I sometimes confused Estepona, a beach destination on the Costa del Sol, with Estepa, a town nuzzled up to a hill at the far reaches of the Seville province. During the multiple car trips crisscrossing Spain’s southernmost autonomous region, I’d often watch the small village with its church spires punctuating the horizon pass by quickly. Being known for its holiday goodies, particularly mantecados, it’s always been a place in the back of my mind to visit.
Javi met us at the aptly name Hotel Don Polverón – a homage to one of the city’s baked moneymakers – and we steered our car along the roads of the industrial park near the highway, its streets named for the basic ingredients of the mantecados: Almendra, Azúcar, Canela. It’s common in Spanish households to have an anís bottle set out next to mantecados when the Reyes Magos come, so we feasted like the Three Kings for the better part of the morning.
The visit first brought us to La Estepeña, one of the most universally known brands.
La Estepeña features a visit to the factory, where a workforce made up almost entirely of women use traditional methods of preparing and wrapping the goodies, though the actually baking is no longer done in an oven. We visited the belén made entirely of chocolate and the small museum before marveling at the gorgeous Christmas tree in the foyer of the museum.
Most of the famous mantecado brands have been making the pig’s lard Christmas treats for generations, so Javi pointed us in the direction of La Despensa del Palacio, where the cakes are still baked in a wood-burning oven after being hand-kneaded. The mantecados are crumbly and leave your mouth dry, so we were then whisked away to the small anisette factory – the Spanish abuelo’s favorite – for a sampling of anís seco in Anís Bravío.
Cravings satisfied, we climbed Cerro San Cristóbal, the city’s highest hill. The rainy morning haze seems to have stayed in la capital – the day was bright and welcoming. Smack dab in the autonomía of Andalusia, one can see the provinces of Seville, Málaga and Córdoba, much like the Hancock building in Chicago.
Estepeños not interested in mantecados trek up the hill to the convent, where a turnstile still offers cloistered nuns peddling homemade treats, and the lavish baroque chapel not open to the public. Violeta was waiting for us here, key to the capilla in hand.
“They know me here, ” she smiled. “One of the perks of the job.” She and Javi accompanied us around the rest of the sites on the Cerro, including a small museum dedicated to the city’s culinary treasure that was once the kitchen the nuns used to make the sweets.
The adjacent Santa María church was originally intended for the Orden de Santiago, the church has been reconstructed and now contains a small religious art museum, complete with relics of petrified fingers and locks of hair.
A rickety octagonal tower sits just west of Santa María. This was the defensive tower used for the Orden de Santiago, and the views facing the Balcón de Andalucía, the pueblo’s mirador that looks down on the whitewashed houses that seem to crawl down the hill, were stunning after a few days of rain and a lucky break in the weather pattern.
Back down the hill, we found parking just in front of As de Tapas on Estepa’s main street. This is what I love most about the pueblos in Seville: good, hearty food, the steady hum of chattering in castellano and a cold beer.
Sending thanks to Javi and Violeta of Heart of Andalusia for their generous offer to show Caitlin and me around the Ciudad del Mantecado and the other lovely sites of Estepa. As always, all opinions expressed are my own.