You can tell from the moment you step into Pure C, the Michelin-star restaurant by Dutch celebrity chef Sergio Herman, that the natural environment of Zeeland is a big inspiration. Views of the surrounding coastal dunes covered in scrubby bushes and wheat-coloured feathery grass pour in through three walls of sliding glass. A long terrace out front overlooks the still expanse of the North Sea. Inside, the light that streams in through skylights highlights a palette of predominantly pale grey, white, slate and washed-out wood – only the brown leather chairs and a few cushions in teal add colour to the scene.
Against the bleached-out backdrop inside and out, the flavours on the beautifully presented plates coming out of Pure C’s kitchen seem even more vibrant. The young but very talented Syrco Bakker, Herman’s protege, heads the culinary team. He uses mainly locally sourced ingredients, including some unusual indigenous plants, but adds an Asian flair to his dishes, drawing on his part-Indonesian roots. The extra spices and sunny, tropical flavours are unexpected in this Dutch environment of flat coastland, protective dykes and the occasional old windmill.
But there’s more that’s unexpected about this part of the world than Bakker’s refined Flemish take on nasi goreng. Zeeland, from which New Zealand got its name, is the most westerly province of the Netherlands, bordering Belgium. It’s just half an hour’s drive from the charming Belgian city of Bruges, two hours from Brussels and three hours from Amsterdam, and almost half of Zeeland is under water.
The islands and peninsulas that remain above the sea are home to more Michelin-star restaurants – seven – than any other Dutch province. But, while it’s famed locally as a dining destination, Zeeland is still largely unknown to the rest of the world. This, however, is set to change.
It was Herman who first put Zeeland on the food map and who remains a driving force behind the region’s continuing development as an exciting, innovative culinary hotspot. Herman’s restaurant, Oud Sluis, was one of the Netherlands’ first to earn three stars, in 2006. With the stars came rock-star status for Herman at home and in Belgium. He closed Oud Sluis in 2013, and opened Pure C on the Cadzand coast in 2010, with Bakker heading the kitchen. Pure C earned its Michelin star after just one year. Herman also runs two-Michelin-star The Jane, in Antwerp.
He believes that there are certain key factors that underpin Zeeland’s transformation into a dining mecca. He points to the fresh produce that grows naturally, or is farmed, in the area.
“Nature is a big inspiration, and most of what we use in the kitchen at Pure C, we get within 20km of here,” he says.
He adds: “This is a very special part of Holland and Belgium. Our potatoes and asparagus, for example, are outstanding, growing in Zeeland’s clay soils. We also grow a lot of our own vegetables and herbs in the restaurant’s garden. And our fish and seafood come from right in front of us, here in the North Sea.”
It’s a statement echoed by other chefs in this region. Edwin Vinke, owner and head chef of two-Michelin-star De Kromme Watergang in Hoofdplaat, describes Zeeland as “incredibly rich”. “We have everything that we need here,” he says. “We have fish, lamb, we have our own cows. My shellfish comes from across the water in Oosterschelde, where we grow oysters, mussels and lobsters. I just send the day’s shellfish over in a taxi.”
Vinke recently opened a restaurant along the Oosterschelde tidal basin in Yerseke called Zee/Land/Zilt. The restaurant is literally built on local seafood, the restaurant balancing on stilts above his oyster beds.
Many chefs in Zeeland incorporate the unusual plants that grow in the area in their dishes. In the salt marshes of Het Zwin, chefs forage for sea lavender – called zwinneblomme in Belgium – glasswort and the rare sea beet. On the dunes, sea buckthorn, sea holly and beach beet can be found, while in polders (land enclosed by dykes), there are plants such as elderberry, hawthorn, sea buckthorn, roses and blackberries.
But, while outstanding fresh produce is a crucial component in top-quality cooking, Herman says that to elevate a restaurant or region to truly exceptional takes a second ingredient: ideas.
“A chef needs constant inspiration. For me, nature plays a huge role in coming up with ideas,’’ says Herman. “But I also think other parts of life – art, design, music, fashion – these can all help us to have a full experience of life and evolve a new style of cooking.”
Cooking traditions also play a big role. Bakker says: “This part of Holland is half-Belgian and half-Dutch. We are part of two worlds here; it’s a strange, but rich, combination. Belgium has the stronger culinary background, but we take the best of both worlds. And then, of course, we get inspiration from other cooking styles and ingredients, too. Sergio (Herman) has supported me in staying true to my Indonesian roots. We work with local products, but take influences from Asia, or elsewhere.”
For Vinke, who says that he often plans his 10-to 20-course menus while foraging for sea plants on the coastal plains, a large part of Zeeland’s success is the camaraderie of its chefs. “I worked in the kitchen with Sergio (Herman’s) father and I worked a year with Sergio, before I opened my restaurant. We aim to build Zeeland into a place where we can show what we can do. The chefs here inspire one another a lot,” he says.
He is also inspired by chefs further abroad. “Chefs from all over the world eat here, and we chat. As I grow a lot of my own produce, they sometimes send me seeds, and I send them seeds. Peruvian mint especially grows very well here, for example. It’s a great way to learn and expand your cooking.”
But without a willing audience, a chef’s creativity and skills would go unrecognised. A lively, interested dining culture is the third ingredient for developing a successful culinary region, says Herman. In Zeeland, locals have a strong culture of eating out. A growing number of seasonal visitors drawn here by the excellent food, and the annual Summerfest event of food, cocktails and live music, add to the effect.
“People who live here, live to eat. They always go out for meals and love to try new things and live the good life. This is great support and motivation for a chef,” he says.
Where to eat in Zeeland
01: Pure C
In a stylish locale by the beach, Sergio Herman and Syrco Bakker create elegant, innovative dishes full of vibrancy and colour. Boulevard De Wielingen 49, Cadzand, www.pure-c.nl.
02: De Kromme Watergang
Edwin and Blanche Vinke focus on the earthy and briny flavours of local produce. Slijkplaat 6, Hoofdplaat, www.krommewatergang.nl.
03: Inter Scaldes
Chef Jannis Brevet is inspired by the waters of Zeeland and the cheeses and fruits of the Bevelandse polder. Zandweg 2, Kruiningen, www.interscaldes.eu/en.
04: La Trinite
Star chef Francois de Potter creates dishes vibrant with adventure, excitement and finesse. The restaurant’s beautiful terrace is ideal for a sunny day. Groote Markt 18, Sluis, www.latrinite.nl.
05: ’T Vlasbloemeken
Eric and Bianca van Bochove cook with all that is good that comes from sea, field and pasture. Nieuwstraat 8, Koewacht, www.vlasbloemeken.nl.
The cuisine of top chef Rutger van der Weel and his wife shows great passion and attention to detail. Katseveerweg 2, Wilhelminadorp, www.katseveer.nl.
Chef Laurent Smallegange, who trained at renowned restaurants such as Oud Sluis, serves unique and delectable courses at a venue overlooking the Breskens harbour. Kaai 5, Breskens, www.restaurantspetters.nl.
What to do between meals in Zeeland
Zeeland is a popular summer destination for tourists attracted to the long sand beaches, gentle sea and charming countryside. Along with swimming, there’s wakeboarding, water skiing and other water sports to participate in. Some beaches are known as good spots for finding fossilised shark teeth. For sailors, a new mariner is being built that will offer luxury mooring for private yachts.
Away from the sea, there are charming paths that criss-cross the entire region ideal for cycling. The paths often run along the tops of dykes, giving you elevated views of lush green meadows, farms with free-range cows and sheep, and paddocks of horses. There are a few nature reserves in which visitors can drive around in golf buggies to learn about the coastal environment and its fauna and flora.
There is enough to keep you occupied in Zeeland for a few, very relaxed days, although some visitors come for a week or longer to really unwind.
Image Credit: Eric Kleinberg (Pure C), Pieter D’Hoop (Zee/Land/Zilt), Victoria Burrows (chef Edwin Vinke).