A view beyond the spatula: vegan cuisine at the Landbouwbelang
May 18, 2008 1 Comment
The Landbouwbelang, or the LBB as it is called by locals, is a squat. That fact may instantly relegate the status of this former paper factory within the reader’s mind into a den of depravity for the financially destitute, and Maastricht’s city council has made numerous attempts to shut down the LBB on the basis of this assumption.
But, fortunately, due to vocal protests by its residents and other LBB supporters, a compromise was finally reached that has allowed the LBB to continue to exist. The LBB may now carry on its activities unobstructed, although it must arrange for bouncers at parties and must advertise its events more publicly.
Why is the LBB able to garner such support at the grassroots level? The reason is simple: the LBB’s benefit to Maastricht’s cultural landscape is undeniable. Beyond being a cavernous abandoned paper factory perched alongside the Maas and inhabited by what someone familiar with the cultural iconography of the 1960s would call “hippies”, since 2002 the LBB serves as a nightclub, a theatre, an art gallery, and on every Monday night a dinner café dedicated to non-carnivorous cuisine.
The dinner café’s raison d’être
The premise of the dinner café is simple: the inhabitants of the LBB, as well as a few eager volunteers provide a delicious, and affordable (EUR 3.50 for the meal and EUR 1 for any drink) three course vegan dinner every Monday night at 19:30. (On the first Monday of the month dinner is of the vegetarian variety.)
The atmosphere is cosy and buffered by the eclectic assortment of people that attend, for while students tip the participatory balance in their favour the dinner café caters to a wide age and occupational range. The post-dinner entertainment serves to add much more to the evening, and is provided by both the LBB in its occasional showing of a film after the monthly vegetarian dinner, or by the more musically inclined diners who sometimes take to the stage to perform a musical number of their choosing.
The dinner café began not at the LBB, but at another squat located near the Market, and it has been running for the past two years. Surprisingly, its existence is relatively unknown. For many months running I have greatly enjoyed the vegan delicacies offered at the LBB but this week I decided to lend a hand and discover first hand the secret recipe behind the creation of the delicious and universally welcoming weekly event that is dinner at the LBB.
A witness/participant to culinary inventiveness
I arrived at the Landbouwbelang at around three o’clock this past Monday, when the sun was still blazing as fiercely as it uncharacteristically has been recently, to begin the preparation of this week’s dinner with my fellow volunteers, and guided by a veteran LBB “chef” (who may change from week to week).
After passing rows of gigantic three wheeled carts constructed from rusted steel, along with other abstract pieces of art wrought by those living at the LBB, I climbed a dizzying spiral staircase and entered the expansive room that serves as both the kitchen and the café in which dinner would be served.
Even though I had attempted to be there on time, I saw that the two other volunteers (there are usually four people who cook dinner, three volunteers and one LBB chief chef, while the LBB staff handle the bar and cleanup) were already furiously peeling the skins from the hundreds of onions piled next to them, which is an appropriate amount for the expected ninety people that we were to feed.
Very quickly my guilt subsided as I was swiftly ejected back out into the sunshine by the LBB’s chef with another volunteer in tow in order to hunt down the key ingredient to what would be the greatest culinary curiosity on the menu: a soup made from stinging nettles, or ‘brandnetel’ in Dutch.
Despite its name, stinging nettle soup does not render your mouth numb, as my hands cumulatively became during the hour or so that we spent collecting bushels of the topmost parts of the plant – incidentally, I have been told it is a good preventive treatment for arthritis. When cooked, the nettles resemble, in both consistency and taste, the very innocuous and iron-rich staple of ‘Popeye’ fame, spinach.
The uniqueness to my mind of this ingredient in the preparation of soup, in lieu of more traditional vegetables, is a microcosm of the overall variety of the weekly menu at the LBB. That day the main course consisted of pasta with tomatoes, garlic and chickpeas, and a dessert of brownies made with chile-infused dark chocolate, topped with vanilla icing.
The menu’s diversity is due to both the culinary proclivities of the internationally diverse residents of the LBB – there is a carefully guarded notebook which contains all of their secret recipes -, and simple experimentation. In my experience the food has always offered a diversion from the norm, as the use of stinging nettles gives evidence to, and I believe it is no insignificant factor in ensuring that the waiting list for reservations for dinner is always quite long (Tip: Call by Thursday at the latest to guarantee your spot). But where, besides local nature preserves do the ingredients that comprise this weekly dinner come from?
Orchestrating gastronomic delight
The provision of a veg/an/etarian meal for upwards of 90 people per week would by itself seem like a great nutritional challenge, but the organizing group of the LBB’s dinner café, (which is independent from the organizing body that hosts the events within the theatre or the nightclub) has gone an extra step in mandating that every ingredient that goes into its meals be biologically prepared. In order to qualify, the food stuffs must not have been tampered with artificially in any way.
The group responsible for the dinner receives these biological foodstuffs from a wide range of sources. The majority of the herbs and spices, as well as some fruits and vegetables are grown in a garden on the LBB’s premises, but the need for a great quantity mandates the acquisition of the food externally. A few organic farms within close proximity to Maastricht are used, and a wholesale distributor delivers larger quantities of food to the building, although that only happens once per month. The frequent nature of the dinners also mandates that a consistent, and more cost-effective source provides the required foods, and the weekly Farmers’ market in Maastricht provides that economical and consistent solution.
After I had finished chopping, garnishing and mixing, dinner was finally served to the waiting crowds, who excitedly lined up one after the other to be served by me and my compatriots one at a time, and this is where some minor criticism can be levelled towards the dinner café’s organization.
The time between the serving of the first course, the main course, and the dessert is somewhat too long for some people’s taste and the impromptu musical performances make conversation. But both the delay between the courses serving, and the loudness of the music comes down to personal preference in terms of being either a positive or negative, and truly these are all the possible criticisms that could be levelled by this writer.
In the end, the reason that you should experience this culinary gem for yourself is three-fold: the food is uniformly of a high quality far above what you can find at any equivalent institution (the UM’s similarly priced Mensa is the only other that comes to mind), the consistently high attendance to the dinner café provides an energetic atmosphere that is perfectly coupled by a sense of fraternity through your close physical proximity to your fellow diners, and third, there is simply no other architectural space like the Landbouwbelang in Maastricht and it simply has to be seen to be believed.
By Eliot Rolen
Eliot Rolen is an American expatriate living in Maastricht and a regular freelance contributor to Crossroads.
To make reservations call: (06) 130.785.91
The Landbouwbelang does not have a traditional address but can be found here.