at the city, feeding the starving citizens with herring and white bread. The people also supposedly ate hutspot (carrot and potato stew) in the evening.  According to legend, a little orphan boy named Cornelis Joppenszoon found a cooking pot full of hutspot that the Spaniards had had to leave behind when they left their camp, the Lammenschans, in their to escape the rising waters.


The Leidens Ontzet Festival is celebrated every year in Leiden. It is a huge festival, with an enormous funfair and a dozen open air concerts in the night. The municipality gives free herring and white bread to the citizens of Leiden, and it is also on sale for fair goers. Hutspot, made with beef or sausages, carrots, onions and potatoes, is also readily available at stalls throughout the city. There is some debate as to what the original hutspot might have been given that the potato, although available in Europe at the time, was not as common as other root vegetables such as turnips and parsnips. Nowadays there are all manner of recipes, all variations on a theme. This one uses potatoes, but you can use parsnips or a mix of both.


Hutspot met Klapstuk (Hot Pot with Boiled Meat)


4 cups beef stock
2 lbs (1 kg) stewing beef
2 lbs (1 kg) carrots, peeled and diced
3 lbs (1.5 kg) potatoes, peeled and diced
3 cups (750 ml) coarsely chopped onions
freshly ground black pepper to taste


Bring the stock and beef to a gentle simmer in a heavy pot. Skim to remove the scum that rises to the surface.

Partially cover the pot, reduce the heat, and simmer for 2 ½ to 3 hours, until the beef is very tender. Check the liquid periodically and add more if necessary in order to keep the meat immersed.

Add the vegetables and continue to simmer for 30 to 40 minutes until the vegetables are soft.

Pour off the stock into a wide skillet, add pepper to taste, and reduce quickly.

Some people mash the vegetables at this point, others keep them whole. Slice the meat and add it to the reduced stock. Serve over a bed of vegetables.

Spicy brown mustard and brown bread are typical accompaniments.

Serves 4 to 6.