Since the 1600s, the Dutch have been importers and exporters of spices on a worldwide level. Dutch merchants specialised in expensive tropical spices they obtained from Dutch colonies in Indonesia and other parts of the world. The Netherlands is still a major player in the herb and spice market in Europe. As of 2010, it was the third largest importer and the largest exporter of these commodities in the European Union. Dutch cuisine, however, does not generally reflect this involvement with spices, although some traditional dishes use some variety of spices and herbs.
A traditional Christmas treat in the Netherlands is a small round cookie called pepernoten. The recipe calls for flour, butter, brown sugar, pancake syrup and 1 tablespoon of mixed spices typical of those brought back from foreign lands by Dutch spice traders. The mixture includes cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, white pepper, anise seed, coriander seed and cloves.
A favoured sweet in the Netherlands is drop, or "dropjes," which is a liquorice-flavoured candy said to be an acquired taste. It comes in sweet, salty and extra-salty versions. The basic flavouring comes from the root of the liquorice plant, native to Europe. The plant is a member of the bean family, and has been used for millennia for its sweetening properties and as a medicinal expectorant to help remove phlegm, and as a demulcent to soothe mucous membranes.
Genever is a Dutch alcoholic beverage flavoured with juniper berries. It is also called geneva, jenever, jenevre and hollands. Because of the juniper flavouring, genever is technically a kind of gin. However, it is distinctive because it contains a certain amount of malt wine and is a heavy, viscous fluid. Dutch genever has three classifications, "oude" or old, "korenwijn" or corn wine and "jonge" or young. Each type has its constituents specified by law. Oude genever is the traditional type, which originated in the late 1800s and has to have at least 15 per cent malt wine. Oude also typically contains more of the botanical flavouring. Jonge genever was developed in the 1950s and has a lighter taste with a lower percentage of malt wine. Korenwijn is cask-aged and must contain at least 51 per cent malt wine. Other botanicals besides juniper berries, which are the fruits of the tree Juniperus communis, can be used. Recipes are patented trade secrets closely held by individual companies.
Small anise-seed flavoured comfits called "muisjes," or literally "little mice," are traditionally offered to family and friends to announce the birth of a baby. The sweets are covered with pink and white sprinkles for a girl and blue and white sprinkles for a boy. In Dutch midwifery, muisjes were a fertility symbol, and the anise seed was believed to help lactation in the new mother and repulse evil spirits. Anise is a member of the carrot family native to Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon and Greece. The seed has a sweet liquorice-like flavour and is used both in cooking and medicinally.