Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

The unexpected origins of Saint James’ Cake

If the Way of Saint James were edible, it would taste like Tarta de Santiago. You have not really finished your pilgrimage to the Apostle’s legendary tomb if you have not had a piece of it –in fact, it has its own designation of origin. It is, also, perfectly suited for the road: rather flat, relatively solid, and does not need to be kept in the fridge.

Decorated with a cross of Santiago made of powdered sugar, purists insist that a perfect tarta de Santiago should be made from three equal parts of almond, sugar, and eggs –one each, that is. A single trace of flour is simply unacceptable. Lemon peel and powdered cinnamon are added, for a nice flavor boost. Showering the cake with a little bit of sweet wine or liquor before having it is customary –and a great option too.

Saint James’ cake is thus almost synonymous with Galicia. But there’s something off about that. And it’s the cake’s main ingredient: ground almonds. Almond trees do not grow in the region.

The famous Galician writer Álvaro Cunqueiro noted, in the first half of the 20th century, that most emblematic Galician desserts (Almendrados de Alláriz, Pececitos de Almendra de Tui, the Tarta de Mondoñedo) are all based on this “exotic” ingredient. Historians claim all these cakes date back to the Middle Ages, although the first written mention of Saint James’ cake has been found on a collection of recipes dated in 1838 –the Recetario de Confitería Bartolomé de Leybar.

Other historians point at a “royal cake” included in the receipt of a dinner celebrated in the University of Santiago in 1577, but experts argue the “royal cake” was a savory treat.

Be that as it may, official historiography notes that Galician upper classes used almonds brought in from the Spanish Levante, and that these highly cherished nuts were considered a sign of status –social, economic, and political. But if it was a product available only for the elite, how can we explain the extended popularity of almond-based desserts, and its constant use on monastic recipes?

Experts like the noted food writer Jorge Guitián who point to a much more “popular,” interesting possibility. It is a widely known fact that Sephardic food includes almonds. Sephardic communities migrated en masse to the north of Spain in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries fleeing the Almohads, bringing along with them an array of culinary traditions that had not been seen before in the Iberian north.

Moreover, Jewish cuisine combines flavors and meanings. The root of the Hebrew word for almond, shakeid, is identical to the verb shakad, which means “to be diligent,” “to strive,” or to be “awake.” It is only natural that almonds were widely used as a substitute for flour in most desserts, especially on Pesach, when nature “wakes up” from its winter sleep, almond trees being among the very first ones to blossom the Menorah being decorated with oil cups in the shape of almond blossoms. A famous Sephardic song, arvolicos d’almendra (“Little Almond Trees) is a declaration of love, which blossoms in the spring.

On the other hand, it was the Arabs who brought sugar cane to Europe, via Spain. It implied a whole culinary revolution –especially if we consider sweet treats in Europe were, until then, based on honey alone. In fact, its transformative impact would only be surpassed by the arrival of chocolate from the Americas –also via Spain; what a coincidence!

As Guitián points out, countless documents and historians make it clear that many Sephardic families who converted to Christianity sent their daughters to convents. And it is quite possible that the unique blending of cultures that characterizes the Spanish Middle Ages (a radically different process from that of the rest of the Christian world then) also happened in conventual and monastic environments. When one reads medieval convent recipes, traces of the three Hispanic cultures (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim) are found intertwined with each other: marzipan, nougat, all kinds of cakes.

According to this hypothesis, Saint James’ Cake would originally be nothing but a popular conventual cake like any other one offered in bakeries. At least that might have been the case until 1924, when the famous Compostelan confectioner José Mora Soto came up with the brilliant idea of using powdered sugar to draw the Cross of Santiago on top of the cake, turning this rather simple sweet treat into the stuff of legend.

This post is also available in: Español Italiano

Leave a Comment