The Curious Case of Amsterdam’s Canals

The once polluted waterways have got a new lease of life, quite literally, creating a haven for sea life including the delicious canal lobster. |By Adrian Phillips  
Amsterdam
All the rooms at the Museum Van Loon had one thing in common: they all displayed large portraits of the prestigious family. Photo by: Hans Zaglitsch/imageBROKER/imageBROKER/Dinodia Photo Library

You can’t really claim to know a city until you’ve had a discussion about its sewage with an aquatic ecologist from the local water board.

I hadn’t given much thought to what goes on below Amsterdam before I met Laura Moria in a coffee shop near the Anne Frank House. Moria spends her life scrutinising the Dutch capital’s canals, scooping and testing and doing whatever aquatic ecologists do to keep tabs on microscopic nasties. Until recently, it was a job that required a strong stomach. “The canals used to stink,” she tells me. “They contained untreated sewage, and if you fell in you’d be rushed off to the hospital for a tetanus shot.”

But the past decade has witnessed a concerted push to clean things up. Thousands of houseboats have finally been linked to the sewer system, and a special vessel patrols the channels with a net to skim off floating rubbish. There’s even a boat dedicated to hauling out the 15,000-odd bikes that are chucked in the water annually.

The results have been dramatic—so dramatic, in fact, that around 3,000 people jump into the canals of their own accord during the Amsterdam City Swim each September. “Even our Queen has taken a dip,” Moria says. The flora and fauna are also flourishing in the purer water. Yellow water lilies flower in summer in quieter areas, while water fleas zip about eating algae and are in turn gobbled up by fish that had previously given the canals a wide berth. Pike, eel, and carp have all returned, along with the herons that stalk them, and coots that dabble among the reeds. There are bullhead fish, mussels, and—Moria’s favourite—a snail with a head like a Smurf. It’s a smorgasbord of life.

“Our tap water is filtered through the sand dunes; you must try it,” she urges, as she pays for her cappuccino. “Oh, and look out for canal lobster on the menu,” she adds cryptically over her shoulder before the door closes and she’s gone.

Canal lobster? While there’s a limit to how exciting I can find the prospect of a good glass of tap water, the mysterious canal lobster sounds like something altogether more enticing. I vow to track one down. But first: a canal boat tour.

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Typically tilted, former merchant houses line the Singel canal. Photo by: Richard James Taylor

If there are newfound riches hidden below the water’s surface, those above have been plain to see for centuries. Amsterdam is a city built on water, both literally and metaphorically, the horseshoe of canals at its heart constructed during a period when the Dutch ruled the waves and this was the world’s greatest port. Aboard the Tourist, a 41-foot salon boat with polished teak flooring, our skipper, Onno Bosselaar, noses us through a low-slung bridge separating the grandly titled Emperor’s Canal (Keizersgracht) from the more blue-collar Brewers’ Canal (Brouwersgracht).

Reminders of the city’s ocean-going history are everywhere. We pass the monumental sweep of Amsterdam Centraal station, a wind dial on its tower to assist sailors, and the Basilica of St. Nicholas, dedicated to the patron saint of seafarers. The waterway widens and we round the green hull of NEMO Science Museum, designed by Renzo Piano to look like the prow of a hulking ship, and then a full-size replica of the Amsterdam, a Dutch East India Company cargo ship—a sign we’ve reached the jetty of the Maritime Museum.

The Dutch East India Company is synonymous with the country’s Golden Age. Founded in 1602, it was the first multinational, making gargantuan profits importing spices from the Far East. Amsterdam grew into the “warehouse of the world,” handling everything from timber and wine to porcelain.

The 17th century was a very good time to be a Dutch merchant, and their lavish mansions are strung along the most exclusive stretch of canal, Herengracht. Merchants’ houses with gables like elaborate headdresses face each other across the water, as if waiting for the orchestra to kick-start a masquerade dance. And the so-called Golden Bend boasts the grandest residences of all, their double-width plots available only to those with pockets as deep as ditches.

“The fronts are nothing,” Bosselaar comments as we drift past. “You should see inside!”

Museum Van Loon, at Keizersgracht 672, offers the chance to do just that. “The van Loon family made its money in herring,” Tonko Grever, the museum’s former director, tells me. I glance around the cavernous entrance hall with a new respect for sardines. This was a powerful dynasty: Willem van Loon became mayor of Amsterdam and his son oversaw the East India Company for 30 years.

We walk through reception room after reception room, up a sweeping staircase to bedroom after bedroom, out into gardens with manicured hedges, a golden sundial, and a brick-floored coach house flanked by classical statues. There are cherrywood chests, four-poster beds, and a stuffed peacock on a mantelpiece. And, everywhere, large portraits of van Loons in ermine or pearls, for Amsterdam’s merchants loved commissioning paintings of themselves. “Rembrandt’s paintings weren’t for museums,” Grevar reminds me. “They were hung in private houses like this.”

But for all the bounty earned on the high seas, Amsterdam’s elite found that water can be foe as well as friend. Canal houses stand on wooden foundation piles driven deep into the mud, and when the water drops, the piles rot. This is why some houses are oddly lopsided, leaning against neighbours like walking wounded, their foundations subsiding beneath them.

I dine that night at De Silveren Spiegel (The Silver Mirror) restaurant. Though it’s not on the canal, the 1614 building tilts drunkenly, with floors that sag like washing lines. I ask my waiter if the restaurant offers canal lobster. “Erm, no,” he says, carefully, as if humouring a madman. “If that’s a real thing, the Kitchen of the Unwanted Animal might sell it. They’ll be at Rolling Kitchens.’’ This five-day food festival is taking place in a “culture park” northwest of the centre.

I’ve barely time to be heartened by the banner above the entrance, which shows a plump lobster on wheels, before I’m enveloped by noise, smell, and colour. Scores of open-sided trucks are serving food cooked at little stoves or on coal-fired grills, while musicians bang drums or strum guitars.

Every corner of the globe is covered. There’s Indian cuisine at the Bollyfoods van (slogan: “Get curried away!”) and Vietnamese street food at Nom Nom. Just Say Cheese (“Sweet dreams are made of cheese, who am I to diss a brie!”) offers cheeseburgers, and Everything on a Stick is exactly that. Even with all the weird and wonderful foods around it, the Kitchen of the Unwanted Animal still swivels heads. Where else can you wash a My Little Pony Burger down with a glass of Japanese knotweed juice? Its origins are as unorthodox as its menu. “I’m a conceptual artist, not a cook,” says founder Rob Hagenouw, handing me a goose croquette. “My kitchen was meant as a statement.”

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Restaurant As prepares canal lobster. Photo by: Richard James Taylor

Hagenouw is pained by society’s profligacy. On discovering that geese shot at Schipol airport—to cut the risk of bird strikes—were simply thrown away, he decided to highlight the waste by creating something tasty from these unwanted animals. Hence his croquette, which is creamy inside with a spicy coating.

“And canal lobster?” I ask.

“I don’t have any here,” says Hagenouw. “Your best bet might be Restaurant As.”

Thwarted again, but undeterred, I make a dinner reservation—and that evening, there it is at last, pinky-red against the bucket, pincers raised at me with justified mistrust. This is one of several caught last night for Restaurant As by Rick Kruijswijk, who’s brought it to the table for me to see before it’s dispatched to the pot with the others. A canal lobster. Or, more properly, a red swamp crayfish, an invasive species originally from the U.S. that’s flourishing in the clean water of the canals.

I feel a pang of sympathy for the condemned as the crayfish eyes me from his container, but the pang quickly disappears when I reach out to pick him up and he clamps his claws onto my finger. Kruijswijk explains there’s no place here for sentimentality.

“Red crayfish eat fish eggs, they kill the native European crayfish, and they dig holes in the dykes. It’s our duty to eat them!” So, when Chef Luuk Langendijk brings me a starter of crayfish tails with an herb mustard dip, I grab a fork and do my duty. Then I do it again by consuming a main course of crayfish bouillon. The meat is sweet and quite delicious.

As the plates are cleared, I ponder how many other people can claim to have been bitten by their own dinner. For all the canal lobster’s allure, I decide the van Loons had it right. It’s safer to stick to herring.

Amsterdam's Shipping News

Throughout Amsterdam, the once opulent symbols of the city’s maritime wealth have been repurposed. The Grand Hotel Amrâth Amsterdam, originally built in 1912 as the headquarters for a number of the city’s shipping companies, drips with symbols of the Golden Age, from the world map in its stained glass roof to the billowing sails in its mahogany panels. But the shipping companies shipped out long ago, their offices now given over to guest rooms.

NDSM Wharf—the city’s biggest shipyard before it went bankrupt in the 1980s—is now a gritty hub of contemporary art. The industrial wasteland behind Amsterdam Centraal train station has been transformed by the space-age architecture of the EYE Film Institute Netherlands, while the oil refinery tower next door reopened as the A’DAM Toren, its focus on cutting-edge music.

Perhaps this is the new Golden Age, a waterfront renaissance driven by culture and food, an age of experiment and urban expression whose eddies and swirls will surface their very own Dutch masters.

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