Nobeltje, the flavour of Ameland
Telling tall tales is something my family is good at. What is the truth and what isn’t remains just as unfathomable as the mist that hangs over the mudflats on an early autumn morning. Questions are laughed off and my father, Wim, does exactly the same. The message is: go and find out for yourself. Amelanders all have their own truth.
Obviously the best story is about how Nobeltje came into being. My family has lived on the island for four generations. Great-grandfather Willem Barend opened a bar in Ballum at the turn of the century. The winter of 1901 was extremely cold, but it could have been 1902. No-one really knows. What we do know is that on 8 and 13 January 1901 the post skippers walked across the mudflats to the mainland twice. Not without getting their uniforms wet of course. On the 21st day of the month a sleigh race was held at Holwerd. This is where the family legends and history meet. The Amelanders also took part in the contest. Nobody knows for sure who won, but on that gruelling journey from Holwerd to Ameland, there wasn’t a drop of alcohol left in the sleigh. That’s how cold it was. Once in Ballum, the participants all piled into my great-grandfather’s bar. Did he have anything left to drink? In our family we never say ‘no’, so great-grandfather, Willem Barend Snr, went into the kitchen and stayed there until he had brewed a drink for the guests, who were numb with cold. Obviously I’m not going to reveal what was in that drink as it’s a family secret, but it went down very well indeed. You will understand that it took a while for Ballum to quieten down that night.
My great-grandfather, Willem Barend Snr, passed the recipe on to grandfather Barend, and he, in turn, passed it on to my father, Wim. However, the family didn’t have an official licence to bottle liquor. The bottles were sold under the counter. If ever there was a lack of bottles, even bottles that had washed ashore were rinsed out and filled. Everything went well until 1982. One evening a student from the police academy had a bit too much to drink. Still drunk the following day, she was late for school and had to own up about the bar and that special liquor known as Nobeltje. That very evening the police raided the bar in Ballum. All of the bottles were confiscated. Funnily enough, not everything was taken because they didn’t find the ten-litre pitchers in the back yard. So business could carry on as usual. That evening the charges were brought against grandfather and a few weeks later he had to appear in court at Leeuwarden.
Fortunately the public prosecutor understood the tradition. Grandfather had been paying his duties so in that sense we were not breaking the law, although the prosecutor did force us to legalise the operation. He didn’t hand down any punishment to us, on one condition. He wanted the first legal bottle of Nobeltje for himself! Well, we were only too happy to oblige.
From that time onwards, my father professionalised production. These days, Nobeltje is bottled in Schiedam. I no longer have to mix and bottle the drink myself and given the volume we sell these days, I wouldn’t even be able to do so alone. As for beachcombing for bottles, I am happy to leave that to other people. That is how Nobeltje became the flavour of Ameland.