Christmas Recipes in Early Modern Barcelona

Marta Manzanares Mileo

In 1786, Rafael d’Amat i de Cortada, a member of Catalan nobility known as Baron of Maldà, described the Christmas holiday in his memoirs, noting that: “All sorts of torrons are sold in confectionery shops at Christmas, and eaten as dessert at the table of gentlemen as well as many artisans and other people”[1]. 


Tomás Hiepes, Sweetmeats and Dried Fruit on a Table, ca.1600–1635, Prado Museum. Image Bank ©Museo Nacional del Prado.

During Christmas time, professional confectioners fully engaged in the making of the quintessential Christmas dessert: the torró or turrón. The traditional Torró is a confection made of honey and/or sugar syrup, beaten egg whites, roasted nuts — mainly almonds or hazelnuts — covered with wafer paper and cut into rectangular bars. This combination of ingredients brought together Arab confectionery methods with Iberian ingredients, which shows the intercultural culinary traditions in early modern Spain.

 

One of the earliest recipes of torró written in Catalan is the recipe for Torrons d’avelanes, or a hazelnut nougat, which is located in the 14th century manuscript recipe book titled Llibre de totes maneres de confits (Book of the methods of making confections) in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at University of Barcelona. According to the preface of this book, all these recipes were provided by many “notable especiers”, the medieval sellers of spices and sugary food. [2]

Recipes for turrón can be also found in the book Los quarto libros del arte de la confitería (Four Volumes on the Art of Confectionery) by the Toledan confectioner Miguel de Baeza (Alcalá de Henares, 1592), the earliest print confectioner book in early modern Spain. Baeza offers two different recipes for turrón: turrón fino (Fine Nougat), a ground roasted almond nougat, and the recipe for turrón entrefino (Common Nougat) made of roasted pine nuts.

Unlike other food recipes, confectionery formulas clearly specify the amount of ingredients as well as the ‘degree’ or temperature of sugar or honey syrup, as being fundamental criteria to obtain good results. Confectioners recognized the correct degree for each confection by the visual and tactile signs given by the boiling honey or sugar syrups. In the recipe Del turrón fino (Of Fine Nougat), Baeza instructed to test the degree of honey syrup as follows:

Take a bowl or a casserole pot and a bit of cool, clear water, and you will dip your finger into the water; and then you will dip your finger into the honey, and look it crumbles and then it is good.

The numerous references to the confectioner’s workshop and journeymen suggest that the Arte de confitería would have been intended for professional confectioners. Only two original copies are known to date, located in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and in the library of the monastery of El Escorial (Madrid). Strikingly, a third handwritten copy of Baeza’s work can be found as part of the manuscript notebook of Melcior Palau, a Catalan confectioner who lived and worked in Barcelona during the early seventeenth century.

Front page of the manuscript copy of Los cuatro libros de arte de confitería by Miguel de Baeza. Biblioteca de la Universitat de Barcelona (BUB), ms. 62, f. 53r. Biblioteca Patrimonial Digital de la Universitat de Barcelona.

 

From 1562, the members of the College of Druggists and Confectioners of Barcelona (Col·legi de droguers i confiters de Barcelona) were the main suppliers of torrons in the city. They were entitled to exercise as druggists, dispensing drugs, spices and other colonial commodities, as well as confectioners, making and selling sweets. The rich archives of Catalonia have revealed an unusually high number of confectionery books belonged to professional confectioners, in which they collected and recorded a wide range of sweets recipes. 

As regards Melcior Palau’s handbook, it contains an additional recipe for torró titled Per fer torons de amella (To make almond nougat). The annotations following this last recipe make clear that it was added by another reader, specifically Gaspar Arnau, the apprentice of the confectioner Melcior Palau. Here, the apprentice Arnau limited himself to indicate the quantities of honey and nuts.

BUB, ms. 62, f. 43v. Biblioteca Patrimonial Digital de la Universitat de Barcelona.

Palau’s confectionery book suggests handwritten copies of the print Arte de confitería could have encouraged a larger spread among professional confectioners during the seventeenth century. Furthermore, the multiple handwritings and annotations contained in this handbook show a wide circulation across generations of guild members. The exceptionality of Catalan confectioner books raises some questions about the extent to which similar manuscript recipe collections might be used in the acquisition and transmission of craft knowledge in other European urban contexts, alternative to oral transmission and print culture.

Bon Nadal! Merry Christmas!

Footnotes:

[1] AMAT i de CORTADA, Rafel d´, Baró de Maldà, Calaix de Sastre (Barcelona: Curial, 1987), vol. I.

[2] FARAUDO de Saint-Germain, Luís, “Libre de totes maneres de confits. Un tratado cuatrocentista de arte de dulcería”, Boletín de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona, XIX (1946), p.106.