Enjoying and sharing salty delicacies is part of the Zeeland DNA. They are plucked from the sea to your plate, and just could not be any fresher. As well as meaty shellfish like mussel, oyster and lobster, we specialise in sea vegetables. On the tidal marshes, glasswort and sea lavender, better known as sea aster, abound. All these were once the food of the poor, but have become gourmet foods.
It is in the marshes and mudflats of Zeeland that cockles live. Known as ‘oantjes’ or ‘oentjes’ (pronounced own-ches or oon-ches), these shellfish grow in tidal sediments partly of coarse sand, and of mud. They are harvested by hand – and mechanically in the Ooster- and Westerschelde estuaries. Because of their role in the food chain of birds, there are quotas on how many can be gathered.
Mussels and oysters
The better known shellfish in the Zeeland cuisine are mussels and oysters. The season for mussels is from mid-July to early April. They can grow equally well on the tidal floor, or suspended on hanging nets. Sizes vary between methods, but quality is constant. The same holds for oysters, of which you’ll find two varieties in Zeeland: the Pacific, or Japanese, oyster which we call ‘creuse’ and you can eat grilled or raw, and the ‘flat’ one (‘platte’) which is less prevalent, and is only eaten raw. October to end-March is the best time for you to enjoy oysters.
Our best known crustacean is the Oosterschelde lobster (‘kreeft’). Because they have next to no contact with lobsters from other waters, their DNA is unique and they have a distinctly different taste to the average European lobster. They can only be caught from 1 April to mid-July, and you’ll only enjoy them as long as those stocks last.
Sea aster and glasswort
The salty sea vegetables live on the mudflats and marshes of Zeeland. Sea aster (‘lamsoor’) grow on the higher parts of the flats. With its long leaves, firm but not tough, it resembles lamb’s lettuce. Because it should be picked young, the harvest period is from mid-March to end-July.
Among these vegetables, the early occupier of the bare flats is the glasswort. A sort of hairless cactus, it absorbs a lot of salt which gives it a typical briny taste. It does need freshwater rain for its buds to develop. With plentiful rain in the early spring, its bountiful harvest can last from mid-May to mid-September.
At the water’s edge, solid surfaces such as rocks provide the ideal habitat for the winkle, a small sea snail. Typically they grow to 2 to 3 cm, and are known here as ‘krukel’ or ‘kreukel’. Boil them in shallow briny water, and use a long needle or small sharp stick to ‘winkle’ them out of their shell. Do try them with a piece of sugary currant bread. That taste sensation is a traditional offering at Easter time, ‘kreukels mee krentebroôd’.