totalcontent is just back from its annual away-weekend in Holland. This time we took in the Stanley Kubrick show at Eye, the impressive new film museum on the north bank of the Ij, as well as a noteworthy North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam.

How does it eel?… smoker at work

But it was one of those chance, totally bizarre encounters that lingers in the memory. Or should that be nostrils? On the Sunday between showers, we decided to take a stroll through Monnickendam, one of a series of picturesque medieval villages perched on the banks of the Ijsselmeer. Apart from its less-than-charitable attitude towards witches in the olden days, Monnickendam is best known for its ancient tradition of fish smoking. And this happened to be the day of the annual smoke off, when over 100 competitors from the Amsterdam area converged to see who could smoke the tastiest eel (paling) or mackerel. Approaching from a quiet side street, we suddenly found ourselves in amongst a heaving throng of humanity… and fish. Parked along each side of the canal were smokers of all shapes and sizes. Some were rudimentary — large oil canisters with some rough hessian on top. Other more bespoke — like steel, glass-fronted dolls’ houses furnished with rows of hanging fish. There were garish canopies and umbrellas, bright buckets and bursting cool chests, tables laid out with chopping boards and dangerous-looking knives, loaves, wine and plenty more fishes. We’d walked straight into a bustling cobbled-street scene that could have been happening some 400 years ago. 
Homely… a more aspirational model
A dense-yet-savoury fug hung in the air, dogs and kids scurried around around, grannies reminisced in fold-out chairs, music pumped from radio speakers, there was banter and barter… and seemingly a can of Heineken in every spare hand. Seasoned pros were up against first-timers who’d borrowed their neighbours’ gear; precious glazes and marinades jealously guarded. We spoke to a former winner, proudly sporting his medal round his neck, though didn’t rate his chances this year. The judges were real sticklers he reported, and the competition got hotter every year. Over smoking, under smoking, too heavy on the herbs… you only have so much luck, he moaned, generously offering us some freshly smoked eel. We wandered up the other side of the canal, where yet more fish were smoking away, and found you could even buy a pristine new smoker from the back of a van — enterprising, or coals to Newcastle? Then, in a puff of smoke, we were gone.

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