The Netherlands Is Crazy for a Soup Called Snert
I had never cooked pea soup in my life. For my first time, I figured, why not enter the World Cup?
Photos by the author.
I recently discovered that my country hosts the World Cup of snert soup and stamppot. It's an event that celebrates Holland's most culinary cultural heritage, so obviously I had to be there. Snert is a thick pea soup that's a wintertime staple; stamppot unites mashed potatoes with veggies and meat. The dishes are two of the most famous (and, let's admit it, ugliest) in the Dutch repertoire. Never before—seriously, not once—had I made soup, so I decided to enroll in the competition. If I was going to cook pea soup for the first time in my life, I would have to pit myself against the biggest snertsnobs on the planet.
I soon heard back from the organizer of the cup, event agency Snert and Stamppot Events. It was my lucky day: Someone had cancelled, and I could still enroll. On Friday, February 20, I was to report just outside of the city of Groningen. I was to bring my own ingredients, cooking gear, and a recipe. "It's going to be another jolly snert and stamppot day," the newsletter informed me. The letter was signed, "pea soup greetings." Things were looking up for me.
Pea liquid looks about as sexy as it sounds.
And yet, I had no clue how make pea soup. Thankfully, I had a trusted resource to consult: the cookbook my mother published in 1987. She had given me a copy when I left home, hoping that I'd one day decide to stop eating rubbish and open the damn thing. But this would be the first time I'd use it. Motivated by the title YOU Can Also Cook that adorned the cover of the little gray book, I opened it and found a recipe for snert.
At half past nine on Friday morning, I began gathering the liquid I'd need for soaking my peas. That's a sentence I hope you'll never have to read again. Pea liquid looks about as sexy as it sounds. Following the recipe, I'd soaked my peas for about 12 to 24 hours, and because I had to cook my soup on location in Groningen, I was now pouring the soaking liquid into an empty two-liter bottle.
With a friend and fellow snert enthusiast as a traveling companion, I took a bus and then a train to Groningen. Two hours and 37 minutes later, we walked into the building where the royal snert battle would take place. A sweet woman named Matty greeted me kindly and stuffed my hands with a welcome package that contained an apron, a chef's hat, and a red shirt.
During the opening speech, event organizers emphasized how diverse the competitors were this year. Ages ranged from 17 to 71, and many competitors were snert-loving amateurs, not professional cooks. Then the judges were introduced. This snert aristocracy was composed of five soup fans who would strive to judge everyone's cuppa as objectively as possible. We were ushered into the kitchen, and the World Cup began.
It immediately became clear that the competitors took their snert very, very seriously. Not that I didn't. But while I had arrived with the only frying pan I own, plus two small knives and a classic Dutch smoked sausage, fellow competitors had showed up with shiny five-liter pots, sets of knives that ISIS would envy, and piles of exotic ingredients. There was even a guy who built a fire outside, in the schoolyard, over which to cook his soup; he was protesting gas extraction in Groningen. "Smoked snert," he called it.
The Snert World Cup originated 21 years ago in a bar in Uithuizen. A group of snert-cravers got together, each bearing a pot of soup, and assessed whose recipe was the best. Future Cups, they decided, could only take place in Groningen.
But I wondered whether the competition was really a "world" championship. "We don't have any competitors from outside of the Netherlands this year," Henk van der Velde, a founding snert-er, explained, "but in the last couple of years a German has enrolled, and some cooks of other nationalities."
The kitchen was a collection of intriguing characters. Next to me was regional superpower Hans Everse, who had twice been crowned World Stammpot Champion. He prepares his snert with specially filtered saltwater from the Oosterschelde, an estuary in southwest of the country. Behind me, an exterminator was maintaining his office hours while trying to win the competition. "Hello, vermin exterminator speaking," I heard him say into his phone while he was cutting the meat for his soup. "Fungus? No, that's not a problem."
Although I can't say it gave my mouth an exploding orgasm, I found it kind of appealing.
It was hot in there, and my cooking spot was a battle zone. My pan boiled over a couple of times; judges admonished me to turn my flame down, wash my hands, and peel my celery. I had no clue whether what I was doing was right or not. My soup—and the area around me—had started to look greenish, but I just kept on cooking.
While I was cutting the vegetables, I spoke with a pea expert who had been in the international pea trade for 30 years. He told me all about why you can't use chickpeas for pea soup, where different types of peas grow, and how you can find loopholes in the pea regulations so that you can say that your Chinese peas come from Holland. "Pea fraud?" I asked. "I'm not saying that's what I did," he assured me. "But it does happen."
Everyone had three hours to prepare his or her snert, after which you had to present it as originally as possible. People had showed up with entire vegetable stalls, flags, pop-ups, flowers and even complementary dishes to go with the snert. One cook filled his table with silver trophies he used to serve the snert in. I went for a stylish, minimalist look—mainly because I had no idea this was important and hadn't brought any props whatsoever. Later on, in a rush of creativity, I put my cookbook and Plato's The Ideal State on my table, to try to give an air of sophistication to my choice of design. But the down-to-earth people from Groningen easily chipped away at that façade.
Once I had put the finishing touches on my soup, the judges came by, one by one, to try a spoonful. Personally, I thought my soup was successful for a first try—even though I didn't really know what a successful pea soup was supposed to look like. It tasted a tad too floury, and although I can't say it gave my mouth an exploding orgasm, I found it kind of appealing. Now all I had to do was wait for the verdict.
The judges asked me how often I had made pea soup in my life. When I answered that I had just burst my snert cherry, an empathetic look appeared on their faces.
Apparently it's not easy to define what makes a good snert. The snert diversity on the World Cup proved that point: there was vegetarian snert, saltwater snert, snert on a campfire. One guy was using three different types of meat; the other threw in his veggies in at the very end of cooking. The only sure thing is the split peas. Aside from that, every recipe contains the same basic ingredients: potato, celeriac, leek, and some type of meat.
The soup's thickness is tested by putting a ladle into it. Whereas the ladle should fall down steadily, mine stood straight up. My soup was thick, as I was accustomed to and had always loved, but the soups of the winners were much thinner.
It probably doesn't come as surprise that the fire-cooker won the competition. To be honest, his version reminded me more of an oxtail soup than it did of snert.
Shocker: During the award ceremony, I didn't win a thing. I received a medal and a plasticized piece of paper; the next day I'd be able to look online for my spot on a ranked list. I asked fellow competitors if they had any tips for me. "A lot of practice," they answered, "and bring a bigger pot next time."
The next day I visited the Facebook page to look at the results. I was ranked dead last. Not much of a surprise, to be honest. But just to cover my mother's reputation, it wasn't the recipe, but my implementation of it. All in all, I had a blast during my snert romp. The people were friendly, the food of others perfectly tasty. I have one year to practice for my snert comeback in 2016.
And until then, I can call myself the 30th-best snert chef in the world. That's got to count for something.