Saturday, July 28, 2012

Chocolate for lunch (and maybe breakfast too)

When I was a kid, one of my favourite sandwiches involved peanut butter and chocolate sprinkles. Yes. Chocolate sprinkles. But not the cheap candy ones you can get anywhere. I grew up with Dutch chocolate hagelslag, which have a richer chocolate flavour and are required to contain at least 35% cocoa to bear the name. Like just about everything in your life when you’re a kid, this seemed completely normal. I’d eat them on sandwiches, on toast, or on Dutch beschuit rusks (twice-baked, crunchy bread).  It wasn’t until I brought one of these sandwiches to school and was met by confused stares that I realized it wasn’t the norm for most people.

This is probably a good time to mention that I’m not even Dutch, a fact that only added to my classmates’ confusion. My grandfather worked for the Canadian government and as a result my mom’s family lived all over the world. The Netherlands happened to be one of those places and for one reason or another, those traditions stuck more than others. We snack on hagelslag and stroopwafels (thin waffle cookies pressed together with a syrupy center), receive chocolate letters in our stockings at Christmas, sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in Dutch, and those with underdeveloped taste buds devour double salt—dubbel zout—licorice. (I am not one of them. Imagine a black licorice jujube, but throw in a teaspoon of salt. Disgusting.) 

But back to the chocolate sprinkle sandwiches. In the Netherlands people eat hagelslag on bread for breakfast the way other people eat toast with jam. The website for De Ruijter, makers of fine hagelslag since 1860, will tell you that the average Dutch person consumes about 1 kilogram of chocolate hagelslag per year, that it’s the most popular condiment in the country, and that said country will eat more than 600 million chocolate hagelslag sandwiches a year. I would fit right in.

It seems to have developed out of nowhere, and for a country whose food culture was born of fishing and farming, it’s a bit of an anomaly. With meals heavy on pea soup, meat, potatoes, and the occasional cheese, the chocolate sprinkles look wildly out of place.

Yet with that in mind, another kind of sprinkle made of anise seeds coated in sugar (muisjes) appeared in Dutch tradition as early as the 17th century. Anise was believed to promote lactation, so muisjes were eaten to celebrate the birth of a child, and coloured pink and blue accordingly. Muisjes translates to mice and the name comes from the anise stem that sticks out of the tiny sugar ball like a tail. And, yes, they were eaten just as their chocolate counterparts—on a slice of bread or a beschuit. Who needs cigars when you have sprinkles on toast?

Whatever the origin, they still make a fantastic sandwich. I’ve eaten my fair share of muisjes as well, but the chocolate remains my favourite. There’s something that feels a bit naughty about eating chocolate sprinkles as part of a meal that isn’t dessert, something satisfying and playful. And maybe that’s the key to their origin. In a country with such practical staple foods, people wanted something a bit more fun.

1 comment:

  1. It's pretty funny reading this, having grown up in Belgium. We had chocolate hagelslag a lot (and yes, I still have it occasionaly, as in at least once a week), mainly on our sandwiches but we'd throw it on top of anything that seemed to go well with it: ice cream, vanilla pudding, on top of cake icing, inside cakes, on top of banana's, in rice pudding,...
    So it's rather amusing seeing people comment on it because for me it's just normal (like it's very normal to just eat a sandwich with butter and a piece of chocolate, heaven). Oh and in Belgium we call them 'muizenstrontjes' (as in mice poo)!:)