If there is something which we see during the entire Christmas period, it has to be sweets. Turrones (Nougat), mazapanes (marzipan), polvorones (shortbread)…It’s almost as if we haven’t had sweets for the rest of the year and that they’re suddenly let loose when December arrives. But why are there so many? What are their origins? Why do we only eat them at Christmas and not at other times? Right…we’re now going to answer all these questions.
Turrón (Nougat): the first turrones are alleged to have been created by the Arabs who lived in Sexona (present-day Jijona) during the Middle Ages. After the Reconquest, the production of turrones continued. But why do Spaniards eat it at Christmas? According to a document from 1582, it is owing to the fact that they city of Alicante used to pay part of their workers’ December wages in the form of turrón.
Mazapán (Spanish marzipan): everything seems to suggest that this is a sweet which also has Islamic origins but another charming legend recounts that, back in the 9th Century, some nuns from Toledo responded to a famine, which took place owing to the shortage of wheat, by making a type of bread roll made from surplus sugar and almonds. Although this marzipan is now only eaten at Christmas, according to some documents, including a work written by Lope de Vega, Spaniards also used to eat marzipan on la noche de San Juan (Saint John’s Eve).
Polvorones y mantecados (Spanish shortbread and crumble cakes):they first appeared in Andalucía in the 16th Century (some say in Antequera and others in Estepona) for an intriguing reason: one year, wheat flour and pig fat were in excess and the Spaniards therefore decided to store the surplus until the end of the year.
Panettone: this sweet Italian bread which is in the shape of a chef’s hat is said to date back to the time of the Romans. However, a legend recounts that, in the 16th Century, a Milanese aristocrat declared his love for the daughter of a baker by making the first ever panettone. Another legend recounts that the first ever panettone was created as the chef of the most important noble in Milan had to improvise a dessert for the dinner of Christmas Eve on behalf of his master using the ingredients which remained in the kitchen.
Roscón de reyes: the roscón (ring-shaped cake) is the grandchild of a sweet bread which the Romans used to make to celebrate Saturnalia (a festival which took place on the same day as we celebrate Christmas now). However, the tradition of putting a surprise inside the cake has its origins in the 18th Century when the chef of the French King, Louis XV, put a golden coin inside. A relative of Louis XV, who would become King Philip V of Spain, then introduced it into Spanish culture. Of course, the tradition of putting a bean inside the cake is popular among almost all Spanish families but there are very few who are now able to place a gold coin inside.
These are the origins of the most typical Christmas sweets in Spain. Of course, there are a lot more. And, if you all do a bit of research — something which I recommend you to do —you will see that there are some very intriguing histories.