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Rotterdam’s Blue Food Economy

Rotterdam’s Blue Food Economy
Martin Guttridge Hewitt: Oyster mushrooms grow in an abandoned swimming pool, and someone is mixing rum punch in what was once the white water rapids area.
While it’s true, many vistas in Holland’s second city could be anywhere, with high rise office buildings piercing the sky and six lane ring roads boring modernist arterial channels through the epicentre, The Beautiful South clearly didn’t have a clue. This may not be Amsterdam, void as it is of iconic canal-side townhouses and historic brown bars. But, nevertheless, it’s a place unto its own.
After all, there are few destinations in Europe where huge capitalist totems jostle for position against some of the most fascinating grass roots communities you’re likely to stumble upon. Take the activity inside Het Schieblock, for example. This run of the mill 1970s office block, hemmed in by one of the aforementioned mega-boulevards, has inspired the regeneration of an area that, not so long ago, was just another run down quadrant behind a European train station, blighted by the usual urban woes.
These days it’s more synonymous with slick new media start ups, and a progressive architectural firm, ZUS. Spearheads of the rebirth, copious man hours are dedicated to so-called ‘Neo Localism’, including uncommissioned (and therefore also unpaid) work, the intention being to inspire debate by presenting the council with proposals for redevelopments that represent the antithesis of big money gentrification.
Perhaps more fascinating, though, at least from the perspective of a hungry traveller, is their roof garden, where an abundance of vegetables and fruits now grow- from tomatoes to beetroot and raspberries- before being sold to three of Rotterdam’s hippest eateries: Jim de Jong’s Restaurant de Jong, Lungo and Bird.
Once isolated on the other side of those six lanes, a new crowd-funded pedestrian bridge, Luchtsingel, connects the complex to the northern districts, paid for by individual purchases of the planks of wood that form this aerial walkway- each selling for €25 a pop. Buyers have their name carved into the surface, creating perhaps the only bridge in the world owned by 10,000 local residents. And it’s this attitude that courses through the gastronomic veins of a town which, at first glance, appears to have sold its soul to multinationals via a local government policy obsessed with constant redesigns and ever-taller glass and steel cityscapes.
A little while later and we’re standing in what was an abandoned cold storage warehouse in Rotterdam’s most notorious neighbourhood. The Cape, as natives call it, used to be the haunt of booze and sex hungry sailors arriving into port, eager to fill their boots on beer before paying a visit to one of the lusty Nymphs of the Maas. No explanation needed, today the Fenix Factory is living up to its name, inspiring a booming food-based micro economy to rise from the ashes of formerly abandoned streets.
Inside, a small but perfectly chosen selection of stalls and stores are open for business Wednesday to Sunday, with drinks and food flowing freely until 11PM or 12PM, depending on which night of the week you visit, via the German biergarten and cider specialist Cider Cider, owned by Wouter Bijl, one of the instigators of the concept. It’s far from just another hipster hang out, mind, albeit you will find the excellent Posse Espresso Bar has an array of bicycles, rare vinyl record players and the obligatory design magazines.
Next door, and Rechtstreex, which translates into English as ‘Direct’, more than lives up to its name. Here a variety of fresh produce is on sale, sourced from within a 50KM radius, but the idea goes well beyond that. The store now acts as middleman to communities of consumers who have become bulk buyers, purchasing groceries en masse straight from the farmer’s field.
And, for those after on-site bites, London-trained epicure Sebastian Niehof, whose CV includes time spent as sous chef in Michelin-starred eateries, enthusiastically prepares delectables and hands out advice on everything from recipes to the preparation of raw ingredients.
Across the factory floor, Kaasboerderij Booij sees members of the Booij family bagging up homemade cheeses to punters with a penchant for churned milk, who can also book themselves (and 19 friends) in for a tour of the dairy, located 20KM away in the charming Dutch countryside. The farmhouse gouda, perhaps unsurprisingly considering where we are, is a particularly excellent punt.
A remarkable destination for any fan of real honest grub, when we learn the oyster mushrooms in Niehof’s excellent soup came from an abandoned swimming pool- another of Rotterdam’s neglected structures- a visit to the aquatic fungi farm was inevitable. To make matters even more bizarre sounding, Tropicalia, the re-appropriated splash zone in question, was formerly owned by the Center Parcs group until it closed for good in 2009.
Five years on and it’s another hive of pop-up style activity. There are no swimmers when we get there, but Aloha Bar is mixing homemade rum punch in what was once the white water rapids area. Exotic foliage still grows between rocky partitions, but now turntables are set up for visiting DJs, with informal tables set over a newly installed tile floor spilling out onto a stunning terrace boasting excellent views of Rotterdam harbour and downtown.
Krom Kommer occupies an office next door; its business is buying the vegetables rejected by major retailers due to size and shape irregularities, then blending those into three varieties of fresh soup which are sold at a number of independent shops and micro-chains throughout Holland. Production is set to hit 10,000 packs per year in 2015, suggesting things are going well.
It's all a noble practice considering half of all food cultivated in the world is wasted, as if this weren’t enough to fall in love with, beyond those desks, RotterZwam is responsible for collecting by-products of coffee from shops in town, and using that to grow those oyster mushrooms we mentioned earlier. These are then passed on to restaurants in the Rotterdam area, and transported to the premises by cargo bicycle in a bid to erase as much of the firm’s footprint as possible. It may not be the only company making fungus from stale beans, with 1,500 or so similar firms across the world. But, nevertheless, given the setting and dedication to cause, it’s a thoroughly impressive enterprise.  
This apparent food revolution goes well beyond once-derelict spaces, too. During our stay the monolithic Markthal is enjoying its grand opening, with the country’s Queen in attendance no less.
A divisive building so far as architecture goes, the vast space (with two floors underground) provides a new multi-million-Euro home to Rotterdam’s long-lost street traders, and is the only market of its kind in Holland. Built on the site of a medieval fishing village where herring was once flogged to passers-by, inside the glass and concrete edifice the first thing that strikes you is the ceiling artwork. Depicting a multitude of brightly coloured fresh foods, insects and plant life, next you notice glass windows pitt the roof to offer penthouse apartments occupying the top floors a bird’s eye view of activity below.
Wandering through the abundant stores it’s clear inspiration has been found in Europe’s greatest foodie hubs. Barcelona, Valencia, Stockholm and Copenhagen are amongst the towns with similar destinations, and, like those, Markthal lets you wander from upmarket tapas bars and kitchens preparing delicious Turkish and Middle Eastern dishes, to Greek cheese and ham stands, traditional butchers, flower shops, creperies and more, before arriving at the biggest and most unique selling point- De Wereld Van Smaak.
If you’re not fluent in Dutch, and let’s face it, few of us are, then let’s clarify. The World of Taste is a co-operative of fresh producers aiming to provide visitors with exactly what the tin (or rather sign) says, while increasing their understanding of food.
More boutique than market stall, a host of events are already lined up to achieve that goal. Masterclasses from celebrity chefs may not be out of the ordinary, but courses taught by everyday cooks whose experience is preparing daily dinners for the family certainly represents thinking outside the box. Supplemented by seminars, debates and workshops on everything from olive oil and sat fats to Edam, Holland is only just beginning to feel the impact of a growing obesity problem, yet it’s already trying to educate the population, meaning heads in England and the rest of the overweight world should be hung in shame.
A genuinely innovative city when it comes to what goes into the stomach, in turn feeding the soul, for those keen to experience something a little less street food-focused the options are also plentiful.
The trendy Level, a dimly lit restaurant sitting discreetly on the amusingly titled Pancake Street, specialises in its own cocktails and serves a great European bistro menu. Meanwhile, Lantern-filled Bazaar excels with a multitude of Moroccan sausages, falafels and aubergine dips. And at port-themed Hotel New York, high tea is a must, before choosing your lobster and mussels from those displayed on beds of ice.
Whatever your taste, there’s plenty with which to stay satisfied.
Nevertheless, the most exciting aspects of Rotterdam’s cuisine are unarguably those inspired by Danish scribe Gunter Pauli’s book, The Blue Economy, wherein the message is simple. We must shift society from scarcity to abundance ‘with what we have’, and the best way to do that is linking seemingly disparate problems to create workable comprehensive solutions- for example filling abandoned addresses with producers and retailers keen to feed the public great local, seasonal ingredients.
The result being a promising future where there was once little hope left.
Martin Travelled with and stayed at the Citizen M Hotel, Rotterdam
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22 October 2014
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