Pretty Eyes and the Sea Devil

Schrijver en essayist Matthew Stadler woont en werkt tijdelijk in Rotterdam. Op scherpzinnige wijze observeert hij tweewekelijks de maasstad. Vandaag deel 10: Jenever, zee duivel en "Pretty Eyes".

"I'm surprised there aren't more cocktails made with jenever," I said to my favorite vendor, "Pretty Eyes," one afternoon in the market on the Binnenrotte. But that's a long story. The point is, I am surprised there are not more cocktails made with jenever. Among Dutch inventions, I place jenever third, behind the microscope and Drebble's submarine. The Dutch drink it straight, chilled, sometimes with a small beer on the side. It is the simplest way to enjoy an already complex elixir, and it seems very Dutch to me.

I understand why they don't gild the lilly by concocting potions with it, but I enjoy potions. So I was pleased to find that in Schiedam (Rotterdam's older, more sophisticated neighbor) an international contest would be held to judge the best cocktail made with jenever. Mixologists from many countries assembled on a pleasant summer afternoon to serve jenever cocktails to an expert jury of a few hundred people, myself included.

I managed to sample eight of the cocktails before losing my proefglas in the handicapped toilet, which was completely dark and flooded. I was impressed by the Belgians. (Apparently they also invented jenever.) A team from Ghent, working under the unfortunate name of "Jiggers," produced a rigorously local cocktail using only ingredients a one-legged man could gather in an afternoon spent stumbling around Ghent. I don't know Jiggers's clientele, but I suppose this constraint reflects the needs of their customers. Regardless, the result was delicious. Jiggers combined jus vers (a sour grape juice) with bitters, jenever, and fresh dill to make a beguiling summer cocktail that will refresh palates as far away as Rotterdam.

But they were not the stars. A motley team called "Level" took the grand prize.* Were they Dutch? It is hard to say. They spoke English to me, and their accents sounded Catalan. But the bar they work for is in Rotterdam, so "Dutch" they must be. (I recall a Dutch policeman asking me, of a missing police officer, "was she Dutch?" His question surprised me. "Aren't all of the police Dutch?" I asked. In fact, he meant "was she white?" and this is a subtle distinction I am still trying to learn as I make a new home in my adopted land.)

The Level cocktail was pure genius. Into a blend of jenever, orange bitters, lemon juice, and clove, they poured the smoke of burning cigars. The contraption itself impressed me. Flexible tubing was fitted over the lit end of a cigar to channel its smoke into a half-full jar of cocktails. By screwing the lid shut, the smoke had nowhere to go except into the delicious potation. I have never tasted so elegant a blend of atmosphere (bar smoke) and liquor as in the cocktail concocted by the mad scientists of Level.

The competition took place on a market day, and it was very late when I finally struggled out of the handicapped toilet to mount my bicycle and hasten to my weekly shopping. Though sad about losing my proefglas, the prospect of the market perked me up, and I eagerly planned the meal I would assemble from whatever remained at the end of market day.

Drunk (admittedly), my attention fixed on the fish monger's sea devil. I couldn't stop staring at the creature's hideous flat face and wide row of spiky teeth. Finally, I asked how much it cost and was impressed by the bargain, so I bought it. The fish monger put it in a transparent sack with some ice, and I carried it across the market to find Pretty Eyes, giddy with horror, like a teen taking his first date to a monster movie. "Het heet een 'zee duivel,'" I explained, anticipating a delicious shiver. "What vegetables do you recommend with its preparation?"

Pretty Eyes stared blandly at the monstrous fish and quickly held up a witkool and a squash, both of them very large. I thought perhaps I had not said enough about the fish, so raised it higher, in plain view, and thrust the slimy creature's face directly forward. No reaction. Pretty Eyes looked past the Sea Devil and held the two great vegetables higher, beckoning me to choose. What hauteur! Perhaps it was cultural.

"How does your family prepare Sea Devil?" I asked.

"My family does not eat Sea Devil," came the answer. Was my question too personal? "But cabbage is always good with fish, and I remember that squash is one of your favorites." I blushed deeply. One of my favorites. Here was an intimacy! I grinned with pleasure and averted my eyes, at a loss for something to say. (In fact, I detested squash; a flaw I would clearly need to overcome.)

Finally I said, "I'm surprised there aren't more cocktails made with jenever," before enduring a long silence and then buying both the witkool and the squash. I don't think Pretty Eyes drinks alcohol, perhaps for religious reasons.

*The daily newspaper tells me I am wrong, and First Prize went to Blenders, another superior Rotterdam bar. Jiggers, the Belgians, placed second, and my favorite, Level, took third.