IberiaNature A guide to the natural history and food of Spain

Pastries, Pasties, Pies, Puddings, Cakes & Sweet Things

Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.

Compared to French, German-and English speaking countries, and especially the U.S.A. , Spain does not offer a very wide range under this heading..

The only Spanish equivalent I know to the traditional pie or pasty with a pastry crust all around and especially on top is the savoury Galician Empanada . This oven-cooked speciality is usually stuffed with a delicious tuna mix, as are the smaller fried empanadillas. Argentina has made an art form of meat empanadas and empanadillas stuffed with an meat and egg mixture or sweet corn in béchamel sauce. Venezuelan and Columbian arepas are comparable, but use maize flour for the pastry. All of these are good, but I have yet to come across a Hispanic equivalent or rival to British steak and kidney pie, chicken and mushroom pie, bacon and cheese pie, pork pie, apple, rhubarb or gooseberry pie.

A pastis / pastel is a cake, and tarta can be translated as pie or tart, but the words are loose and often interchangeable; both can be sweet or savoury, and do not necessarily have any flour in them at all. Pastel de carne can be what I would call meatloaf in English, or a sort of cold Shepherd's / Cottage Pie in the form of a primitive Swiss Roll and slathered in mayonnaise, and I have moulded rings of escalivada referred to as both tartas and pudíns . Pasta is also a word for dough, both literally and in the hippy slang sense of money

The most common pastries are hojaldre / flaky puff pastry and bizcocho / sponge.

The most common fillings and toppings are crema / custard, nata / whipped cream (almost invariably from a canister; sadly, fresh cream seems to be virtually unknown), chocolate, cabello de angel / angel hair, made from calabaza / squash / vegetable marrow / pumpkin, jaleo de membrillo / quince jelly, and assorted mermeladas / jams. Dulce de leche, very popular in South America, is condensed milk boiled in its tin under dangerously high pressure until it turns brown, and is fit for the gods. Miel / mel / honey turns up quite often.

One of my favourite bizcochos is Tarta de Santiago , an almond sponge cake served with Meus Amores , a Galician toasted sweet wine, or muscatel . Fruit tarts such as tarta de poma / manzana or tarta de arandanos usually involve thick layers of hard custard. American-style cheesecake is also making inroads.

Catalan coca is a very popular flat and oval shaped pastry, usually made of unleavened bread or, sometimes, a sort of Victoria sponge. The texture can vary from dry and flaky to moist or spongy, and the ingredients and toppings range from sugar, anisette and dried fruit to tangy fried onion and green pepper. Traditionally, different coques are made for each feast day, the most notable being the mid-summer's eve coca de Sant Joan , which is leavened, candied and glazed. My favourite cocas are covered with pinyons / piñones / pine nuts. Coca de llardons is made with sugared chicharrones / pork scratchings and surprisingly tasty eaten the Carnival week before Lent. All types of coca go down very well with cava .

Assorted dried fruit and nuts, including walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, pine nuts, unsalted peanuts, raisins, prunes, dates and figs, are collectively known as music / músico or grana de capellà , and are often served as a dessert in the cooler months (simply because in summer they don't keep). This dish, and variants such as tarta de music, bombons de músic or pastis de pinions / pastel de piñones / pine nut tart, are almost always served with a glass or small porrón of sweet muscatel or garnatxa wine.

Marzipan is very popular. A tortell is a pastry in the shape of a large ring, covered with candied fruits, pine nuts, and stuffed with marzipan. It is also the main ingredient of panellets , round cakes covered in pine nuts, candied fruit, coconut, etc. These are eaten with roasted chestnuts and sweet potatoes at castenyades , chestnut parties held around the time of All Saints Day [1 st November; not only el dia de todos los santos / tots sants but also el dia de los muertos , the Day of the Dead, when families traditionally clean and tidy their loved ones' graves]. The castenyada tradition is under heavy pressure from Hallowe'en.

The Christmas period from 24 th December to 7 th January sees a lot of special sweet things appearing. T urrón is made from almonds and comes in several forms, from a tooth-shattering hard nougat to a soft paste like marzipan. The most authentic turrón comes from Alicante , but the word turrones is now used to mean any kind of Christmassy sweets or cakes. Polvorones are made from butter and almonds and burst into powder as soon as you bite them. Neules are like rather boring brandy snaps, eaten with cava.

The scatological side of the Catalan Christmas never ceases to amaze me. In addition to Baby Jesus and His Mother and Joseph and the Three Wise Men and the shepherds and the traditional cows and horses and sheep, their nativity scenes feature, a man with his trousers around his ankles squatting to defecate in a corner, called the cagoner [shitter]. Children are encouraged to first feed a special log, kept beside the fireplace for the duration, and then hit it and merrily shout " caga, tió, caga tió !" ["shit, log, shit log!"] whereupon it dutifully excretes sweets. As in other countries, Papa Noël / Father Christmas gives pieces of candy coal to children who have been naughty, but the Three Wise Kings give the same brat a turd on 6 th January. Both the lumps of coal and the turds (with flies attached) are proudly displayed in shop windows along with other festive goodies. What would Freud have to say about this?

Many towns and villages in Catalunya have local specialities. The typical pastry of Figueres (Alt Empordá) is the flaona -,a flaky cone stuffed with cheese, cream cheese, or whipped cream. Taps are a champagne cork shaped sponge cakes, typical of Cadaqúes (Alt Empordà), while Sant Feliu de Guíxols (Baix Empordà) produces wine cork shaped pastries called trefis . La Bisbal (Baix Empordà) is famous for a barrel shaped puff pastry filled with sugary cabello de angel and covered with piñones , called a bisbalenc . Arbúcies (La Selva) is noted for its hard almond biscuits called carquinyols . The wonderfully named Pets de Monja / Nun's Farts are from somewhere in Girona, I believe. Vilafranca de Penedes makes Catanias , delicious chocolate-coated almonds, a recipe of obvious Italian origin.

My favourite Spanish sweetstuffs are churros / xurros , lengths of simple dough deep fried in lard and dusted with sugar. Dipped in hot thick drinking chocolate, these are unbeatable as a hangover cure, and they are also delicious by themselves. Some bars get them in, but the best place to buy them is at source, the churreria / xurreria , which can be a shop or a caravan, where artisan crisps are also produced. There are always several at fairs and other public events, but they tend to smell awful by mid-afternoon.

Chucho / xuixo is the name of a thicker version of churro eaten cold, usually stuffed with crema / custard, and also to a rather higher-class cylindrical or cornet-shaped pastry stuffed with nata / cream. The hojaldre used is similar to that of the heart-shaped sticky sweet palmeras I used to love as a child in Venezuela .

These and most other types of cake, biscuit or sweet described above can be bought at a pastiseria / pasteleria / cake shop. These excellent establishments are required, under an eccentric law apparently brought in by Franco, to open on Sundays and holidays, when forns de pa / panaderias / bread shops must remain closed. Taking poor old Marie Antoinette rather literally, what?. The offerings vary in quality from shop to shop, but only rarely approach the dizzy heights of their French counterparts. The difference between a Spanish mil hojas and a French mil feuilles is unspannable.

The most famous Catalan dessert is crema catalana - a custard pudding sealed with a coating of burnt caramel, rather like crème brulee or grape pudding without the grapes. The caramel is traditionally seared with a sheep brand, and if it still hot when the dish is served, makes a wonderful contrast with the cold crema beneath. When this dish is good it can be delicious, but unfortunately it is often rather mediocre.

Flam / flan - egg and vanilla custard, usually served with caramel sauce, more often than not straight out of a Royal sachet.

Menjar blanc - almond milk pudding.

Pudín - bread & butter pudding, often served with caramel sauce. (I do miss nursery-style puddings like jam pudding or roly-poly, steamed pudding - chocolate, molasses, rum & raisin, maple or even golden syrup, not to mention Queen of Puddings, but I have no problem living without Christmas or plum pudding!).

Plumcake - well, quite.

Mató - soft white cheese, often served with honey as dessert: mel I mató .

Requesens - curds, I believe, or possibly whey, also served with honey. Watch out for spiders.

Gelats / helados / icecreams vary hugely in quality, although as far as I can judge the companies operate some kind of cartel at both national and international level. The Italian icecream shops are pretty good, but I do wish Ben & Jerry or Dayvilles or any of those excellent American icecream parlours would open locally.



Francis Barrett's Deconstruction of Catalan and Spanish Food

See aslo a brief guide to Catalan food by Simon Rice



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