Dull thuds, resounding crashes and metallic clangs pierce the early morning air. Men shout as tractors alternately chug and roar on our usually quiet street. It’s time to get up. Things to do. A little later, I make my way downstairs and peer bleary-eyed out of the kitchen window. Ah! It has arrived! It’s going to be a long, exhausting day, but not a word of complaint will be heard – unless it’s about our collective pet gripe: the weather. But even that will only be half-hearted as the atmosphere will ooze benevolence, cheer and camaraderie.
Don’t be fooled. Our idyllic riverside village has its share of discord, bickering and feuds, some of which have become so hazy over the years that the feuders only vaguely remember the cause. It doesn’t deter them in the least from keeping it going, though. We even have a village feud with the neighbouring village, centring around the respective brass bands and a boundary and etiquette dispute . But this special day lowers most barriers.
As a posse of energetic men and boys build the stalls on the street outside, I quickly make a large pot of tea for any droppers-in who may be parking their bikes in our yard. I have a quick one myself, just to wet my throat, like, because I will be more than usually vocal today, hailing prospective customers as they saunter by.
Oh, wait. You still don’t know what’s going on. It’s the day of the village Bring & Buy sale, our annual Big Event. The day the village pulls together as one man, to collect lots of cash for the church fabric fund. We all donate generously, man the stalls willingly and buy extravagantly from fellow stallholders. Usefulness and desirability are not real considerations. It can always be re-donated next year.
Usually aided by my friend and fellow committee member Thea, I man my stall in my capacity as chairperson of the local old folks’ club. (A position for which a kind friend volunteered me years ago, fearing that time might be hanging too heavily on my hands.) This means that we get to use part of the takings for our club activities. The stall is stocked with appealing items, such as a doll with hand-stitched wardrobe; all you have to do to win is to guess her name correctly. Believe it or not, the same lady won three years running. I’m thinking of just handing it over when she comes this year. It will save me the drive to deliver it later. Or you might prefer to guess how many sweets are in the jar. Hand-knitted socks, comfy cushions or crocheted pot holders, anyone? And don’t forget to buy your raffle tickets. You could go home with a butcher’s gift voucher, or one for an enormous amount of cheese, or our well-filled super-deluxe grocery hamper.
But pride of place is reserved for the large fruit loaf or krentenwegge – the one that the baker deposited by my back door as the birds awoke. Guess its weight and it’s yours. No prodding, poking or lifting, please. Almond paste filling? (We have a serious contestant here; almond paste will make it heavier.) No, this one is ‘plain’. Yes, it’s absolutely fine to look at the other entrants’ guesses. And no, we don’t know the weight either. It’s in this sealed envelope the baker left this morning.
In Warm Bread and Honey Cake I told the story of this bread in detail and gave a recipe for a typical Dutch fruit loaf, which cannot rightly be called a krentenwegge because it simply does not measure up – quite literally. Even the one on my stall is modest, compared with the traditional ones from Twente, where it originated. Although the region was plagued by poverty, there were ways to provide hospitality. In the really poor parts, when a baby was born neighbours clubbed together to provide a fruit loaf to be shared with visitors, calling it a ‘kraamschudderswegge‘ or ‘cradle-shaking loaf’. The money was then taken to a local baker who was asked to do what he could with the amount, so the actual size was always a bit of a surprise. In wealthier households the loaves could be far more than a metre in length and they were often delivered with great pomp and ceremony. The English-speaking world has given a derogatory slant to the expression, emphasising miserliness; the true meaning of ‘Dutch treat’ conveys far more positive notes: reciprocality, solidarity and community spirit, even under the most challenging circumstances.
Last year, a lovely lady with a large family won our krentenwegge, guessing the weight almost to the gram. Shortly after 8 p.m. the doorbell rang. Her husband and one of their daughters were doing a bicycle round with a few stops around the village, to share their bounty. That’s village life on a good day.