Spices, St Nicholas and gingerbread men
The association between St Nicholas and children is particularly strong in the area of west-central Europe that became Lotharingia when the Carolingian Empire was divided in 855. The area stretched from Flanders and Holland in the north to Lorraine in the south. Although the peoples that lived in this territory lacked any kind of linguistic or cultural unity, they nevertheless came to share certain customs and traditions, including those associated with St Nicholas. The many St Nicholas traditions from the region share common themes of reward for good children, punishment for malefactors and merry-making and spiced, sweet baking. The position of the saint's feast in the calendar makes it the perfect springboard for Christmas celebrations and the aroma of that festive baking hangs over many an Advent/Christmas market.
My sister and her family lived a number of years in the Netherlands. It is perhaps there that the celebration of the saint has become most deeply rooted. Sinterklaas arrives by boat, as befits the patron saint of sailors, and makes his way by canal or on horseback through the towns and villages over the next couple of weeks, accompanied by his somewhat problematic sidekick, Swarte Piet. Sinterklaas and his companions distribute sweets (candies), chocolates and button-sized biscuits called peppernoten and set about finding out who has been good. Children are admonished to be good if they don't want to be carried off to Spain (presumably to be put to work on a galleon, rather then for a holiday on the Costa Brava). His feast itself is often marked with an early finish from school, street celebrations and games, before he sails away again, back to Spain. If you're wondering why Spain features so significantly in this tale of a Turkish saint visiting a country on the North Sea, remember that Spain was once Holland's colonial master. Sea-trade between the countries would have encouraged devotion to the saint, but the threat of abduction or exile to Spain would have been very real in the 16th and 17th centuries.
|My sister's memories of celebrating Sinterklaas with her children
(Image: EF Compton)
Taai-taai biscuits (makes about a dozen 10cm figures)
190g soft brown sugar
1 dessertspoon golden syrup or black treacle
230g plain flour
200g rye flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons ground aniseed
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 egg, beaten
Sift the flours and salt into a large bowl. Put 170g of the sugar, the syrup/treacle, honey and 80ml of water in a saucepan and heat gently until it boils. Remove from the heat immediately. Add the hot sugar mix to the flours and stir together to form a stiff dough. Leave the dough to rest for a day at room temperature.
Mix the remaining 20g of sugar with the aniseed and baking powder. Break up the dough. Sometimes it's easier to grate it, depending how hard it has become overnight - this is where you realise why it has the name it does! Mix in the sugar & spice mix and bring the dough together with a little more water (probably about a tablespoon or so).
|Taai-taai to the right
The other dough the Dutch use for Sinterklaas biscuits, and the one that is more popular these days, is butter-rich and spiced with cinnamon, ginger and clove. The English word ginger originally referred to any kind of spice, and it is this usage that is retained in the modern gingerbread. In Dutch, this dough takes it's name from the practice of pressing it into wooden moulds to create a mirror-image in the finished biscuit: speculaas (speculoos in Flemish).
Speculaas biscuits (makes 12-15 figures)
2 tablespoons milk
115g dark muscovado sugar
280g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon ground clove or allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground mace or nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chopped almonds
2 tablespoons chopped candied citron
150g butter, in 1-2cm cubes
Dissolve the brown sugar in the milk in a large bowl. Sift the flour, spices, salt and baking powder together into the bowl and stir into the sugar & milk. Mix in the chopped almonds and citron. Add the butter and work it gently through the mix with a knife until a dough starts to form. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface until smooth. Cover and rest in the fridge for an hour or so.
Both these biscuits improve with age if kept in an airtight tin. Throw a little (just a teaspoon or so) granulated sugar in the tin with the speculaas & pepernoten to keep them crisp, but the taai-taai are best left chewy.
Every year, I wonder which of the Dutch biscuits I like best. Many of my family prefer the speculaas, but I love the old-fashioned taste of aniseed and dark rye. On the other hand, I also love the buttery richness of the speculaas, too. Every year, I finish up making both!
Next time: aperitif beers