Monday, 14 December 2009

The Netherlands - Stamppot, Mata Hari and the Elfstedentocht

I've just been reading about a fascinating tradition up in Friesland, or Fryslan, to give it its proper name in the Frisian language. It's called Elfstedentocht which means 'Eleven Cities Tour' (nothing to do with elves, helaas!).

It starts in Leeuwarden and involves skating along canals and across lakes, through 11 Frisian towns, a total of almost 200km. With almost 15,000 people taking part, it sounds more than a little bit dangerous and requires a minimum ice thickness of 15 centimetres along the entirety of the course.

Not surprisingly, it rarely freezes that much in Fryslan these days, what with global warming and the rest of it and, in fact, the last time the canals, rivers and lakes froze to a satisfactory degree was in 1997. (It happened twice in the eighties, once in the sixties.) 

That's what interests me most about this tradition. In the years that it does happen, the excitement surrounding the race must be phenomenal.

The Frisians have a distinct culture to the rest of the Netherlands and I've been very aware of their language since my college days studying comparative linguistics - they say Frisian is the closest living language to English (well, I guess they mean Old English).

Leeuwarden is the capital of Fryslan and also the birthplace of Mata Hari, the young, glamorous dancer who had lovers on both sides of the military divide in World War One and ended up being executed by the French for being a spy.

Call me a big softie, but I can't help feeling sorry for Mata Hari. It sounds like her marriage was an unhappy one and, whatever your moral position on her behaviour, she certainly made an impact on the world.

As part of my learning experience, I undertook to make the Dutch favourite Stamppot. This was a relatively easy one to make, as it merely involved boiling potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, carrots, savoy cabbage, leek, onion, turnip and parsnip, then mashing them all together and topping it with smoked sausage (you should use rookworst, but I used chorizo as an easier-to-find option). I've never cooked butternut squash before (although I'd often looked at it in the supermarket and thought Yum!) and I didn't know how to prepare it.

Luckily, I found a YouTube video with instructions on how to do this and I imagine it'll become a regular addition to my diet.

I found the recipe at

Image credits

The image of Mata Hari is from a postcard and is in the public domain, as its copyright has expired.

The beautiful image of the person skating on a lake in front of a windmill is from flickruser Lukas Vermeer - I love photographs that can tell a whole story and this one really encapsulates the mood of a lone skater in mid-winter.  Check out Lukas' photostream for more of his amazing images

The image of my Stamppot was taken by me.
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