The City of Antwerp, Belgium has got many nicknames and I was told that one of them is "Koekenstad" or "la Ville des biscuits", literally meaning "Cookietown".
There is an excellent artisanal bakery in Antwerp, called "Philip´s Biscuits". The bakery calls itself "De Koekebakker van de Sint" (Cookie Baker for Saint Nicolas). Saint Nicolas, or Sinterklaas, of course, is the Dutch equivalent of Santa Claus. On December 6th, he delivers toys, chocolate, cookies, and fruits to all children who were "good, polite and helpful" the last year.
The bakery carries many cookies such as Amandelspeculaas (Speculoos cookies with pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom and nutmeg topped with almonds), Moriaantjes (tiny, crunchy and sweet), or Pain à la grecque (sweetened bread, coated with a layer of pearl sugar and brushed with simple sugar syrup), Gevulde Speculaas (layers of spice cake with a marzipan filling) and Palmiers (puff pastry cookies). But there is also homemade Marzipan (which you buy as a roll) and different types of Honey-Spice Breakfast Cakes, to name but a few.
Philip De Corte (hence the name of the bakery), founded the bakery in 1995. It is located on a busy street where many shoppers pass by. Along the walls of the tiny bakery, you will see quite a few vintage wooden speculoos molds, some rather large, some smaller and with more intricate detailing. Upon entering the bakery, you will immediately notice the distinct smell of freshly baked cookies and spices. It is indeed a bit magical - a world away from the hustle and bustle on the busy streets of the city. While you wait in line (which can be rather long), you will be able to taste some of the fresh cookies, as there are always small plates atop the sales counter - inviting you to take a taste or two. Isabell Theunissen, the wife of Philip is also the manager of the bakery. Most of the cookies and baked goods are still made by hand and the recipes are rather traditional.
The bakery´s window is always lovingly decorated. The huge characters on display in that window change every two months and, incredible as it may seem, are made entirely of cookie dough. The huge mouse was carrying a tray full of cookies and small bottles of that famous liqueur Elixir d'Anvers - which has been distilled since 1863 (this very famous liqueur is prepared from "32 plants and herbs from the four corners of the world" to "impart it its unique taste").
This cookie display was created to honor the exhibits at the Red Star Line Museum. The museum is housed in the original buildings of the steamship company that brought more than 2 million emigrants to the United States. Antwerp was a crossroads of commerce and culture in Europe — had been for centuries. It is still the second-busiest port in Europe, after Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
The ocean steamers of the Red Star Line are docked on the quay of Antwerp ready to depart for the New World - and offerings of beautiful Red Star Line cookie tins - perfect gifts or souvenirs.
You will probably recognize this famous character - nestled between even more delicious cookies and very pretty cookie tins.
There is a rather romantic story with respect to the origins of Antwerp's name, one involving a giant and a very brave Roman hero (we will get to that in a minute - just continue reading).
One fabulous vintage scale on display in the bakery´s window.
Another vintage scale - this one carries a plaque with the inscription "Philip´s Biscuits".
The scale is filled with an assortment of very tempting cookie treats such as Speculoos, Almond Cookies, Venkel Koekjes (Fennel Cookies - a buttery treat specked with fresh fennel seeds), Limoen Koekjes (Lemon Cookies), and Gember Koekjes (Ginger Cookies) to name but a few.
Speculoos, of course, are outstanding, but the thing we really loved were the Antwerpse Handjes (Antwerp Hands), which you can also find at other bakeries around town, but the best one were the ones from Philip´s Biscuits, of course. They are butter cookies topped with sliced almonds, in the shape of small hands.
Beautiful vintage wooden cookie molds and more flowery, buttery treats.
Do not forget to buy one of the many pretty gift boxes filled with an assortment of the cookies available at the bakery. It is said that whenever you buy these cookies and give them as a souvenir to your family and friends, it is a symbol of true friendship. You better believe that.
The most wonderful cities in the world are founded upon a myth, and Antwerp is no exception. Legend has it that, to cross the Scheldt River, you first had to pay a toll to a fearsome giant, named Druoon Antigoon who lived on the banks of the river, or risk invoking his wrath. Whenever sailors on the Scheldt river refused to pay the toll to the giant, he punished them by cutting off their hand. A Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo slayed the giant, cut off its hand, and tossed it into the Scheldt river. Given that the Dutch for "hand thrown" is "hand werpen", the city's name was born. A nice legend. Nevertheless, the "hand" has become the symbol of Antwerp. There are hands in the town flag. There are also several sweets in the form of a hand (cookies and many different types oc chocolates) and because of this rather cruel story, Antwerp bakers make some excellent cookies in the shape of a hand. It is the symbol of the city. And it is looked upon like an official shield of Antwerp.
This story has also led to a white hand becoming a symbol to be found on many a crest in the city. And in the middle of the "Grote Markt" (Town Square) stands the Brabo fountain. The statue was made by local sculptor Jef Lambeaux in 1887. The fountain which celebrated the freeing of the river was inaugurated amid great public interest. It was installed at the center of the Grote Markt, right in front of the city hall. It depicts Brabo throwing the giant's hand in the river. Brabo stands on a tall pedestal decorated with water spouting sea animals - a fish, a sea lion, a turtle and a dragon like monster. Mermaids support a castle, symbolizing the city. Giant Antigoon's head dangles just below Brabo's feet. Fabulous legend if you ask me.
Because of this legend, one of the most famous producs of the city of Antwerp, are its cookies or little chocolates, the Antwerpse Handjes, literally "Antwerp Hands". Usually made out of sanddough with almonds or milk chocolate, they symbolize Antwerp trademark and folklore.
If anyone wants to sell the Antwerpse Handjes cookies, he needs to have an official license by the Antwerp cookie federation. Most of the bakeries are selling these tasty butter cookies. But the best place to get yourself these little biscuits is, of course, at Philip’s Biscuits.
Philip´s Biscuits also sells the city’s namesake cookie, naturally in the shape of a hand. But, as I mentioned above, there are many more cookies to chose from at Philip´s Biscuit, such as my other favorites, these crispy, spicy, thinly sliced, almond-studded, totally addictive cookies.
The Antwerpse Handjes are traditionally made from very simple ingredients and cut into little hand shapes, and then baked until they take on a light, golden color. There are also some chocolate variations. Apparently, there are rules about ensuring careful labelling so that customers can be sure they are getting the right cookies.
Now, the taste of these Hand Cookies is rather easy to describe - they are buttery, crunchy cookies with a vanilla and almond taste and maybe a hint of lemon. Their flavor is wonderfully old-fashioned, and reminds me of simple cut-out butter cookies.
Actually making the Antwerpse Handjes was fairly straightforward. I do not own a hand-shaped cookie cutter of the type they use in traditional Antwerp bakeries, but I did have a sharp knife and a I made a paper template instead. No matter how hard I tried, there was no way of finding a hand-shaped cookie cutter in Antwerp - I was told it has something to do with the cookies being a "regionally protected product". If you happen to know a source, by all means, do let me know. I would be ever so grateful and bake you some Hand Cookies, promise.
Following is a my personal version of these famous cookies - they were a bit time consuming (because that paper template of mine kept getting stuck to the buttery dough) to make but tasted wonderful and almost looked like the real ones.
(à la maison Kitchen Lioness)
Ingredients for the Cookies
- 300 grams (2 1/2 cups) AP (plain) flour
- 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
- 175 grams (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 200 grams (1 cup) fine baking (caster) sugar
- 1 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla sugar
- 1 egg (L), free range or organic
- grated zest of an organic lemon
- slithered almonds
Preparation of the Cookies
- Sift together the flour and salt. Set aside.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter on high speed until creamy, about 2 minutes. Reduce the speed to medium, slowly add the sugar and the vanilla sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes, stopping the mixer occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
- Add the egg and lemon zest and beat for 1 minute, stopping the mixer once to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
- Add half of the flour mixture. Beat on low speed until most of the flour has been absorbed, about 1 minute. Add the remaining flour and continue beating until all of the flour has been absorbed, 2 to 3 minutes.
- Turn the dough out onto a work surface and divide into 2 equal balls. Shape each into a disk and wrap separately in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 2 days.
- Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let stand for 10 minutes. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough.
- Preheat your oven to 175 degress Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit).
- Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Cut out the little hands. Using a small offset spatula, transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheets, spacing the cookies about 2.5 cm (1 inch) apart.
- Reroll the scraps and cut out more cookies.
- Brush with some eggwash and sprinkle with a few slithered almonds.
- Bake the cookies until golden brown around the edges, 8 to 10 minutes.
- Transfer the baking sheets to wire racks and let cool for 5 minutes, then transfer the cookies to the racks and let cool completely.
- Store the cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.
Looking at the Hand Cookies, you must admit that they have got a certain old-fashioned charm. But they are also delicious, buttery cookies - a wonderful gift and a wonderful way to share some historic facts about the city of Antwerp - a truly delectable history lesson.
The old-fashioned biscuit bakery "Philip´s Biscuits" is certainly worth visiting especially for its sensational speculoos, macarons and gingerbreads sold in tins but also for its wonderful Antwerpse Handjes. Decide what you would like to buy and then double the amount. The first batch probably will not last long and disappear while you walk back to your car or hotel. But if you cannot make it to Antwerp in the near future, just bake a batch at home and while you munch on your freshly baked, warm cookies, plan your trip to breathtakingly beautiful Antwerp and a long stop at this charming bakery!
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Part I of my mini series revolved around the breathtakingly beautiful City of Antwerp itself and can be found here. Part II focused on the Exotic Market in Antwerp and can be found here. Part III is all about these lovely cookies in Antwerp and their history.