Dutch windmill2

Food Explorer #8: A South African food scientist investigates windmills and gin

Lisa Ronquest is one of South Africa’s top young food scientists, now transferred to The Netherlands in a global food R&D role by Mars. She’s been sharing her impressions and insights with FOODStuff SA readers in a regular blog, and we’re proud here to publish the eighth on her big move. This time, Lisa explores the wonders of windmills and gin.

AS you well know, what it lacks in interesting mountainous terrain, the Netherlands compensates in the fascinating form of historic windmills that dot the landscape.

While I have come to be well versed on their use to manage water, pumping water from the lowlands into the rivers and canals and out to sea (half of the Netherlands lies only 1 metre above sea level, with 17% of the land having been reclaimed from the sea and lakes), I hadn’t, however, understood much about the country’s flour mills.

That was until we stumbled across one during a family outing to visit a jenever distillery. We were cycling along when we saw a working mill with its large blades rotating in the breeze. So being a curious bunch we hopped off our bikes and went to investigate.

As we walked in, we saw the various paper bags filled with different versions of stone-ground flour for sale, from pancake to wholegrain flour with the old ‘molenaar’ manning the office and welcoming visitors into the mill.

He graciously let us climb into the inner workings of the mill and explained in Dutch how it worked. An immediate thought: “A good GMP program wouldn’t go amiss here, what with strings, webbing and multiple foreign objects just waiting to enter the product stream!”

Never mind… we observed how its massive rotating blades on the outside connect through an intricate wooden lever system inside the mill to drive the large stone blocks that grind the grain into different flour grades, which is then gravity fed via chutes by into the silos below.

A simple yet effective process that has been employed for hundreds of years.

Dutch gin bottlesEver grateful to the Dutch
Quite coincidently, we continued our cycle to the National Jenever Museum distillery in Schiedam (south Rotterdam), which in times past would have been dependent on the flour mills for its key feedstock – milled grain.

We have the Dutch to thank for South Africa (or not, as our revered prez believes!) but the world can thank them for inventing gin, currently the hottest, trendiest spirit around the globe.

In the Netherlands, it’s known as jenever, the Dutch word for juniper berry, and it was first distilled in the 16th century to be used for medicinal purposes.

Rotterdam quickly became the center of jenever production as distilleries took advantage of the abundance of spices that arrived in the port from the Dutch colonies.  Jenever outlasted a distilling ban in the 17th century and was introduced to England when William of Orange became king.

There were originally 400 malt wine and jenever distilleries in the area of Schiedam. Apparently as Dutch pioneers travelled abroad, the UK adopted jenever and starting making gin as we know it today.

According to EU regulations, only the Netherlands, Belgium and two states in both northern France and Germany can use the name ‘jenever’.

We had a local guide talk us through the distilling process. A little difficult to grasp everything, as my Dutch is still ‘under construction’ while trying to ensure we didn’t lose a five-year old twin in a vat.

Gin is created in two steps. The first is the transition of malted grains through distilling (the process of separating liquids into constituent parts through evaporation and condensation) into a fermented wash and distilled malt wine.

The malt wine is then distilled a second time in combination with juniper berries and other specially selected botanicals to deliver the unique flavour and aroma of jenever.

We were provided with a tasting after the talk that just about took the breath away, but nothing a little tonic water couldn’t fix!

We explored the museum further, with a real highlight being the largest private collection of mini-liquor bottles (the ones that gather dust in a million home pubs) that had been donated to the museum.

So, all together, a great day out for a food scientist and her family!

Lisa Ronquest2About this blog:

Lisa Ronquest is currently Head of Product Development – Global Food R&D at Mars Inc, based in The Netherlands. The intention of this column is to be both a personal and professional account of a South African food scientist exploring life and work in a developed market.

You can contact her at [email protected].

Related reading:

Food Explorer #7: A South African food scientist celebrates Christmas

Food Explorer #6: A South African food scientist goes to Anuga

Food Explorer #5: A South African food scientist explores things italian

Food Explorer #4: A South African food scientist explores Grolsch

Food Explorer #3: A South African food scientist explores chocolate in Belgium

Food Explorer #2: A South African food scientist goes shopping abroad

Food Explorer #1: A South African food scientist taking on a global R&D role