Gingerbread lovers

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 (‘the official site of Holland’) and present your crush with a nutty lover?


Dialoguing with the Dutch

Column published in the Observant, Maastricht

Let’s start with the basics. I’ve said it before, everyone else has said it before, and we all know the story: Dutch people are Good at Languages.

What you might not know is that this can sometimes lead to what the Flemish historian Sophie De Schaapdrijver describes as “repressive tolerance”. To put it simply, the Dutch are an easygoing, tolerant folk. You like having foreigners in your country (as long as they don’t do anything suspect, of course, like come from Morocco or read the Koran). You want to make us feel comfortable. You also like to wheel out your marvellous English at any chance you get. So when we speak in Dutch, your path is clear. You MUST speak back in English.

To illustrate, let me treat you to the following excerpt from an ongoing personal saga that I like to call “Dialoguing with the Dutch”. Location: the Maastricht post office, before they closed it, that is (but that’s another long and irritated story). Date: Not so long ago that I’m over it yet.

Me: “Wat kost het een pakket te versturen binnen Europa?

(All right. I’m sure it’s not pretty Dutch. But the point is: you KNOW what I’m trying to say.)

The postal worker (in English, and unmistakeably looking down his nose): “Is it an International Packet Basic or an International Packet Plus?”

Me (to self): It’s cool. He’s just being polite. You can do this. Just keep trying.

Me (out loud): “Wat is het verschil?

Him (stubbornly carrying on in English): “Depends on how much it weighs.”

Me (equally stubbornly): “Ongeveer vijf kilo, volgens mij.”

“Then it’s a Package Plus.”

“En wat kostet dit?”



(It’s a battle of the wills now. Neither of us are prepared to back down.)

“Whether it’s EU zone 1 or zone 2.”

Wat is het verschil?

“Where are you sending it?”

Engeland.” (One-word answer comes as a relief; I’m starting to tire.)

Him, smirking: “I could tell from your accent.”
Me, smirking back: “Ik ben geen Englander.”

Him: “Oh.” (Momentarily off balance.) “Sorry hoor, ik dacht dat ik een licht accent hoorde en tja, er zijn hier ook zoveel buitenlanders dat ik er altijd maar gewoon van uitga dat ik in het Engels moet praten. Maar okay, hoe wil je het versturen? Met de gewone post of is het superspoed?

Me: “Er.” (Cursing to self.) “I’m going to need you to repeat that …”