Column published in the Observant, Maastricht
Kruidnoten. Pepernoten. Taai-taai. Speculaas. My flatmate in Cambridge is Dutch – just can’t get away, can I? – and this was the shopping list she gave me when I popped back to Maastricht for a weekend recently. They’re all really Dutch things, she said, and she’s missing them now that Christmas is on its way once again.
What they all are, I realised at Albert Heijn later, is variations on gingerbread. As Dutch folk, your passion for gingerbread in all shapes and sizes is truly impressive. They can be covered in dark chocolate, milk chocolate or white chocolate. Drizzled with icing. Daubed in coconut. For the uninitiated foreigner, this dazzling array is almost too much to digest – literally as well as figuratively.
Let’s start with kruidnoten. These are traditional treats, sort of like tiny gingerbread cookies, that are eaten around Sinterklaas. When I first moved here I thought they were some type of Cloggie cereal, so I put them in a bowl and poured milk on them. They turned into mush, got stuck in my throat and I nearly choked to death.
Then there’s pepernoten – literally, ‘pepper nuts’ – which have a lot in common with kruidnoten, including the fact that the Dutch like to throw them around. Except that they used to be thrown around along with coins (perhaps making them even more deadly). This ritual, apparently, harks back to the story of St Nicholas, who once upon a time came across three young girls. Their father, being unable to pay their dowries, had forced them into prostitution, prompting dear old St Nick to toss coins at them to help pay their dowries.
Taai-taai is a variation I’m quite partial to. Its name literally means ‘chewy chewy’, a reference that it invariably lives up to. Taai-taai often come in the form of a figure, such as Sinterklaas flanked by one of his Zwarte Pieten. This year, I notice that Albert Heijn has got around any political awkwardness related to, say, slavery and racism, by simply making its taai-taai Santas black as well.
And finally, there’s speculaas. Now, once upon a time, a smitten Dutch lad would decorate a big speculaas figure (called a vrijer, or lover) with nuts and icing and then present it to the girl he fancied. If she felt the same, she would accept it. This is where today’s expression iemand versieren (literally ‘to decorate someone’, meaning to pick them up) comes from. So if you’re keen to ‘integrate’ this silly season, why not check out the recipe on www.holland.com (‘the official site of Holland’) and present your crush with a nutty lover?