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Famous Dutch Icons

Think of the Netherlands and like many of us, you will no doubt envisage a series of typical Dutch emblems such as windmills, clogs, tulips and cheese! Yet what do we actually know about these celebrated Dutch icons and why are they so synonymous with the Netherlands?

Dutch Windmills

Perhaps the most famous of all Dutch symbols is the humble windmill. Essentially a windmill is a machine that uses sails to harness wind energy and convert it into rotational energy for a variety of purposes. The earliest windmills originated not in the Netherlands, but in Persia in the 9th century. However, these models relied on sails that revolved horizontally and it wasn’t until the 12th century that vertically rotating windmills appeared in Europe.

Windmills were traditionally used to mill grain, but over the years they have been modified to suit a wide range of functions. In addition to grain, Dutch windmills typically milled wood or were used to drain water from low lying land. Until recently Dutch windmills remained remarkably straightforward and didn’t employ any form of automation. Conventional Dutch windmills include ‘Standaardmolen’, ‘Wipmolen’, ‘Kloeke Poldermolen’ (used for water drainage), ‘Stellingmolen’ and ‘Torenmolen’. Some grain windmills are still in commercial use, whilst a number of old drainage windmills serve as an important backup to the nation’s pumping stations.

Despite the fact that the number of Dutch windmills has reduced dramatically since their peak in 1850 (when there were more than 10,000) there remain around 1000 of them scattered around the country. Such a large collection survived, thanks mostly to a preservation campaign led by Dr P.G van Tienhoven during the 1920’s. He recognised their valuable contribution to Dutch national heritage and set out to ensure their survival for the appreciation of future generations.

Today it’s difficult to picture a Dutch countryside without the pretty windmills that provide such a stunning contrast to the endless polders and take pride of place in the tourist photo album.

‘Klompen’ (Dutch Clogs)

Clogs became essential items of footwear in the Netherlands, around 700 years ago. The first clogs or ‘klompen’ boasted a wooden sole and a leather upper, but later models were manufactured entirely from the versatile woods of the poplar, alder and willow. These sturdy shoes managed to keep feet both warm in the winter and cool during the summer, which made them ideal for Dutch farmers and labourers. A lighter version crafted from ash wood, was worn by Dutch clog dancers, who performed the intricate ‘Klompendanskunst’, which is similar to tap dancing. A hand carved and elaborately painted clog was also routinely presented to Dutch brides as a customary token of the bridegroom’s affection.

Although nowadays most clogs are mass produced, visitors to the Netherlands can still observe artisan clog makers in action in tourist villages such as Marken. These old fashioned clog makers first choose a log according to the required shoe size, from which they skilfully carve both clogs to guarantee an even natural shrinkage. In the Netherlands, clogs have been awarded the status of ‘safety shoe’ as they are able withstand extreme conditions. They are still incredibly popular and worn by farmers, gardeners and factory workers throughout the Netherlands. Foreigners see them as so intrinsically Dutch that some even affectionately refer to people of the Netherlands as ‘clogs‘!

Dutch Tulips

Visit the Netherlands in spring and you’ll be blessed by the breathtaking vision of Dutch fields brimming with colourful tulips in full bloom! The Netherlands grows vast quantities of these exquisite flowers and exports in excess of one billion of them each year! And 80 percent of all 1,700 tulip varieties actually come from Holland.

Tulips, which originally grew wild in central Asia, were first introduced to the Netherlands by a famous Viennese botanist, Carolus Clusius, in the 17th century. While working in the botanical gardens in Leiden, he received a package containing a selection of tulip bulbs from an acquaintance in Constantinople. Curious, he planted the unfamiliar bulbs and was impressed by the beauty of the plants that resulted. Tulips took the Netherlands by storm, rapidly becoming a popular garden plant and ultimately a precious commercial commodity, during an episode that became known as ‘tulip mania’. Between the years of 1636 and 1637, Dutch gardeners cultivated their own tulip hybrids which were sold for exorbitant sums and in some cases, were actually priced higher than the cost of the average Dutch home. Trading in tulips became an extremely profitable business and many Dutch citizens made their fortune on the back of the popular flower. However this tulip ‘bubble’ inevitably burst and a disastrous ‘Tulip Crash’ saw many lose their life savings. Eventually the Dutch government intervened with a number of trade restrictions specifically aimed at the flower, which ended the crisis.

Tulips also played another key role in Dutch history. During the winter of 1944/1945, the Dutch population suffered from extreme food shortages, brought about by a combination of severe weather and the systematic theft of food supplies by the occupying German army. During this so-called ‘hongerwinter’ (hunger winter) the Dutch were reduced to surviving on just half a loaf of bread a week, which was often made from whatever was available, including tulip bulbs. Many fled to the countryside where they scavenged for potatoes, beetroot and once again, tulip bulbs which they ate directly from the frozen fields in a desperate bid to stay alive.

A great place to enjoy impressive displays of this beguiling Dutch flower that boasts such a fascinating story, is at the world renowned Keukenhof in Lisse. Around 7 million tulip bulbs are planted every year at what is the largest flower garden in Europe.

Dutch Cheese

Dutch cheese is perhaps the best loved of all Dutch dairy products, even more revered than ‘karnemelk’ (buttermilk) or ‘vla’ (Dutch pudding) and it comes in all shapes, sizes and maturities.

The acclaimed Gouda cheese from the Dutch city of the same name, accounts for around 50 percent of all the nations cheese production. It is a semi hard cheese, with a mild to strong flavour, depending on its maturity. There are many Gouda varieties such as ‘graskaas’, a Gouda produced from the first milking of the year, ‘meikaas’, a Gouda that is aged for just one week, ‘jonge kaas’ aged for four weeks and ‘jonge belegen kaas’ which is matured for two months. These Goudas are all regularly enjoyed on sandwiches in the Netherlands, while ‘extra belegen’ (extra mature) is often reserved for cooking. The most sought after Goudas include the coveted ‘oude kaas’, which must be aged for a minimum of ten months and the delicious ‘overjarig’ which is matured for between one and two years. Keep your eyes peeled too, for some less common Gouda’s that contain additional ingredients such as parsley, chives, mustard, onion or nettles to produce a highly distinctive flavour. Preferred Gouda’s in the Netherlands, which can be found in all good Dutch supermarkets, are Old Amsterdam, Beemster and Reypenaer.

The most famous Dutch cheese is surely Edam, a semi-hard, round cheese with an instantly recognisable red-paraffin coating. It boasts a mild, slightly salty flavour, that simply cannot be reproduced outside of the Netherlands. One of the finest types of Edam cheeses is produced by Westland.

There are a number of other Dutch cheeses worth trying if you have the opportunity. These include Maasdammer, a dome shaped cheese, full of holes and with a potent, nutty flavour, Boerenkaas a creamy cheese that must contain at least 50 percent of milk from the farms own herd to qualify as authentic, Frisian Clove, a low fat cheese spiced with cumin and cloves or Leidse, a particularly dry cheese with a rich flavour and that also contains cumin. Although blue cheese is not very popular in the Netherlands the extremely Dutch sounding ‘Delfts Blauw’ made from Gouda is a fine example.

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