Tour bus by tour bus, curious and hungry travellers from all corners of the globe pour out of their tour buses and sprawl out onto Volendam’s harbour. Less than a half hour drive from Amsterdam, the quaint fishing town of Volendam is an enticing daytrip for the millions of visitors to the Dutch capital as well as locals across the Netherlands, who are searching for a taste of something rich: a fresh meal from the country’s biggest lake, the IJsselmeer.
This now tourist-friendly town, however, isn’t what it used to be. Volendam’s story is unique and traces of its former life can still be found. Before 1932, this predominantly Catholic seaside fishing town was relatively poor and the people lived simply. The harbour, which has now transformed into a boardwalk for tourists, was once lined with ragged wooden shacks that served as the homes of the sea-worn fishermen and their families. These fishermen went out in the hundreds into the Zuiderzee, a shallow bay that was part of the North Sea, to bring back spoils like herring, flounder, eel, and mackerel—just like their fathers, grandfathers, and the men before them. Much of the fish was sold fresh to neighbouring towns and villages, but some were cured and smoked in the humble beach shacks.
In 1932, , the massive Afsluitdijk was completed and the levee completely closed off the Zuiderzee to towns and cities like Hoorn, Amsterdam, Almere, and Voldendam. The new body of water that was created was called the IJsselmeer, which continues to be feed by the rivers IJssel, Amstel, Rhine, and Vecht. To say that this changed the fishing game in Volendam is an understatement. The pickings were initially slimmer in this new body of sweet water, but in the years that followed, the lake began to fill with an abundance of European eel. This slippery creature has always been a part of the Dutch diet and cuisine, some say it’s just as integral as herring and cheese.
At its peak, it is said that there were up to 300 Volendam fishing boats that brought in eels by the ton. Eel fishing season used to run for eight months. Now, it’s only four. Today, there are only three fishing boats docked at Volendam, and the large majority of boats docked in the harbour are leisure boats, mostly owned by the descendants of Volendam’s fishermen. During the eel boom, Voledam’s fishing folk made their pennies fast and furious, allowing the town to shape up. The wooden beach shacks still stand but the walls are now replaced with beautiful brick. These refurbished houses scream nouveau riche, and can now sell for more than half a million Euros each.
It was during the seventies when Volendam’s fishing and smoking industry went from feast to famine. Over the last fifty years in the Netherlands, the wild eel population dropped by 95% and the European eel was labeled as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Fingers were pointed – some said the drastic decline in population of the European eel was due to overfishing, while others said it was because of parasites, invasive bird species, pollution, overly sanitised water, and barriers to the eels’ migration.
European eels are a curious animal. Adult European eels make the harrowing 6,500 km swim to the warm Sargasso Sea to breed, spawn and eventually die. The baby eels (also known as glass eels) swim all the way back to Europe. Till today, no research facility has been able to successfully replicate the reproductive cycle of the eels, so European eel farms are still dependent on a supply of wild glass eels.
With fishing quotas and seasonal restrictions, the majority of glass eels are caught in France, and others in Spain and Portugal. Some are consumed as is, but an estimated 15-17 tonnes are taken into farms across Europe to cultivate until they are adults and ready to be sold for consumption. Although there are restrictions put in place that make it illegal to export European-caught eels outside of the European Union, glass eels still arrive by the ton to Asia. Countries like China, where this unctuous animal is considered a delicacy, purchase their stock on the black market. This only drives up the price; European eels are said to fetch up to €1,200 per kg.
Back in Volendam, a town that has yet again had to reinvent itself and the ways in which subsists, there are fewer and fewer authentic fish stalls and smoke houses to be found. Jan Smit, a 60-something business owner and fish smoker, is one of the few in the Netherlands who is keeping traditional smoking alive. His family business, Paviljoen Smit-Bokkum, which was founded in 1856, is a hit with Volendammers and tourists alike. Their specialty? Eel.
This statuesque, hardy Dutchman has over 40 years of experience in smoking and comes from a long lineage of fish smokers. His father used to hawk his catch on a wooden trolley, which he’d tow around the streets of Volendam. But like a true Volendammer, Smit has reinvented the wheel. With the help of his son Evert, a trained lawyer who returned to the family business as it had more “soul”, the Smits’ business expanded into a shop, restaurant, and small museum.
I was invited to watch Smit at work. He asked me to arrive at 6.30am in the morning, just as the night’s frost was starting to melt. Inside the smoke house, Jan soaks buckets full of gutted eels, brought in alive just the night before. The eels that are too small and lean for smoking will go to the restaurant where they are prepared in simple but delicious dishes such as the Volendam-style eel stew of local mustard, butter, vinegar, salt, and black pepper. Larger eels fat enough for smoking are transferred to a large bucket that’s been perforated with holes. “Here comes the fun part,” Smit smiles. He changes out of his clogs and into rubber boots, steps into the bucket and proceeds to stomp on the fish. The eels start to expel slime and foam—it’s not the prettiest sight first thing in the morning. When this is done, the eels have softened and they are rinsed and strung at the head on long metal rods.
The entire supply of eels at Paviloen Smit-Bokkum used to come from the IJsselmeer. But because of the low population, Smit now mainly buys farmed eels. The farmed eels are darker in color, have thicker skin and a firmer musculature. It’s generally agreed that farmed eels are inferior in taste and quality when compared to wild-caught eels. But Smit is in a very good mood today; he’s just got his first batch of wild-caught eels of the season. These eels are slightly smaller and double the price of farmed eels. The resultant smoked wild eels are only made available to smoked eel aficionados who Smit knows.
The farmed and wild-caught eels as well as fillets of salmon, whole dorado, and whole sea bass are loaded into the smoker, which is nothing but a ventilated brick room no larger than six square metres. The room’s entire floor is lined with pinewood chips, a wood that Smit says won’t overwhelm the fishes. There are no gadgets used here, not even a thermometer. The only tools Smit is armed with is a pole, a 50-year-old shovel from his father, a lighter, a bucket of water, and his sharp instincts. As the fire starts growing with a roaring hum, Smit contains it with a few splashes of water and distributes the heat with a few prods of the pole. The entire process takes two hours and the whole time Smit is on his feet, tending to his precious stash.
There’s something beautiful, simple, and romantically archaic about watching a man tend to a fire. Especially if it’s the same fire that his paternal lineage tended to. Throughout the process, Smit is at ease, almost in a meditative state. “I feel relaxed when I see fire,” he says with his eyes transfixed and sparkling with the dancing flames.
An hour and a half later, Smit steps into the smoky room, walks across the burning embers with nothing to protect his feet but clogs and emerges with the salmon, seabass, and dorado that will be sold in the shop and served in the restaurant. He hands me one of each to try – the fish is oily and fatty in all the right places and lightly caressed with enough heat for the moisture to lock in. The smokiness almost tastes herbaceous, perhaps from the pine.
Thirty minutes later, the eels come out, dripping with fat and with an almost rose-gold hue to them. Staff have started to gather; it’s apparent that they’ve been waiting for these wild eels all year. Smit lets them cool for a few minutes and then rips them off the metal rods with his bare hands and passes a few around. He shows me how to eat it: tear off the head, extract the spine and suck off the meat, and then suck the remaining meat and fat off the skin. As I’m still working my way through my first eel, Jan is already on his third. The taste is unbelievable: salty and umami-rich with a delicate sweetness coming from the white juicy flesh. The smokiness is beautifully balanced and deep. By the time I’m done with my second eel, Jan has finished his sixth.
Smit’s passion and love for smoked eel is immediately and enduringly palpable. Smit said that it’s a taste and an art form that he’ll never tire of. This winter he’ll teach his son, Evert, how to smoke fish. Evert’s two-year-old son is already familiar with the going-ons in the smokehouse, sometimes stopping in to throw some water on the embers. The child isn’t afraid of the fire, perhaps it’s in his blood. Smoking eels is a tradition that Volendammers are proud of; it’s part of their heritage and part of what’s helped to uplift their community. But looking at the dwindling population of European eel, the fate of this beautiful Dutch tradition remains as uncertain as ever.
A version of this story appeared on SALT magazine’s June/July 2017 print issue.