Books to help you get a handle on Dutch culture
We are finally getting somewhere: two books with insightful information about the Dutch rather than sentimental myths.
Many books about the Netherlands fall into the trap of re-hashing tired clichés: the wily Dutch have managed to tame the sea; are as infuriatingly opinionated as they are organised; make mountains of cheese but have absolutely no taste when it comes to good food; wearing traditional dress and clogs while encouraging the rest of the world to come to the Red Light District and smoke drugs.
Throw in a few million battered old bicycles, a few hundred bridges, Sinterklaas and a few tulips - you have the bones of yet another 'definitive' guide to the Dutch and the Netherlands. Add a pinch of humour and you may even have a bestseller.
Thankfully, 'The Dutch, I presume?' and 'Dutch Delight' published by Nilsson & Lamm avoid this trap by dealing with all these typical Dutch issues in a refreshingly honest fashion.
The authors explore the truth behind the myths and clichés about the Dutch to allow the reader to actually learn about the country and perhaps start appreciating its people.
Proving that a picture is worth a thousand words, hundreds of quality examples of the work of award-winning photographer Jurjen Drenth "& friends" propel these books into a world of their own.
The Dutch, I presume?
Icons of the Netherlands
Text: Martijn de Rooi
Photos: Jurjen Drenth & friends
N & L publishing
Author Martijn de Rooi examines 40 icons to Cruijff, "from flowers to food, or from windmills to architecture" to separate out fact from myth to provide an instant insight into Dutch society.
He has set himself a tough challenge but manages to pull it off with relative ease.
It is fascinating to read about eight-year-old Hans Brinker who became world famous for sticking his finger in a hole in a dyke - a heroic act indeed for a young man of any age.
There are statutes in his honour in his native Spaarndam and Harlingen and his story is recounted in a popular book.
The book is actually more popular with tourists than with Dutch themselves. As De Rooi reveals, little Hansje - the incarnation of the eternal struggle continually being fought by the tiny Netherlands against the mighty sea – didn't really exist.
Immigration and Integration Minister Rita Verdonk might be particularly interested in the chapter about the people of the land.
The idea that all Dutch people are from Holland is immediately dismissed as a myth. The facts are, as De Rooij points out, is that a fifth of the country's 16.3 million people are of foreign descent.
And the largest foreign group, numbering about 400,000, consists of people from the former colony of the Dutch East Indies and their descendants.
Turning to the "darker side of Holland", De Rooi deals with the ultimate integration test: drop, or jet-black liquorice. If you can swallow drop you are just as Dutch as Hansje Brinker himself.
If not, you will always be a "drop-out" in Dutch society.
The pictures in the book almost makes the drop look mouth-watering. But for those of us who are drop-intolerant, nothing could make us succumb to the temptations of drop.
The real Dutch on the other can't get enough of the stuff: on average a local will eat four kilos of drop per year. "If the Dutch had to steal a bike to finance their addiction to liquorice, no tricycle would be spared," De Rooi writes.
Photos: Jurjen Drenth & friends
N & L publishing
Many of us newbies to the Netherlands also shudder at the idea of dropping a raw herring down our throat.
Dutch cuisine is hardly mentioned as a compelling reason to come to the Netherlands in the first place.
Sylvia Pessireron with photographs by Drenth and friends make a very good attempt at rehabilitating the local food in 'Dutch Delight'.
Peppered with simple recipes, the book invites us to try to understand the Dutch love of herring, the humble spud and even the rank smelling Brussels sprout.
But it all starts with the boterham or sandwich. For those brought up to believe a sandwich is only a sandwich when two pieces of bread are brought together to 'sandwich in' a filling in the middle, think again.
A one-sided Dutch sandwich can come in a dazzling array of toppings, including aniseed crumble, flakes and chocolate or fruit sprinkles.
The most inventive have got to be ontbijtkoek (ginger cake) or speculaas, placing four spiced biscuits on a piece of white bread and calling it a sandwich.
Being Irish, I am much more at home with the solid potato and vegetable dishes the Dutch are famous and in some cases infamous for.
The potato first appeared in the Netherlands around 1600 but did not make a good impression as many died eating its leaves; it is a close relative to the poisonous deadly nightshade.
Fortunately the cooks soon realised the potato itself was far more versatile and tasty. Without the potato we would not have the delights of hutspot and stamppot. Don't worry the book has handy recipes to ensure you can serve up a treat like a local.
Then there is the surprisingly rich range of Dutch puddings. The marvellous pictures alone are enough to give you tooth ache.
Don't worry if you are allergic to Dutch cuisine, the book also deals with the best of the 'foreign imports' from the East Indies (nasi goreng) and Surinamese roti. Even Minister Verdonk would have to agree immigration is good for something.
8 July 2005
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