The ‘pepernoot’ is a widely known and favorite delicacy in the Netherlands around the Sinterklaas holiday—which is celebrated today, on December 5th. The small brown cookies have been in the shops since August. The literal translation of ‘pepernoot’ is “pepper nut”, and is also known by the name ‘kruidnoot’, which translates to “spice nut”—a more correct description of these cookies. This is due to these half-sphere shaped pepernoten being made from several spices to get the taste right. The ingredients have certain similarities to the German Pfeffernüsse, and look slightly similar to them as well. But where do pepernoten come from? And why do we only eat these around Sinterklaas?
In the 16th century, sweets were distributed with Sinterklaas. Just to spoil the (good) children of the Netherlands even more, the pepernoot was given them along with other gifts. You can even see pepernoten depicted in very old paintings. Back then they were only square, looked like chunks and tasted a bit like ‘ontbijtkoek’—another Dutch type of food—those are the real original, old-fashioned and “old school” pepernoten.
Pepernoten as we know them today are made with “speculaas” spices. These spices come from the far east, where sailors first obtained spices such as pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cloves more than 300 years ago. They used this to make gingerbread spices. The recipe for the pepernoten has only been in the cookbooks since the 19th century. And why are these pepernoten so crunchy and tough? So that they could be thrown around properly.
Throwing pepernoten around.
One particularly distinct custom of the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas, is throwing handfuls of pepernoten in rooms, so children can look for them. The Dutch seem to believe the five-second-rule doesn’t apply to pepernoten that fall on the ground.
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But before the 19th century, pepernoten were not thrown around at all. That is because Sinterklaas did not visit people at that time. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Saint Nicholas and Black Pete made presents in mysterious ways. These children only found them on December 6, in the morning, in all kinds of crazy places. Fortunately, Sinterklaas thought that was a bit unpleasant and he has faithfully visited as many children as possible for 300 years, with the help of his Black Petes.
Pepernoten only around Sinterklaas?
Around the 18th century, the pepernoot was actually a very common snack. It was snacked on throughout the year. Only around the 19th century did it become a real Sinterklaas delicacy. But why? Because then the tradition around Sinterklaas became much more large scale and it gradually became a tradition that the gingerbread nut was only distributed around Sinterklaas.
Did you know?
Did you know that the very first pepernoot shop has opened on the Van Woustraat in Amsterdam? “The Pepernotenfabriek shop” is open all year round. Here they sell not only normal pepernoten but also very special ones such as cappuccino, truffle, orange, yogurt and star anise gingerbread cookies.
Did you know that people in love used to make gingerbread dolls for their loved one around Sinterklaas time? If the other took the gingerbread man, you knew that the love was mutual.