Since my trip to New Orleans two years ago, I have been following in the footsteps of the only Dutch ancestry line in my family. My fourth great grandparents Rainier and Grada Reinsen (great Dutch names, huh?!) arrived in New Orleans 1846 from Rotterdam, Holland, with their family of seven children, one of whom was my third great grandmother, Hendricka-Johanna. She would meet her future husband, a Prussian tailor, Caspar Krebs, on their ship, the Scotia, and marry him at he St. Mary’s Ursuline Chapel on Chartres Street a year later. They would baptize two children there before heading up the Mississippi to Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine, just in time for the Know Nothing anti-immigrant riots of the early 1850s.
What was different about this Dutch line from most of the Dutch, and the reason they immigrated, was that they were Dutch Catholics – two strikes against them for the Know Nothings. The Dutch Republic had been persecuting the Catholics and forced them into the most southern rural province, called Limburg. Most of us have heard of the stinky, but super-delicious Limburger Cheese, one of the province’s proud products. The province of Limburg is an intersection of German, Dutch, and Flemish language and food, so I had to research more about their culinary traditions, to see if any of these traditions made it into my family’s foodways.
So I went to the website of the province to find out about their food. What I found was a very interesting ancestor of goetta called balkenbrij. The site says there is nothing more ‘Limburgische’ than balkenbrij. It’s literal translation from the Dutch means ‘belly porridge,’ because, like goetta, it was originally made from everything left over in the belly of the pig at slaughtering time for the poor rural farmers of the region. It’s prepared with the pluck – heart, liver, lungs and kidneys – along with other leftover meat from the pig, and sometimes blood, cooked, ground and cooked again, with bacon, and some sort of grain – which varies from buckwheat to rye.
Then, here’s where it’s different than our goetta. Because of the high content of organ meat, a special local spice blend is used, called rommelkruid, which consists of ground licorice, sugar, anise, clove, cinnamon, white pepper, ginger, and sandalwood – think of German gingerbread spices. Goetta typically only used allspice to counter the minerally organ flavor when it used those cuts in its early days.
The website says Balkenbrij in Limburg “is a delicacy that should not be absent from any Christmas breakfast, and to make it without blood is unthinkable.” Ok, so that made it into our family – no Christmas breakfast at home is without goetta. Balkenbrij was so popular in the old days, that during Lenten fasting, a meatless variety was made with pork stock. After being poured in loaf pans and gelled, the delicacy is cut in 1 cm thick slices and pan fried, ususally in ox fat, the staple fat of the region, until ‘brown and crispy.’
Limburger balkenbrij, made with pig’s blood.
Balkenbrij is also eaten in variation in the two provinces that border Limburg. Gelderland, to the east doesn’t use blood. But they do sweeten it up with the use of raisins, currants, or other local sweet berries. Their sweeter variety is served with sugar, or a sweet syrup called treacle, over pancakes. The more savory Limburg version is served, like goetta, as a meat substitute, and with a good rye bread.
Gelderland balkenbrij, made without blood, and with raisins and currants.
The rural farm province of Brabant to the east, makes a much simpler version, probably because of the expense of the spices. In Germany, across the border from Limburg, pearl barley instead of buckwheat or rye, is used in their variant of balkenbrij, which is called Moppkenbrot.
Brabant is where the famous Dutch impressionist Van Gogh was raised and started his career. Although the majority of his famous paintings are in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, he spent the 1880s sketching the rural farmers – the balkenbrij eaters – of Brabant. His first masterpiece, the Potato Eaters, shows a family of Brabant farmers sitting to a modest dinner. That painting should really be named the Balkenbrij Eaters! A local Van Gogh tour in Brabant has a day of regional cooking of the days of Van Gogh, with regional chefs, and it features balkenbrij. So, Van Gogh subsisted on this wonderful grain sausage as he built his illustrious career.
Van Gogh’s first masterpiece, The Potato Eaters, painted in balkenbrij country of the Dutch Brabant province.
Today, according to the website, there are only 50 butchers in Gelderland that make balkenbrij, and 20 or so in Limburg and Brabant combined. A 1995 campaign in the Netherlands, called “Tafelen in Nederland,” (Dining in the Netherlands) tried to revive regional home cuisine, like balkenbrij, with the younger generations, serving elevated dishes like “wild boar and balkenbrij in puff pastry.” But sadly, interest in balkenbrij in the Netherlands is decreasing, because like goetta, it is a long, laborious, many hours process to make.
And, balkenbrij made it to America in the large areas of Dutch immigrants in and around Holland, and Zeeland, Michigan, where it’s eaten in an Americanized form on a small scale.
So now whenever I hear anyone look down on goetta as poor man’s food -that it uses all the cheap organs and bad parts – I can point to one of it’s ancestors, balkenbrij, and how it fueled the career that launched million dollar paintings.