People tend to forget all about this, but I’m actually Dutch. It’s an easy mistake to make, as I keep going on about Scotland and how ‘we’ do things in Scotland and I haven’t actually properly lived in the Netherlands for quite some time now. It’s not like I make a secret of it, it’s just that it doesn’t often come up in conversation. But sometimes people find out, and then they’ll ask me to speak Dutch, which I invariably cock up because I get too self-conscious and I don’t know what to say. Then they’ll usually want to know about Dutch food, and that’s where I really start bricking it. Because Dutch food is not pretty.
I’m not even sure there’s such a thing as Dutch cuisine. Sure, we have a national dish of sorts, which I’d say would be boerenkool stampot (essentially mash with curly kale mixed into it), or any sort of stampot (mash with any other sort of veg mixed into it), but unfortunately these dishes are so ugly that you don’t find them in restaurants. These are the kind of things that you eat at home, where no foreigners with high standards can see you. Boerenkool, as well as many other things you’d typically eat in the Netherlands, is delicious, really, and comforting and hearty and warming, but it looks a bit… unorthodox.
What I’ve always found strange is that the Belgians, who speak the same language, more or less, and are in the same general area, and who are a small country with a monarch, just like us, have always done so much better than the Dutch. Where we have never managed to surpass the level of mashing together soft boiled potatoes with soft boiled vegetables, the Flemish kitchen comes out with the most fabulous, luscious, generally fit-for-a-king kind of dishes. Flanders is just south of the Netherlands, but by their food you’d say they were a world away. And don’t even get me started about their beer.
My favourite amazing kingly Flemish treat is Gentse stoverij, or stew from the city of Ghent, which they make with their delicious beer and their delicious mustard. I’m not sure this preparation is as the Flemish would do it (see if they’ll share their secrets with a dirty northern kale muncher like me), but it works for me. Credits for this one to my mum!
For a good pot full of stew that’ll feed 6, or 3 for 2 days, go get yourself:
- a kilo of stewing steak
- 2 bottles of Leffe Bruin or another dark, sweet Belgian beer
- 2 onions, cut up into largish chunks
- some flour
- some butter
- a few sprigs of fresh thyme
- a couple of cloves
- about 3 tbsp of whole-grain mustard, preferably a rather sharp one
- 2 slices of (old) bread, crusts cut off
***Note that this dish takes time! It’ll need to stew for a few hours, so make sure you start cooking well in advance.***
Slice up your stewing meat into big-ish chunks (about 5cm, or a couple of inches). Put some flour on a plate or in a bowl and roll the meat around in it, so that all the cubes are covered in a thin layer of flour. Now, in batches, fry the meat in a heavy big pot with a thick base (I mean like a Creuset type of casserole, if you have one). Take the meat out when it’s browned on all sides and then do the next batch until all your meat is cooked. Put it aside for a while, now fry the onions. When they look transparent, put the meat back in, along with some thyme, the cloves and about half a litre of your beer. (Yes, that’s right, you’ll have a little bit left. You could drink this, but you could also save it in case the stew goes too dry. If you’re that desperate for a beer, just buy some extra bottles and drink an entire one.)
Leave this to simmer for a while with the lid on, stir occasionally. After an hour or so, grab your old bread slices without crusts, cover them completely in mustard, then add them to the concoction. The mustard will give the stew a nice kick, whilst the bread helps bind the gravy.
Leave the stew for another couple of hours, taste, see if the meat is tender or if it needs more stewing. Taste for salt, then add some more fresh thyme and serve, maybe with some potatoes, and definitely with a bunch of delicious Belgian beer.