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September 2017
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‘Oliebollen’ Tradition – Unveiling the Mystery

It’s 3pm on Friday and there are already long queues waiting patiently in the wind under the cold rain attracted by the magic smell of freshly fried ‘Oliebollen’- Dutch doughnuts. Yes, these people are waiting in front of the Joop’s Oliebollen stall in Kralingen, Rotterdam to taste the different kinds of these oily balls and enjoy the fruity flavor of apples and the sweetness of raisins.12346786_1209265812420677_1130034476_nBut there must be a secret behind the love for this treat and the long lines of people.

Joop, 46-years-old owner of the Oliebollen stall is happy to share his story about the roots of his love for preparing and selling this traditional Dutch treat. “I have been doing it for 20 years now; it was my father who fueled my passion for them. My wife, daughter and two sons are also helping me. I really insist on my children continuing the baking tradition, because it is something very special for my family.”

His daughter, Chinouk, 20-years-old student from Rotterdam, who is helping him prepare and sell these doughnuts explains that men are the ones who inherit the business and who are responsible for passing on the tradition and the original recipe to the next generation. “One day my older brother will replace him.”

People really have to love the tradition to follow it, and it is not so hard to love something delicious, hot and steaming, especially on a cold winter’s day. The love of the tradition is the key to the riddle. The universal explanation is that it is a centuries-old Dutch custom to eat Oliebollen during the winter season, especially on New Year’s Eve.  But every food tradition is a code, a complex combination of history, secret recipes passed on from generation to generation, and love.

Yes, love, combined with a pinch of pride and nostalgia. This Oliebollen mania is hardly the result of successful advertising in anticipation of Christmas. It is the taste that explains why these Dutch doughnuts seem to be practically everywhere in Rotterdam now – in the market, in the local store, in the small bakeries and on makeshift stalls in the streets.

Margriet De Veen, a Dutch 53-year-old housewife, is happy to share some of the secrets of the Dutch oily balls in terms family tradition and preparation. “I make them myself every year on the New Year’s Eve, just once a year when the whole family gathers together. I still remember my New Year’s Eves when I used to help my father bake the Oliebollen”.

But it was her late husband who taught her to add currants and apple to the yeast dough. When they were students, they rented a big apartment where they celebrated the New Year together with their friends. Oliebollen came as a natural hangover remedy, so they were much appreciated. “They must be always fresh, that is my philosophy. The idea is not just to have Oliebollen, but to have them crispy and tender and eat them as soon as they cool off”.

Michael, a 40-year-old owner of an Oliebollen stall in Kralingen, Rotterdam is also enthusiastic about the tradition: “This is my business for the last 25 years, it’s been a long time but I still love to do it”. He even remembers a medieval story his mom used to tell him: “In the winter people had to carefully spare their food and after the Christmas celebrations the Oliebollen became a popular treat because due to their ingredients they could be easily preserved”. Obviously durability was more important than freshness then.

Even though the Dutch love their Oliebollen, most of them are not familiar with the roots of the tradition. Tomas, 15 years old student from Rotterdam says: “It is simply a Dutch thing and everybody knows about it. People love Oliebollen because they come with the winter and the Christmas holidays. All I know is that they are the ancestors of the American doughnut – they were introduced in America by Dutch settlers”. It appears that although most of the young Dutch do not really care about the doughnut baking history, they feel proud of this tradition and cannot wait for the Oliebollen season to begin so that they can enjoy their favorite specialty.

Lastly, the roots of the Dutch love of the tradition must be sought in history. Oliebollen are said to have been first eaten by Germanic tribes in the Netherlands during the Yule, the period between December 26 and January 6. In particular, the story about the Germanic pagan goddess Perchta flying in the dark winter sky together with the evil spirits during the Yule should be remembered, because it tells us that these spirits have to be appeased and Perchta’s sword will slide off the bodies of those who have eaten fried dough balls.

Consequently people should eat as many Oliebollen as possible to avoid this fate, in spite of nutritionists’ warnings that fried greasy food is most unhealthy. Is it healthier to be stubbed by Perchta’s sword?

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