Tapa Thursday: A Field Guide to Spanish Christmas Treats

Two weeks ago, I couldn’t find the aisle that is home to eggs and milk in my local supermarket. I walked in circles, desperate to locate what was needed for the Novio to make me croquetas.

The aisle where they normally resided, next to the sliced meat and dry pasta, was empty. Gutted (as was I).

The following day, the milk aisle was replaced by my worst nightmare: the Christmas goodies aisle.

If Spanish sweets disappointed me, Spanish Christmas treats take it to the next level.

As a child, we’d spend hours baking cookies and cakes to leave for Santa or hide under the tree for my dad. My Christmas memories are flavored like peppermint and fudge. Spain’s sweets leave me with much to be desired, sadly, and any time I bring them for my family to sample, they go uneaten.

Turrón 

Far and away the most common treat you’ll find, turrón is a nougat bar made from sugar, egg whites and honey, and are most traditionally made with nuts. The most celebrated types are hard (Alicante sort) and soft (Jijona type), though you can find them made of chocolate, infused with liquor, containing candied fruit or puffed rice or even with candy brands inside.

Marzipan

A traditional shortbread in Castilla y León and Castilla-La Mancha, this almond paste-based confection is often shaped into bite-sized morsels and have sugar or egg yolk filling.

Yemas

So, I hate eggs, and they’re about the only food I can’t stomach. What say you, then, about a traditional Christmas sweet that’s called Yolks?!

Mantecados and Polverones

Made of pig lard (sorry I just ruined them for you, but the clue is in the name people!) and olive oil, mantecados are quite popular in Andalucía and mass-produced here. These crumbly cookies are often sold like we sell Girl Scout cookies, and come in a dozen varieties, like cinnamon, lemon, chocolate and anisette. Polverones take their name from dust, as these small cakes often break apart as soon as they’re out of their wax wrapper.

If you’re in Seville and love them, consider taking a day trip to Estepa, where you can visit the factories and sample until your heart’s content. About 95% of the workforce in their traditional despensas are women, and the city has earned the moniker of ‘Ciudad del Mantecado.’

Las 12 Uvas de Nochevieja

As per tradition, Spaniards leave room in their bellies for 12 grapes, which are to be eaten on New Year’s Eve at the 12 strokes of midnight for good luck in the coming year. During my first Nochevieja in Seville, my family and I didn’t know about this, so the Novio grabbed 48 grapes and a small bottle of champagne for us from his own family’s stash.

New Year’s is a holiday that’s most often spent with family, but my parents, sister, cousin and I braved the rain last year in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, where the official ball drop happens. Most of my grapes ended up on the ground, but I’d say 2013 has been pretty awesome.

Roscón de Reyes

source

Among one of the strangest traditions in Spain is the Three Kings parade on the evening of an epiphany. The three kings and their pages ride through the streets on elaborate floats, throwing candy and small toys to bystanders. The following day, families eat a flaky pastry cake with candied fruit, called the roscón. Two figurines are hidden within the cake – a toy or Christ figure, to be given to the king (who also gets the crown), and a bean. He who finds the bean must pay for the following year’s cake. 

Other popular dulces are nuts and mandarin oranges, and it seems that there’s always a box of the mythical Caja Roja chocolates. Thankfully, I tend not to overeat when it comes to sweets at Christmas. I save my calories for the G&Ts after dinner.

Do you like Spanish Christmas treats, or do you tend to stick to your home country’s traditional sweets?

Visiting Estepa: More Than Just Mantecados

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.

Tapa Thursdays: Mantecados de Estepa and the Despensa de Palacio

¡Pero si los mantecados no engordan! Put a few more in your purse already!” Javi stole a glance at the four estepeñas attending to the Sunday morning crowd as he loaded a few barquillos and polvorones in my purse, swearing they didn’t fatten anyone up. A sly smile crept across my face as I accepted them. Claro, no way these would make me fat.

Mantecados, the Christmastime favorite of Spaniards, was on our agenda one bright weekend morning. Ask any español to name the Ciudad del Mantecado – a crumbly cookie made of pig lard, flour, sugar and cinnamon – and, ten-to-one, they can. At just an hour’s drive from Seville, Estepa, the Mantecado City, was a tasty stop in one of the many pueblos blancos in the area.

After visiting the factory and museum at La Estepeña, the city’s most famous brand, Javi directed onto the streets of the city named after the cookie’s principle ingredients and into La Despensa de Palacio. The sprawling factory and adjacent museum are a charming homage to the city’s artisan claim to fame. The albero-colored façade had just a modest blue-and-white azulejo announcing it as a factory.

What sets La Despensa apart from the rest, aside from its celebrity clientele, is that traditional baking methods and packing are still used, and the assembly line and industrial machines used at other brands are suhnned. Ninety-five percent of the work force is women who work overtime during Christmas to knead the lard, let the flour dry, add in the sugar and cinnamon, cut the dough into rounds and later package them in wax paper with ruffled edges. What’s more, the mantecados are cooked in a traditional oven.

The quality is matched by the higher price for La Despensa’s products, which also encompasses jellies, cookies and other lard staples like polvorones and alfajores.

The store was, like any Sunday, a zoo. Old ladies elbowed their way up to the front of the line, grabbing the hardbound book of available items and pointing out what they wanted, how many kilos, and bickering with their friends about whether last year’s packaging design was better than this year’s. Their grandchildren eyed the bowl of samples on the counter as they stood on their toes to try to reach the prize. I smiled to myself while watching these Spaniards start acting as if it were an auction, eager to get their hands on the freshest surtidos.

Just then, one of the employees came through with a batch of cooled treats, topped with sesame seeds.

I couldn’t help myself from one and let the cake break apart in my fingers as I sniffed out the cinnamon that gets kneaded into the dough. Just two bites of a mantecado leave you needing a drink, so we hopped in the car and drove to Anís Bravío for a few sips of distilled anisette, the Spanish abuelo’s drink of choice.

At the end of the day, Caitlin and I were back to La Despensa with the tail end of the Sunday crowd, narrowly missing a tourism bus that had made a stop in Mantecadolandia for their fill. Taking a small plastic card with a number imprinted on it, we waited for our turn to be served.

¿Quién va?

Author’s Note: My visit to Estepa and tour of various mantecados factories was kindly offered by Violeta, Javi and their team at Heart of Andalusia. All opinions are, of course, my own.

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