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The sweet history of turrón

A still-life painting of sweets and turrones, by the early 17th century Spanish painter Juan Van der Hamen.
A still-life painting of sweets and turrones, by the early 17th century Spanish painter Juan Van der Hamen. / SUR
  • The almond treat that fills the shelves at Christmas every year is one of the many culinary treasures that Spain inherited from the Moors

Christmas in Spain wouldn't be without its favourite seasonal sweet treats. Turrón, marzipan, polvorones, mantecados, peladillas, alajúes, alfajores, tortas reales are just some of the names of the mainly almond-based delicacies that fill the shelves in supermarkets and homes at this time of year.

There are two traditional types of turrón; every Spanish home has someone who loves the soft Jijona turrón, as well as an admirer of the hard type from Alicante. However the trend in recent years has turned more towards chocolate coating and unusual ingredients, making the shape of the packet sometimes all there is in common with the traditional varieties.

Diversity is not such a new thing though. Centuries ago people used to make turrón with hazelnuts, walnuts or pine nuts and use flavours such as cinnamon, orange, ginger and aniseed. There were white varieties, black ones and red ones, guirlache and candied fruits, a vast and scrumptious array which shows the complexity of the old Spanish sweet-making.

Arabic roots

This was all thanks to the Moors, who, apart from conquering the land, knew how to win over people's palates. Readers are probably familiar with halva, a typical sweet in Islamic countries made with semolina and dried fruits or nuts, which is remarkably similar to our traditional bars of turrón. In fact the word 'halva' is how Father Pedro de Alcalá translated the word 'turrón' in his Arabic-Spanish dictionary in 1505.

The two recipes are very similar, a sweet made with honey, egg whites and nuts which appears in the Arabic recipe books from the tenth century as 'nātif'.

In the Kitāb al-Tabīkh or Book of Dishes, a cookery book written just over 1,000 years ago in Baghdad by Ibn Sayyar al-Warrāq, we find instructions on how to make this proto-turrón.

Mediterranean and the Moorish conquest in-between, it is probable that this recipe came into the hands of the artisan bakers of Alicante before 1248, when the city returned again to Christian rule.

"Beat the honey as it cooks for an hour and then add egg whites and mix well. For ten pounds of honey, use ten egg whites. Stir until the honey turns white and when it has thickened, season it with pepper, cassia, cloves and spikenard. Also add any nuts you like, such as almond, pistacho, hazelnut, walnut, pine nut, sesame or hemp. It will take three hours of beating for the mixture to become thick enough, God willing," says the recipe.

Various names

During the time of Al-Ándalus, this delicious dessert was called mu'aqqad in Hispano-Arabic, torron in Catalan and turrón in Castilian Spanish, undoubtedly because the nuts 'se turraban', or were toasted, before being added to the mixture.

Despite their infidel origins, don't think for a moment that the Christians avoided these treats. During the Middle Ages sweets and cakes were among the most luxurious and coveted foods and they played a double role as food and medicine.

From Enrique de Villena, who in 1423 wrote Arte Cisoria about the art of carving, we know that at the court of Castilian king Juan II they ate "turrones, miegados, obleas, letuarios and such things", which later became popular with the lower classes as well.

A century later Lope de Rueda, the actor and dramatist from Seville, would make a first reference to the turrones of Alicante as an object of gluttony, while an unnamed copyist wrote the first instructions in Castilian Spanish for making turrones:

"For every pound of honey add a well-beaten egg white and mix well. Beat hard, and leave to rest for a day. The next day, cook the honey, stirring constantly until well cooked. Test by putting a drop into a bowl of cold water and if it crumbles it is ready, and if it doesn't it isn't. When cooked, put pine nuts or almonds or toasted and peeled hazelnuts in, and heat for a short while. Then take it off the heat, add chopped pineapple or whatever you fancy."

At that time it was already popular to eat turrón "at Christmas and on Three Kings Day", when meat was prohibited. By the mid-16th century the Christmas tables of the powerful included a variety of turrones.

At that time turrón had become a completely Spanish dish, as Dr Francisco Núñez de Coria wrote in 1572 in his 'Aviso de sanidad', a guide to good health.

"In Spain many sugary gifts are made, in pharmacies as well as shops, and they are eaten for dessert. There are types of cakes with pine nuts, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, flour, sugar and honey, and they call them turron and alaxu (sic)," he said.

So now in the 21st century perhaps we should look at the simple turrón differently. Soft or hard, and no matter what the flavour, it is one of the of this country's history.