Ask the average Dutch person what he or she had for breakfast or lunch this morning and they’ll probably mention bread. My husband, for example, is a huge fan of bread, and as a proper Dutchman, cheese. When he was a teen, he could eat up to eight slices of bread as an after dinner ‘snack’, and when he first visited me in the US, the thing he lamented most was the lack of decent bread and cheese. Our wodgy Wonder Bread and plastic-wrapped cheese slices were an absolute horror to him. Only after I moved to the Netherlands did it all become clear to me. Of course, I knew that Holland was a major cheese country, but I had no idea that it was such a major bread country as well. I was astonished at the varieties of bread sold at an average Dutch supermarket. Excluding rolls and sweet bread, there were at least ten different kinds of whole wheat breads and various whites and ryes. Again, we’re not talking about fancy bakeries or delis here, but about your average Dutch supermarket.
The Dutch love affair with bread is also evident in many common sayings: broodnodig (extremely necessary), brood op de plank hebben (to have/earn enough), brood verdienen (earn a living), als warme broodjes over de toonbank vliegen (to sell fast), wiens brood men eet, diens woord men spreekt (whose bread you eat, their word you preach). It’s a love affair that started in 4500 B.C. (when grain was first cultivated near Limburg) and really took off during the Middle Ages (when the first bakers started to set up shop in the cities). Together with the herring industry, the Baltic grain trade, was one of the main pillars of the prosperous Dutch economy during its Golden Age. Many 17th century paintings attest to the love the Dutch had (and still have) for their bread. A fine example is Jan Steen’s ‘The Leiden Baker Arent Oostwaard and His Wife Catharina Keizerswaard’ (1658-1659). In the painting we see a tempting variety of breads, rolls and even pretzels. Doctors of the time also agreed on the health qualities of bread. In his book, Borgerlyke Tafel (Bourgeois Table), published in 1683, physician Stephanus Blankaarts dedicated a whole chapter to bread, calling it ‘koninklijk voedsel’ (royal food) and saying that it deserved an important place in the Dutch diet. In the Netherlands, bread remained the most important food up until the end of the 18th century, when it was replaced by the potato. Today, the Dutch still love their bread, even though it has been the source of heated controversy in recent years.
In case you are reading this, Dr. William Davis (author of the bestselling book ‘Wheat Belly’, who warns against the dangers of wheat and refers to healthy whole grains as ‘incredibly destructive genetic mosnters’), look away now. According the Voorlichtingsbureau Brood (Consumer Information Center for Bread), the Dutch consume an average of 60 kilos of bread per person on a yearly basis. Those statistics haven’t changed in the last 15 years, regardless of the recent ‘low carb’ bandwagon. In fact, in the Dutch ‘Schijf van Vijf’ or ‘Wheel of Five’ (a tool showing what the body needs to stay healthy), bread still plays a prominent role. Bread has carbohydrates, and carbohydrates, we are told, ‘give the body energy and fiber which help us stay full and maintain our weight.’ The Netherlands Nutrition Center Foundation (Voedingscentrum) advises us to eat approximately six slices of bread per day. A bit much, if you ask me. That’s two to three slices more than the average daily consumption. So what about the recent claims that even whole grain wheat products increase blood sugar and make us fat? And that they are addictive, cause digestive and circulatory problems, worsen inflammatory illnesses and lead to premature ageing?
In an article that appeared in October 2012 in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, Menno ‘t Hoen warns us against the dangers of whole wheat bread. He tells us that a single slice of bread has a worse effect on our blood sugar levels than a tablespoon of sugar. According to him, if we follow the advice of the Nutrition Center, we will become unhealthy and overweight. Menno, who by the way is a baker, doesn’t say we should give up bread completely, only that it should not have a prominent role in our diet. We should use bread (good, white bread, not whole wheat bread which is meant for pigs) like the French do – as tool to wipe our plates clean after a meal.
Who are we to believe? Again, in this case I think it has a lot to do with common sense and little to do with the ‘latest research’. One thing is certain: the diet industry takes every opportunity to make a profit from our anxieties. Today bread and carbohydrates are the enemy. Oh yes, and sugar. Sugar is the devil. In the 1990s it was fat. How about not labelling foods ‘bad’ and having a little of everything in moderation?
I myself do not eat much bread. Fruit or vegetable smoothies are my usual breakfast and salads with protein, my lunch. But say no to bread? Forget the pleasures of a glazed pain au raisin for breakfast or the sensuality of devouring an entire baguette with rilletes and a bottled of red wine? Haha. Stuff your latest research. I’ll eat bread, sugar, fat and anything I damn well please. Just like my grandparents (who lived a long, healthy life) did in the good ol’ days before all of this foolishness started. Food, to me, will always be pleasure, not the enemy. Bread, I still love you and always will.