The artbook as cookbook
2019-05-06 | By Nancy Kroonenberg
While the Rijksmuseum’s galleries and cookbook’s images captivate us with the mystery and eloquence of the Dutch Masters, they also stimulate our culinary appetites.
The modest simplicity of Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter and the domestic warmth of Jan Steen’s The Feast of Saint Nicholas are enthralling, and it goes without saying that The Night Watch can transfix and pay repeated viewing. Perhaps less attention is given to the still lifes, which also demonstrate the artists’ mastery of skills and techniques. Many of these extraordinary studies portray a culinary voyage through the Netherlands’ bygone days. While our visual senses are satiated, can these culinary still lifes satisfy our other senses? How does the bread smell? What does the asparagus taste like? How do you make that pastry? How did a 17th century kitchen look? Now in the 21st century we can find out.
Food as art
The Rijksmuseum’s culinary still lifes range from the simple and daily to the sumptuous and scrumptious. Coorte’s Still Life with Asparagus, simple depiction of white asparagus, the “white gold” delicacy harvested and eaten only in May and June, catches the viewer’s attention, while Claesz van Dijck’s Still Life with Cheese is a typical image of cheese, bread and fruit, still staples in any 21st century Dutch home. Van Utrecht’s Banquet Still Life is almost ostentatious in composition and comparison; an overflowing table brimming with a huge lobster, bulging meat pasty and cornucopia of fruit.
Artbook and cookbook
When Rijksmuseum director Wim Pijbes was finishing one undertaking–the Rijksmuseum’s renovation–he hatched another project, a cookbook capturing the Rijksmuseum’s culinary treasures and all of the associated senses. He turned to Jonah Freud, well-known on the Dutch culinary scene, to create this 600-page “canon of Dutch gastronomy” When Rijksmuseum director Wim Pijbes was finishing one undertaking–the Rijksmuseum’s renovation–he hatched another project, a cookbook capturing the Rijksmuseum’s culinary treasures and all of the associated senses. He turned to Jonah Freud, well-known on the Dutch culinary scene, to create this 600-page “canon of Dutch gastronomy”
Freud’s first step was to determine the Dutch ingredients to be featured in the cookbook. These would range from anchovy to yoghurt, from aardappel (potato) to zeewier (seaweed). Fifty foodstuffs in all. Some, such as butter, cabbage, cheese, and onions, are commonly seen on dining tables worldwide, others are more limited to special occasions or to Dutch cuisine, such as periwinkles, wild boar, pheasant, eel, and oysters. Each of the 50 professional chefs or bakers was assigned to one ingredient, with the task of contributing at least one signature dish. The resulting volume has 130 recipes.
Art meets the kitchen
Selecting and organising artwork for the cookbook’s 50 sections was a huge undertaking. The volume is a journey through the Rijksmuseum’s collection with 900 images, not only of paintings and sketches but also of porcelain, silver and gold serving dishes and even dolls house kitchens. If a literal portrayal of the subject wasn’t available, illustrations of the growing region were sourced instead.
Freud sets the tone for each section with appropriate histories and stories in intimate introductions. While the Dutch East India Company (VOC) bringing spices from the Far East to the Netherlands is well-known, she also regales us with lesser-known tidbits. In the 18th century, Catharina Mulder, a fishmonger and political activist, played a major role in the Rotterdam mossel (mussel) industry, earning her the name Kate Mossel. Bringing events up-to-date, Freud notes that seaweed is the food of the future, already vastly popular in Korea and Japan.
Each section bombards the senses with ingredients that one can almost taste. While the beautiful photographs could spark self-doubt in the home cook, Freud saves the day, transposing every culinary masterpiece into easily followed recipes.
Recipes and ingredients
Leafing through the baking paper-type pages–a charming culinary detail–the section on “grain” peeks into the 17th century kitchen, starting with two recipes for the well-known New Year’s oliebollen– Dutch donuts. There is also a dose of humour and whimsy; a painting shows sparrows nibbling bread, and the third recipe is for the curious-sounding piccalilli oliebollen.
Even the distinctive and lowly spruitjes–Brussels sprouts–get their own section! While home cooks can often be deterred from cooking sprouts because of their strong cooking odour, Freud comes to the rescue with tips on how avoid a smelly kitchen. So there is no arrier to creating a typical Dutch hachee with Brussels sprouts–a dish of meat, vegetables and mashed potatoes.
Venturing from the simplicity of such dishes is the more complex “Pheasant with 24-hour sauerkraut.” A three-page step-by-step explanation entails six ecipes: 24-hour sauerkraut, pheasant breast sous-vide, pheasant thigh sous-vide, pheasant gravy, sauerkraut sauce, and crispy potato slices. This gastronomical creation would be a crowning glory for any home cook.
The author and her cookbooks
At the age of 14, Freud began working in de Kookboekhandel, an Amsterdam cookbook shop where she is totally in her element surrounded by 3,000 cookbooks. Dividing her time between her shop, her nearby houseboat and a home in the north of France, Freud sometimes has three identical cookbook collections, one for each location. She publishes and translates cookbooks, writes for Dutch newspapers, appears on TV and radio, and serves on the Cookbook of the Year jury. While the Rijksmuseum Cookbook intersects food and art, Freud cannot not be pinned down about her favourite artist, but does admit a preference for sculpture, architecture and modern art. In the cookbook world, she has a special place in her heart for Claudia Roden as she translated Roden’s Book of Jewish Food into De Joodse Keuken. She is also a fan of London-based Israeli Yotam Ottolenghi.
Like the museum itself, the Rijksmuseum Cookbook is a voyage through the world of paintings, sketches, porcelain and more, exploring the joys, masterpieces and creations of Dutch cuisine. Visit Jonah Freud in de Kookboekhandel at Haarlemmerdijk 133, Amsterdam, where you can purchase a Dutch or English copy of the Rijksmuseum Cookbook.
About the author
Nancy Kroonenberg enjoys leafing through her 999 cookbooks, visits nearby Dutch museums and has a special affinity for Monet’s Waterlilies. (The autumn Monet exhibition in The Hague is one not to miss).