Sunday, October 31, 2010

Meet the Oliebollen

There were a few Halloween posters in pub windows on our way to the city tourist office yesterday to see what kind of scary things would be going on in Alkmaar for Halloween.    We had seen some interest in the holiday at our children's school, but that turned out to be because of its international enrollment.

When asked about Halloween activities in the city, the answer was,“Oh, we don’t do that here in Holland,” from a tourist office employee who did not want to be identified because they were not authorized to speak about pagan holidays.  However, I've learned that there is something similar coming for the kids coming on St. Martin’s holiday on November 11 when children take to the streets with lanterns singing songs for treats.

With no Halloween celebrations now in sight, I stopped along with two kids at a local bakery to get something to drink. My timing was good but I didn't know it. The pleasant ladies behind the counter had placed 3 baseball-sized pastry balls for us to take as samples as we were leaving.  Ok, thanks and nice but no huge deal I thought as we stepped outside.  One bite into the gooey, yet semi-fluffy and very tasty Dutch doughnut made me curious what it was.

They are the oliebollen - plural for the oliebol - deep fried pastry balls made from flour, cinnamon, apple and sometimes beer.  Served with a dusting of powdered sugar, oliebollen are eaten from the beginning of November to the end of the year, and are popular items to carry when the Dutch are visiting on New Year’s Eve.   This was a fun find in a land that is not famous for its culinary enthusiasm.

 “We make them now and give them out for free so people can taste and see how good they are.  Then at the end of the year they buy them,” said Hein Beerse, owner of Beerse Brood and Banket in Alkmaar.

I asked if there was a superstition of prosperity or health linked to them.  I was thinking about the Southern U.S. tradition of eating hog jowl and black-eyed peas on New Years Day for good luck.  “No, it’s just a habit,” was the reply.  The rest of our group with seven children soon joined us at the bakery and devoured their samples.

Just down the street near the Alkmaar train station was a stand selling the oliebollen.  A group of five well-dressed Dutch men in their thirties were buying a bag, and I began to wonder if the doughnut balls become part of the party.  I’m thinking that Americans might start throwing the baseball looking doughnuts if they were around at a New Year’s party.  Several beers and baseball doughnuts?  You bet that sounds like a good time!

But “no,” the oliebollen customers cautioned me, “they are only to eat.”  Well I guess that sounds normal enough.  I continued by asking one of our Dutch neighbors about them and she confirmed that no such horseplay exists. 

After a few minutes of Web search, I did find something unexpected about the oliebollen on Wikipedia.  “They are said to have been first eaten by Germanic tribes in the Netherlands during the Yule, the period between December 26 and January 6. The Germanic goddess Perchta, together with evil spirits, would fly through the mid-winter sky. It was said Perchta would try to cut open the bellies of all she came across, but because of the fat in the oliebollen, her sword would slide off the body of whoever ate them.

Wow! Damn right I’m going to eat some oliebollen. They taste great and protect from disembowelment.  Maybe the tribes threw the oliebollen at the flying spirits?  Probably not, but I’m still trying to frame it in an American holiday atmosphere with alcohol spirits present instead.

Do try some of these Dutch doughnuts when in the Netherlands at the end of the year.  And of course there are recipes online.  Please let me know if anyone has an unusual oliebollen story.  I know that one is out there.

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