For most of us in Europe, indeed the world, Christmas is over. The frankly obscene gorging of the festive period – usually stretching the week before New Year – is finished. Belts have become either redundant or have simply snapped. Shirts no longer fit, the torso now has the appearance of a beached whale in clothing, and your resolution to get fit and join a gym is firmly in place.
Not in Spain though. We’ve got another week of face-stuffing and health-ruining banqueting left. In Spain, traditionally, Christmas is a Catholic family holiday. The country has appropriated Santa Claus and reindeer and bells and the like, but the real fun – the classic time for presents and sweets and family dinners is the Reyes Magos – Three Kings – period: the 5th and 6th of January.
In Britain, my Christmastime is marked by mince pies, roast turkey, crackers, port and stilton, Brussels sprouts, pigs in blankets, silly paper hats, sweet sherry and more mince pies. None of that passes the lips in Spain. Except the sherry maybe.
So, with ‘Christmas’ still very much underway here – the lights are still up, presents are still being bought and wrapped, horrendous Spanish carols are still blaring out of the shop speakers and fighting for airspace with Mariah Carey – it’s time we had a look at some of the goodies that mark this festive period. I’ll be focussing on the sweeter side of things. I’ll leave the seafood and roast meats for their own pages.
Roscón de Reyes
The quintessential Three Kings treat. A somewhat distressed-looking large, sweet bread ring flavoured with a little orange flower liquor – maybe some rum – and coated generously with crunchy sugar and candied fruit. Sometimes the ring is in two and filled, like a big sweet bagel, with whipped cream, custard cream, Cabell d’Àngel or chocolate crème.
Origins are murky; some say that it was created as an edible version of the Advent wreath, but it is likely a leftover from the old Roman festivals of Saturnalia, which took place at the end of the year (Christmas was lifted date-wise from this), when the revellers would bake round cakes and coat them with dates, figs and honey.
For me, this is one of grand disappointments of Spain’s sweet tooth. I recognise that the country will never be the heavyweight that Germany or France are, but the cake is usually dry like a sad panettone and with about as much flavour. Always get a filled one. Even when they are on the moister side of things, they look far more interesting than they taste. I mean…if you like sweet bread I suppose it’s great. I only enjoy the cake filled with custard cream.
The fun, however, resides not in the tasting but the eating. Hidden within the roscón is a little king figurine and a broad bean. Whoever finds the figurine is victoriously crowned the King, but whoever’s slice contains the bean has to pay for the cake. That’s the tradition anyway. It’s ridiculous. I love it.
Unlike the roscón, I can profess an addiction to turrón. Often mistranslated as ‘nougat’, this is really Spain’s original candy bar; with a history possibly stretching back to Ancient Greece when athletes were given a sweet mixture of honey, almonds and other dried fruits before competing. However, the likely origin is an evolved version of the medieval Arabic snack ‘turun’. It arrived at Alicante and from there a legend was born.
In a book by royal chef Francisco Martínez Montiño called ‘Conduchos de Navidad’ from 1584, he recalls the custom of eating turrón for Christmas.
Generally the sweet is served in a flat block form and revolves traditionally around blends of almonds, nuts, a lot of sugar, then things like egg whites, honey, and vanilla.
Around Christmas and New Year the Spanish don’t stop eating this delicious sugar-bomb bar. It comes in various forms: the most traditional being duro (hard) that looks a bit like nougat, blando (soft) that is crumbly like halva and yema quemada (burnt egg yolk) that has a marzipan vibe to it.
In case you get sick of eating the classic styles of turrón at every moment, every day, every end of year, do not fret. Shops like Vicens have invented more creative versions – some taking the concept very liberally – and even teaming up with the likes of Albert Adrià; brother of El Bulli’s Ferran. Gin and Tonic, Vermouth, Strawberry with Curry, Lunar Rock, candied fruits, chocolate and nut. There’s something for everyone. There’s even diabetic-friendly turrones!
‘Dust biscuits’ as my friend calls them… This is one sweet I’ve never got behind. None of my group, whether ex-pat or pat, enjoys these things. People bring them to festive parties ironically. A sort of ‘oh…haha…thanks’ wink and snigger gift.
The origins apparently date back to the sixteenth century and a concern about the overproduction of lard and wheat. Flour and fat combined with a ton of sugar results in the soft and crumbly disks of sweet that often receive a dusting of caster sugar. Nothing has really changed since then. Though some of them are flavoured with cinnamon, chocolate, almonds, or sesame seeds.
They look cute, twirled up inside there little penny sweet grease-proof wrappers. They are dry and dusty first and then form a gloopy, sandy mass in the mouth that one must suffer through. A good game is to see how many you can eat in a certain timeframe. Much like crackers, the mouth is swiftly reduced to a slow chomp.
When we think of mazapán in Spain there is only one place that our taste buds should turn to: Toledo; that great Greco tourist town south of the capital. However, again it goes back to those old Greeks. A sort of almond cake called panis martius (March Bread) that was eaten at Easter. In Spain, in Toledo, it seems to date back to sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries. One sweet story, get it?, claims that some 13th century Toledan nuns at the San Clemente convent created it during a famine to give to the hungry.
If you head to Toledo nowadays, at any given time throughout the year, you will see the tourist shops peddling the stuff. I would baselessly presume that the locals find this amusing as well as financially beneficial. Not many people in Spain eat it during the year. At Christmas, however, the shelves explode and creak in every city and town in Spain. Marzipan madness.
So cherished and important is it to Toledo that there is even a denominación de origen: Mazapán de Toledo: where the rule is that 50% of the stuff must be made with sweet almonds with a 50% fat content. Then it can be mixed with honey or sugar and egg yolk. However, there are also good ones coming out of the Levante and Andalucía. Not to mention the famous marzipans from the town of Lübeck in northern Germany.
Personally I can’t really stand the stuff; but if you are a fan, welcome to paradise.
Around the festive period, and in general the months when the chill of winter sets in, you will find in the towns and cities little stalls smoking themselves into the cold, still air. Around Madrid, cosy little two-person hubs fume into the surroundings with roasting chestnuts, sweet potatoes and sweetcorn.
It was Nat King Cole who sang ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…’ Yet do we do that in Britain and America? Not really. But the Spanish do. And it’s glorious. My favourite tradition of the lot.
During the First Carlist War, the satirist Fray Gerundio wrote ‘It wouldn’t be a Spanish gathering if, after everything, to end, there weren’t one or two big dishes of cooked or roasted chestnuts.’ This is a tradition that, though not enshrined in many carols, is firmly entrenched in the Spanish festive food sector.
Throw them into what looks like a big dry wok, move them about with a large metal spoon, and let the shells, those shiny brown husks, dull and blacken. When ready, scoop them out and shuffle them steaming into a paper bag. Wait, you’ll burn yourself, then wait longer. Peel apart the soft shells and enjoy the smoking sweet chestnut. A fragrant nutty potato flavour.
Often at Christmas time you can find a selection of all these sweet delicacies in a box called a surtido. Usually accompanied with some peladillas (candied almonds) that roll about and guirlache (a caramel almond stick), the surtido selection is the perfect gift for the person with a sweet tooth and an interest in Spanish gastronomy.
Where I buy/eat it?
Madrid – Casa Mira (Carrera de S. Jerónimo, 30)
Barcelona – Torrons Vicens (Carrer del Call, 10)
Alicante – Turrones Espí (Calle Tomás López Torregrosa, 17)
Sevilla – La Colchona (Calle Cuna, 37)
Madrid – La Duquesita (Calle Fernando VI, 2)
Toledo – Pastelería Santo Tomé (Plaza Zocodover, 7), Convento de Santo Domingo El Antiguo (Plaza de Santo Domingo Ant, 1)
Roscon de Reyes:
Madrid – El Riojano (Calle Mayor, 80), La Mallorquina (Calle Mayor, 2), Antigua Pastelería del Pozo (Calle Pozo, 8)
What I drink with it?
Sweet wines. Always sweet wines to match the sugar in the food! Anything from PX sherries to Moscatel. White grape sweets work better than big fortified reds like Port. I suggest Festival Pedro Ximénez Pale Sweet by Alvear.
What I listen to?
White Christmas – Bing Crosby