Say the word Christmas and people’s mouths begin to water. T’is the season for sweet indulgences and sins to abound. In Spain bakers get into high gear, as amigos, families, companies and brotherhoods prepare to celebrate this more or less religious occasion.
With Christmas approaching, Andalucía’s streets are filled with the buttery smell of mantecados and other confections. The best ones are produced behind the walls of local convents. Some sisterhoods have held onto their secret recipes since the Middle Ages, while others are newer to the trade, since their work as teachers, nurses and seamstresses have diminished.
The names of convent pastries often reflect their saintly origins, such as Pastelitos de Gloria, Trufas de Madre de Dios and Corazones de Santa Clara. In Seville’s Convento de San Leandro, Augustinian nuns have been baking since the 16th Century. Their most famous pastry, Yemas de San Leandro, has only three ingredients: egg yolks, sugar and a few drops of lemon.
Hundreds of different types of artisan reposterías are made in Andalucía’s convent kitchens. Carmelites, Cistercian and Franciscans are some orders that will produce sweet temptations for the holiday. While initially selling to the surrounding communities, some convents now have websites, offer gluten-free alternatives, and can ship anywhere in the world.
One of the most typical Christmas pastries are Roscos de Vino. Andalusian children will keep three roscos to give to the Holy Three Kings on Dia de los Reyes, hence called Roscos de Reyes. While the grandmothers of every household used to bake them, today the duty often falls to local nunneries.
A special Christmas pastry from Malaga’s villages is the borrachuelo. Borracho means drunk, so they include alcoholic cider. The miniature empanada is filled with cabello de angel (angel hair) spaghetti squash marmalade. Each piece is deep-fried and dunked in sugar to add naughtiness to the sinful experience.
It is no surprise that some pastries date from the Al Andalus era, for example el Alfajor (Arabic al-fakher, meaning luxurious). Found in the Spanish dictionary since the 14th Century, Alfajos were exported to the New World and has become a traditional Christmas treat in South America.
Our local nuns at Convento San Francisco in Ronda have also gained quite a reputation for their blessed dulces. When we catch the ancient Sister Natividad with a giant hammer cracking a sack of almonds on a tree trunk in the convent patio, we know their preparations have started.
As December approaches, the sisters roll dough around the clock, kneading their love, care and culinary traditions into every bite-sized treat. I went to visit them during one of these busy days, when they were making 35 kilos of mantecados – meaning a few thousand cookies – by hand in a single day!
Originating in Antequera and brought to fame in the tiny town of Estepa, mantecados can now be found all over the country and is synonymous with Spanish Christmas. What’s the secret? Could it be the generous amount of lard?
In their industrial-sized 19th Century kitchen, the sisters chat softly as they fill tray after tray with round little dough balls that later one of the novices will top with sesame seeds.
After cooking, each mantecado is individually wrapped in a silk paper with the convent’s seal. “Working and praying is our life”, Sor Isabel says and Madre Nieves, the Abbess adds that with all the bitterness in the world, they prey that their treats will sweeten the lives of those who eat them.
When I ask them where they keep their recipes, they look down at their busy hands pretending not to hear. Each convent has their own specialties and the recipes are a tightly guarded secret. What I can disclose is that no pastry has more than a handful ingredients, and that there are no preservatives or artificial flavourings. Ground almond or wheat flour, butter or lard, cider or sugar and a touch or cinnamon, lemon peel or orange zest. Most ingredients are grown locally, some in the monastic gardens. There are still convents who will sell the sweets through the traditional lazy Susan embedded in the wall not to show their faces, but our nuns now sell them from their little store, albeit still behind bars…
People here say that the nun’s reposterías taste of home cooking, old village kitchens and a bit of heaven. Thanks to the income from their baking, they can continue their simple lives and maintain the convent. By purchasing their artisan pastries, you are not only getting to know an important part of Spanish gastronomy, but also keeping alive part of the country’s history.
The convent is open for holiday purchases from 10 – 18.
Convento San Francisco
Passage de las Franciscanas 1, Barrio de San Francisco, Ronda, Malaga