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On the Speculaas Spice trail - by Jenny Linford

Monday 5th May 2014

Jenny Linford the well-known freelance food writer came over to Highgate to interview me: "On the Speculaas Spice trail" - by Jenny Linford

Jenny is the author of several books including Food Lovers' London and The London Cookbook, and an inveterate chronicler of London's fascinating food scene. She has been been charting the London’s food scene for over 20 years now and writes a great blog called the London Food Chronicles in which she features interviews and stories from all parts of the city’s food world that is London’s richly cosmopolitan food scene.

What follows is a summary of the interview, the full version of which can be accessed Here.

On the Speculaas Spice trail - by Jenny Linford

It is often said that, when it comes to food, you can find anything in London. This, of course, simply isn’t true. While some cuisines are very well-represented here, both by restaurants and food shops, others are far more elusive.

Despite our long trading history with The Netherlands, for example, there is very little Dutch food to be found in London.

So, when I came across Steven Dotsch and his brand-new London-based speculaas spice business, I was intrigued to learn more and went to visit him in Highgate.

Sitting in his kitchen, surrounded by the paraphanalia of his new business, from carved wooden speculaas biscuit moulds to packaging, Steven, at once courteous and wryly humorous and still retaining a discernible Dutch accent, told me his story.

Amsterdam “born and bred”, Steven came over to Britain in the late 1980s, working in the world of finance, first in The City, then as a business angel and a fundraiser. This project, however, is very much a personal one.

Nostalgia, as I know myself, is a very powerful motivator in the world of food and a childhood memory has played a seminal part in Steven’s fascination with both speculaas biscuits and the spice mixture which flavours them.

“When I was a small boy, we didn’t have school lunches in those days, so you brought your own sandwiches,” he reminisces. “In those days your mother made your buttered white bread and put speculaas biscuits between the slices to make a sandwich, wrapped it in paper and you took it to school. By the time it was lunch time – four hours later or so – the butter and speculaas had softened and become a spread.”

What is speculaas?

Speculaas, Steven explains, is the name given to both the spice mixture and the biscuits flavoured with it.

“The Netherlands, like the Brits, were a colonial power, though we lost our empire slightly earlier.” Sri Lanka, home of true 'real' cinnamon, had been a Dutch colony for decades until, I believe, the early 1800s when the Brits took possession. While in what is now Indonesia - 'Dutch East India' - the Dutch owned the spice trade, including the world-wide monopoly on nutmeg.

These spices came to the Netherlands and the bakers there began to experiment and so you got the speculaas biscuit. Traditionally, these were eaten in the winter months, from November to March, but now they are eaten all year round.”

Speculaas biscuits from wooden molds?

The name speculaas derives from the Dutch word for ‘mirror’, thought to come, he says, from the fact that the biscuits, traditionally turned out from intricately carved wooden moulds, were the mirror image of the moulds.

“In America,” observes Steven, “because the Dutch owned New Amsterdam for a while, now New York, that’s where the word ‘cookies’ comes from, cookies is an abbreviation of the Dutch word koekje.”

vandotsch speculaas spice mix 

At the heart of Steven’s food business is a speculaas spice mixture, based on his Dutch grandmother's recipe.

Traditionally, each baker would have had their own speculaas spice mixture and the one Steven is based on his grandmother’s recipe.

There are nine spices in the mixture, though, of course, the recipe is secret. “It has a lot of cinnamon in it – true organic cinnamon from Sri Lanka, rather than cassia, the stuff the supermarkets sell as 'inferior' cinnamon”, observes Steven.

Not only is the mixture a family recipe, the very font used for the label has a family ancestry. ”Van Dotsch – 'van' means from in Dutch.

This letter type, we own that because my parents had a fashion and materials shop and wholesale business in the Netherlands called Dotsch Fashion Materials, and that was the font they used. They closed it in 70s but they still had some of their old packing materials.”

Originally, the name was in black and my parents' packing paper background was orange/yellowish, but that was hard to see against the spice, so it is now written in “Delft Blue, another Dutch touch, on a white background.”

On the Speculaas Spice trail

Steven’s vision for spreading the word is to produce speculaas-flavoured products, including the famous biscuits, naturally, but also speculaas caramels and speculaas-infused popcorn (“that works very well,” he says with satisfaction) which will introduce people to the distinctive flavour of the vandotsch speculaas spice mix.

Dedicated recipes will showcase both sweet and savoury recipes, with Steven keen to encourage people to share their own speculaas-inspired creations.

Steven has obviously been on a journey with this pet project, from sourcing quality spices to working on recipes. “This all has started becoming increasingly full-time,” he admits. “ I’m still happy to wake up and ask myself what are we going to make today?”

Jenny Linford - food writer and book author -

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