Of Spice and Bread Men

Some St Nicolas-related bakery traditions from the Hogeland, in the north of the Netherlands:

“Here we are! Old-fashioned bread men (Stoetenkereltjes): in earlier days sold at 12 for 10 cents. We were then made on the night from 4 on 5 December. Boss rolled us out, and apprentice carved the arms and legs. And we always went. If we weren’t sold, we ended up in the pig’s trough.”

This is how they were presented at a pre-WW2 bakery exhibition. They were made from taai-taai, and until the end of the 19th century given to betrothed. Taai-taai is a chewy and tough dough biscuit. These bread men are similar to gingerbread men, German Stutenkerl and Grittibänz (Switzerland).

The tradition may not be so very old though, at least in the north; Teenstra, in his “De Kinderwereld” (1852) tells us: “The tough and self-centered people from Amsterdam bake a sort of “Sintniklaas goods”, which they call taai-taai, and that really, by its way of fabrication as a sort of glue, is made into an odd degree of toughness. 

The other popular biscuit associated with St Nicolas is the speculaas doll. Speculaas is a crisp, spiced biscuit, which is often prepared in a mould. We’ve got the mould above, which is of a Vrijer, a Suitor. The history of the speculaas doll goes back to the 17th century, when the first biscuit boards in human form appeared. The word Vrijer is said to come from Freyr, the Germanic god of love. 

A young man would buy a Vrijer and maybe decorate it further with almonds, then offer it to the girl he fancied on St. Nicolas Eve. If the girl accepted the speculaas doll, then she’d consent for the boy to eat at her place the next evening. At dinner the next day she’d give the doll back to the boy. Had she bitten off the head? Then that was good news for the boy. Had she eaten the legs, then it was time for the boy to step up!  

This tradition possibly goes back to the function of St Nicolas as marriage broker, as in the legend in which he gave three poor girls a dowry. 

A bit mysterious are the Fieterknutten, St Nicolas biscuits that were baked in the Hogeland, the northern part of Netherlands where Teenstra lived. It’s mostly described as “a sort of biscuit”. A dialect website tells us that it’s a sticky biscuit, sort of a combination of taai-taai and Fryske dúmkes, biscuits the size of a children’s thumb. They appear to be an old version of the modern pepernoten, ginger nuts. It’s not known exactly how they were made, but a recipe for something similar has been found, and reconstructed Fieterknuten can be sampled in the Hogeland. 

3 thoughts on “Of Spice and Bread Men

  1. Interesting that Vrijer means suitor, as it sounds very close to the German word Freier, the client of a sex worker.

    Aha: I have just looked it up on German Wikipedia (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kunde_(Prostitution)) and discovered that Freier used to mean exactly a suitor or one who courts a woman. That usage is no longer common, presumably because of the less-respectable meaning overtaking it.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.