Dutch Chocolate Letters
At many Dutch Sinterklaas Eve parties, the very last surprise in Sinterklaas’ special burlap sack, is chocolate initials, the first letter of each person’s name. There will be one for each person—the first given to the youngest child, then on up to the oldest person present. These letters, melk (milk), witte (white), or puur (dark) chocolate, are popular throughout the Sinterklaas season. The tasty treats may be found in shoes, left by Sinterklaas as he makes his rounds checking on children. Employers may give an S for Sint, to employees. These letters also make special little Sinterklaas remembrances, promotional gifts, or may be simply purchased to enjoy with a cup of coffee or tea. The letters, in brightly colored boxes, are sold from around October 1st through 5 December only. Unsold letters aren’t marked down, rather, they are returned to the manufacturers to be melted down for other chocolate treats. The Netherlands is the only place with a St. Nicholas chocolate initial letter tradition*. However, letters are exported to other lands where Dutch have settled; for example, Canada imports one million.
A custom of edible letters goes back to Germanic times when, at birth, children were given a runic letter, made of bread—as a symbol of good fortune. Convent schools in the Middle Ages used bread letters to teach the alphabet. When the letter was learned and could be written well, a pupil could eat up the bread letter. During the 16th and 17th centuries pastry letters were captured in Dutch Masters’ still-life paintings. These may have been filled with almond paste, much like today’s letterbanket.
Letters became associated with Sinterklaas in the 19th century, when a sheet was used to cover St. Nicholas presents. A bread dough letter, placed on top of the sheet, identified where each child’s gifts were located. During the 1800s advances in cocoa bean processing led to the production of chocolate bars. Chocolate letters were first manufactured around 1900, though they didn’t become readily available until the 1950s. Almond pastry and sausage letters are made by bakers and butchers.
The font, with large serifs on the ends and no thin areas to break easily, is now used for most letters. Ridges in the mold help release the chocolate, conceal surface blemishes and give a ribbed surface to the letters. Originally molds were metal, now they are synthetic.
Boxed letters come in several sizes. Small ones are around 2¼ ounces, medium, 4¾, and large, 7 ounces—these big ones must be for real chocolate lovers or especially good children! Shoe letters (about 1½ ounces), come in cellophane, not boxes, to fit easily into shoes. Smaller yet, one-inch dark and milk chocolate letters come mixed in packages. Some also have crisped rice, nuts, or fruit bits. Sinterklaas season now brings letters that aren’t edible at all, such as plastic s-shaped containers for candies and pastel foaming bath letters.
Chocolate letter makers pay attention to what names are most popular to determine how many to make of each letter. The best seller is M (a popular letter for names as well as mama and moeder), followed by S (for Sinterklaas, used generically to substitute for missing letters) and P, (for papa). Most companies don’t make Q, U, X, Y, or Z. Some don’t make I, as it seems clumsy and small. O and V are least popular, as few first names begin with them. M and W look like the biggest, though all letters weigh the same. In 2001, as a result of petitions with 2700 signatures, the large supermarket chain Albert Heijn promised to wait until 14 days before Sinterklaas’ official mid-November arrival to begin selling chocolate letters. Parents don’t want their children singing Sinterklaas songs and getting excited already in September!
Only the Dutch have chocolate letters for Sinterklaas—consuming many million each year (Droste produces more than 20 million, de Heer, another 10 million). 60–70% are milk chocolate, followed by white and bittersweet. In 2007 Fair Trade chocolate letters, produced with a just return to growers and without using child slave labor, were introduced by Oxfam as de Groene Sint Chocoladeletters.
After Sinterklaas the letters never go on sale in the Netherlands—they go back to the factory. Perhaps they are made into Valentine hearts or chocolate rabbits?
Dutch chocolate letters make a unique, tasty tradition!
Chocolate letters certified by Fair Trade and UTZ from Tony’s Chocolonely, Verkade, Albert Heijn, DeHeer and with 30% certified cocoa from Hema
Chocolate letters certified by Fair Trade and UTZ from Hema (now 100% in 2013), Bonbiance and Verkade.
*This Dutch tradition has, however, spilled over into Flemish Belgium. Dutch supermarkets and other stores with branches in Flanders sell chocolate letters, as do some specialty shops and confectioners. For many years chocolate letters available in Belgium were all from Dutch chocolate companies. Some Flemish families have adopted what is still regarded as “Dutch tradition”—how could anyone resist these delicious letters?
SOURCE: with special thanks to Paul de Bondt, Welsum, the Netherlands, whose father was a Union Chocolate sales representative, and, who loves chocolate letters!