How to Do Christmas in Utrecht
Your guide to the best bakeries for celebrating Sinterklaas with cookies, doughnuts, and (obviously) chocolate.
Each year he travels from his home in Madrid, Spain to deliver treats to the boys and girls of the charming city that sits on a grand canal. Sinterklaas, as he’s known in The Netherlands, arrives in the country by boat on the Saturday after November 11, and rides through the streets of Utrecht on a horse. On December 5, children put out wooden shoes in the hopes that Sinterklaas will fill them with sweet treats and gifts (December 25 is reserved just for religious celebrations).
While the idea that Santa spends his summers in Spain sounds odd (although who wouldn’t opt to live in Spain over the North Pole?) there are similarities to the American Santa Claus story. Children are told that Sinterklaas’s helper Zwarte Pieten records their good and bad deeds in a big book. Good children will get presents from Sinterklaas with Zwarte Piet getting sooty while climbing down the chimney to leave presents and/or candy in their shoes. Bad children are taken to Spain for a year to teach them how to behave. (As if a year in Spain was a punishment!)
Of course it’s not just children who celebrate Sinterklaas. Adults use the opportunity to stock up on seasonal treats from shops like Theo Blom bakery, tucked away in the shadow of the city’s famed Dom Tower. The tiny shop has been baking Dutch treats since 1922 and they are filled to the brim with sweets when Sinterklaas is in town.
The bakery offers many products that are only available at Christmas time, like
banketstaaf, a flaky puff pastry filled with almond paste perfect for pairing with a cup of coffee. Theo Blom also has rows of marzipan creations with almond paste molded to look like everything from animals to hamburgers to whole fish, meant to be given with a wink and a smile to someone who hates fish or is a lifelong vegetarian.
The shop also sells speculass, the crisp cinnamon ginger cookies that come in a variety of shapes and sizes (although windmill is the most common in the States), perfect for giving as gifts or hoarding for yourself. You can also find chocolate versions of Sinterklaas, Zwarte Piet, his boat, and horse to fill your wooden shoes (and eventually, your stomach).
Utrecht has many gemlike bakeries whose cinnamon sugar-scented aromas waft onto the street and grab you like in a Merry Melody cartoon. At Sinterklaas time, the bakery ranks swell thanks to pop-up kruidnoten shops that sell nothing but Christmas treats. Kruidnoten are made of similar stuff to speculaas, but are tiny, round, and only eaten when Sinterklaas is coming to town. At the Pepernoten pop-up shop near the Oudergracht, the cookies come spiced with everything from ginger to raspberry to white pepper, cardamom, cloves, cappuccino, and nutmeg. You can even get the little cookies covered in chocolate and shaped like Sinterklaas himself.
On the edge of Utrecht’s Neude square sits an Oliebollen stand. While the students who live in the college town stop by the bustling stand all year, the Dutch doughnuts are traditionally a seasonal treat eaten to mark the New Year. Sold still warm with a sprinkling of powdered sugar or stuffed with cream they are sure to make you feel merry.
If this all sounds like a lot of food, don’t worry, you can always walk it off by climbing the 465 steps of the Dom Tower.