Food by VICE

How Two Dutch Squatters Source Some of the Best Fish in the Netherlands

Squatters in the winter, fishermen in summer, and idealists throughout the year, Jan and Barbara Geertsema are the most eccentric fishermen of the Wadden Sea.

by Wilbert van de Kamp
Mar 19 2015, 8:19pm

I know a lot of boring people, but Jan and Barbara are not amongst them. The married duo are fishermen that live the lives of rock stars, including the exhaustion that comes with the territory.

This summer, I went fishing with them, followed by a brief excursion to Italy in an RV. The more I sat with them at the table every night for dinner, the better I understood them.

I first met Jan and Barbara at their restaurant, 't Ailand on Lauwersoog, on the Northern coast of the Netherlands. They're part of a collective of fishermen who refer to themselves as "De Goede Vissers" ("good fishermen"), and their fish is highly sought-after by well-respected chefs throughout the Netherlands.

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Jan Geertsema, left. Photo by Aleydis Haubrich.
barbara-with-dinner Barbara Geertsema. Photo by Aleydis Haubrich.

It's early in the morning on Monday and the sun is slowly rising. I'll be spending a few days fishing on the Wadden Sea with Jan and Barbara. I have a bag full of warm clothes because even though it's summertime, it's always colder out at sea.

Jan is in his 40s but looks older than his years, with a head like a cartoon character. At the train station, it takes some effort to find him because he has forgotten his phone. Fortunately, his refrigerator van, plastered with a revealing sticker of a cow and a Dutch flag, is easy enough to recognize. I throw my much-too-expensive coat into the cold store unit that reeks of fish, and I crawl onto the cramped front seat of his car.

We stop to pick up Jan's missing phone over at the ADM shipyard—a term for Amsterdam Do Society, formerly called the Amsterdam Dry Dock Company—which is a squatters' lot where Jan and Barbara live during the wintertime. We then drive to Den Oever, where the Wadden Sea is easily accessible. In the harbor lies the TS 31 Internos, an inland vessel from 1927 that Barbara purchased sixteen years ago. There is a lot of maintenance work to be done on this seasoned vessel, but we will help with repairs in exchange for sailing on it over the next few days. I sleep under the bow in the front of the ship, and in the hold, I pass a parked cargo moped. Jan and Barbara don't keep to a tight schedule, so we sail out a little later than expected. Before leaving port, Jan buys some of his favorite grilled sausage at the local butcher, which will turn into our lunch today.

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The author, wrangling a fish.

Once we're out to sea, Jan and Barbara drop anchor and we're ready to start fishing. I put on a pair of oversized green rubber dungaree waders over my sweatpants, and in a fit of madness, decide to bring my phone so I can take some pictures.

Jan and Barbara use gillnet fishing to cast their nets, which we lower from the rubber boat. Jan spots gray mullet, so we chase them into the net as they swim through the water from the other side. The water is almost chest-high and things have slowly become a little damp under my waders, so it's time to turn off my phone. When we come back to the dinghy, we haul in the net—an incredibly hard task because it's so heavy—which is filled up with seaweed and crabs that are tangled into each other. There's not much mullet in the there, but it's hard to pull the fish out while they're busy twisting and turning, fighting for their lives. We've accidentally caught sea bass, a fish with pointy scales that are painful to the touch.

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Back on the boat, we throw the mullet in the ice—the fish must cool off—and make ourselves endive and beef stew. Barbara finds my dish too salty because she says she inhales enough salt on the open ocean, which is also why she never salts the fish she consumes. After dinner, Jan smokes a joint while Barbara drinks coffee. I look at my phone and see water droplets behind my screen; a few hours later, it has stopped working. Between fishing sessions, Jan keeps busy cleaning the nets, untangling webs of seaweed. It's heavy work.

As we reach the fish landing at Lauwersoog on Thursday, Jan goes straight to the mainland, where he and Barbara have a weekend stand at the farmers markets—including the Noordermarkt in Amsterdam. Barbara runs their own seafood restaurant on Lauwersoog on Fridays through Sundays. They want to expand by opening up a filleting station to cut fish for their customers, and are currently running a crowdfunding campaign in order to do so. Of the 24 hours in a day, they work about 18.

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A few months after the fishing trip, I travel with Jan and Barbara to Turin, Italy, where a large Slow Food conference called Terra Madre is being held. At the festival, John is dressed in long leather pants with flames on the sides, high boots, and an apron. Naturally, Barbara is dressed up in a mermaid suit.

It's something you have to see in person to appreciate.

When the festival is finished, they head to the exhibitors hall and pack everything that the exhibitors have left behind into their RV. On our drive back to Lauwersoog, the van is so heavily loaded that it drifts across the road, but we manage to make a pit stop in Germany and pick up a few boxes of wine.

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I recognize the stuff we looted—like tamarind juice and beers from Sweden—when I'm back at the ADM site to enjoy a dinner they've cooked up. Jan and Barbara keep an occasional restaurant at the ADM yard. Not only hippies sit down to eat here, but also leading figures from the Dutch food industry, like Michelin-starred chef Joris Bijdendijk and sausage maker Samuel Levie.

Since ADM was broken into by squatters some 17 years ago—two years before Jan and Barbara met—it's become a sanctuary of sorts. Getting in is a little scary: First, you have to drive through a camp that houses people referred to by the ADMers as 'the people from outside the fence'—undocumented immigrants who are tolerated on this piece of wasteland. To get inside the gate, you've got to enter a secret code into the lock. The people living here want to build things and live as they see fit, making it the perfect place for a couple like Jan and Barbara. They dock their boat here in the winter and get help with maintenance of the vessel.

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Tonight, I'm eating a seafood stew of cuttlefish, prawns, oysters, cod, red mullet, clams, and mussels: everything that didn't get sold off at the farmers markets or to chefs. The variety of fish would cost me about 75 euros at a normal restaurant, but here it's only 7.50 euros. All to prevent the waste of all this glorious produce.

"To live in freedom is one of the hardest things in the world," says Jan while smoking an after-dinner cigarette.

I can tell that it's not just for show when he says this. Combining left-wing ideology with entrepreneurship is really unique and these two have somehow managed to pull it off. I'm impressed, but I'm also happy to return to my own, less adventurous life.