The Cookie that Divides the Nation

By Frank Verschuren


It is the end of summer, which means Dutch people are soaking up the last rays of sun embroiled in an annual divisive debate: is it moral to sell pepernoten already?

Excited customers scour De Pepernotenfabriek in droves, sampling pepernoten in a wide range of flavours – from ‘Bailey’s’ to ‘Tajine’ – as though it were the very first time a shop like this ever opened in Groningen.

That is the perk of a seasonal store: every year brings a new grand opening – a sense of novel yet familiar festive tingles for customers with a nostalgic bone.

One spicy, gingerbread-like whiff of a fresh batch of pepernoten and any Dutchman, old or new, hears the Sinterklaas songs swell from memories of winter’s past – along with visions of  snow gracing the windows of warm, cozy rooms filled with family and friends.

A pepernoot is so much more than a simple cookie.

“When I eat my first pepernoot of the year, I feel like I’m 10 years old again, snuggled by the fireplace with my Sinterklaas gifts,” says Janiev Azulai (26), as he reaches for a bag of chocolate-covered pepernoten, “It’s like winter in a bag.”

While many customers of the Pepernotenfabriek would agree with this sentiment, one look outside the store is enough to break the nostalgic spell cast by even the most fragrant pepernoot.

It is a blazing September day. People wear shorts and sunglasses, and shirtless students cycle to the nearby lake – beach towels tucked under their arms.

Should pepernoten be sold this early?

While some, like Janiev Azulai, could eat pepernoten all year round, others believe that companies selling pepernoten in the summer are eroding a Dutch tradition by stretching the window for seasonal products far beyond their moment, all in the name of profit.

“I’ll wait until December to eat my first pepernoot,” says Niels Boon (21), regarding the bustle at the Pepernotenfabriek with a look of disgust.

Can an outside perspective help to breach the stalemate?

Yunji Sun, an international student from China, can relate to the woes of the pepernoot-traditionalists.

In China, she explains, a popular snack called mooncake is eaten only during the annual mid-autumn festival.

“You could eat mooncake outside of the festivities,” she says, “But it would simply feel wrong.”

After trying her first pepernoot, however, she does not get what all the fuss is about anyway.

“They taste rather plain to me.”