03 juni 2024

Imagining a post-growth one pot dish from De Verstandige Kock

Door: Ying-Tzu, Louise O. Fresco Fellows for the History of Food and Nutrition 2024

What can an urban planner, looking for a sustainable food environment, learn from historical cookbooks? That was the main question I asked myself when I started as the Louise O. Fresco Fellow for the History of Food and Nutrition at Allard Pierson.
As a Taiwanese living in the Netherlands, I carry with me a common sense of seasonality and regionality when it comes to food. For me, seeing the global food supply chain and how it is reflected in supermarkets brings up many questions. Is being vegetarian or vegan the same as being a sustainable eater? Is a whole year's supply of avocados more sustainable than meat from local resources? This time, I looked at the past for answers.

Over the past three months, I have dived into old recipe books to explore the differences and resemblances between old and new ways of eating, and to gather sustainable ideas for the modern-day kitchen. I decided to focus on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Amsterdam. The famous cookbook De Verstandige Kock (The Sensible Cook) became my main source to analyse cooking and eating during this period, and to compare it to current practices. From a contemporary view on sustainable cooking and eating (with notions as seasonality, regional food, energy, and resource efficiency), cooking in that period was surprisingly sustainable. 

De Verstandige Kock is one of the earliest Dutch cookbooks and it is part of the History of Food Collection at the Allard Pierson. First published in 1667 in Amsterdam by an anonymous author, the book was later reprinted and edited several times. De Verstandige Kock is part of a collection of books named Het Vermakelijk Landtleven (The Pleasurable Country Life), which further consists of ‘The Dutch Gardener’, ‘The Sensible Gardener’, and ‘The Medicine Shop or the Experienced Housekeeper’. Vermakelijk Landtleven was a housekeeping guide for the Amsterdam elite class, who owned estates outside of the city. It gave instructions on how to grow vegetables and fruits in the garden, how to prepare food, make preserves, slaughter pigs, and bake pastries.

It would be rash to conclude that the contents of De Verstandige Kock represent the entirety of the Dutch seventeenth century diet, but it can give us important insights. Looking at the recipes, it’s clear how much they are influenced by seasonal availability. In both ‘The Sensible Gardener’ and De Verstandige Kock, vegetables and fruits were indicated to be grown and prepared following seasonality. What surprised me most was the amazing variety of food Amsterdam’s seventeenth-century upper middle class had access to: more than fifty different kinds of vegetables, fruits, herbs including white asparagus, artichokes and cucumbers (very similar to the contemporary seasonal vegetable calendar); spices from the VOC trading; fish from the North Sea and rivers; poultry and seasonal games; red meat, consumed from head to tail. Using these regional and seasonal ingredients can be seen as ‘lost knowledge’ nowadays: you don’t learn this in the contemporary supermarket food environment. 

However varied the ingredients, basic resources we take for granted nowadays are limited. In De Verstandige Kock, the chapter on making preserves, animal slaughter and efficient meat processing explain how people needed to prepare themselves for the shortage of food in winter. Note that in De Verstandige Kock (and all other cookbooks of that period), there are many recipes on how to prepare meat. However, the chapter on slaughter revealed that pigs and oxen were slaughtered and preserved mostly in autumn. Considering the fridge did not exist yet, meat products were likely consumed in a preserved form, except on special occasions. In terms of energy usage for cooking, as the cover of the book indicates, preparing food using an open fire in a hearth was the most common form of cooking in early modern kitchens. Ingredients were added to a cauldron, and cooked over the open flames. The resulting one-pot dishes were the norm for ordinary households. Interestingly, utilising the ‘one pot’ setting to create flavorful and nutritious food was not only a challenge for seventeenth-century cooks, but also for contemporary ones. Recipes, cookbooks, and online content on how to create one-pot dishes are extremely popular among all layers of the population, across different cultures. In a practical, but also environmental sense, cooking with as little waste and energy as possible is seen by many to be an important practical skill. The cookbook One Pot, Pan, Planet: A greener way to cook for you, your family and the planet (2021) by Anna Jones is a good example.

De Verstandige Kock gave instructions on how to build an effective stove. However, big stoves were only affordable to more wealthy, larger households. 

Inspired by De Verstandige Kock, I have developed a formula to create a one-pot dish based on Dutch food history and contemporary sustainable diet principles. The main flavour profile of this historically-inspired dish is the combination of fragrant vegetables, meat (or vegetarian) broth, and the five spices, which became standard during the seventeenth century: peppercorns, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and cloves. The meat flavour can come from bone broth or salted dried meat. Grains, beans, peas, and bread are cooked in the broth, after which butter, vinegar, herbs, and spices are added as the final seasoning touch. The consistency of the dish depends on the amount of water and choice of carbohydrates. It can be clear soup with bread on the side, or a stew with peas, rice, and old bread. I’ve written down two recipes following the formula, and written in The Verstandige Kock fashion: without precise quantities and times, so they give room to free interpretation by the cook. Enjoy!

Winter vegetable stew

Take one dried Groningse sausage, and cut it into pieces. In a pot, fry the sausage with a little oil, chopped onion, and leek (for vegetarians the sausage can be replaced by a few cloves). When the vegetables turn transparent, add chopped carrots, cabbage, green or yellow peas, ground black pepper, nutmeg and water. When the soup is boiling, put the lid on and simmer over a small fire (those of you with electrical or induction cooking appliances can adjust accordingly). Cook until the peas are soft and season with salt. Garnish with parsley or coriander and serve with (stale) bread.

*Dried peas can be replaced by barley, wheat, old bread, lentils, and other grains. Or in summer, fresh peas.

Spring soup with turnip and chicken meatballs

Take peeled skin and woody stems of white asparagus, cook until soft and keep the broth. Take minced chicken and mix with egg, bread crumbs, ginger powder, ground nutmeg, and salt. Shape into small balls. Cook sliced turnip in the asparagus broth with mace. When the turnips turn soft, add the chicken meatballs and cook until done. Season with salt. Garnish with parsley or coriander. Serve with bread.