World of Mouth: Herring and Hutspot

The Dutch city of Leiden hosts an annual festival involving herring, white bread and hot stew, commemorating the banishment of their Spanish conquerors.

hutspot 311 (photo credit: Johanna Bailey)
hutspot 311
(photo credit: Johanna Bailey)
Johanna Bailey is a blogger, freelance writer and student at the Hofmann Culinary School in Barcelona, Spain.
This month the country of Spain is celebrating olives, erotic film, seafood, the Virgin of Pilar, flamenco dancing and saffron. Meanwhile a few thousand miles to the north in the Dutch city of Leiden, they’re celebrating the fact that they are not Spanish.
It all started back in the 16th century when The Netherlands was under Spanish rule. For several months during 1573-1574, the Spanish Duke of Alva laid siege on the city of Leiden and nearly a third of the population perished. Things would have gotten even worse had it not been for the quick thinking Dutch rebel leader “William the Silent, Prince of Orange” who broke the dikes flooding the surrounding low-lands, enabling relief ships to reach the city. Most importantly, the ships brought haring en wittebrood (herring and white bread) to the starving people.
In the meantime, the Spanish were apparently in the middle of cooking stew when they noticed the rising waters. They quickly yelled “Agua! Vamos! Rapido!” - or something like that - then turned and ran. Legend has it that a small Dutch orphan boy named Cornelis Joppenszoon then crept through the abandoned Spanish camps and came across the pot of stew which they had left behind. The boy then brought this “hutspot” back to the townspeople to eat.
Every year on October 3, the city of Leiden hosts “Leidens Ontzet,” a festival celebrating these historic events. The citizens of Leiden (in addition to thousands of tourists), gather together for the enormous party that lasts all day and into the night. Since food played such a crucial role in relieving Leiden, it is naturally an important part of the festivities. There is free bread for all, and people wearing red rubber gloves and jaunty kerchiefs hand out buckets of raw herring to anyone who has a plastic bag to carry it in. Many prefer to have the fish cleaned and beheaded immediately so that they can, in the traditional manner, tilt their heads back and gulp one down right then and there.
Although for some of us, the idea of dropping an entire raw herring down our throat might not be at the top of our fun lists, herring has been an essential part of the Dutch diet for centuries, and to eat it uncooked, lightly salted and occasionally dipped in raw onions, is considered by many to be a real treat. In fact, much like the French celebrate the new batch of Beaujolais wine every year, the Dutch hold the same reverence for the “Hollandse Nieuwe” (new herring) and the first barrel of the season is always auctioned off with the money going towards charity.
But what about little Cornelis Joppenszoon and his leftover stew? The Dutch pay tribute to this culinary find as well on Leiden Onztet, with many restaurants and families preparing their own version of hutspot, a hotchpotch stew of mashed up carrots, onions and potatoes which is usually served with bacon, sausage or braised beef and then topped with meat gravy and/or mustard. Most believe that the original 16th century version contained parsnips rather than potatoes because at the time, potatoes were still viewed throughout most of Europe as being a rather suspicious vegetable. At worst they were rumored to be harbingers of evil, responsible for everything from leprosy to poisoning to sterility. At best, they were considered to be just a very unattractive food that came from the ground, most suited for livestock and the lower classes. Luckily, they got over that particular culinary hang-up and now, most contemporary hutspot makers use potatoes (although some purists still prefer the parsnip)!
Celebrate Leidens Ontzet along with the Dutch by making your own hearty hutspot with this recipe inspired by Frija Jansen of “Culinaire Uitstapjes.” If you were in Leiden, you would be able to get a head start by buying a pre-made Hutspot kit which contains potatoes, carrots and onions that have already been washed, peeled and chopped!
-5 medium sized potatoes, peeled
-4 large carrots, peeled
-3 cloves of garlic
-2 medium sized onions
-1/4 cup (60 ml) milk
-2 tablespoons (30 g) butter
-salt and pepper to taste
-Mustard, gravy, cubed bacon, smoked sausage or braised beef (all optional)
-Chop the vegetables into medium sized chunks and then boil them in lightly salted water.
-Drain the water and add the butter and milk to hot vegetables. Mash it all together and then add salt and pepper to taste.
-Serve with meat (see ingredients), mustard, gravy, or all three!
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