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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Dark Rye and Honey Cake: Festival baking from the heart of the Low Countries by Regula Ysewijn

In dark Rye and Honey Cake Regula Ysewijn, the award-winning author of Pride and Pudding (an ode to British pies and Puddings) and judge of Belgian MasterChef, has returned to her Flemish roots.

In her deeply researched and fascinating culinary history of the Heart of the Low Countries, she has included many authentic recipes which she adapted from ones she found in old manuscripts and cookery books so we can easily make them at home. Others were generously shared by the owners of the few Belgian and Dutch bakeries who are still carrying on the old traditions. They all look delicious!

Before she wrote Dark Rye and Honey Cake, Regula delved into centuries-old historical records and cookery books and studied Flemish and Dutch artworks from the 16th century in which food played a central role.

She discovered that the first printed cookbook in the Dutch language was published around 1510 and was wholly dedicated to recipes for weddings, banquets and other festivities.

This inspired her to arrange her book by the food served at feasts and festivals throughout the whole year starting from the 12 days of Christmas with waffles and gingerbreads; pancakes for Candlemas and Carnival; pretzels for Lente; vlaai and fried dough for Kermis and all the special sweet treats of St Nicholas and Saint Martin.

As a child Regula absolutely adored the Feast of Saint Nicolas celebrated on December 5 and the warmth and joy it brought to her house on Sinterklaas morning. Like Father Christmas, he can be traced back to Saint Nicholas, a bishop from ancient Greece in the 3rd or 4th Century.

Having spent some of my childhood in Brabant, a province in the South of Holland, it brought back happy memories for me too of all the sweet treats which were handed out at that time. How wonderful to find recipes for speculaas (spicy biscuits), taai-taai (chewy honeycake), and kruidnoten (tiny crisp little spicy cookies only a little larger than a hazelnut) included in her book.

There are recipes too for oliebollen (knobbly deep-fried dough balls) which hail from the 17th century and appelflappen (apple beignets) which are a must in Holland on New Year’s Eve (called Old Year’s Eve in Holland). For these, slices of apple are dipped into the batter. Regula comments that many people prefer them to oliebollen and

‘ It does get you a step closer to your ‘five a day’ if you don’t count the batter and the fat.’

Waffles were eaten throughout the Low Countries at all feasts from Saint Martin to Easter, and these too have an ancient lineage. The Gruuthuse Museum in Bruges holds two early 15th Century waffle irons, the oldest known waffle irons in the Low Countries.

Regula includes 14 recipes for waffles, including stroopwafels (syrup waffles). These were a treat her Mother often bought for her. Stroopwafels are still extremely popular in Holland today. They are available in New Zealand supermarkets now too, and I can really recommend that you try some. The trick is to put one on top of a mug of coffee or hot chocolate so that the filling becomes runny and oozes out at the edges. Delicious!!

Kermis (outdoor fairs) have long been an annual feature of the Low Countries. The oldest Kermis still happens in Leuven and commemorates the defeat of the Vikings by Arnold, King of East Francia and Lorraine in 891. Vlaai (sweet pies) were an essential part of these fairs, but they were also baked for many other special occasions, from weddings to funerals. Depending on the season they were filled with either freshly harvested fruit, or fruit which had been preserved during the summer or autumn, including cherries, gooseberries, plums and apricots. Her cherry pie with its latticed pastry top looks especially scrumptious!

As well as being a superb food historian Regula Ysewijn is a talented food photographer and graphic designer. She has used all her talents to create this book which is beautiful as well as useful. It would make a very special gift for anyone interested in culinary history.

I have already made her spicy, crunchy speculaas cookies and am looking forward to doing more baking from her book and sharing some of my Dutch heritage with friends and family.

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Murdoch Books


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