The largest port in the world for centuries, Rotterdam has only recently been overtaken by China and it now occupies third world position although it remains the largest port in Europe, writes markets specialist reporter Sandra Shevey.
Having been rebuilt after the Second World War, the Dutch city reflects the prolixity of its port status by way of a series of landmark shopping malls where cafes, restaurants, bars and shops combine with apartments and offices.
Nevertheless, Rotterdam whose population is considerably less than London, sustains the spirit, the conviviality and the friendliness that many big cities have lost. Even New Amsterdam, re-named New York by the English, has abandoned its coffee wagons and hot dog stands while London too discourages street vendors separate and apart from those operating at the markets.
In Rotterdam however the street vendors still hawk fries (with mayonnaise), freshly fried donuts and tidbits of fried fish which the Dutch call ‘kibbeling’. And they’re delicious!
The tendency at the London markets has been continually to upgrade and to refine and you are rudely discouraged from routine browsing and tasting without a sole intention to buy. That said the prices quoted at Borough and Spitalfield markets have become so excessively expensive it’s difficult to be able to buy at least on a regular basis.
Not so in the 100 year old Blaak Street market in Rotterdam where produce is not only cheap as chips (no pun) but where the vendors make a real effort to draw you into the market spirit by setting out large quantities of sample produce and re-filling when stock is depleted.
‘Blaak’ in Dutch means not ‘Black’ as people often think but ‘full of good things’.
A recurrent fantasy of mine, every time I pass Cheapside near Bank station in London, is to imagine I am there in centuries past consuming at some local stall oysters freshly caught from the River Thames. The oysters are ‘a dime a dozen’ and I am tucking into a few dozen together with a tankard of stout or port from the local tavern.
Of course it is only a fantasy because oysters are no longer ‘a dime a dozen’ in London and most markets which sell fish do so at a high price.
Furthermore whilst food stalls do exist at some of the lunchtime London markets such as Leather Lane and/or Whitecross Street there are few if any stalls where you can tuck into a tub of mussels for a couple of Euros or pounds.
Rotterdam market is renowned for its fresh fish which is generally killed just before it goes on sale. Many of the traders source from a local fisherman, at auction at Stellendam or via Schmidt – a first-rate fishmonger and retailer.
Schmidt has been around for centuries and currently occupies premises which have been expanded from the original shop. Nevertheless the ethics sustain and all fish are kept alive in tanks until just before sale. Many of the gourmet city restaurants such as Rodin source their fish from Schmidt.
The mentality of the Rotterdam local is almost naive with regard to his relationship with food. It is not surprising to see everyone turn out on Tuesday or Saturday at 8am and remain until closing at 5pm all the while eating, drinking, and buying. It’s a real social occasion.
There is ample opportunity not only to buy but to eat at the stalls most of which have counters for patrons. Steaming tubs of mussels are consumed with sides of mayonnaise whilst shells are ferociously tossed about.
The Rotterdammers are notoriously generous. If one person is generous it`s a character trait. But if four people are generous it becomes a national characteristic. On four separate occasions I was offered samples of produce all of which I accepted and with thanks.
Herring is the mascot Rotterdam fish and is served raw with chopped onion, lemon and ground black pepper. There is a way to eat the herring and if you don’t have a herring clip you must pick it up with your fingers by the tail and down it in one go. One trader even has lemon finger bowls for clients.
Kibbeling or tidbits of freshly fried cod is also extremely popular and eaten on the trot.
But fish is not the only commodity proferred at the market. Here too you can nosh on corn in a cup or on the cob. Condiments include mundane butter and sea salt (my own choice) but also chilli, mayonnaise, vinegar, lemon, black pepper and other exotic options.
Profiteroles are proferred Rotterdam-style: miniature Yorkshire puddings garnished with butter which the trader slices from a massive slab and topped with a powdery white sugar. Yum!
Gouda (pronounced ‘Howdah’) cheeses are proud patriots behind glass cases- large, cheesy, ripe and rich. You can get half a vast tire of cheese for what you`d pay for a few grams in some of the Rotterdam cheese shops.
The difference, however, is at the local cheese shops you have a huge choice of domestic and international cheeses. De Kaashoeve is one of the city`s finest cheese shops and is well worth a visit.
Handmade chocolates are available made from ‘wild’ cocoa beans and/some of the best farmed cocoa in the world. If you fancy having a go yourself, make for Chocoholic where the owner runs workshops promoting truffle, marzipan, dark and light chocolate.
Rotterdam market has both choice and quality and when I congratulate a trader on the quality of the kalamata olives it is explained that the olives are genuine kalamatas from Crete, Greece instead of imitators from Turkey or Spain.
So in an age of commerce, money and transition will this ancient market be allowed to sustain?
Ahmed Aboutaleb, Mayor of Rotterdam since 2009 has authorised development of an indoor Food Hall set to open in 2014. The building will accommodate a fresh food market and catering. It will include a car park of 1,200 parking spaces; the Albert Heijn supermarket; 15 retail units; 8 catering outlets; and 100 stalls selling entirely fresh produce. The developer is Provast.
I talked with the traders about the fate of the open market and asked how they feel about the emergence of the new market hall?
Most predictably are not aware of the impact and/or the motives behind the initiative. There are however a few who seem to know what`s going on and the ways the indoor food hall could or would displace their own trade whilst promoting inferior goods at higher prices.
There is also the suggestion that 150 of the 500 traders currently represented will be removed to precipitate the construction of a fancy restaurant or restaurants adjacent to the new food hall.
Redevelopment of the Old Spitalfield Market in London saw the removal of traditional stalls for three hideous chain restaurants. The food is ghastly, the prices are high. They are tourist traps.
At Borough market, the modus operandi has been to remove the stalls to another area of the city. This doesn’t solve the problem as there is always a decline in trade and a fallout when traders are separated from other traders and/or traditional premises.
The run-up to Christmas is a lovely time of year to visit as the stalls are decked out with rare Dutch blooms such as white lilacs but also poinsettias, holly, evergreen, and ivy.
Little-known is that Rotterdam also produces its own brand of tobacco and has been doing so for many years. You`ll find the cigars as fully packed as Cubans but at half the price. Labelling reads: `pure tobacco, no paper`. I ask why they don`t export? and am told they only have enough for local consumption. Cigars are produced at the old Kampen factory whilst boxes- black and gold striped- are smartly designed by the trader.
On the way back from the market stop off for a Dutch beer or a stiffer drink at Blender where the bartender does a mean ‘White Lady’ (Hitchcock`s tipple) using local Dutch ‘genever’ their own gin. Watch out … it’s very strong!
You could hardly accuse Rotterdam of being lax or loose as in days as a port for transatlantic crossings and sailors on 24-hour leave.
City planners have mandated a symmetry that is regular, conformist and predictable. Nonetheless underneath the prim exterior lurks a bit of rough that makes the city still one of the most original and exciting in Europe.
Fact File: Rotterdam
Sandra Shevey runs tri-market tours around towns/cities in the UK and EU. Hospitality courtesy of www.holland.com and www.stenaline.co.uk
Info at firstname.lastname@example.org
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