Deventer and cake, that is like Lübeck and marzipan. The city is inextricably linked with its specialty. It is a connection with a long history. The origin of the specialty dates back to the Middle Ages and it owes its spread and fame to the flourishing and cross-border trade of the Hanseatic League. The Deventer Koek is therefore a culinary celebrity. According to the original recipe, the exact composition of which is still unknown today, the honey spice cake is still produced exclusively in Deventer and shipped from there all over the world. Already in the times of the Hanseatic League, the Deventer Koeck sailed on the merchant ships as far as Norway. There were cakes for King Olav IV of Norway in exchange for Nordic stockfish.
Deventer – Hanseatic city on the IJssel river
Deventer is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands. The Anglo-Saxon monk Lebuinus is said to have crossed the IJssel in a rowboat around 806, and on the very spot where the mighty Lebuinus Church stands today, the missionary monk built a small wooden church. Already in the century before the arrival of the clergyman, merchants had settled in Deventer. The town quickly developed into one of the few large cities in the early Middle Ages. In the 10th century the town began to flourish. Deventer had already been granted city rights and imperial privileges by Emperor Charlemagne.
Protection of goods under the sign of the guild
The history of the Deventer cake goes back many centuries. According to a note by the town clerk Nicolaas Verheyden from 1534, the first ordinance on the baking of Deventer cakes dates back to 1417, which may mean that the cake already had a long tradition in Deventer at that time and now appeared to the merchants of the flourishing Hanseatic town as a commodity worthy of special protection. In this decree, the appearance and weight of a large and a small cake were specified. It was to be long and narrow and weigh between two and three pounds. The ordinance had a protectionist character, because outside Deventer it was not allowed to produce cakes for trade. The spice mixture was the secret of the guild and not even known to the bakers. The cake bakers had to take an oath to the ordinance and so-called poldermen monitored the observance of the ordinance on behalf of the guild along the diked areas of the IJssel.
The Annual Fair and the Secret Recipe
The recipe for the Deventer Koek and the spice mixture used in it are secret to this day. It is not known since when the cake, which still bears the name Deventer, has been baked in Deventer. In any case, the long-lasting honey cake was already on the trade lists in the early Middle Ages. The cake does not contain eggs or dairy products and therefore has a very long shelf life. This made it a popular commodity in the Hanseatic trade, even beyond the borders of the Netherlands. In the early Middle Ages, one of the largest fairs in Europe was held several times a year on Deventer’s market square, De Brink. This circumstance certainly contributed to the fame and spread of the sweet cake with spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper and led to the protection of the specialty Deventer Koek in the 15th century.
Take clean water…
Even if the exact recipe is not known, nowadays, thanks to European ingredient regulations, the essential ingredients of the cake are written on the package. Rye flour, honey, water and spices. Emphasized in the old recipe is the use of “clean water”. A valuable commodity in earlier times. After all, the Middle Ages are known for the fact that people preferred to drink beer rather than water, because the brewed beer contained fewer germs than some well water. The honey has a preservative effect and the absence of fat and eggs ensures that the baked goods keep well when stored in a dry place.
In 1593, when the town had 13 bakers, the baker Schutte was admitted to the bakers’ guild as a master baker. The business of the former guild master Schutte was taken over by Jacob Bussink in the nineteenth century. The entrepreneur Bussink continued to adhere to traditions and now produced honey cake under his own name. To this day, the Deventer Koek can be bought in the traditional form and even in the historical measure “half cubit” in the Deventer Koekwinkel at the market square De Brink.
Cake for kings
The Deventer Koekladen has been located in a corner house on the Brink, the central market square, since 1958. The interior with wooden counters and high shelves comes from the old Bussink Bakery. A creaky staircase leads to the tea room on the second floor. Here hangs a picture depicting an incident from 1809. From 1806 to 1810, Lodewijk Napoleon was king of the Kingdom of Holland – created by his brother Emperor Napoleon – and the king visited the bakery to see with his own eyes how the famous Deventer cake is baked. In Deventer, the story is told as follows:“To do this, he sat comfortably on an upturned baking trough, had everything explained to him in detail and tasted with relish the delicacy offered to him. After placing his order, he was about to board his carriage waiting outside the door, but Miss Van der Toorn, the wife of the bakery owner at the time, Gerrit van de Toorn, respectfully pulled the king by the arm and stammered, “You forgot to pay.” King Louis, who did not understand Dutch too well and spoke it very poorly, understood that it was a money matter and gave his chamberlain the hint to correct the oversight. A golden handshake dispelled the ragged baker’s wife’s concern, whereupon the king rode on smiling.” (JB Bussink, Deventer Koekwinkel).
New sales channels for old pastries
The world-famous spice cake has been baked for 430 years in 2023. But the trade routes are different today. With the Covid pandemic, Bussink’s online store took off. Tourists from all over the world ordered the classic from Deventer. The old trade of stockfish for covid may seem obsolete, but it is firmly part of the identity of the Hanseatic cities on the IJssel. In Deventer, a new large mural was created in 2022. The motif refers to the past and present. It depicts a market woman from the Middle Ages selling goods together with her son. Well visible is the Deventer honey cake and stockfish. Both important goods in the Hanseatic trade of Deventer. The boy is also wearing a fan scarf of the Deventer Eagle soccer club. Soccer had not yet been invented at that time, but the eagle has been part of Deventer’s coat of arms since Emperor Charlemagne.
Dutch Hanseatic Year 2023
The nine Hanseatic cities on the IJssel Doesburg, Zutphen, Deventer, Hattem, Zwolle, Hasselt, Kampen, Elburg and Herderwijk celebrate their Hanseatic League in 2023, which after all flourished for more than four centuries. Around 1500, the center of the Hanseatic League shifted to the North Sea area. Amsterdam increasingly competed with the small towns on the IJssel, and after the artificial widening of the Rhine, this literally dug the water out of the IJssel and made navigation more difficult.
Today, the nine Hanseatic cities have joined forces once again. This time to join forces to draw visitors’ attention to the region and their shared history. In 2023 there will be events and activities in all cities of the Hanseatic League along the IJssel. The program can be found on the joint website of the nine Dutch Hanseatic cities.
The research trip was supported locally by the Dutch Tourist Board.