In modern cities we often forget the intricate relationship between urban and rural areas for the numerous resources we take for granted, including food. Every day, enough food has to be brought in, sold, cleaned, cooked and disposed of for circa three meals a day/ inhabitant. In a city the size of Amsterdam (population 820,000) that’s roughly 2.5 million meals. This same situation occurs in urban areas, the world over. Organizing such an influx and outflux of food and food waste is hugely complicated. Still cities undertake this logistical feat, every single day. Mostly though, this goes unnoticed by urban residents who take for granted that food simply appears in supermarkets and restaurants, not necessarily connecting to where exactly it has come from (near or far). Historically though, the design of a city was influenced as much by its relationship to food, as its surrounding geography and politics. It was the relationship between food and cities that first got architect and author Carolyn Steel’s attention. She published ‘The Hungry City’ which closely examines the historical relationship between food and London, with lessons for cities the world over. With a dose of humor and filled with colourful stories, it clarifies some of the traditions surrounding food we still practice today. Steel has shared this message at various events, including TED talks (below) and inspired other cities to do the same – including Amsterdam.
In Amsterdam, an organization appropriately called CITIES periodically organizes the Old Amsterdam Food Tour – a city tour that explains Amsterdam’s historic relationship with food and food trade. I joined one of their tours (as it were, coinciding with the Amsterdam Food Film Festival to which Carolyn Steel also attended). The tour started in Nieuwmarkt, a market square built in 1614 that used to stand on the border between the city and the countryside. For Amsterdam, because of its unique geography (built on the Amstel River and near the open sea) it was poised to profit both by feeding itself and feeding other cities. Already in the 1300s, it was an important city for the trade of beer coming from both Dutch cities and abroad (taxes were highest on foreign beer). In Amsterdam’s historic centre, ships used to dock near De Oude Kerk (the Old Church, above photo) carrying different vegetables and grains to the city. Without modern refrigeration or packaging techniques, it was important to consider how long different products (e.g. grain vs. lettuce vs. turnips) would survive or how to prevent bruising. (These factors are still important today, but masked by chilling, dying, gassing or spraying techniques that preserve food for longer periods, or at least appear to.)
In Amsterdam, the grain trade became particularly important for the city; in part because of a Dutch innovation in ship designs (which facilitated the transport of large amounts of grain) and in part because the city (surrounded by bogs and wetlands) needed to import grain to survive – and then developed this into a business model. Grain became the mother of the city’s wealth and influenced its reputation as a leading food trader. Moreover, as trading food is more profitable than growing food, the city became rich. In 1611, an international stock exchange was established in Amsterdam, bringing traders from across Europe, Russia, Persia and India. Meanwhile, the Dutch East India Company (the first multinational in the world) became famous for its spice trade; however it also was the leading grain trader. In Amsterdam, trade in food led to the modern banking system, paving the way for the introduction of capitalism. Still today, the Dutch are heavily involved in global trade, including food trade (e.g. think Unilever).
The connection between food & cities is a fascinating one, and generally under appreciated – in terms of its historical and political influences, but also its environmental and social consequences. Despite being the coldest 24th of March on record, it was an interesting and engaging tour, where I learned many things about the city I currently call ‘home’. Next time I walk down Kalverstraat, I will remember that this is where the cows entered the city on the way to the markets, either to be sold to farmers to be fattened or to butchers to be slaughtered; today it’s a shopping street. I will remember that Warmoesstraat is thought to be a historic word for vegetables and an important street for the vegetable trade; today it sits in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. And certainly I will remember that Haringpakkerssteeg was where herring was inspected upon entering the city; today it is home to tourist shops and hotels. Many of these historic food connections between the city and the countryside changed, after the invention of the railways and modern transport. This was particularly important concerning meat preparation – animals no longer came to the city, shifting our relationship with animals, and detaching the living animal from the end (meat) product. CITIES offers a second tour, focusing on food transitions in the industrial age; I can’t wait to attend! Living in Amsterdam, or traveling through the city? If you can, sign up for one of the next Amsterdam Food City Tours and learn about an important part of the city’s history (and current) relationship to food!