Perhaps because of its combination of cold weather and festivity, Christmas has become the sweetest time of the year. The atmosphere suddenly puts paid to al¡ the precautions people take to avoid putting on weight, and the consumption of sweets reaches its peak. The custom of associating particular sweets with festivities, whether religious or pagan, is certainly a curious one. The origins of the habit go back to Ancient Rome, where buns and cakes started to be distinguished from bread in the 2nd century B.C., and were thereafter linked with celebrations. Christmas is the time of year when this historic tradition is most in evidence.

In Spain, the Christmas sweet par excellence is "turrón", a candy made from almonds that may also contain pine nuts, walnuts or hazelnuts, can be hard or soft, and is always toasted or mixed with sugar or honey. It is one of the great legends of traditional Spanish confectionery. Of Arab and Mediterranean origin (Catalonia and the Valencian region both claim it on the basis of documentary evidence), its manufacture has become an important industry for several towns in eastern Spain where almonds grow in abundance, such as Alcoy, Alicante and Jijona.

It is also the time for marzipan, which finds full expression in Toledo. It is said to have been invented by the Arabs, whose warriors used to carry it in battle to replenish their strength when necessary. Adolfo, one of the great names, has a shop in the city. Some people, however, prefer other cakes like `mantecados', `alfajores' and `polvorones', whose heartland within Spain is Andalusia. They are dry and crumbly, but they taste delicious, and all of them are still hand-made. They make Christmas sweeter for half the nation.

But the glitter and excess that form part and parcel of these festivities also fuel the consumption of many other sweets. Spain's enticingly varied panorama of confectionery furthermore includes cakes, sponges, biscuits; flans, pancakes, buns and tarts.


Epiphany Cake

The Epiphany cake, a symbolic sweet

And whilst engaged on this sugary survey, we might also pay homage to the 'roscón', a highly symbolic ring-shaped Epiphany cake whose biggest attraction is that whoever finds the "surprise" inside it is assured of good fortune in the coming months.

And we shall end this overview with a suggestion. Where the richness of Spain's confectionery is probably best preserved is in its monasteries and convents, which since the days of St Isidore of Seville have possessed gigantic kitchens and ancient recipes, their secrets inaccessible to laymen, with names like "fat from heaven", "angel's locks", "nun's sighs" and "glories".

We had a talk about Christmas sweets with Francisco Torreblanca, a leading confectioner from eastern Spain who works extraordinary wonders with `turrón' -hard or soft- and with chocolate. In 1990, he was rated as Europe's greatest master of traditionally made sweets and cakes, having won a similar award in Spain two years earlier. Torreblanca is the owner of Totel, a magnificent patisserie in the town of Elda, Alicante. He is also the director of the European School of Confectionery and Gastronomy. He has written a book called "The Seduction of Sugar", and his chocolates, in nearly fifty varieties, are regarded as among the best in the world. Nor should we forget his delicious chocolate `turrón', which comes in flavours ranging from the traditional almond to the exotic red berry. Moreover, Francisco Torreblanca invented and made one of the most eagerly awaited sweets of the year, his "Gianduja Real", which was served for dessert at the wedding banquet of the Prince and Princess of Asturias.

Torreblanca, who regards Christmas as "a confectioner's that "sweets are enormously important in Spanish gastronomy, since the number of varieties in every region is very great:" Asked to name some of the most remarkable of Spain's autochthonous sweets, he mentions `piononos', `rosquillas' and 'yemas', among others. When it comes to noteworthy recipes in general, he lists traditional ones like `turrón', marzipan, Epiphany cake, rice pudding, "fat from heaven", egg custard and "angel's locks" in puff pastry, and more innovative contributions like "the combination of chocolate and saffron, the use of spices and the blending of sweet and savoury flavours."

-Which ingredients are most commonly used in Spain for making sweets and desserts? And which are the most unusual or novel ones?
-Obviously, the most frequently used ingredient is sugar, though butter, eggs and olive oil are also very common. And the most novel ones that occur to me are saffron, Chinese spices and Japanese agar-agar.

Since the earliest civilisations, sweets have been synonymous with hospitality and attentiveness to guests. By the same token, the dessert is always the dish that the host prepares most lovingly. A very sweet and merry Christmas to you all!



Recipe Roscón de Reyes (Epiphany Cake)

700 g flour.
6 eggs.
150 g sugar.
350 g soft butter.
38 g fresh yeast (13 g dry yeast).
B g salt. 0.5 dl rum.
0.5 dl orange blossom water.
Half a grated lemon.
Half a grated orange.
Egg for glazing.
Almonds, fruit and sugar to taste.

Knead the flour with the sugar and yeast. Add the eggs one by one, the sugar, the salt, the rum and the orange blossom water. Knead for another 10 minutes. Leave the dough to rest until it starts to rise. Break it and keep it in the fridge for several hours.
Stretch it into the characteristic ring shape, insert the prize and glaze with egg. Let it rise and glaze it again. Add the fruit, almonds and sugar. Bake for 35 minutes at 175°C