After the language and the Reformed church, perhaps the next most striking thing South Africa inherited from the Dutch is their architecture. Latter Cape white gables are less ornate than their inspirations in the Netherlands. They became emblems for their owners’ origins and identity, rather than a statement advertising the family wealth.
Today, the narrow buildings of old Amsterdam tilt and lean forward, almost as if they are trying to listen in on your conversation as you stroll along the canals. One is surrounded by many familiar names: the Herengracht, Elandsstraat, Groenmarkt. The smell of cookies and of cinnamon hangs in the air. It was the Dutch after all who managed to get spices in vast quantities to Europe through the invention of the multinational corporation, the Dutch East India Company, which would also bring the concept of a stock exchange into existence. The refreshment station the VOC started in the Cape of Good Hope adopted – together with language, religion and architecture – the Dutch kitchen.
There is of course more to Dutch cookery than the pancakes, vetkoek and the melktert they gave us. There is also more to it than herring, Gouda cheese, syrup waffles and croquettes. Culinary influences from a vast global empire were enthusiastically absorbed; to me best summed up in that iconic Dutch biscuit, speculaas, which contains cinnamon predominantly and ginger, but also cloves, ground mace, white pepper, cardamom, coriander, anise and nutmeg.
A popular upmarket tourist haunt in Amsterdam is the Five Flies Restaurant on the Spui, close to the redlight district. Famous visitors to the restaurant have included Walt Disney, Orson Welles, Bruce Springsteen, Dmitri Medvedev and Mick Jagger.
The oldest part of this 300-seater, 9-roomed restaurant dates back to 1627. Each room has a unique character meant to express an aspect of the Golden Age: the Glass Room with walls covered in 17th century gold plated leather; the Knights Room with a suit of armour and weaponry dating from the 80-year Spanish war; the Rembrandt Room with etchings. In the Mother Hendrina room on the second floor, under low ceilings, one is surrounded by dark wood and a sizeable collection of faded, antique Delft Blue tiles.
Instead of going à la carte, I decided – not without some trepidation – to go with the four-course surprise menu (€44.50) and entrust myself to Chef Jeroen Groot and his New Dutch cuisine – eclectic, organic and seasonal. The waitress would not even hint at what might be on the menu; she merely inquired whether I was allergic to anything.
With a bottle of Domaine La Condamine l’evêque Merlot, I awaited my fate, hoping it wasn’t going to be a confrontation with stewed eel or langoustine tartar. The amuse-bouche was encouraging, a glass filled with clearly defined layers of airy cauliflower soup and sweet red pimento, topped with tiny croutons flavoured with an “Indian herb mix” (not ganja).
It was hunting and shooting season and I need not have worried. First course was the tenderest cubes of rabbit with mini figs, slices of brioche, olive mayonnaise, celeriac and smears of mushroom. This was followed by haddock with a crunchy mushroom crust, green beans, potato, and a delicate green sauce tasting of parsley and coriander. The main plate was a fillet of pheasant (the choicest part) with crispy bacon, tangy sauerkraut, and potato mash formed to trick the eye into thinking it was a slice of bisected pear. Dessert consisted of a trio of ice-cream – chocolate, mango and clove flavour.
The Five Flies has its counterpart in Cape Town. Similar to the Amsterdam establishment it too is in an historic house (from the mid-1700s) with several dining rooms on two floors. There is a clock room, a Van Riebeeck room, and a Madiba room.
I used to dine here when it was still the Netherlands Club, and then again when it became Van Gogh’s restaurant. The club went bust and had to sell the building in the 1990s. The place reopened as the Five Flies and was enormously popular. Since its heyday, it seems to have dropped off my radar. It has changed ownership more than once and has been through some rather dreadful phases with lousy food and dismissible service. It has not entirely recovered, and seems now to be dependent on the coach tour market. On all three occasions I dined here in October, the service was uneven and the staff engaged one in odd, inappropriate chit-chat. Also, unlike the Amsterdam establishment which plays no music, here they blast one with extremely irritating noise. More the pity, the venue has so much going for it.
Portions are a decent size and presentation is busy and full. For starters, I recommend: the rolled goats’ cheese and roast beetroot with sage, white anchovy beignet, confit onion vinaigrette and an assortment of baby salad leaves (R65); the crisp, salt and pepper calamari with lime aioli, sweet black chilli sauce, and jalapeno-coriander salad (R55). I haven’t had much luck with main courses, though the kitchen is far better at fish than meat. The accompaniments to the roast kudu loin (R180) – butternut puree, braised red onion gel, smoked garlic croquettes, olive and goats’ cheese butter with a gooseberry jus, are more successful than the main feature. The same can be said for the Karan beef fillet with potato rosti, foie gras parfait and truffle jus. The menu does change.
Five Flies Restaurant, 14-16 Keerom Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 424 4442.
Restaurant d’Vijff Vlieghen, Spuistraat 294-302, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Tel: +31 20 53 04 060.
This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 13 January 2012.