The Netherlands is not at the top of the list for European foodie destinations, but that’s changing as cities and towns across the country embrace both local and international cuisine. Produce Business UK takes a look at what’s happening and talks to some of the personalities involved in its development on a daily basis to find out more
In a land where cheese is king, bread comes a close second, and fast food is delivered out of an automated machine, it’s no wonder the Netherlands lacks an international reputation for interesting and tasty food experiences.
Hardly on the official tourist trail, but still a favourite picture on Instagram, are the vending machines outside the Dutch fast food chains Febo and Smullers that dispense warm burgers and fried snacks.
However, just as quickly as a Smullers burger is served, that image is changing as new restaurants, food establishments, and festivals are launched. Over the past five years in particular the gastronomic scene has moved outside of its Amsterdam centre, in part in a response to rising rents. Cities such as Rotterdam, and The Hague, are supporting new concepts, and coastal areas are recognising that food can be an important tourist attraction.
With this activity come opportunities for suppliers, and entrepreneurs, to service a market that is growing on the back of increased domestic and tourist interest. According to the organisation Marketing Holland, between January and April this year, some 4.5 million travellers visited the Netherlands. This is an increase of 8% on the same period for 2015.
And they do not all stay in Amsterdam, although it is the most popular destination, almost 30% of visitors headed off around the rest of the country, and some 15% explored the coastal regions.
British band The Beautiful South once sang that “Rotterdam is anywhere, anywhere alone”, but clearly they never tried to get served sushi in the city’s indoor Markthal on a busy afternoon. Bodies pack out the lower ground floor of this horseshoe-shaped development, opened in 2014, and which also houses apartments and offices.
Rotterdam’s indoor food market is not just a tourist attraction, local residents love it too
The gleaming central structure has a ground and upper floor dedicated to food stalls, restaurants, and supermarkets, including a Japanese store. Recent additions include the Jamie Oliver chain Jamie’s Italian. Alongside the gourmet burger-and-fries joints are juice bars, and fresh-produce stalls. With the Port of Rotterdam, a short distance away, the produce on offer includes exotics such as cactus fruits, and kiwano, otherwise known as the African horned melon.
Exotic produce on display at Rotterdam indoor market
It’s a wonderful introduction to eating out in Rotterdam, and one that understandably gets a lot of attention, but to experience the hipster version of this food court is to visit the The Fenix Food Factory, located in Rotterdam’s docks. Here independent stalls may have adopted a shabby chic décor, but the food, including a twist on traditional cheese platters, is far from fusty.
Tim Zegwaard: manager of Natuurlijk
On a blustery day the Markthal Rotterdam is filled with warm greetings as customers munch their way from stand to stand inside the impressive structure. Should one want to see the future of how to retail fresh produce, then take a trip to the Natuurlijk stand.
This concept store, launched by the snack vegetable brand Tommies, offers visitors numerous ways to get their 5-a-day. Customers can buy portions of vegetables, take them as a smoothie, or as a soup, freshly prepared on the stand.
Not only does it offer the expected range of produce, it also has a line of pre-prepared exotic fruits ready to eat complete with the required utensils. Making it convenient and easy to purchase and eat produce has gained the stand a loyal following, as well as attracting lots of tourists.
Ideas on how to get your five-a-day are popular at the Natuurlijk stand
“We have had great feedback from customers on the concept,” says manager Tim Zegwaard. “A lot of people want to eat healthy, but also they want convenience, and that’s what we offer them here. [These concepts] are more developed in the UK, but the customers we have are very open to new ideas.”
Social media also plays an important part in the store’s connection with its customers, with a Facebook page that’s regularly updated with inspiring images and recipe ideas that reach out to the Instagram generation. The enthusiasm and guidance on products from the store’s staff also helps to attract custom, showing how training can really make a difference to sales. Zegwaard talks a group of young students through the various products, with a couple of them making purchases afterwards. This modern approach to grocery shows that with the right products, and guidance, fresh produce can gain a competitive edge with customers.
Pascal Martens, a former chef, offers quality fresh produce as well as fighting food waste
On the opposite side of Markthal Rotterdam is Fresh Food Friends, owned by Pascal Martens, a former chef, and a man that describes his business as encouraging creative culinary experiences. Above the area where Martens sells fresh produce, including baked goods, organic meat, and responsibly sourced fish, is a restaurant offering dishes made from the ingredients being sold below.
Martens has many years in the food and catering industries, and says that the Netherlands is catching up with the rest of Europe when it comes to not only dining out, but also buying quality products.
“There are still people that look at price over quality, but there is also a growing interest in healthy eating, in products that have a story,” he says. “With the meat that I sell, I can tell you where it has come from, what it has eaten, and with the fish it is always fresh. For that people pay a slightly higher price, but it is worth it for the taste.”
Like many people involved with the food sector, Martens has seen the trend for convenience gain pace, especially among younger generations that not only eat out more, but don’t have the time to prepare and cook. The stand sells a range of pies and pastries filled with ingredients from his counters in order to minimise waste, but still provide easy meal solutions.
Food hubs are an increasingly exciting area for the Netherlands food scene, with the Food Hallen indoor food market opening in Amsterdam in 2014, and last July the coastal town of Scheveningen re-opened its pier, with a row of food offerings forming the centre of the refurbishments.
The Food Hallen, in the west of Amsterdam, has proved particularly popular with both residents, and tourists, especially with its extended hours so that its evenings are filled with post-work customers. For anyone who has visited London’s StreetFeast venues, then the set-up is similar, with stands offering small plates of world tastes.
It’s one of many developments that is helping to change the perception of eating out in the city. Thijs van Royen, operations manager for the Eating Amsterdam Tours, says that the business has noticed a geographical, as well, as a gastronomical change.
“Many new places [have] started up in the areas outside the centre of Amsterdam where the rental prices where lower,” he says, with reference to the launches of eateries and bars in Westerpark, De Pijp, Amsterdam Oud-West and De Baarsjes.
“There was a strong move to local, sustainable and good quality food using all parts of the animals, and rediscovering vegetables and fruits that were regarded old fashioned before.
“Many people have found a great interest in eating out, and have become much more conscious about quality and service. This is also reflected in the boom in organic food markets and shops, they can now be found almost at every corner of the street. The influence of social media and reviews is also huge nowadays.
“For sure, Amsterdam is now a place where you can eat as well as you can in other cities such as Brussels or London. The food scene has definitely changed for the better in Amsterdam over the last five years or so.”
Good morning Vietnam!
Tji Hu, co-founder of Viet View
This is one of the attractions of Amsterdam’s Foodhallen, says Tji Hu, co-founder of one of its stands, Viet View. Food Hall, in the city’s Ood-West area, is a former tram depot refurbished as a home to shops and cafes.
At the heart of it is the food hall populated with street-food style stalls and bars. Viet View is one of the original tenants, offering a Vietnamese taste experience with fresh produce very much part of its appeal. Hu, and wife Jie, say that in the short time they have been operating the stand they have noticed a change in the city’s hospitality scene.
“It feels like there is a new restaurant or café opening every couple of weeks now,” says Jie Hu.“When we opened Viet View there was not so many places offering Asian food, and now we see a lot more places serving Vietnamese and Korean dishes. In fact, there are a lot more kitchens opening up offering different world tastes, as Amsterdam becomes more international so does its food.”
Hu says that while the location makes Food Hallen a tourist attraction, Dutch residents are also drawn to the mix of stands where a dish is generally under six euros, making it a reasonably priced place for lunch and dinners.
“What we have noticed is that people want good food at a good price, but they also want healthy food. We serve gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian options with our menu.”
“There has been an increase in salad and juice bars in the city centre, there is definitely more interest now in different types of tastes and healthy dishes.”
The street food trend has been gaining ground in the Netherlands in recent years, and this disruption of the traditional way of serving food has influenced not just the opening of more world cuisine kitchens, but has also inspired the evolution of the humble potato.
With customers often queuing outside its debut shop in The Hague, the Frites Atelier concept of upgrading fries to a gourmet dish has prompted the founders, one of which is Belgian star chef Sergio Herman to look for space to launch in Amsterdam.
The brand’s spokesman Jacco La Gasse says the idea was to give the snack the attention it deserves.
“[It is] Holland and Belgium’s most beloved snack, which has been taken for granted for far too long. It was time that someone stood up and fight for frites’ rights. That is where we came in,” he says with a twinkle.
“With Sergio’s vision and background as a top chef we took on the whole identity of the product, the presentation, as well as the service of our nations number one street food snack.
“But unlike all the other snack concepts, our sauces are fresh. The meat in our snacks is free from hormones and comes from welfare animals with a bio passport. The potatoes come from Zeeland clay, the best soil for extra potato flavour.
“Add that to an ambiance of a French/New York brasserie with lots of detail and decoration, a friendly, sincere and professional service and you have magic. The reactions overwhelmed us, beyond comprehension.”
A new dawn
Van Royen claims that the financial crisis of 2008 forced a lot of poor quality restaurants to close, leaving the path open for more innovative operators. There is also far more of an appetite to try new foods, and new ways of delivering experiences.
Sustainability is the key buzzword within the Dutch food scene, with restaurants such as InStock, which transforms food waste into mouthwatering meals, setting a trend for the style of using all parts cooking that van Royen speaks of.
This demand for healthy, and often locally produced and organic, food experiences is predicted to continue, especially with the backing of the Amsterdam municipality, which has made it a priority strategy.
Although the FEBO vending machines make for great photo opportunities, as The Netherlands gets into its foodie stride, hopefully the world will see that there is more to Dutch cuisine than just breadcrumb-coated, mystery meat.