It Took a Little Boy….

How the Dutch ended up with chocolate sprinkles on their bread

Although the Americans have their chocolate “jimmies”, the French “dragees” and the Italians “confetti”, there is no other nationality besides the Dutch who generously sprinkle their sandwiches with “little mice”.  Before you begin to imagine cute miniature chocolate mice running over sandwiches, you should know that “muisjes” euphemistically means mouse droppings!

IMG_3417According to the blogger Rina Mae Acosta, one of the reasons UNICEF rated Dutch children as among the happiest children in the world is because they have “hagelslag” – chocolate sprinkles on bread for breakfast. How did one of the most pragmatic groups of people in the world get the idea of sprinkling bread with chocolate?

If you search the city archives of Amsterdam, you will discover that in 1919 a particularly severe hail storm season inspired B.E. Dieperink, the director of the Venco candy company , to make sugar coated anise seeds to sprinkle on bread. Dieperink’s creation was named hagelslag which literally means hailstorm. Grocers and confectioners img_6542around the country were soon weighing out the delicious treat into paper bags for Dutch children to take home and sprinkle on their sandwiches.

Not to be outdone, the DeRuijter confectionary company christened their own version of hagelslag  in 1928.  They offered the public four flavours: lemon, raspberry, orange and anise. Ten years later, Cees and Piet De Ruijter pulled off a marketing coup img_6540when they arrived at the Soestdijk Palace on the occasion  of Princess Beatrix’s birth to present the new Dutch royal parents, Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard with special orange geboorte muisjes.  The tradition of serving “birth sprinkles” on rusk to celebrate the birth of a new child dates from this special event.

But how did all these flavoured candy sprinkles evolve into chocolate sprinkles for our sandwiches? The answer illustrates the power of children as consumers.  A little five year old boy began to write letters to VENZ, a chocolate company  owned by “H. deVries en zonen” (H. deVries and sons)  asking for chocolate sprinkles. It is said he wrote quite a few img_6536letters. Enough letters to make Gerard de Vries, one of those sons, spend many evenings experimenting.  Finally in 1936, he puzzled out the mystery of how to make real chocolate hail with just the right look. Of course, there were no machines to produce such a product so after devising the right recipe “Meneer Ger” then had to find a way to make his product in large scale. By the 1960’s chocolate sprinkles had become  such a large part of the VENZ business that most of their other products were no longer worth bothering with.

While the original creator of hagelslag, Venco, remains known for their licorice products around the world, both DeRuijter and VENZ continue to produce not only chocolate sprinkles but also a growing assortment of similar products that children and many adults still sprinkling on their bread today.

So when you enjoy a slice of white bread generously topped with chocolate “hagelslag” think of a little boy who wouldn’t take no for an answer!

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Did you know?

  • Chocolate sprinkles are enjoyed all around the world nowimg_6538
  • Chocolate sprinkles must contain a minimum of 34% cocoa to be called “hagelslag”.  If they contain less they must be called cacaofantasie meaning pretend chocolate.
  • In Belgium chocolate sprinkles are literally called mouse droppings: muizenstroontjes
  • Most chocolate sprinkles now produced in The Netherlands are UTZ certified meaning they are made from sustainably sourced chocolate

Christmas Tree Chocolates

IMG_5025Chocolate Christmas tree ornaments have been popular since 1880 when Woolworth sold the first chocolate ornaments in their department stores. In England you will find chocolate coins covered in gold foil paper. These coins are an echo of the generosity of St. Nicolas centuries before. Other chocolate ornaments also became popular. In Hungary, chocolate bonbons covered in shiny coloured papers called Szaloncukor will be found hanging in Christmas trees.  In The Netherlands trees will be adorned with kerstkransjes, chocolate wreaths .

IMG_5027The advent of chocolate production in Europe and England was in the 17th century, however, it remained a luxury product that only the rich could afford well into the late 18th century. Early factories only produced cocoa. The first edible chocolate confection did not appear until 1847, the brain child of Joseph Fry. The Fry family together with two other Quaker families, Cadbury and IMG_5024Rowntree, remained on the forefront of the chocolate industry for several centuries. When Cadbury announced in 2014 that they would no longer be making chocolate coins there was much protest. However, import stores like our store,The European Pantry here in Welland, Ontario source their chocolate coins from the European continent.

The most recent statistic that I could find, put chocolate consumption at 7.2 million tonnes IMG_5028in 2009 world wide. At that time it was estimated that consumption would increase to 8.5 million tonnes by 2020.  Without a doubt much of that chocolate is consumed during the ChristmasIMG_5023 season.  Our customers tell us that it just wouldn’t be Christmas without chocolates hanging from their trees. So it is always a joyous day when our Christmas chocolates arrive from Europe!

Marzipan and Piggie Banks

IMG_4942 IMG_4943 By our checkout we have a small container of marzipan pigs. People pick them up and ask what they are. That is when I explain the story of marzipan pigs. For the uninitiated, marzipan is a candy made from ground almonds. It can vary in quality, the best being in the class of the Niederegger classic gift box assortment you can see above.  It’s a very traditional European confection at Christmas although we make sure we have some marzipan around all year round.

“Why the marzipan pigs?” People ask. Today when one only needs to run to the grocery store to pick up some pork chops, it is hard to imaging a time when only the very rich could afford to keep a pig all winter long without needing to butcher it.  The tradition of giving marzipan pigs as gifts to family and friends arose out of that culture of subsistence farming.  The gift of a marzipan pig during the Christmas holiday season is a wish for a prosperous new year. In Dutch we call such a gift an “aardigheidje”…a little present of thoughtfulness. Who are you thinking of this Christmas?

It would seem that piggie banks would be an automatic extension of the Christmas marzipan pig. However, the origin of piggie banks is totally unrelated. Originally money banks were made of a clay called pygg. When this evolved to making ceramic money banks in the shape of a pig is not known. Perhaps a potter’s apprentice took his master literally when he was told to make some “pygg” banks!  Here are some money banks we brought in for Christmas gifts with a German influence but with a totally different result!

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Why Dutch People Give Chocolate Letters

IMG_2859Why do Dutch people give chocolate letters? When we receive our initial on “Pakjesavond” December 5 or at Christmas most of us just eat the delicious chocolate without wondering why this unique tradition is still practiced. The history of receiving a “letter” dates back centuries but originally letters were made of pastry. This is why almond pastry rings are still called “banket letter” by some people. I still remember my mother receiving a banket “C” for her birthday from a friend who was an excellent baker. In the days before gift

banket letter

Still life with Letter Pastries by Peter Binoit, ca. 1615 Museum Amstelkring on loan from the Groninger Museum. Photo: C Myers

wrapping, parents would spread a bed sheet over the gifts for “Sinterklaas”. They would then mark the place of each child’s gift with the child’s initial. Still life paintings of old Dutch masters from the 16th & 17th centuries show these pastry initials.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Dutch chocolate industry began to make letters in chocolate. The shift to chocolate letters was quick and enthusiastic. During World War II, supply shortages meant no chocolate letters but even then letters were made of gingerbread. Once rationing ended chocolate letter manufacturing was quick to resume.

IMG_2862For the Dutch emigres and us, their descendants, the tradition provides a strong connection to our roots. Opas and Omas of large families can give a personalized gift to each grandchild…there is something very special about getting one’s own letter. Of course, the children who got a M or a W always thought they got more chocolate than the poor child whose name started with I. But an I for Ingrid was still better than not getting your letter if your name started with a Q, X, Y or Z. Today, however, all the letters of the alphabet are available…for a limited time, of course. We have already bagged up about 170 pre-orders for our customers on our Chocolate Letter Registry but there are still lots of letters to pick from!

IMG_4884IMG_4883Here at The European Pantry where we have customers that reflect a wide variety of heritages, we find that the idea of giving a letter is catching on with the non-Dutch customer, too. It is such a simple way to give a small personalized thank you to a hair dresser or delivery person. They also can be used as an innovative way to mark place settings at a holiday gathering. Other people use them in the historical way as name tags for gifts.

The chocolate that our letters are made of is all UTZ certified to guarantee ethical production conditions for the chocolate bean farmers and their families. Learn more about UTZ certifications here.

Nagyon Finom – delicious!

IMG_4628There’s nothing like pictures to inspire us to cook but one of my favourite and obviously well used recipe books, “The Old World Kitchen”  by Elizabeth Luard boasts no colour photography.IMG_4638 The illustrations are pen and ink drawings by Luard. Yet it is the cookbook I frequently go to for simple authentic recipes that are grounded in history. This morning I had a serendipitous moment. I had pulled out “The Old World Kitchen” and opened it to a Hungarian recipe for handmade noodles.  Luard has a recipe for Tarhonya  or noodle barley. I was pondering whether this was the same as the Csipetke noodles that we sell when Ilona came into the store. I have been on quite the learning curve trying to master the Hungarian names for the products we sell. One customer has taught me how to say, “Delicious!” in Hungarian (as in the title of this post!) or “Volt nagyon finom!” Which means: It was very tasty! Ilona has been especially helpful in my efforts to master some of the Hungarian.  The sounds of the language are starting to become familiar so when she told me the name of the noodle that she couldn’t find on the shelf I followed my hunch. My recipe book was still sitting open in the store kitchen. Sure enough Tarhonya was exactly what she was looking for and fortunately I can get it from one of wholesalers…so Ilona will soon get her noodles.

Luard describes tarhonya  as “probably the most primitive noodle dough in the world, the ancient solution to the problem of how to make milled grain palatable, storable and portable.” Palatable seems a bit short of nagyon finom! yet Luard says these pearl barley shaped noodles are still made in Hungary today evenIMG_4620 though the ancient need to preserve milled grains isn’t quite as urgent in the modern age. Obviously, tarhonya is delicious or no one would be asking for it anymore. Old world cooking is an antidote to fast food overload. We all crave foods that satisfy more than an empty stomach. Anne Applebaum, co-author of “From a Polish Country Kitchen”, writes that immediately after communism collapsed in Poland the Polish people craved foods from the world beyond. “But in recent years, Polish cooks, both amateur and professional, have returned to their roots, launching a revival of Polish cooking on a national scale.”  We all crave the foods that babcia, nagymama, or oma cooked. These foods satisfy something much deeper than the bottom of our stomachs.

This is one of the reasons why I am always looking for cookbooks that honour the IMG_4624cooking traditions of different cultures. Yesterday, I scored some new finds. Come on in and check out our cookbook collection. Here’s a peak at what you will find:IMG_4631

IMG_4627 From Classic French cooking to German, Scandinavian, Belgian, Dutch, South American, Jewish and more. IMG_4633IMG_4623

Surprises are nice but…

IMG_2265At The European Pantry, we keep a container of leftover cheese pieces from our sampling sessions.  I try to label them but sometimes I pick up a piece neatly wrapped but with no label.  I like all the cheeses we sell so I don’t mind these surprises when I am making myself a snack or something for lunch as I work. Today though, I have to admit that the horseradish cheddar on my lunch bagel came as a bit of a shock after the first half bagel slathered with European peanut butter.

It reminded me of the stories of a friend whose parents had trouble making ends meet when he was growing up in the 1960’s.  Some nights they had dented can surprise. In those days it wasn’t uncommon for stores to clear out cans that had lost their labels and also experienced the hard knocks of life at discount prices.  Russ told me that for some reason cans of peaches and fruit salad seemed to show up a lot. Not a bad dessert for the 60’s but hard to make a meal out of.  Other nights when his mother was asked about that night’s menu they were told it was something that would stick to their ribs.  That meant only porridge was left in the larder. Dented can surprise would have seemed like a luxury on porridge nights!

Labels are important but we tend to take them for granted if we don’t live with visual impairments.  My horseradish surprise was well timed because I had just read an article about how braille ended up on wine bottles. It took one person who began to imagine life in someone else’s shoes… click here to read “The Story of How Braille Wound up on Wine Bottles.”.