The speculaas


by Thomas Stiegler

“Then I’ll put my plate on the table, I’m sure Niklaus will put something on it. – Who can’t remember this song and the unique tension that arose on St. Nicholas’ Day in the morning and grew stronger and stronger until the evening? And it finally culminated in the anxious question of when “he” would finally come and whether he would have something for us. Usually it was a few sweets, mandarins and peanuts and maybe even a present or two. In the far north of Europe, the children had even more reason to be happy, because there Father Christmas also put a few speculoos on their plates.

Today, in our globalised world, everyone is probably familiar with speculoos. Alongside gingerbread and Springerle, it is probably one of the best-known and most popular of the so-called symbolic biscuits. But while Springerle are made of egg foam dough and only have a slight aniseed note, and gingerbread is very tasty but usually not too strongly spiced, Spekulatius is an intensely tasting spiced biscuit made of shortcrust pastry that fits wonderfully into the pre-Christmas season.

Speculoos, © HandmadePicture

If you are lucky enough to hold traditionally made speculoos in your hand, then you should take the time to look closely at the pictures. Because all the motifs, whether they are ships or other seafaring motifs (Saint Nicholas is also the patron saint of seafarers) or depictions of horses and mules (as a sign that he rides from house to house to distribute gifts) have to do with the story surrounding Saint Nicholas.

If you are clever, you can even discover whole episodes from his life by sorting through the biscuits or retell them on the basis of the illustrations. Of course, most of these stories belong to the realm of legend, because there are only a few reports about the historical person of Nicholas of Myra. The only thing that seems to be certain is that he worked as a bishop of Myra in the fourth century AD and was soon widely known and venerated for his selfless life of charity. This fact also explains the many stories and legends surrounding his life.

The day of his death is 6 December, which is why he is commemorated throughout the Christian world and his memory is celebrated with numerous customs. In this context, I find it interesting why St. Nicholas greets the children with “Have you been good (and pious)? This question originally goes back to the “Parable of the Talents Entrusted”, which was always read on this day.

The story is probably well known, so here is a short version: A gentleman who had to go away entrusted his three servants with some talents (i.e. gold pieces) according to their abilities. After his return, they had to answer him whether they had used their talents or hidden them. And this is what St. Nicholas’ question refers to – whether they had been good and used their talents (and not, as is wrongly assumed today, as a way of measuring the children!)

Another story that revolves around the images of ships or other attributes of seafaring is the following legend: Once there was a great storm at sea and a ship heading for the port of Myra got into dire straits. Filled with despair, the sailors called on Saint Nicholas – and sure enough, a man suddenly appeared out of nowhere, stood at the helm, calmly gave his orders and saved the ship from the storm. He then disappeared again and the sailors were able to continue their journey. They puzzled for a long time as to who it might have been, and when they entered the church of Myra to say a prayer of thanks for their rescue, they recognised St Nicholas as their saviour in a picture.

These and similar stories and legends about Saint Nicholas were very popular and widespread in the Christian world. In the Middle Ages, however, they could not be passed on in writing due to the lack of reading ability of large parts of the population, but people switched to depicting these and other stories about the saints in the form of pictures (not least because of this, the interiors of Catholic churches are also so full of pictures and colour).

Speculoos, © firn

Sometime in the course of the 10th century, monks then had the resourceful idea of no longer distributing simple pictures in honour of Saint Nicholas, but carving them directly in wood, pressing them in dough and making a special biscuit out of them – the speculoos (of course, this was not an original invention of the Middle Ages, but this technique was already known to the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians and was also used in ancient Greece). The whole thing, however, was an elaborate work for which the carpenter or woodcarver had to take separate time, which he then lacked for more important work. This is also the reason why the motifs on the Spekulatius are so often repeated: because “in former times the Spekulatius was shaped in a piece of oak wood, into which the motifs were elaborately carved.” [2] And this elaborate work could not be done too often by a monk for reasons of time. Later, when the upper middle classes also found pleasure in this pastry, the range of motifs naturally became more numerous, because art carvers and sculptors also occupied themselves with it, and that is why we know so many different types of motifs today.

Of course, today different regions lay claim to being the inventors of this pastry, such as the Rhineland. But researchers assume that the first Spekulatius were baked in the Netherlands. Theologian and author Becker-Huberti [3] also thinks so: “The biscuit originated in what is now the Netherlands.” An important clue to this is that the first profane images, which have nothing to do with the St. Nicholas story, were Dutch windmills, and these are now only found in the northwestern part of the Netherlands.

Before I conclude with a recipe (or rather three different ones!) I would like to briefly discuss the name of this biscuit – Spekulatius.

The most likely derivation is directly related to Saint Nicholas. For the word bishop is derived from the ancient Greek “ἐπίσκοπος”, which means “overseer” or “guardian”. In Latin, in turn, the term is “speculator”, from which the word “speculoos” was then derived. The folklorist Gabi Grimm-Piecha also finds this derivation most plausible: “The term probably derives from speculator, translated as overseer – which corresponds to the Latin term for bishop.” [4] In another account, she goes into even more detail about this designation, because the word “speculare” also means “to observe”, which was one of the basic tasks of a bishop. For they had to regularly visit the parishes under their authority and see that everything was in order: “The Council of Trent attributed this quality of watching above all to St. Nicholas.” [5]

Of course, depending on the region and the dialect, there were various verbalisations of this word such as “Spikelātsje”, “Spekelātsje” or “Spekulaties”, but today we only know this biscuit under the name “Spekulatius”.

In the end, we have to address one last thing, and that is which of the Spekulatius known today is the “right” one: the spiced Spekulatius, the almond Spekulatius or the butter Spekulatius. And, to cut a long story short – one of each. Because, as I said, this biscuit has never been about the ingredients, only about its shape and the imprinted images. The different ways of preparing it can be explained quite simply, because most of the population could not afford the expensive spices needed for the Spiced Speculoos, so they switched to other recipes.

That’s why today there is the spiced Spekulatius, which owes its typical taste to the cardamom, cloves and cinnamon used, the almond Spekulatius, which tastes somewhat milder and is coated with almond slivers on the underside, and of course the butter Spekulatius. Incidentally, original Dutch and Belgian speculoos have a typical caramel aroma, which is achieved by the sugar used (“Basterdsuiker”, i.e. brown sugar) with its high molasses content.

Quotes used

(1) … »Was bedeuten die Motive auf dem Spekulatius?«, Augsburger Allgemeine; Manfred Becker-Huberti; Translation by the author;

(2) … »Was bedeuten die Motive auf dem Spekulatius?«, Augsburger Allgemeine; Manfred Becker-Huberti; Translation by the author;

(3) … Manfred Becker-Huberti is a theologian and has already written several books on church customs.

(4) … »Spekulatius«, Wikipedia deutsch; Translation by the author;

(5) … »Was bedeuten die Motive auf dem Spekulatius?«, Augsburger Allgemeine; Gabi Grimm-Piecha; Translation by the author;

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