Christmas market

Food Explorer #7: A South African food scientist celebrates Christmas

Lisa Ronquest is one of South Africa’s top young food scientists, now transferred to The Netherlands in a global food R&D role by Mars. She’s been sharing her impressions and insights with FOODStuff SA readers in a regular blog, and we’re proud here to publish the seventh on her big move. This time, Lisa shares her European Christmas-time food experiences.

TRYING to celebrate Xmas in board shorts and bikinis listening to Michael Buble’s ‘I’ll be home for Xmas’ in summer temperatures of 30+C has always felt a little odd, like munching a hot meal of turkey, stuffing and flaming spiced Xmas pudding, when a light sandwich and a slice of watermelon would be far more appropriate.

Well, now I get it. Temperatures have dropped, scarves and beanies are back on. Indoor heating is dialed up and the thought of a hot plate of food is just perfect.

A complete surprise for us in The Netherlands is that they celebrate the arrival of Sinterklaas and his helper, Pietwho, who ‘arrive’ by boat from Spain. Sinterklaas is a mythical figure with legendary, historical and folkloric origins based on Saint Nicholas.

My best part is that in each town in the Netherlands, there literally is a Sinterklaas arriving by boat on one of the canals in that town and the streets are lined with families welcoming his arrival. The kids fell for it hook, line and sinker!

He arrives in early November bringing with himlarge quantities of sweets and presents. For three weeks Holland goes Sinterklaas mad; the shops are adorned with Sinterklaas paraphernalia and special Dutch confectionery. Everywhere you go Sinterklaas is there.

The kids are dressed up in their Piet outfits in the hope that Sinterklaas literally throws sweets at them, which they catch in handfuls and tuck them deep in their pockets and then jump up for more. The kids leave their shoes at the fire place each night hoping for some sort of small treat. That is until, the 5 December when their big present arrives. In Holland, most kids get their presents then, not on Christmas day.

The Dutch treats over this time of year are heavily spiced and of many different shapes and textures. There’s the very popular, kruidnoten (mini spiced cookies, also called ginger nuts), pepernoten (soft, chewy small aniseed-flavoured honey cookies), speculaas (spiced cookies), taai-taai (aniseed and honey-flavoured figurines), colourful marzipan, almond-filled pastries and chocolate letters.

We had heard all about the famous German Christmas markets hosted across the cities there since the late middle ages. We were lucky enough to head to Cologne to enjoy some of them – and they did not disappoint. It was absolutely magical and something I will never forget.

Each market is themed. There is the Angel market, the Gnome market, the Harbour market, but the most impressive one wasin the town square in front of the famed gothic Dom Cathedral.

There were gorgeous wooden handcrafted Christmas decorations and all sorts of German cuisinefor sale. An ice rink kept the kids entertained, while live music and mulled wine absorbed the adults.

We made sure we enjoyed the various regional bratwurst sausages, reiskuchen (fried grated potatoes with an array of sauces from apple sauce to camembert and cranberry sauce), freshly baked waffles sprinkled with icing sugar, bread straight out of a wood-fired ovenstuffed with cheese and ham and to top it all off, the original apple strudel.

All these spiced treats and wine make sense when you are standing outside rubbing your hands together to warm up. As I watched all the beautiful lights in the tall trees twinkling from four o’clock in the afternoon, I finally got to appreciate these fabulous winter Christmas traditions.

Merry Christmas to you all and enjoy spending time with your loved ones. We are heading home for a break from this rather long, dark and cold winter and will be spending ours with family and friends back in South Africa.

Until next year – happy holidays!

About this blog:

Lisa Ronquest is currently Head of Product Development – Global Food R&D at Mars Inc, based in The Netherlands. The intention of this column is to be both a personal and professional account of a South African food scientist exploring life and work in a developed market.

You can contact her at [email protected].

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Food Explorer #6: A South African food scientist goes to Anuga

Food Explorer #5: A South African food scientist explores things italian

Food Explorer #4: A South African food scientist explores Grolsch

Food Explorer #3: A South African food scientist explores chocolate in Belgium

Food Explorer #2: A South African food scientist goes shopping abroad

Food Explorer #1: A South African food scientist taking on a global R&D role