Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Mantecados de Estepa: The Traditional Spanish Christmas Treats

In Andalucia, in the province of Sevilla, there is a town called Estepa which is famous for the production of the most delicious, but sadly seasonal, little sweet cakes called Mantecados.

Estepa has a tradition of over a thousand years of artisanship in the making of these, and over the centuries the recipes have become more standardised –or rather perfected -  but it was not till the late XIX century that a proper industry producing the mantecados that we know and love today was established.

(foto: Consejo Regulador)
Micaela Ruiz Tellez was the one who first refined the simple recipe and began selling her mantecados outside Estepa with the help of her lorry-driver husband, and was thus the first to commercialise the local delicacy. As time went by more producers set up in business, and in 1927 the town’s mayor, Salvador Moreno Duran, met with the producers and got them to sign agreements on quality control. Now there is an official Regulatory Council (Consejo Regulador) and a protected designation of origin (IGP) which controls and promotes the 20 producers, some of whom are cooperatives. It is the first of its kind.

Mantecados are made from a basic dough of wheat flour, a little pork lard or olive oil and icing sugar, to which any of the following can be added: almond, hazelnut, cinnamon, occasionally coconut, chocolate and some natural aromas such as lemon, vanilla and clove, and often decorated with sesame seeds or icing sugar. Once ready, the dough is shaped and then baked in an oven. The whole process takes a couple of hours, and the mantecados emerge at around 2 inches in diameter, weigh 35 grams and, being very delicate, (they are known as "polvorones", "polvo" meaning powder) are wrapped individually in paper.

Other baked delights are made here as well, though not covered by the IGP, such as hojaldres (puff pastry), milhojas (millefeuille), barquillos (filled wafer tubes) and rosquillas (ring-shaped pastry). Boxed assortments are widely available, and beautifully presented.

(foto: Consejo Regulador)
Christmas is celebrated in Spain on the 6th of January, and in the run up to it many small food shops occasionally offer customers a mantecado and a glass of brandy or anis (aniseed flavoured spirit) while they wait to be served. Another match made in Heaven would be an Amontillado or Oloroso Sherry. It would be a rare Spanish family which did not have a box of these delights in the house. It is said that food tastes better when it is made with love, and that is beyond doubt here.

When the season starts, the town is transformed: 2,000 jobs are created, of which women make up 85%. Their jobs have been passed down through the generations. Work is scarce in Spain, and this is only temporary work, but it helps keep many families going till the next season. The unemployment rate among women here is 52%. Without the mantecado industry there would only be the olives. Nearly every family in Estepa has some involvement with mantecados, and during the season you can catch their lovely, appetising aromas as you walk down the street.

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