The history of Dutch speculaas cookies tells a lot about the history of the world. Many important players in world history have put their mark on the development of speculaas. But the most important ones must be Amsterdam bakers, creating the secret spice mix we use in our Winter Ale today.
Amsterdam, centre of speculaas
The story of speculaas begins half a world away in the Maluku or ‘spice islands’, once the only place in the world where spices like nutmeg grew. In the 17th century Amsterdam became the centre of spice distribution, when ships brimmed with exotic spices entered The Lowlands. Due to this growing offer spices became more affordable for Amsterdam bakers. They began creating secret mixes using exotic spices like nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and ginger to make biscuits.
But it was not just the spice mixes and recipes they kept a secret. It’s said some bakers already started making their speculaas dough in September to let it ripe for a few months, then baking it in special ovens. After baking they would store it in a secret way until December so the speculaas had exactly the right bite once sold.
Due to the high costs of spices, speculaas remained a luxury item for centuries to come, often only baked in the winter and given as a gift. In spite of its’ rarity, Amsterdammers became known as ‘cookie eaters’ because of their voracious appetite, and the word ‘cookie’ comes from the Dutch word ‘koek’.
So what’s with these letters?
The gift giving winter tradition of the Lowlanders has continued to this date. As the days gets shorter the mad race to gift each other given their initials in speculaas, peperkoek, chocolate letters.
There are several theories about their origin, in which one of them the letters have an educational function. Its said letters of bread dough were used in medieval schools to learn how to write. The letters were eaten after class.
Another possible origin can be found in another Dutch tradition: Sinterklaas. Gifts for the children were hidden under a cloth; a bread dough letter indicated whom the gifts were for. From the 19th century – still immensely popular – chocolate letters replaced the bread dough letters.
The best-sold letter to this day is the M and that’s not just because it’s the M of mama or mother. Presumably it is also greed since this letter seems to be the largest one. There’s no reason to be jealous at Mike or Michelle when you’re named Isaac or Isabel though: all letters have the same weight nowadays.
Inspired by this tradition, and by the bakers who invented our favourite spiced biscuit, we grant everyone the same piece of the pie, uh cookie. So why not give your loved ones their initials in bottles of spices Winter Ale this year? Happy holidays!