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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 Sluijs said.

"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 plan.

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 our waiter.

"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."


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 tables.

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 stricter Trappists.

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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