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 times or so – the butter and speculaas had softened and become a spread.”
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 cinnamon, had been a Dutch colony, for example, while in what is now Indonesia the Dutch “ owned the spice trade, including 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.” 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 in passing, “because the Dutch owned New York or New Amsterdam as it was, that’s where the word ‘cookies’ comes from, cookies is an abbreviation of the Dutch word koekje.”
At the heart of Steven’s food business is a speculaas spice mixture, based on a family recipe. Traditionally, each baker would have had their own speculaas spice mixture and the one Steven is creating is made according to 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 cinnamon from Sri Lanka, rather than cassia, which tastes better in my view.” 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 materials shop and wholesale business in the Netherlands called Dotsch Materials, and that was the font they used. They closed it in 70s but they still had their old packing materials.” Originally, the name was in orange, but that was hard to see against the spice, so it is now written in “Delft Blue, another Dutch touch.”
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 speculaas spice mix. A website 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?”