19 October 2020

An Englishman in Twente part V: Food – UK vs NL

Map of the Netherlands with the eastern region of Twente depicted in the pattern of the Union Jack


Only a few days before Brexit, project manager Liam moved from County Durham in England to Denekamp in Twente. He writes a series of articles about what it is like to live and work in the Netherlands as an Englishman.

Translavic PM Liam


Part V: Food – UK vs NL

Food is such a hearty topic that I could write about it all day, with regular tea and snack breaks of course. And, now that this tropical country’s dangerously hot summer seems to have finally come to a much-needed end, I have felt more at liberty to do some philosophical chin-stroking on the subject of culinary customs in the UK and the Netherlands.

In terms of mealtimes, the consensus over here is that there are three meals in a day: ontbijt (breakfast), lunch and diner. They are quite evenly spread from morning to evening, with diner usually between 1700 and 1900. It is seen as quite unusual to eat something substantial later than that (unless you’re going out to a restaurant, where the exact opposite is true), though in my experience the reasons given are often related to healthy digestive habits. Things are less straightforward in the UK, however, and depending on where you live/how utterly depraved you are, you can enjoy up to nine named meals in a given day. Amongst more, shall we say, enthusiastic demographics, it is not uncommon (though not necessarily common either) to have breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper – though more ingenious types are quite happy to squeeze in a second breakfast, brunch and tea. However, the tripartite menu is by far the most commonly followed system throughout England, and though meals do not vary greatly in content, they do in name: in the south, breakfast, lunch and dinner; in the north, breakfast, dinner and tea.

Image by Joseph Mucira via Pixabay

So, what’s for breakfast? In the Netherlands, the average ontbijt usually consists of a slice of bread (boterham) with any of a number of toppings, such as cold meat, cheese, jam or hagelslag (literally chocolate sprinkles – and yet people shake their heads at me for eating cake or apple pie in the morning…). However, it isn’t necessarily foreign for natives to enjoy croissants and other continental pastries alongside broodjes, yoghurts and such as well. In the UK, on the other hand, there is a lot more variation, including warm dishes if you so choose, in contrast to a typical cold Dutch breakfast. For instance, the classic ‘full English’ breakfast, comprising fried eggs, bacon, tomato, sausages, baked beans, mushrooms, black pudding and toast, is devoured throughout the land on a daily basis. If, like me, you aren’t so keen on some of those ingredients, you might prefer a nice warm bacon, egg and/or sausage sandwich (with, of course, a blob of HP Sauce). Other common British breakfasts include toast with jam or marmalade, porridge, cereal and much more – though in the Netherlands, the likes of porridge and cereal are seen as children’s food. Of course, because people over here have an impeccable sense of tact and timing, this information came to me as I was preparing myself a hearty bowl of porridge on a crisp winter morning before work. It didn’t quite taste the same after that.

Lunch – or dinner, as I have always called it – also differs between the nations. In Britain, almost anything goes – soups, pies, cold sandwiches, warm sandwiches, and many, many more. The British classic fish and chips is also usually eaten at this time. One reason for this is that for every seaside town in Britain, there are numerous ‘chippies’, and the closer to the sea front you get, the more you’re likely to encounter. After all, nothing says “trip to the seaside” quite like a steaming box of cod and chips, with a little wooden fork planted like a proud flag at the top of the most delicious of mountains. Another reason for it being a common midday meal is that around this time – mostly on Fridays and Saturdays – fish and chip vans can be found parked in cul-de-sacs and on front streets across the nation. Putting all of the delight of a chippy on four wheels and saving Britons the time and effort of a trip to the nearest such establishment, fish and chip vans roll up and, upon parking, the driver simply presses the horn and waits for punters to come shuffling out of their front doors like zombies to a wounded man.

Fish and chips place
Image by Henry Perks via Unsplash

The typical Dutch lunch differs greatly from the British – if there even is a ‘typical’ UK version, given the spectrum of dishes often consumed at this time. For one thing, it is quite rare to eat warm food in the middle of the day, with a preference for quick, cold sandwiches and suchlike. I have come across a few explanations for this, ranging from the intricately explained nutritional and digestive benefits of restricting warm meals to one per day, to the more blunt “fast and cheap” (the Dutch have a tremendous, refreshing sense of humour about their own stereotypes). As with many things, the truth may lie somewhere in between, and it is worth noting that many Dutch people – busy bees that they are – see lunchtime as more of a moment to socialise with friends or colleagues than to tuck into a big, hearty meal. If my experiences here were some kind of cultural case study, I would cite this as another piece of evidence for the notion that the behaviour and mentality of Dutch people is rooted in their deep, intrinsic appreciation for all things gezellig.

It is usually only at diner time in the Netherlands that warm food is on the menu. By far the most common meals (certainly among older demographics) fall under the umbrella term AVG’tje – or aardappelen (potatoes), vlees (meat) and groenten (vegetables) – and includes traditional Dutch staples such as stamppot. However, there is an increasing trend amongst middle-aged and younger generations towards foreign kitchens; Asian cuisine is a particular favourite, as evidenced by the plethora of ‘wok’ and sushi restaurants across the country. But when it comes to eating at home, rice and pasta dishes are becoming – if they aren’t already – the norm. Indeed, supermarkets have both influenced and tapped into this preference amongst the country’s modernised citizens, with hundreds of recipes on their websites serving a vast palette of palates.

The same can largely be said of Britain. There remains a country-wide appreciation for roast dinners comprising chicken or beef, vegetables, potatoes (roasted, boiled and/or mashed), Yorkshire puddings, stuffing and gravy, but these have been given less and less of the limelight as the years go by. For centuries, it was traditionally eaten on Sundays after church (hence ‘Sunday Roast’) but became more of a regular meal in recent decades, before then being gradually edged out in favour of more exotic, sometimes healthier dishes from around the world. Like stamppot in the Netherlands, roast dinners are still a British staple, but in the modern day it is entirely plausible to have for dinner something ‘new’ and different every day of the month – or if you’re a more adventurous type, the whole year!
roast meat potatoes vegetables

It is truly amazing that we can enjoy so many different foods from across the planet, and equally fascinating that even between two countries separated only by a few hundred kilometres of water, there can be so much difference in culinary preferences. But we are creatures of habit, so naturally we often choose to eat the same types of things at certain times of the day, whether because of tradition, convenience, or just because we like it. How long can these habits last, though? Should we be surprised to see, in the coming years, a breaking down of traditions, to be synthesised or replaced with foreign imports? Maybe not; let me just say that the most delicious fish and chips I have ever had was in Germany (of all places). Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am off to have some udon soup, followed by a slice of boterkoek and a cup of tea – with milk.