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Mantecados go into the oven at the Convento del Belén. A. J. G.
Antequera's mantecados: a heavenly business
Food and drink

Antequera's mantecados: a heavenly business

Convents preserve their old recipes and companies maintain the vigour and fame gained in the 19th century, when they were suppliers to the King

Antonio J. Guerrero

Antequera

Friday, 20 October 2023, 16:20

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The month of October marks the beginning of pilgrimages to Antequera to buy mantecados, following the tradition of parents and grandparents. In fact the town has been famous for its cakes that are winter favourites, especially at Christmas, since the end of the 19th century.

Antequera shares with Estepa (in Seville province) a centuries-old tradition dating back to the 16th century, when a surplus of cereals and lard in Andalucía encouraged the production of these crumbly cakes, especially in convents, where the nuns, in the face of such high demand, asked for help from women in the villages to produce them and then use them for private sale.

As the years went by, the demand died down and, in the case of Antequera, the religious orders kept their recipes, as they did with other local desserts such as the bienmesabe or angelorum.

"The first documented record of 'mantecado' is from Antequera, in the mid-18th century. It is a recipe for the manufacture of this product, preserved in the Municipal Historical Archive, specifically in the Archive of the Marquises of Fuente Piedra. It is a small document in which the recipe for this popular cake made with ingredients from the countryside is written down," says town chronicler José Escalante.

At that time, María Hidalgo and her husband Pedro González had a house in Calle Comedias number 5, on the corner of Calle Vestuarios, where they sold mantecados under the well-known brand name La Castaña, which was founded in 1790. This company later became the official supplier of these Christmas products to the Royal House of Alfonso XII from 1881. This licence certified their quality and opened doors for them to sell throughout Spain.

A year before the Royal endorsement, in 1880, 'La Antequerana' was created, founded by Manuel Avilés, which is the only company that has remained in existence to this day. 'La Castaña', which produced around 75,000 kilos per season, disappeared. However, it was recovered in 2015 by the Sancho Melero group, the main producer of these products today with 3,100,000 kilos of mantecados and other cakes. This company was founded in 1948 by Diego Sancho and Rosario Paradas.

After baking, the handmade products are cooled and wrapped.
After baking, the handmade products are cooled and wrapped. A. J. G.

Escalante goes on to emphasise that "the fame of the mantecados of Antequera is due to the high quality of the product and the raw material used, something that made the product unique". The backing of being a supplier to the Royal Household has led to the promotion of the product throughout Spain. "Exports to England, France, Italy, the Vatican, America and North Africa," read an advertisement in the provincial press.

The chronicler also highlights a detail of the brand 'La Primitiva'. The company was awarded a prize in 1862 for "being the first factory in Antequera which, using mechanics, perfected most of its work, having deserved to be awarded a prize at the Amigos del País society exhibition in Malaga".

He also mentions a special wheat local to the area that was known as 'dwarf wheat', a cereal that was produced here to make flour for the mantecados and for the mollete bread rolls.

The wheat grain was turned into flour in the mills of La Ribera, a former industrial area next to the source of the Río de la Villa, which used limestone from the nearby Sierra del Torcal for milling. The other element to be taken into account was the quality of the lard, which in turn depended on the feeding and care of the pigs in the area.

"The fundamental secret of the workshop was the kneading of the different ingredients; they all had to be mixed by hand in a glazed earthenware basin, with warm hands, never with cold hands, until a homogeneous, white dough was obtained, to which sugar and cinnamon were finally added," Escalante concludes.

Family business

The convents, brands and companies were joined by 'La Perla' in 1937, founded by Antonio Navarro Berdún, who was succeeded by his children Antonio Matilde and Carmen Navarro González and today by his grandson José Antonio Navarro Guerrero. More recently, in the 1980s, a dozen artisan bakeries have emerged, most of them belonging to the Aguilera family, who have expanded the varieties and ways of understanding the typical cake.

In 'La Perla' they keep the centenary wood-fired oven.
In 'La Perla' they keep the centenary wood-fired oven. A. J. G.

If you ask today how to make this winter tradition, you would expect that every firm would keep its recipe as if it were the secret formula for Coca Cola. But if you take note of the details, you will notice the differences between the mantecado and the polvorón, an alternative which is much better known north of Andalucía.

Mantecados are essentially circular in shape, with the ground ingredients inside, while the polvorón is more oval and the nuts are whole in the dough. On the other hand, alfajores are elongated and roscos are round. The base is lard, together with flour and sugar, which are fused into a common dough. The dough is then shaped by hand, using moulds or advanced machinery. They are separated into units and put in an oven between 260 and 320 degrees, where they are baked. La Perla maintains the wood-fired oven, while the rest are fired with gas or electricity.

Once cooled, some are decorated with cinnamon, sesame seeds, but above all with new formulas that are growing in the universe of flavours. These include coconut, lemon, pine nuts, pistachio, chocolate, hazelnuts, almonds, butter and cashew nuts.

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