Sustainable food: ‘The more you immerse yourself, the more you get lost’

Two things. If you want to talk about food with Maarten Kuiper, you also have to want to work. And if you want to see how he cooks, you’ve come to the wrong place. His girlfriend is the chef in the kitchen. He’ll just say it before we come over. Maarten Kuiper (36) is food chain traveler, traveler in the food chain. To understand where our food comes from, he works in the fields, with farmers and as a milkman. “Come and help. Then you can join us for dinner.”

A Saturday morning in July. At the Groene Griffioen, an organic dairy farm and cheese factory between Muiden and Weesp, the pigs are being fed just as Maarten comes to get his dairy. “Can you stand a little cold?” In the cold store, ice blocks from the freezer have to be placed in crates between the bottles of milk, buttermilk and curd. Cold hands, stiff fingers. Maarten stacks the crates in a Renault 4 van from Moma Melkboer, a company that brings milk from cows around the city directly to city dwellers. The crates must be pressed firmly, so that the eggs do not break later. Like a French farmer bumping into the village with his fresh produce in his Renault, Maarten meanders along the Vecht to East Amsterdam.

Maarten talks while he works. This spring he was a farm worker for a few weeks. Lying on his stomach on a weed bed, to remove the weeds around the young radish and onion. He and some friends had seen that because of Covid-19 the Eastern European workers were staying away. At the same time, people who normally organize festivals and events were at home. With the @DeSeizoenwerkers project they ‘turned two problems into one solution’, by mediating between organic farmers and unemployed festival workers.

Interesting, because all of a sudden all kinds of conversations started at those companies. Not always easy either. “We had to do some expectation management. It’s no fun looking at the farmer, those weeds have to go. And after a day with a long body on a weed bed, everything hurts.”

He received 17 euros per hour as a freelancer. You immediately understand why the Dutch normally do not do this work and why farmers are happy with their foreign forces. “People from Poland and Bulgaria come here to work as many hours as possible, they are happy with long days. We want to netflix at home with our girlfriend in the evening.”

His journey now takes two years. He digs up potatoes, fishes eels, collects oysters, sails on a cargo sailing ship or a pulse cutter, cooks apple syrup. He travels through the United Kingdom to hear what Brexit means for food producers. Talk to scientists. He tells his stories on his website deseasonswerkers.nl.

The shortest chain

He has recently become a dairy farmer. “Until now I mainly saw fragments from the food chain. At Moma you see the entire chain. At the same time, it is the shortest chain you can think of.” The only person standing between farmer and consumer is the milkman. “Through the milk I can tell the story of the country to the city.”

Most milk, almost all milk, goes to the supermarket via large dairy cooperatives and complex logistics networks. Not what the farmer asks for it, but the international market determines the price. It was recently in the news that FrieslandCampina wants to become the global market leader, with fewer but larger farmers, and cows that deliver more and more milk. “It seems to be at odds with what we are doing with this milk. But De Groene Griffioen also supplies FrieslandCampina in addition to Moma.” Small and large can coexist, there is no black or white.

When you make butter, you’re left with buttermilk. Just as calves are a by-product of milk and roosters are a by-product of eggs

It’s half past nine. Maarten has set up his stall on Amsterdam’s Wibautstraat, near the Albert Heijn. A loyal customer from Amstelveen comes for a bottle of raw milk, eggs and cheese and starts talking about ‘those rotten supermarkets’. “Well,” says Maarten, “they do make affordable, safe food accessible to everyone.” He turns out not to be much of a missionary. “I have a lot of questions, I don’t know the answers. Don’t you? The more you discover, the less you appear to know.”

What he does know is that he is in an Amsterdam bubble. He could have safely stayed behind his desk, food events organizing and discussing the food system with other highly educated city dwellers – he does that too. “Very comfortable. But then you don’t see a lot.” For that you have to leave the talk house, into the country. And then suddenly you don’t know anymore. Whether supermarket bosses are all hard-core capitalists. Whether migrant workers are always pathetic. Whether slaughterhouses can always prevent corona outbreaks. Whether organic is always good and eel by definition bad. “Will you pack the eggs?”

Family recipes

Maarten Kuiper, who grew up in Den Helder and Castricum, comes from a family that simply eats healthy. No parents who were extremely conscious about food. His mother came from a farming family. The connection with food that was still taken for granted on the farm, a mixed farm, was lost with her generation. “You can mind that, but it also had to do with emancipation, my mother could work.” Partly because of convenience food from the supermarket.

After completing his master’s degree in Military History – “not exactly a degree with great career prospects” – he joined sustainability and food agencies and joined the youth branch of the Slow Food movement, where he delved deeper into the food system. And so one day you explain why you don’t sell semi-skimmed milk. Laughing: “You can dilute whole milk with water at home.”

From the Wibautstraat, where it is drizzling, Maarten drives to Javaplein, and then to the Eastern Docklands and Watergraafsmeer. It’s not just yuppies who come for wild garlic cheese or curd. Expats, Dutch people with a migration background, rich and poor, young and old. They all cycle for something they know where it comes from.

Some come especially for the raw milk. “I drink it in the instant coffee, I don’t want anything else,” says a lady. A father and daughter come for the chocolate milk. Another one for the buttermilk. “If you make butter,” says Maarten, “you’re left with buttermilk. Just as calves are a by-product of milk and roosters are a by-product of eggs.” So if you want to eat one, there’s something else left. “But do people know that?”

If people think it’s a bit expensive: beautiful. Then he can tell the story about the farm. About what small-scale dairy costs, and what costs you do not pay if you buy a liter of milk for 49 cents. And then on to the next guy spot.

The light rain has stopped when he packs up his wooden folding shop for the last time on his fifth stop.

Memories

While Maarten puts his racing bike in the stairwell at home, his girlfriend Melissa Korn (32) bakes a yogurt cake that her grandmother used to bake for her – or a variant thereof, because both her Indian grandmothers did not write anything down. Savory Indonesian rice pudding is simmering on the fire. Maarten quickly takes a shower, and then starts to pick the cooked meat from the chicken’s necks.

Here in the kitchen it is about other things than ‘the system’ and ‘the chain’. It’s about memories, about taste, about culture. “Eighty percent of the conversations in Melissa’s family are about food,” says Maarten. She wants to know everything about her family’s dishes, she says, and how Indian cuisine compares to modern Indonesian cuisine. Where do I come from? What is the origin of the ingredients? Her work has been “the search for the meaning of culture and identity through the lens of food”.

Good food is more than sustainable food. And what is sustainable anyway? “The more you immerse yourself, the more lost you get,” says Maarten. For about five years, he says, they have not eaten meat during Catholic Lent. Not for religious reasons, „but to deny yourself something that you take for granted. After that it is easier to cook without meat, but sometimes you just feel like a bitterbal again”.

Melissa scoops the creamy rice into bowls, topped with the chicken, some bok choy from Amsterdam, some pickle from the toko and a boiled egg. The milkman at the table, who came home soaked, could easily be in an alternative advertisement for the plate of kale and sausage, with his heartwarming, fragrant rice porridge.

Okay, rice isn’t as sustainable as potatoes. “But should rice be off my list?” asks Melissa. “You can’t just take something that belongs to someone’s identity. I don’t want to feel guilty if I eat rice or meat.”

If you ask Melissa and Maarten what good food is, they look for the answer in different ways. He may be a bit stricter, she says. “Your belly talks more,” he says. “My connection with food is in my head. I had to unlearn that rationality a bit, from you I learn to taste.”