Pepernoten (literally pepper nuts) are little, brown spice cookies very popular before and during the Dutch holiday Sinterklaasavond, or Saint Nicholas’s Eve. Sinterklaasavond occurs on the night of December 5 when the patron saint of children, Sinterklaas (de Sint, or formally: Sint Nicolaas, from whom the modern Santa Claus evolved), distributes presents and sweet treats across the country.
Sinterklaas is an elderly, stately and serious man with white hair and a long, full beard, supposed to live in Spain. He wears a long red cape with golden fringes over a white bishop’s alb, and carries around a long golden staff with a curled top, in addition to the big book of Sinterklaas, in which is written down which children have been good the last year and deserve presents, and which children have been naughty and get salt (even if usually they still get presents as well).
As tradition goes, during the day on December 5, a Sinterklaas figure parades through towns carrying a burlap sack filled with presents, candy, and the crunchy cookies. Children clamor around as he and his helpers, Zwarte Pieten, throwing pepernoten and candy.
Zwarte Pieten are black guys with black curly hair, black because they are Spanish (moorish), or if you want to be politically correct they are black from the soot in the chimneys they have to climb through to deliver presents. In fact today, the black-painted Zwarte Piet (translated as “Black Pete”) spikes healthy debates among citizens concerned about his connection to racial oppression and colonial domination, though he remains a beloved purveyor of pepernoten and a reservoir of nostalgia to many! They are dressed up in a colourful 17th centure page dress, with a lace collar and a cap with feather. Sometimes they have a “roe” as well, a bunch of twigs used to spank naughty children. According to the legend, naughty children will be put in the bag (empty because the candy and presents have been given to the good children) and taken back to Spain, a fable used as a threat to have children behave themselves.
Sinterklaas traditionally arrives in the Netherlands each year in mid-November (usually on a Saturday) by steamboat from Spain. Traditionally, in the weeks between his arrival and 5 December, before going to bed, children put their shoes next to the chimney, with a carrot or some hay in it and a bowl of water nearby for Sinterklaas’ horse. When children grow up, they don’t get gifts any more from Sinterklaas and family members draw names and buy gifts for each other, that are creatively disguised and accompanied by a humorous poem.
The arrival of Sinterklaas is always accompanied by some sort of “drama”, that is followed by the Sinterklaas journal on television: the steamboat has broken down, the presents are lost, or something similar, and this has almost always something to do with an unintended mistake of one of the pieten. All the pieten have different tasks: there is the navigation piet has to navigate the steamboat from Spain to the Netherlands, the package piet, who has to make sure that all the presents are packaged nicely, but also the acrobatic pieten, that are agile enough to climb the roofs to drop gifts down the chimney.
The December 5 celebrations continue into the evening when children are home. Often, after hearing a knock on the door, they’ll rush toward the sound and arrive just in time to see a black-gloved hand toss cookies inside, and usually a sack of presents will also be left behind.
One of the favourite Sinterklaas treats are pepernoten or, actually, kruidnoten.
Light and crunchy, pepernoten start to fill supermarket shelves as early as the end of October and find their way into store displays throughout November as the holiday approaches. Occasionally served at markets by the scoop, pepernoten are spiced with some combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and anise. According to some traditions, the small round pepernoten represent coins and the practice of throwing them dates back to an old legend in which St. Nicholas saved three poor women from prostitution by throwing them golden coins, enabling them to afford a dowry and therefore marry honorably.
Kruidnoten (literally spicy nuts) have the shape of a half sphere, are crispy and contain speculaas herbs, the dough they are made with is similar to speculaas, traditional spiced shortcrust biscuit. It is very common in the Netherlands that kruidnoten are actually called pepernoten (just like me!), and there are people that can get very mad about this confusion.
In any case, today, children happily gather the symbolic pepernoten off the street, popping them into their mouths on the unique day when it becomes socially acceptable to eat food harvest from the pavement!