Peer pressure & brined herring

I’ve lived in the Netherlands for well over a year and, until this past Saturday, I had successfully managed to avoid going anywhere near herring – you know: that salty brined fish the Dutch are famous for swallowing whole. A few months ago there’d been talk of me finally having to try it. It had something to do with a bet, I believe, although frankly I instantly forgot the circumstances as soon as the words were uttered (likely in self-defense), sure that the day would never truly come.

And it wouldn’t have, if Pieter and I hadn’t been out running a few errands. We were scoping out the tuna and the salmon at the fish stall when it suddenly dawned on him that what we had here was a perfect opportunity.

I begged and I pleaded! Not today, I’m not ready! I’m still so full from lunch! If you love me BUT AT ALL you won’t make me do this!
At last he conceded that a whole, plain herring was a rather big leap for a first-timer. Instead, he ordered me a broodje haring met ui. Herring on a bun with onion – raw onion, that is.

Dutch food, herring, haring

Doesn’t that just look scrumptious?

I spent the next few minutes carefully examining every last corner of that sandwich, trying to determine from which angle I should take my first bite in order to maximize the bread to herring ratio. Finally, with a sinking feeling in my heart, I went for it.

Dutch food, herring, haring

Dutch food, herring, haring

Clearly it was delicious.

Dutch food, herring, haring

In case you are wondering, I’m told those long fibres sticking out of the fish are bones. I bet you can’t wait to sink your teeth into one of these bad boys!

The verdict: much like black salty liquorice, if you happen to be Dutch you will love it love it already. I, on the other hand, will be sticking to fish snacks of the deep fried variety!

Dutch food, herring, haring

But if you’re looking to expand your palate, or if you’re simply curious, then definitely give herring a try. If nothing else, it makes for a good laugh and truly delightful breath.

Leidens Ontzet/Drie Oktober

It’s official … Pieter and I are moving in to our new place on Saturday! Things are sure to be hectic this weekend, so I thought I’d get a head start this year and write about Leidens Ontzet, or the liberation of Leiden – simply referred to as 3 Oktober by those in the know.

The holiday marks the anniversary of the liberation of Leiden from the Spanish back in 1574 (if Wikipedia serves me correctly) after a two-year siege. It’s a cause for huge celebration in the city, with offices and schools closed and a tremendous influx of visitors from neighbouring cities and towns. In fact, it’s such a big deal that the festivities start a day early on 2 October. Today I’m bringing you my insider (but-not-really-at-all) suggestions for making the most out of Drie Oktober!

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(Photo credit to my lovely Katerz!)

First things first, I have to address the hutspot – the quintessential, practically iconic meal reserved for Leidens Ontzet. Legend has it that, newly liberated from the clutches of the Spanish, the Dutch had to make do with the scraps of food their captors had left behind. From humble potatoes, onions and carrots, the hutspot was born … Boiled and mashed potatoes, onions and carrots.
I know. It doesn't seem particularly festive. These days people eat it with meat (preferably sausage) and gravy but if, like me, you don't eat such things, hutspot hardly feels like a celebratory meal. Nevertheless, if you truly want to celebrate the holiday in Dutch fashion, hutspot has to be on the menu.
From a purely practical point of view, it will form a warm ball in your belly, ideal in the chilly fall air and guaranteed to keep you going throughout the night's festivities. Restaurants and stands throughout the city will be plating it up and there's definitely an element of hilarity and delight in standing in a silent huddle of friends on the street, intently devouring mashed potatoes from plastic plates with flimsy forks. The calm before the storm, if you will.
However if, like me, you're more of the live-to-eat variety, I recommend making your own. My official Dutchman taught me the key to making fantastic mashed anything …
Add cubes of cheese to it. (This is why we work so well together.) It may not be traditional but biting into pockets of semi-molten cheese is clearly rewarding on a whole other level.
If you're a vegetarian, this is also a great opportunity to make your own gravy (super easy – I'll include a 'recipe' below) and try out fake sausages. Do I know how to have a wild time or what?!

Now that that's out of the way …
The festivities officially begin at 16.14 with an opening act. This year they're taking place on the Stadshuisplein and, if the pictures from the Leiden website are any indication, it’s bound to be a good one! The next morning, you can join the Dutch at 7.00 in the morning for the reveille at the Stadshuisplein. (I have never done this myself but it would appear to entail a lot of brass instruments.) Then, between 7.30 and 9.30 at De Waag, you can also go extremely Dutch and take part in the symbolic handing out of herring and white bread. I won’t say anymore on that subject …

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Just like on Queen’s Day, there will be a kermis (travelling fair) in town for two days of celebration. (Beware: they set up right on the Stationsweg so getting to and from your train/bus becomes a bit of a challenge.) While the rides may not appeal to the more ‘mature’ among us, there are always plenty of games and hilarious prizes to be won – not to mention ALL of the best food choices: oliebollen (deep fried dough balls covered in powdered sugar), cotton candy, sugar sticks, fries …

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According to the municipality’s website, there will also be a historical kermis set up on the Pieterskerkplein. (It will be taking place on both 2 and 3 October in the afternoon.)

Once you’re reasonably stuffed, it’s time to wander off to watch the performances taking place across the city. Last year we sort of just stumbled upon good ones, but this year I’ve discovered that, in fact, you can get a schedule here.

Don’t miss the fireworks show! It’ll be taking place at 23.30 on the Zijlsingel.

One final word of wisdom: Do not try to look good. Just do not. It’ll be crowded and dark and people will be armed with mashed potatoes and beer. Wear layers – ugly ones – and, of course, sensible shoes. There will be music playing in all sorts of places, including cute little cobblestone alleys. Unless you’re Dutch and have that ‘I can do everything in stilettos and do it more gracefully than you’ gene, dancing on cobblestone is a lot more enjoyable with comfortable footwear.
(If you do go out next week to celebrate the liberation, let me know what you get up to!)

Vegetarian Gravy

All you need to do is add about 1-2 tbsp of dissolved corn starch per 250 ml of vegetable stock. Everything else is optional, but you can’t go wrong with a few sautéed onions, some cayenne pepper, and a splash of soya sauce!