How tulip mania gripped (and nearly ruined) a nation

Of course, we all know the typical stereotypes and overplayed icons surrounding the Dutch. Who can pick up a travel brochure on the Netherlands and not find a mention of windmills, clogs, cheese and tulips? Yes, a rather clichéd bunch, but also quintessentially Dutch – apart from the tulips, that is. Tulips, you see, are not originally Dutch; their colourful presence in the Netherlands is owed to the Ottoman Empire. Although not their own, the Dutch took to the tulip, and the flower trade in general, like bees to honey. Even today, flower exports make up a €5 billion industry and chances are the roses you gave your loved one last year in Utah were born and bred on Dutch soil.

Tulips and the Dutch have an illustrious but chequered past. A love-hate relationship of sorts, and one for the history books. Although incomprehensible now, at their height of Golden-Age popularity, a single  bulb could fetch ten times the annual salary of a skilled worker or as much as a picturesque canal house. In 1637, however, irrational enthusiasm for the flowers triggered a speculative frenzy and the tulip market took a dive like no other. Many a Dutchie lost their entire fortune in what came to be known as tulip mania.

Can the irrationality of tulip mania explain other obsessions of the Dutch? Perhaps not, but there’s no denying that the Dutch do seem to rally around their particular cultural traits and traditions with feverish enthusiasm. After nearly eight years living in this country, many a Dutch habit has wiggled its way into my daily life. I’ll be the first to admit that Dutch directness suits me just fine, I’d chose a bike over a car any day and I’ve come to worship the fickle Dutch sun just as much as the next vitamin-D deprived Dutchie. Yet, some Dutch behaviours are destined to for ever remain cultural oddities. The Dutch diet falls squarely into that category: the copious consumption of dairy and bread is a sight to behold; the obsession with mashing the life out of all vegetables is quite baffling; and the ‘unique’ tasting liquorice (aka drop) is most definitely an acquired taste. But of all the edible eccentricities, hagelslag tops my list.

Chocolate sprinkles - not just for kids, apparently

For those of you who have yet to discover this oddity, hagelslag is the Dutch version of sprinkles. In North America and the UK, sprinkles are reserved for ice-cream and cake – and most notably for children. However, here in the Netherlands, it is perfectly normal behaviour for a grown adult to merrily sprinkle chocolate sprinkles on their bread at mealtime.

Think I’m exaggerating? Well, to put this sprinkle-eating madness into perspective, the Dutch consume over 14 million kilos of hagelslag each year. The only theory I can come up with as to why such a national phenomenon exists is that in a country where two-thirds of daily meals are bread-based (breakfast: bread, lunch: surprise, surprise – bread again) the Dutch are quite literally starving for variety. Personally, I can do without such colourful meals, but if this sugar-filled treat brings a smile to a Dutch person’s face on a rainy bread-eating day, then I’m all for it. Let’s all just be thankful that the Dutch economy doesn’t rely on this particular Dutch obsession… yet.

Now go on and poke your head into a Dutch home and see if you can enjoy a sprinkle sandwich while marvelling over the enchanting beauty, and history, of the tulip.