On a cold, clear Saturday morning at Scheveningen harbour, there’s barely a soul to be seen. I’m standing in a long, wide alley lined with fish wholesalers and casual seafood restaurants; a cluster of red, white and blue flags flap against a patchy pale blue sky. There’s silence except for the occasional shriek of gulls flying overhead.
I’ve come to The Hague to have lunch with Janneke Hendrikx and her family, and we’ve arranged to meet at one of the city’s best-loved fish markets, Simonis, so that Janneke and I can do the weekly shop first.
I lock my bike to a lamp post, having cycled along Scheveningen’s long, flat beach to get here, and as I’m doing so Janneke comes swinging happily through the shop doors, bringing some much-needed cheer to the alley with a pair of bright red trainers and some leopard-print tights.
We grin, shake hands warmly, and head inside together.
It’s early, and the ice-filled counter is still being packed with the day’s catch. A basket of tiny brown North Sea shrimp sits above neatly arranged layers of lustrous herring, sole and plaice. There’s also produce bought at auction: as I walk around I find myself admiring bright red, cooked lobsters caught on the French coast, and watch an enormous Mediterranean swordfish being hauled onto a workbench to have its flesh deftly sliced off in large chunks.
Then I turn to browse shelves stacked with tins of smoked cod liver and jars of pickled onions in apple syrup as Janneke orders North Sea sole, which we’re told are “fat and plentiful” this year. The fish come skinned and gutted but still whole, with heads and bones intact — this gives them much more flavour when cooked. She also requests a kilo of Jumbo mussels from Zeeland, further south on the Belgian border and, since they’re in season, receives a second kilo free.
Janneke has her son’s swimming test to get to, so we buy the fish and agree to resume shopping in a couple of hours. She then unlocks her bike from a lamp post (child seats to the front and rear), ties her fish-filled cool bag onto its rack, and disappears down the road with a wave.
We meet again a little closer to the city centre in the quiet, pretty neighbourhood of Archipelbuurt. To get here from the harbour, I’ve cycled along beautifully kept terraces of 100-year-old townhouses, through charming leafy squares and over wide canals. It’s my first visit to The Hague, and I’m struck by how green and pretty it is, and how easily navigable it is by bike, even for an unconfident cyclist like me.
Bankastraat is Archipelbuurt’s main shopping street, a narrow, winding road lined with neat, bare brick buildings, many of whose gleaming windows are shaded by arched, stripy awnings. Janneke is waiting for me at the greengrocer’s stall next to a butcher’s shop, this time with her family. I shake hands with her partner, Justus, or Just as he calls himself, who’s tall and tanned from last week’s family trip to Palermo, and greet their two small boys. Otto, three, is wearing a smart yellow raincoat and a pair of Dr Marten boots; Ole, six, has neatly combed hair still damp from the pool. He beams when I ask him how his swimming test went: after a rigorous length of the pool, he’s proud to have received his diploma.
At the greengrocer’s stand, Just and Janneke choose their fresh fruit and vegetables for the week, while at the cheesemonger, they order thick slices of handmade Dutch cheese cut from huge yellow rounds with a wire. We collect our bikes and walk to the bakery, weaving through Saturday shoppers before propping them against a large shop window filled with gaudy birthday cakes.
Inside, the bakery is a very traditional Dutch affair. Shelves are stacked with fruit loaves, latticed apple pies, puff pastry cakes and tompouce, a mille-feuille smeared with smooth pink icing. Janneke picks up a packet of dark brown, button-sized, spiced pepernoten cookies for us to have with coffee, and we head back outside.
We cycle home, riding behind one another on the main road skirting Scheveningen Woods, then three abreast along Archipelbuurt’s impressive wide, red-brick avenues. The houses here are the neo-Renaissance-style mansions that were popular with expats returning from the colonial Dutch East Indies; the streets are named after Indonesian islands. Eventually, we reach the rather more modest-looking neighbourhood of Duinoord and turn down a quiet, leafy street of terraced townhouses. Just and Janneke stop outside a beautiful arched shop window that takes up almost the entire width of the building. They climb off their bikes, unload their bags and the boys, and lock their bicycles to a bright green mop top tree outside. Janneke points to a sunshine-yellow bench directly in front of the sparkling clean window and smiles: “That’s where we like to sit in summer.”
The house in which the family lives was built in 1902. Originally a school library, the ground-floor flat was later turned into a shoemakers. “People still come by from time to time with bags of shoes for repair,” explains Just.
We pile in through the front door and straight into the kitchen, a sleek, modern workspace complemented by a wall of brightly coloured, curly-edged kindergarten paintings. The open-plan home is one long, extremely high-ceilinged room, the kitchen merging into dining area and living area in turn. At the far end, large glass doors open out onto a small, clean-lined patio, the burnt orange leaves of a Japanese chestnut hanging over their neighbour’s wall.
The family gets straight to work in the kitchen, Janneke unpacking three fat cooking apples and a bag of red-skinned potatoes onto the kitchen island. Ole searches through a drawer for a vegetable peeler while Otto excitedly tangles himself in a red and white apron shouting, “Ik ook, ik ook!” (me too!). Having dumped the mussels in the kitchen sink, Just rolls up his cardigan sleeves and starts dicing vegetables with the confidence of a home cook who’s prepared a dish hundreds of times.
As he drops his chopped carrots, leek and celery into a large, deep pan for sweating, I ask him where he learned to cook. He tells me he was born to Dutch parents in Como, Italy, where he spent his childhood watching his father, who’d fallen in love with the local cuisine, prepare simple Italian food. However, he learned to cook fish and seafood from his grandmother, now 94, who lives in a small coastal town in the very north of The Netherlands. I wonder if this is the food Janneke grew up eating, too.
They’re amused at this suggestion. “I’m the daughter of a former butcher, and the granddaughter of a man who’d made meat his life’s trade,” Janneke explains, helping Ole slice a potato into chunks. “I grew up eating animals nose to tail.” There was no fish served at her family table in south Holland, but lots of mashed vegetables, and plenty of meat: chicken sausages, smoked ham, and endless, ‘luxurious’ cuts of beef. Janneke was taught to cook by her mother and grandmother, whose recipes — blood sausage with apple or Dutch pea soup with pork sausages and bacon on the side — she knows by heart.
Once the potatoes are chopped, they’re arranged in a roasting tin with a sprinkling of salt, peeled cloves of garlic, fresh sprigs of rosemary and a drizzle of olive oil. Before they’re slid into the hot oven, Just reaches over Janneke’s shoulder and adds a pinch of smoked paprika. He then returns to his large pot, adding the clean mussels to the softened vegetables along with a generous glug of Dutch pilsner, “a standard beer, nothing strong enough to overpower the mussels”. Influenced by his Italian upbringing, he usually prefers his mussels Sicilian style with onions, tomatoes and a little chilli, but today, for me, he’s doing them ‘typical Dutch’.
After six minutes on the stovetop, the pot of mussels is brought to the table, and we all sit down to eat. A puff of fragrant steam escapes as Just removes the lid, using a large spoon to serve them into bowls, which he hands to each of us in turn. The boys aren’t happy: bivalve molluscs are not their favourite lunch, and there are no French fries on the table to appease them. Ole eats one then pushes the dark blue-black shells around his bowl; Otto sits back on his high chair, thumb in mouth, toy monkey in hand.
I set to work on my mussels, prising the meat away from each shell with a small fork and using a spoon for the soft vegetables, crunchy celery leaves and refreshing broth. The flavour of the mussels is remarkably intense, but I can’t help but notice a touch of heat in the liquid. It turns out Just couldn’t help himself, and slipped in a single dried chilli.
We clear our bowls and the boys get down to play with a pirate ship at the other end of the room, complaining about their empty stomachs. The potatoes come out of the oven and a cinnamon stick is removed from the apples, which have been bubbling with water and sugar on the hob. Janneke mashes the apples into a smooth sauce as Just dusts the sole with flour. He fries them three at a time in a generous swirl of frothing, slightly brown butter, until the fish are golden on both sides.
Our main course is ready just in time: hunger levels have become critical at the pirate ship, and a fight has broken out. Ole and Otto are called back to the table, where Just carefully fillets a fish each for them, pushing the flaky white meat off the bones and on their plates alongside a spoonful of pale golden apple sauce and a couple of roast potatoes. The rest of us help ourselves.
“This is typical Dutch,” Janneke tells me, gesturing at our food. “Lots of vegetables and boiled or roasted potatoes and a small helping of meat or fish.” Depending on the season, there might be cauliflower, sprouts, or haricots verts on the table; in winter, potatoes are often mashed with kale, cavolo nero or endives. “Dutch food is not refined,” she says, “and there are lots of influences from elsewhere. This is what I grew up with — this and lots of meat.”
The first time Just cooked for her, he prepared an early summer Dutch classic: white asparagus with boiled egg, slices of ham and melted butter. Janneke, used to her asparagus being served with a large piece of beef, was utterly dismayed: “Is this all we’re having?” she asked, aghast. These days, she no longer worries about Just if he ‘only’ has one slice of ham on his bread, and she’s more restrained in her own meat-eating. The family mostly enjoys light meals at home, often vegetarian, and the boys like Italian food just as much as traditional Dutch. “We just sort of grew into each other,” Janneke says.
As a family, they try to sit down together several times a week. On Saturday afternoons, the four of them might go out to their favourite bar to share a plate of bitterballen, a classic Dutch beer snack of small, breadcrumbed meatballs made with beef or veal and dipped in mustard. Sometimes, they’ll go out for poffertjes, tiny, spongy yeast-and-buckwheat pancakes covered in icing sugar and butter, or head to their favourite neighbourhood restaurant for a proper Indo-Dutch feast.
We clear the table once again and the children retire to the sofa, smiles on faces, bellies full, with a pizza-making game on their iPad. It’s mid-afternoon, and the light is fading fast, the flat growing darker and cosier by the minute. Upstairs, a neighbour begins playing classical piano as Janneke serves espressos and the pepernoten we bought earlier. They’re crisp, buttery, warmly spiced mouthfuls that are impossible to stop eating, and I’m filled with the sort of glow that comes from good company and an enjoyable meal. If I were a passer-by strolling along Just and Janneke’s street, peering in through their shop window, this would be a scene that I would very much want to join.
For over 150 years, mussels have been cultivated in two stretches of Dutch coast: the Eastern Scheldt estuary, and the Wadden Sea. They’re popular with home cooks here due to the speed and ease with which they can be prepared. The traditional way of cooking them is in beer or wine with a selection of base vegetables such as leeks, carrots and celery. And while Just prefers to cook his ‘Sicilian style’, he serves them in the Dutch way — in a large communal pot, with bread or a heap of French fries.
Roughly mashed potatoes, onions and carrots: hutspot is Otto and Ole’s favourite dish. The vegetables are sometimes slow-cooked in the same pot as klapstuk, a rib of beef, or a piece of smoked bacon, which is then served on top of the bright orange mash. Janneke likes it best with stoofvlees, a sweet and sour beef and beer stew flavoured with mustard and thyme.
Going to a traditional Pannenkoekenhuis (Dutch pancake house) is a weekend family treat. Pannenkoek batter traditionally incorporates both plain and buckwheat flours: it’s ladled into a large frying pan to create a plate-sized, slightly-thicker-than-a-crêpe style pancake that’s browned lightly in butter or oil. Pannenkoeken are often eaten with fruit or enjoyed savoury, with toppings such as bacon and cheese.
Learn how to make Janneke’s pepernoten.
As featured in Issue 4 of National Geographic Traveller Food.