The Netherlands is not known for its food culture but it’s now keen to play catch up with its European counterparts. Two very different indoor food markets have opened their doors in the past two months – one in Rotterdam, the other in Amsterdam – demonstrating a new interest in quality food.
Rotterdam’s larger-than-life Markthal claims to be the Dutch equivalent of Barcelona’s Boqueria, Copenhagen’s Torvehallerne or Valencia’s Mercado Central. Meanwhile, Amsterdam’s Foodhallen – technically more a food hall than a market – puts itself on a par with the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid and London’s Borough Market. With all this name-dropping going on, it’s clear that indoor food markets are the height of fashion.
Rotterdam’s Markthal arrived on the European food scene with a bang, but the hype around it has more to do with architecture than with food. At a cost of EUR 175 million, the new ‘foodie Mecca’ was brought to life by some of the city’s most ambitious architects. The vast market hall sits under a 40 metre-high arch, around which, bizarrely, 230 apartments and penthouses are stacked. But this blend of market life and housing is not the Markthal’s most unique feature. Instead, the large-scale psychedelic depictions of fresh food that adorn its walls and ceilings grab your attention. Think, 20 metre pieces of cheese or bunches of grapes curving overhead. One commentator described it as a “Sistine chapel of fresh produce”. With this epic building, the Markthal has nominated itself as Europe’s great new cathedral of real food, artisan produce and healthy eating.
The reality, as it turns out, is quite different. Crowds wait outside the revolving doors before the market opens – a good sign, you would think. All these enthusiastic foodies finally have a place to go! With a quick glance at the domed mural, they devote their attention to elbowing through the masses. However, what quickly becomes evident is that nobody at the Markthal is buying anything. Instead, everyone is milling around as though in a novelty foodie theme park.
It’s not hard to see why people aren’t shopping. There is little at the Markthal that would appeal to the real food enthusiast, even though a handful of stalls look good enough – there’s a decent greengrocer, an organic butcher and a well-stocked Chinese supermarket. But there is a disproportionate number of gimmicky sweet stands selling chocolate kebabs, churros and cupcakes, as well as a numerous stalls stocked with novelty wheels of plastic-looking cheese. What really sets alarm bells ringing, however, is sights such as frozen, factory-made baguettes supplied by global chains being baked off as ‘fresh’, the airport-like Belgian chocolate stand, and the dozens of signs on plastic food displays that read: ‘DECORATION PRODUCTS, NOT FOR CONSUMPTION.’
The Markthal, as it turns out, reflects more the dreams of property speculators and big chains than those of local food enthusiasts. A large number of stalls are chains, and an enormous Albert Heijn (The Netherland’s answer to Tesco) sits in the basement above a 1,200-space car park. There is even a Markthal memorabilia stall.
It feels as though the powers-that-be have hijacked the language of real food and the idea of the great indoor market in pursuit of commercial gains. The masquerade is transparent, right down to the folksy old-fashioned market-style costumes sported by every vendor. The reaction of the stallholders at the long-standing traditional Binnenrotte market directly outside is telling. Though invited to move indoors and occupy a third of the Markthal’s stalls, very few have taken up the offer, preferring to remain part of what one vendor described as the “real” market.
In stark comparison to the Markthal’s supersized top-down arrival, the Foodhallen in Amsterdam gives hope that the fashionable market concept can be seized to great effect. Housed in a renovated late 19th-century tram depot – which, until recently was home only to a group of squatters – the Foodhallen is part of the wider De Hallen complex, which also includes a public library, an independent nine-screen cinema, a nursery, a hairdresser and a number of other small independent businesses and offices. De Hallen aims to renew the tram depot’s former role as the cultural and working centre of the Oud West district.
The Foodhallen’s entrance is tucked down the side of the traditional Ten Kate market, so inconspicuous that many locals missed it altogether at first. All the stalls are occupied by local entrepreneurs, offering up everything from cheese raclette to Vietnamese, Japanese or Indian food, with one stall dedicated to seaweed burgers. On Saturdays, the complex becomes the ‘Indie Brands: Local Goods’ food and clothing market, which is small in scale but has some excellent products on offer: homemade coconut milk yoghurt, for example, and wild goose charcuterie produced within a 20 mile radius of Amsterdam.
While the Markthal’s top-down approach to the development of a lucrative indoor market falls flat, the Foodhallen with its cheerful chaos and packed crowds feels as though it’s already a local institution – despite a soft opening and almost no PR. The approach seems simple enough: a regenerated building, an effort to become part of the community rather than transform it, and a total dedication to working only with independent vendors.
To return to name dropping, the Foodhallen is more like Brixton Village in London than anywhere else: an independent food economy that co-exists happily with its community. By contrast, the click-your-fingers attempt to conjure a foodie utopia at the Markthal shows that a genuine food culture cannot be engineered, no matter how much money you have to spend.