Monday, August 25, 2008

Food in the Golden Age of Amsterdam

My guest blogger today is Catherine Mambretti, who has written her first historical novel, The Posthumous Bride (currently seeking a publisher) and in researching it learned a lot about food in Amsterdam in 1666. I thought a blog about Jewish cooking in Amsterdam in the 17th century was truly appropriate to Judy's Stew, which is in large part abut cooking.

Catherine is a former college teacher, the author of two educational technology books, a science and technology editor and writer, and a corporate training consultant. She says that although you'd thinkk she'd write science fiction with her background, she's always been fascinated by the overlooked culture of the 17th Century. You can check her web page at

Historical Mystery Cooking
Judy and I share some history, even though we’ve never met: we both have ties to the University of Chicago, the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, and Texas. And we both write (among other things, historicals).
"The Posthumous Wife" (in search of a publisher) is the story of Ruta Massa, a young Catholic Portuguese woman who finds herself the mistress of a Jewish household in Amsterdam in 1666. She was raised eating Portuguese cuisine--heavy in shellfish and pork. When her family fled the Inquisition and returned to their Sephardic Jewish roots, she was completely unprepared for every aspect of life in the Jewish Quarter of a Dutch city.
This was the plight of many "converso" women in the 16th and 17th centuries, as I learned when I began exploring my own Sephardic Jewish roots. As fate would have it, I was in Amsterdam on 9/11. On 9/12 I spent the day in the Jewish Historical Society ( As I examined artifacts of life from 17th Amsterdam's fascinating Jewish Quarter, I began to wonder what it must have been like for new immigrants into Holland (of whom there were thousands, most from Portugal). In Spain and Portugal, few of them had been permitted even to learn about their ancestors' Jewish faith before they arrived there, let alone practice the traditions. For example, it was common for "secret Jews" in Iberia to cook Kosher-like foods on holidays from recipes passed down by word of mouth. Often they were forced to consume pork products in public as evidence that they were truly converts to Christianity. Once in Amsterdam, where the Dutch practiced religious tolerance--then as today--the immigrants had to learn everything from the Hebrew alphabet to how to cook kosher food properly.
One of my favorite parts of writing historical mysteries is learning about the everyday life of a historical period. In grad school at the University of Chicago I studied the intellectual history of the 17th century extensively. But I learned little about what went on in a 17th century kitchen. (Frankly, I think scholars would do well to spend more time in the historical kitchen--but that's a subject for another essay.) To find out what Ruta would have cooked and eaten, I began with "all the usual suspects." Historical writers have several series of books on "everyday life" in various cultures and periods to rely upon. I also always refer to original texts from the period. I've read I-don't-know-how many documents written in the 17th century, and food crops up unexpectedly in many of them (such as Samuel Pepys' Diary--one of my favorite books of all time). Shakespeare, for instance, is a cornucopia. Then, too, some of the earliest books in print were practical manuals of husbandry and "huswifery," including books on food and cooking. But I also have an undergraduate minor in Art History, and I always spent lots of time studying the paintings of an era. Since the Golden Age of Holland was a golden age of art, too, I found Dutch still-life paintings to be amazingly helpful.
Because it was the undisputed leader in world trade during the 17th century, Holland had an amazing array of choices of foods--perhaps more extensive than any other European country. They had all sorts of spices and tea from Asia, all sorts of New World vegetables and nuts (tomatoes, potatoes, maize [small, kernel corn], squash, sugar cane, chocolate), and tropical fruits, including lemons, tangerines, and occasionally pineapples. Because Holland was a coastal nation, they had copious fresh seafood, including herring, eels, salmon, sturgeon, mussels, mollusks, and crustaceans. Like most of Europe, they had game (venison, fowl, wild boar) and domesticated cattle (beef, pork, lamb, and goat). Their dairy products were famous even then. They farmed grains, berries, and orchard fruits, such as apples, pears, pomegranates, peaches, plums, and prunes.
The 17th century table was set with glass, crockery (some real China), pewter, silver and brass. Drink was consumed from metal tumblers and glass "rummers" (a sort of chalice with a spiky handle that helped prevent slippage). Potable water, of course, was at a premium. More often everyone (even children) drank a thin, weak beer (the thick, rich Belgian-style ales weren't brewed until much later). Wine was available--especially a burgundy called claret and Portuguese port, which is a fortified wine made from white or red grapes. However, wine was usually watered down. Berry juices were also popular. Asian tea was a rare treat and always drunk without sugar. (BTW: Much as I love the 2003 movie, "The Girl with a Pearl Earring," one scene appalled me--the scene in which the servants polish what looks like 19th silver for place settings. The fork was not a personal eating tool at the time. People ate with knives and spoons and often their fingers.)
At Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum I found an unexpected source of information about kitchens and cooking in the 17th century--antique, adult dollhouses. Rather than describe these incredible "toys," I will refer you to the museum website. I think you'll be surprised. Click here:
I'm often asked if 17th century cooks had to cope with spoiled food. There's a common myth that spices, such as pepper, were valued because they could mask the taste of rotten meat. No, cooks had much fresher food than we do. Much meat was kept "on the hoof" in a shed or courtyard right outside the kitchen door. Farmer's markets brought fresh meat and produce to the city daily. In the Jewish quarter, both rabbis and kosher butchers provided ample supplies of properly slaughtered and prepared meat and sausage.
What did Ruta Massa cook and eat?
For breakfast, "The Posthumous Wife" had porridge, pancakes and honey, breads, cheeses, and fruits. For the midday meal, she set the table with leftovers from the previous night's dinner--a roasted "joint" of beef or venison, a filet of salmon, game-bird legs, a meat pie. Meals also included numerous vegetables: root vegetables, cabbage, beans, peas, even artichokes and asparagus--all roasted or boiled, often along with scallions for seasoning. Don't forget that the Dutch invented the Dutch oven, too.
A traditional Dutch stew would have been appropriate for a Dutch-Jewish table. A "hot pot" ("hutsepot") consisted of minced meat (lamb or beef), parsnips, prunes or pears, available vegetables, seasoned with lemon juice, vinegar, and ginger. The Iberian immigrants (as well as the nation's former invaders, the Spanish) contributed a spicy version of this stew, called "olipotrigo," with sausage, which was drained after being stewed for two or three hours and then sauced with egg yolks, wine vinegar, and butter. Often these stews were flavored with cinnamon..
The Dutch even now have a thing for eels. In the 17th century "eel tossing" was actually a sport. An eel dish persists today as a favorite, "Zootje Pailing op Zijn Schippers": it's a soup of eel, potatoes, water, butter, vinegar, and black pepper.
A Dutch Jewish kitchen differed from a Dutch Christian kitchen only in the kosher requirement to keep meat and dairy products separate--and of course in that pork, wild boar, predator game, shellfish, and crustaceans were forbidden. Even in the 17th century the Dutch were very clean. The Portuguese and Spanish had inherited from their Moslem occupiers until the 15th century a love of plumbing, clean water, and baths.
The more I researched my book, the more I was struck by the similarities between 17th century Dutch Christians and the Sephardic Jews who called themselves "the nation." Marriage and family were the basis of both cultures. Their households were identical; their dress identical; their business identical; and their food almost identical. Even the Jewish synagogues were built on the model of Romanesque basilica. Both justice systems (which is very important to my mystery and courtroom drama plots) were largely religious, not secular. Their faith dominated their lives.
For more about domesticity in the Golden Age of Holland I recommend "Daily Life in Rembrandt's Holland" by Paul "Zumthor, 1959, distributed by Stanford University Press. Of course, Tracy Chevalier's "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" is also essential reading. Contemporary accounts include Sir William Temple's "Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands" (1673) and "The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln" (1690), by a Jewish woman, which includes a visit to Amsterdam for a relative's wedding.

No comments: