by Gerrit Jan Groothedde
Some time ago, I had a conversation over drinks with a colleague who told me he had just discovered my Dutch language food blog eetschrijver.nl. Of course, I was curious how he liked it. After what seemed like an eternity, he emptied his glass in one swig, gave me a disdainful look and curtly said: “Well, there’s no recipe for pea soup,” and ordered new drinks. It was obviously the most un-Dutch thing.
The point is, he was right. How could one run a food blog in The Netherlands without including a recipe for pea soup? Pea soup, possibly even more than kale mash and smoked sausage, is quintessentially hearty Dutch winter fare, so much so that many a Dutchman is convinced that it exists nowhere else in the world.
In a way, they’re right. Because while there are definitely varieties of pea soup around under foreign skies, none is even remotely akin to Dutch pea soup, or snert, as it is affectionately called over here, but more on that later.
The main thing that distinguishes Dutch pea soup from its counterparts elsewhere, is that it’s smoky and hearty and filling and, above all, so thick that the uninitiated would be hard pushed to recognize it as soup. Folk wisdom has it that pea soup is no good until a wooden spoon placed into it vertically stays put in that position. Also, pea soup is best the day after it was made, because it’s going to be nicely starched up. It’s wonderful no-nonsense food.
Arguably, peas are not even the most important ingredient. Other vegetables are essential, such as potatoes, onions, leeks, carrots, parsnips and celeriac, as are different meats, all of them pork and most of them smoked: pig trotters, smoked sausage, pork ribs and various sorts of bacon are but a few possibilities. The dish, furthermore, is nicely spiced up with cloves, juniper berries, peppercorns and mace. Dutch pea soup is, as you have probably begun to surmise at this point, definitely not a starter course; it is a meal in itself.
The Dutch, this much is obvious, just love their brand of pea soup, which makes its nickname snert even more surprising – surprising in that snert is actually a prefix used to state that something is utterly unpleasant, worthless and unlovable. One might say that it’s snertweer (lousy weather) or call a boat a snertbootje (tiny, useless hulk), a country a snertland (an insignificant country) or a person a snertkerel (an annoying guy). Van Dale’s Great Dictionary of Dutch lists many more expressions involving snert, all of them most disparaging.
So how did the country’s best-loved winter soup come to be called snert? It would appear that no one knows for sure, although as always speculations abound. One has it that there’s a Friesian word ‘sneirt’ which means ‘to drink deeply’– highly unlikely since good Dutch pea soup is, of course, impossible to drink. Perhaps the most amusing one is the assertion that snerten is a northern regional verb meaning ‘to fart’, which would seem to make some sense in view of the ingredients of the beloved specialty. Other explanations abound, all of them based on dialect and none of them even remotely likely.
When interviewed on the subject, a Dutch food truck owner admitted to ignorance regarding the word’s origin, but called the matter very simple: “Right after you make it, it’s pea soup. Leave it standing overnight, and you have snert.”
Now there. Isn’t that ever so Dutch?
First published in DUTCH the magazine