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If you’re fortunate enough to travel to the Netherlands during the festive period of Sinterklaas, then you’ll no doubt get to take part in many of the fun celebrations and sample some of the typical Dutch food products that are enjoyed at this special time of year.
Traditional Dutch biscuits flavoured with cinnamon and spices such as ‘speculaas‘, ‘pepernoten’ and ‘kruidnoten’ are particular favourites during the Sinterklaas season. Dutch supermarkets will be literally overflowing with these and the customary ‘chocoladeletter’ – a generous letter made from solid chocolate, denoting a child’s first initial.
In the weeks leading up to Pajkesavond on December 5th, Dutch children habitually leave their shoe in front of the fireplace in the hope that Sinterklaas will climb down the chimney and fill it with a present and a much coveted chocolate letter. Of course, just like Santa Claus, Sinterklaas only leaves goodies for children who have been good all year round!
These distinctive chocolate treats have been associated with Sinterklaas for so long, that many Dutch people have actually forgotten how the giving and receiving of them became such an important ritual during Sinterklaas.
Surprisingly Dutch chocolate letters were initially made from pastry and not chocolate at all. You can spot these early letters in the still life paintings created by acclaimed Dutch masters in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was not until the nineteenth century though, that they became so intrinsically linked with the popular Sinterklaas celebration. Around this time parents would prevent their children from sneaking a peek at Sinterklaas presents, by covering the gifts with sheets. To ensure that presents were given to the correct recipient, pastry letters representing the child’s initials were placed on top.
At the start of the twentieth century the Dutch chocolate industry began to flourish and the first chocolate versions of these letters became available. Production was suspended however, due to severe shortages and rationing during World War Two. Leading Dutch chocolate manufacturer Verkade, temporarily produced gingerbread letters to allow their customers to continue their much loved Sinterklaas traditions, despite the unfortunate circumstances. Once rationing ended in the 1950’s, the manufacture of chocolate letters resumed and these were consumed in ever growing quantities.
M is for More!
Dutch children and indeed adults, all look forward to their first chocolate letter of the year. In fact in 2001, when major Dutch supermarket Albert Heijn controversially stopped stocking chocolate letters before mid November, they received a barrage of complaints from angry parents and hastily reversed their decision! These days there are plenty of varieties to choose from including ‘melk’ (milk), ‘witte’ (white) or ‘puur’ (dark) chocolate letters which are often filled with marzipan or almonds.
Chocolate Letters in the Netherlands are big business and the manufacturers must keep up to date on current naming trends to determine which initials will be the most popular each year. The letter M is one of the top selling letters of all time – the reasons that this particular letter flies of the supermarket shelves so quickly are numerous. M is the initial of many common Dutch names and also the first letter of ‘Mama’ (mum). Many also mistakenly believe that the M is bigger in size than other letters and purchase purely in the name of greed! Chocolate manufacturers, however, go to great trouble to guarantee that every letter weighs exactly the same. They do this by producing different densities of chocolate or by adding a number of grooves. The letter I for example, is significantly thicker than a letter A. De Heer on the other hand actually include two letter I’s in their box in order to overcome the size issue. Other best selling letters include the P for ‘Papa’ (dad) and Piet (from Zwarte Piet, the Sint’s trusted helper) and S for ‘Sint’. Letters O and V are sold in the smallest quantities, whilst several Dutch chocolate companies won’t even manufacture Q, U, X, Y or Z. Albert Heijn and Verkade pride themselves on providing the complete alphabet, so if your child’s name is Ursula or Zak, their shoe needn’t be empty!
Chocolate Letter Fashions
Chocolate letters are traditionally made in the ‘Egyptienne’ font and whilst many variations on this have been attempted over the years, this is the only style that has endured. In Amsterdam Hebrew letters were once available and these days retailers often stock Arabic letters to cater for the large Muslim population.
Holland is a responsible nation and Fair Trade chocolate has recently become all the rage. New chocolate manufacturers such as Chocolony now produce a range of delicious, yet entirely ethical chocolate letters, that compete directly with the sales of standard chocolate letters made by Dutch institutions such as Droste, De Heer and Verkade. Oxfam even released the cleverly named ‘groene Sint’ (green Saint), allowing the Dutch to enjoy their favourite Sinterklaas treat, safe in the knowledge that the cocoa farmers got a good price for their beans.
Yet, despite these changing trends and evolving tastes, one thing remains clear – a Sinterklaas celebration just isn’t complete without a delicious Dutch Chocolate letter!
A Letter from Home
Together De Heer and Droste produce in excess of thirty million Chocolate letters a year. While most of these will end up in the shoes of Dutch children in the Netherlands, vast quantities are exported to Dutch communities living as far and wide as the US, Australia and New Zealand. Dutch Canadians appear to yearn more than most for a ‘little taste from home’ during Sinterklaas. The country annually imports a staggering one million chocolate letters, which represents a serious amount of chocolate!
If you find yourself far way from a Dutch supermarket this Sinterklaas, there’s no need to worry – you can always order your precious chocolate letter online and celebrate Sinterklaas in the traditional way.