The craft of the oliebollen bakers is passed on from generation to generation. They are usually only on the streets and squares for a few weeks a year with their fragrant old Dutch specialties. A chat with, and a photo of four of them.
Pietje van den Brug (72), Roosendaal
‘Loest, my husband, and I have been together for 53 years and that’s exactly how long we’ve had this business together. Fresh fries and snacks nine months a year, and oliebollen in the winter. In October, the snacks may run out because we are preparing for the oliebollen season. Customers come from far and wide, both for the fries and the oliebollen. ‘There you have the lady of the smoutebollen’, I sometimes hear someone say behind me when I get a croissant across the street while the batter is rising. Then I know it’s Flemish, because that’s what they call oliebollen in Belgium.
“Everyone here knows us by our first names and they really can’t miss us. We are not yet a brown café, but we have a chat with everyone. We don’t care if someone buys a whole bag or just one oliebol. You can’t look into someone’s wallet. Recently a woman came here and said that she can no longer afford the cheese on the sandwich. She may buy a bag of oliebollen, but people just want to treat themselves to something nice every now and then. Only when it rains everything is different. Then they’ll be waiting here in their cars, we’ll laugh our ass off and we’ll have a kind of oliebollen drive-thru.’
Dolly Boon (42), Haarlem
‘I grew up in Amsterdam, but in the run-up to New Year’s Eve we lived in a trailer opposite each year for two months. We always changed schools temporarily. My brother was born in the oliebollen period and is therefore actually a Haarlemmer.
‘When the opportunity arose to take over my father’s business, I had been working full-time as a flight attendant for twelve years. I didn’t want to give that up, but I also thought continuing this family tradition was a great idea. My mother, who died young, worked in this stall while I was under the counter as a baby.
‘Ten months a year I fly for KLM. In November and December I take unpaid leave so that I can stand here. About four years ago, we taught my husband Riley all the tricks of the trade so that he can run the place on his own if I fail to get time off. He is the manager of a bistro in Amsterdam for the rest of the year.
‘We make airy oliebollen, the way we like to eat them ourselves. That means you have to beat the batter by hand the old-fashioned way. My father has crooked fingers and has already had five operations on his hands. I never really worry about my own hands. Airy oliebollen can only be made in this way.’
Maarten Eckenhaussen (39), Stadskanaal
“Giovanni is my nephew by marriage. He has been working here since he was 7 years old. A few years later he was already stirring the large dough bucket with the Bosch drill. Before I met my wife and her family, I worked at the hamburger chain with the big yellow M. I was just getting a bit stuck there. If you can earn money with oliebollen, why not?, I thought.
‘The people of East Groningen are generally not rich, but they are the people we rely on. They come to buy a few oliebollen with their last pennies. In the spring and summer we stand at fairs with the stall, here in Stadskanaal you can find us every year from 1 November. During that first week, the welcome is always heartwarming: ‘I smelled it already’, they say.
‘I recently saw a TV program in which a gentleman ordered four oliebollen and the girl said: that would be 6 euros. Oh my god I thought, an oil ball for 1 euro 50… I just kept mine at 1 euro and thirteen for a tenner. 1 euro 20 counts so badly, I think, even though it doesn’t matter to me.
‘My 9-year-old son is also very good at math and he can already help us behind the counter. Sometimes he just doesn’t make sense. That’s no problem of course. But when people ask him what he wants to be when he grows up, he says: ‘At least an oil globe baker and I’ll see the rest’.
Jan Vermolen (59), The Hague
‘My youngest sister has taken over my father’s business, so I’ve been working for myself since 1986 with rented and borrowed cars. First in an aging suburb where I earned next to nothing. Then I knew, I have to look up those crowds in the months that I’m not at the fair.
‘Since 1991 I have had an oliebollen stall in the center of The Hague. I’m never leaving here, you know that. I used to be here with a car with German winter scenes, that was also an attraction. All the compliments I received about that car have inspired me to throw a few tons at it again.
‘I’m a boy from The Hague, so I decided two years ago to put the city logo on the new stall, the Ridderzaal, the Rutte tower and the view of Scheveningen. I think all those tourists who photograph my booth should be able to see at home in which city the photo was taken. Those decorations alone have cost a fortune, but they are well worth it, because even if you don’t like oliebollen, you will still come and have a look.
‘Or my son Jantje will soon take over? That would be nice if he has time for it, because next year he will be busy, then he wants to build the largest arcade in Europe with a friend of his.’