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The history of Dutch ontbijtkoek

Ontbijtkoek (literally, breakfast cake) takes pride of place at most Dutch breakfast tables, and is an equally popular snack or lunchtime treat. But, is this sweetly-spiced, brown ginger cake really an authentic Dutch delicacy, and what makes it such a firm favourite in the Netherlands?

Ontbijtkoek

Ontbijtkoek during classical times

Whilst ontbijtkoek is extraordinarily popular in the Netherlands, it’s not actually a Dutch invention. In fact, a predecessor to the breakfast cake that we know and love today was already enjoyed by the ancient Egyptians more than 4000 years ago. During the reign of Pharaoh Ramses III, a cereal-based cake containing honey, cinnamon and pepper, was the favoured sacrificial offering to the gods for example, whilst the ancient Greeks were fond of a sweet cake that looked remarkably similar to modern day ontbijtkoek. Ancient writings showered Greek bakers with praise for their delicious version of breakfast cake, which famous philosopher, Socrates, often nibbled during his speeches. Even the Romans were fond of breakfast cake, a delicacy that they saved largely for special occasions. Indeed, most of our distant ancestors regarded breakfast cake as a luxury item because it contained pepper – a sought-after spice that was extremely scarce (and thus expensive) and widely attributed with special properties, such as an ability to ward off evil spirits.

Breakfast cake in the Netherlands

The recipe for breakfast cake has evolved gradually over centuries – one of the biggest changes was brought about by explorers who came to Europe with an exciting new selection of herbs and spices. Bakers began to experiment with these novel ingredients, resulting in hundreds of different varieties of ontbijtkoek in the Netherlands and Belgium alone.

Municipal records indicate that ontbijtkoek was professionally baked in the Netherlands as early as the 16th century, particularly in South Holland, Overijssel, Groningen, Friesland and Brabant. Today the most famous Dutch breakfast cake brand is Peijnenburg, which has been producing its superior range of tempting breakfast cakes for more than 125 years. Although Koninklijke Peijnenburg was originally founded by Dutch baker, Harry Peijnenburg, in the Brabant town of Geldrop in 1883 , it was later acquired by Lotus Bakeries in 2006. The Belgian company’s key aim is to win as many converts to typical Dutch Peijnenburg breakfast cake, both at home and abroad, as possible.

Ontbijtkoek facts

  • One of the key ingredients in breakfast cake is pepper, which is why it’s often known as ‘peperkoek’, particularly in the south of Holland.
  • Popular Dutch varieties of breakfast cake include: Deventerkoek, gemberkoek, Groningerkoek, kandijkoek and kruidkoek.
  • In the Netherlands ontbijtkoek is traditionally eaten at birthdays and funerals, because it contains pepper and honey, which symbolise sadness and joy respectively.
  • Dutch children still play ‘koekhappen’ – an old-fashioned birthday party game in the Netherlands in which participants endeavour to eat a dangled slice of breakfast cake (whilst blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their the back) in the shortest amount of time.

Prefer to read this article in Dutch? Then why not visit our sister blog, Heimwee.info, specifically intended for Dutch emigrants abroad?

 

One comment on “The history of Dutch ontbijtkoek

  1. Pingback: Dutch Food / Snacks | inlovewithcultures

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