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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Bakery & Confectionery
Foods From Spain History: Bakery & Confectionery. A Taste For Sweetness

Foods From Spain History: Bakery & Confectionery. A Taste For Sweetness

The term ‘confectionery’ is used here to mean the art of making sweets and preserves, and ‘bakery’ to mean the art of making cakes, biscuits and other sweet foodstuffs. The products of both combine to make up the general, if now rather old-fashioned, category of ‘sweetmeats’. All share the common characteristic of sweetness, so that their histories are linked with the use of honey and, later, sugar and other sweetening agents.

In traditional confectionery, fruits and flowers provide the raw materials for preserving in honey or sugar; in traditional baking, the main ingredient, apart from the sweet component, is flour, which can be derived from cereals, legumes or nuts. Other complementary or decorative ingredients can then be added. The range of ingredients that can be used in confectionery and baking is vast, but some - honey, sugar, fruits, flowers, wheat flour, nuts, eggs, cream and cocoa - feature far more frequently than others.

Origins of sweetmeats and bakery

It is interesting to note that the occupations of baker, pastry-cook, dessert-maker, and confectioner were not differentiated in Antiquity. Sweetmeats and products made primarily of flour of some kind, whether sweet or savory, were all produced by the same hands. The use of sugar (cane sugar until the 19th c.) from the Middle Ages on resulted in a gradual separation of skills between confectioners and bakers, but even so it was not until the 19th c. that clear differences were drawn between the occupations and their different specialties. In the Modern Era, sweetmeat producers belonged to the guild for ‘confectioners, chandlers and chocolatiers’, while treatises on the subject of 1.fruit pastes and preserves, though primarily concerned with sugar-based recipes, also gave recipes for nuts and spices, sorbets, cold and alcoholic drinks and other sweetmeats such as marzipan shapes, buns, turrón (Spanish nougat) and cakes. Surviving documentation relating to the provisioning of the Spanish Royal Household shows that bakers supplied not only various kinds of bread, but also pies, cakes, fritters, buns, biscuits and other 2.desserts.

Given that honey and fruit are two of the foods eaten by nearly all simians, it is difficult to put a date to when early man – or his precursors - began eating the two in combination, or adding honey to other foodstuffs, thereby creating the first ‘sweet’ (and, probably, the first ‘prepared’ foodstuff). Significant though that step was, it was still a far cry from confectionery and baking, so it would be stretching a point to attempt to date them back to the dawn of time.

Candying or crystallizing is essentially a preserving technique (used particularly for fruits and flowers), one of several methods that evolved to enable surplus food to be kept in an edible condition for longer periods during times of glut, and to extend the useful life of more perishable foodstuffs so that they could be eaten later or transported over long distances. The history of preserving does stretch back as long as that of mankind: indeed, the first sweetmeat may have resulted not so much from the notion of mixing foods as from an attempt to use an available natural resource (honey) to prolong the edible life of another foodstuff. The very idea of food preserving implies forward planning, which suggests that it emanated from groups of human beings at an already advanced stage of social and cultural evolution.

Just honey and bread

As regards ‘baking’ in the sense of producing flour-based goods, although nuts, pulses and cereals are known to have been gathered and eaten during the Paleolithic period, the earliest evidence of their being grown as crops has been found in Euro-Asiatic sites dating from the 7th millennium BC. It is safe to assume that honey was being eaten in combination with baked flour-and-water flat-breads by that time.

In the Iberian Peninsula, the origins of confectionery and baking as defined above also appear to date back to prehistoric times. However, trade with the Phoenicians (from 1100 BC on) and the Greeks (from the 8th c. BC on) is sure to have resulted in many new ingredients and preparation methods being absorbed into its foodways, including its traditional confectionery and baking.

Sweetening agents in Antiquity

The Celtiberians and the coastal peoples who were the original inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula were apparently habitual consumers of hidromel and honey wine (mead) even before the arrival of the Romans. Particularly in the centre of the Peninsula and in the mountains of Cantabria, honey had been a standard subsistence food for families; under the Roman Empire it became another cultivable product that could be exported in large quantities.

The Greeks preceded the Romans as consistent honey-eaters, its reputation being that of a food that not only restored the body and stimulated the mind but was also an aphrodisiac. Two of the most typical dishes eaten in Ancient Greece (1100-146 BC) contained honey: hyma, which was chopped meat mixed with onion, cheese, thyme, vinegar and honey; and hyposphagma, whose ingredients were blood, 3.cheese and Honey. Pythagoras (582-507 BC) seems to have lived almost exclusively on bread and honey. Honey was also used for frying, and even boiling certain foodstuffs. Two honey-based drinks were made in Ancient Greece: oinómel, grape must or aged wine with honey, and 4.hydrómeli, a mixture of water and honey boiled or left to stand until it fermented. The Romans continued to use honey in much the same way as the Greeks.

Honey for the Romans, made in Hispania

Hispania served as a beehive to the Roman Empire. Strabo (64 BC-AD 24) refers to it as a great producer and supplier of wax and honey: “From Turdetania [the equivalent of present-day Andalusia] much wheat, wine and oil are exported, not only in quantity but also very fine. Also exported are wax, 5.honey...”. Honey was one of the products for which the Roman province of Baetica was famous at that time, and some writers of the period also mention honey wine (mead) as the favored drink of the Celtiberian tribes. In one of many legends concerning the origins of honey, Justin refers to Gargoris (mythological king of Tartessos, the most ancient civilization in Hispania and the western world) as the discoverer of apiculture.

Roman products made from honey included hydromel, or aqua mulsa, and the famous oxymel, a sauce made by boiling down a mixture of two thirds honey, one third vinegar to a thick syrupy consistency, and used for dressing stews, meat and fish.

Honey was also one of the many traditional preserving substances for fruits and other vegetable foodstuffs already in use in the 6.Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). This was not sugar as we know it today, but rather a kind of dark, granular syrup. Other, less important sweeteners such as palm honey (a thick liquid obtained by boiling fermented 7.dates) were also used in the Ancient World.

Sweetmeats in Antiquity

Apart from their considerable importance as preservatives and dressings in cultures that favored sweet/sour (especially the combination of vinegar and honey) and sweet/salt flavors, these sweetening agents were also used for making jams, cakes and other sweet goods.

The Greeks were great consumers of honey, eating it as a dessert, and with cheese, milk, junket, an accompaniment to various types of cake, and with nuts. Nuts were typically eaten as a dessert, and were also used (boiled, toasted or ground) as ingredients and decoration for sweetmeats made with honey. The Greek combination of junket and honey is still eaten in 8.Spain today.

The importance of sweetmeats in Ancient Greece (1100-146 BC) is reflected in the copious number of treatises written on the subject by many 9.authors. Although honey based, these involved many other ingredients too, as in the following examples from the standard repertoire: ámes, a cake (plakoûs) made by boiling coagulated milk with honey; amórai, sweets made with honey and fine-grade flour; enkrís, a honey-coated fritter; gástris, a sweet composed of nuts, poppy seeds, honey, pepper and sesame; ítrion (one of the most often quoted), made of sesame and honey, but also used as a base for other, more sophisticated desserts; kámmata, a children’s dessert made with barley flour and honey wrapped in bay leaves; keríon and kribáne, which were wedding cakes, and many more. The basic range of Greek desserts consisted of cheeses or coagulated milk, and cakes made with wheat, barley, pulse or sesame flour and coated in honey, some boiled (pémma) others not, to which raisins, nuts, chickpeas, poppy seeds, sweet wine and so on might be added, either incorporated into the dough itself or placed on top. It is difficult to imagine what these pastry-like products were actually like without knowing the proportions in which the ingredients were used, but one gets the impression from descriptions and the implications of their names that the repertoire encompassed various kinds of cake, tart, sponge, wafer, biscuit and nut brittle. Many of these recipes were taken up by the Romans.

New Roman jobs

In Rome, baking was revolutionized and confectionery perfected, and the Roman conquerors absorbed culinary influences from all over the Mediterranean. The occupation of pastillariorum emerged, though it was to be a long time before a clear distinction was drawn between pastry-cooks and bakers.

Special breads (not necessarily sweet) would sometimes be served as dessert. Cooks who specialized in making oven-baked products would have produced meat and fish pies, baked puddings, cakes of cheese, vegetables or fruits, and breads containing spices or raisins, candied fruit, liqueurs and sweet wines, orange flower water, fruit pastes, nuts, sugar and honey. Refreshing dessert ‘ices’ were also made by adding different fruits and honey to snow.

The Jewish and Muslim legacies

Apicius is credited with having invented the smooth, sweet egg custard known in Spanish as natillas – he gives a recipe for it using milk, beaten eggs and honey. Apicius’ recipe book also includes recipes for ‘home-made sweetmeats’ (which implies that there were significant ‘industrial’ equivalents), including various substances candied by boiling in honey, fried pastries, cakes and biscuits with nuts coated in honey, enabling one to form some idea of the variety of 10.dulciaria eaten at that time.

During the Middle Ages, the evolution of Spanish confectionery and baking was radically altered by the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th c. The influence of Roman traditional sweetmeats, and equivalent borrowings from Jewish culture, were now joined by an equally sophisticated Muslim tradition of sweet-making, which continued to develop still further in the wealthy kingdoms of Al-Ándalus over the best part of eight centuries.

Islam left its mark on Spanish and European cuisine, especially in the area of sweet foods. Arab cookery books are full of recipes for confectionery and baked goods. Sorbets, fruit pastes and jams, biscuits as standard fare for taking on journeys, doughnuts, cakes and sweets made with sesame and other nuts and spices were just some of the gastronomic treats that amazed Christian travelers in Islamic lands.

Others included fritters drenched in honey or aromatized with rose-water, cakes filled with white cheese (mujabbanat), marzipan shapes, turrón (Spanish nougat) and starch-based sweets. Their cookery books and treatises on dietetics left as much of a mark as their customs on the cooking of Christian Spain and its medieval and modern cookery books: the use of sugar, citrus fruits, pomegranate juice and the addition of certain spices, such as 12.cinnamon, are all typical borrowings from Islamic culture.

Sugar and honey in Muslim Spain

From the 12th c. on, cane sugar started arriving in the Peninsula. Some historians believe that it had been a known product during Antiquity but only as an inaccessible luxury. It came into fairly regular use in Al-Ándalus, to the point where it became an equal competitor with honey both as a sweetening agent and an ingredient in sweetmeats.

The Muslims were also the first to turn sugar manufacturing into an industry whose product could be exported. This required large factories in which to crush the sugar cane, boil its juice to thicken it until the sugar crystallized, then refine, eliminating as much molasses as possible until what was then considered ‘white sugar’ was obtained.

Arab cuisine used honey as a key ingredient in its sweetmeats, in which nuts were also important. Indeed, the cuisine of Muslim Spain was responsible for raising the gastronomic profile of nuts, which featured frequently and consistently in many of its dishes, particularly desserts. The Persian and Arab provenance of the recipes brought in to the Peninsula by the first Muslim invaders are evident in that they call for nuts such as pistachios, walnuts and almonds: the first of these had to be imported, while in the north eastern part of the country, where hazelnuts were plentiful, alternative versions of the recipes emerged in which hazels replaced almonds.

In broad terms, dates, dried figs, raisins, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pine nuts, pistachios and sesame make up one of the main food groups that gave cuisine of Arab origin its particular character and, along with certain fruits and spices, provided the basis of their sweet preparations and seasoning and flavoring for the rest of their cooking. This pattern of use became amalgamated with the Peninsula’s pre-existing tradition of using acorns and chestnuts, from whose flour various products (flat-bread, porridge, sweets-meats...) had been made since ancient times.

Jewish sweetmeats

In Jewish Spain, too, certain sweets and other oriental foods played an important part in religious celebrations such as Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, or the Day of the Great Pardon) - a day of strict fasting and penitence after which a meal of rejoicing is eaten which includes nuts, figs, grapes, dates, pomegranates and other honey-drenched fruits to symbolize the sweetness and peace it is hoped to share in the coming year. Sweet pancakes and doughnuts are among the foods traditionally eaten at Passover. Another festive occasion when sweetmeats were particularly important was the birth of a (preferably male) child, celebration of which involved eating flat-bread, dragées, fritters, bread and honey, rice with oil and honey, and a kind of bread pudding made by frying milk-soaked bread in olive oil known as ‘rebanadas de parida’ (slices for the 14.recently-delivered). From the 15th c. on, all these foods would have been considered evidence of Judaizing by the Spanish Inquisition.

In the late Middle Ages, the combination of the Jewish, Hispano-Muslim and Christian traditions became consolidated. The fact that recipes such as turrón (a nougat-like paste of honey or cane sugar with almonds or hazelnuts) and candied nuts (they are dipped in caramelized sugar) are still made to this day attests to the importance of nuts in Spain’s sweetmeat repertoire.

One classic sweet whose recipe has varied little since the time of the Ancient Greeks is alajú, an Arab cake, equivalent to the Greeks’ melipoecton and the Romans’ panis mellitas, made from (usually sesame) flour, honey and spices, which is fried and coated in honey.

New ingredients, new sweetmeats: the Modern Era

New ingredients, new sweetmeats: the Modern era

From the 15th c. on, cane sugar became quite common in Europe, though still beyond the reach of most. Because of its extraordinary keeping qualities, honey had been among the foodstuffs carried by the first caravels that landed in the New World but, even so, the opportunity to plant sugar cane in New Spain and Puerto Rico was soon recognized and acted upon, the first sugar mills being built in 1519 at the behest of King Charles I (1600-1649).

The tendency for cane sugar to be used as a sweetener instead of honey increased accordingly. Meanwhile, in Alicante and Jijona, the turrón industry developed gradually to meet the demand for this nougat-like sweet made from honey and almonds (and, later, from honey, cane sugar and almonds) from all over Spain, and then the rest of the world.

Preserves and jellies in Spain

The Spanish verb confitar means ‘to cover or bathe fruits, seeds or similar thing in sugar’ - in other words, to ‘candy’. According to that definition, one could candy almost anything, though in Modern Era Spain the process was generally used for producing equivalents of today’s candies or boiled sweets in the form of candied nuts, fruits coated in caramelized sugar, flowers dipped in sugar....However, confitura in the strict sense of the term may have been a type of sweet paste made from fruit purée and sugar (the word is still used with that meaning in the Canary Islands). Certain documentary sources describe confitura as being wrapped and served in 15.paper, which seems to suggest a substance that was almost solid as opposed to jam-like.

Confituras were also among the celebratory foods served at parties and weddings, and are mentioned quite regularly in early 16th c. 16.texts. In the Middle Ages and part of the Modern Era, conserves of this kind were more usually made with honey than with sugar, which was considered to be a luxury product. The few medieval cookery books that 17.survive specify that ‘white sugar’ should be used in certain elegant desserts such as manjar blanco, though the reference is, in fact, to refined cane sugar, which never attained whiteness since residual traces of molasses gave it a yellowish tinge. Nevertheless, in the early 17th c. it is stated explicitly that fruit conserves (confituras) can be made with cane sugar or 18.honey.

Among other products that come into the confectionery category are jellies and fruit pastes. Writing in 1611, Covarrubias provides a definition of the Spanish term ‘jalea’: “the juice or liquor of quince or another thing of which preserves are made, which is thickened and frozen so that it becomes transparent and is as good as a frozen thing” - a description of a jelly that holds good today.


Mermeladas or fruit preserves ceased to be regarded simply as a method of extending the useful life of fruit and became a luxury treat, particularly after they started to be made with sugar.

New World fruits


New foods arriving from the Americas were to exert a significant influence over the evolution of Spanish and European sweetmeats in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Important among them were hitherto unknown fruits, nuts and cocoa. Most of the new species were initially regarded simply as botanical curiosities, and American nuts did not create much impact on Spanish eating habits until nearly the 20th c. However, some of the exotic fruits brought back from the American continent, including the pineapple (Ananas comosus), the cherimoya or custard apple (Annona cherimola) and the papaya (Carica papaya) were enthusiastically received. Europe was particularly intrigued by the pineapple, examples of which had been brought back to Spain in 1493 by Columbus (1451-1506) himself. Records exist from as late as 1880 of pineapples being sent from the Americas to the 21.Queen of Spain.

Chocolate: a Spanish invention

Chocolate (in the sense of the mixture of sugar and cocoa that we know today) is one of Spain’s greatest contributions to confectionery and bakery world-wide. Accounts vary as to how and when the cocoa bean first reached Spain, but this significant event is known to have occurred during the first twenty years of the 16th c. It may well have been Christopher Columbus or Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) who first brought it back.

The idea of adding (cane) sugar to the cocoa that the Meso-American civilizations had been drinking for millennia occurred to some of the first Spaniards to arrive in the American continent, and its effects were to be far-reaching. The cane sugar, cinnamon and vanilla with which they replaced other spices and chili matched the prevailing European taste for the bitter/sweet, with the result that the new product spread rapidly. The first people to consume cocoa hot and sweet rather than cold and piquantly spiced are thought to have been an advance delegation of Dominican nuns who arrived in Oaxaca (Mexico) in 1529 and went on to found the convent of Santa Catalina de Siena in 1540.

By the end of the 16th c., chocolate consumption had become quite widespread in Spain, though the rest of Europe lagged a century behind in that regard. During the colonial period, chocolate was not served at the end of a meal but as first or main course at breakfast and afternoon refreshment times. It was also common practice at rustic meals in the Americas to dip cheese in chocolate before eating, and chocolate was already in use (instead of honey) as a liquid coating for fruits, nuts, breads, tarts and cakes.

Sweets and the religious festivals of Catholic Spain

Sweets and the religious festivals of Catholic Spain

The link between particular festivals and special foods has existed in all civilizations since ancient times. It is well known that the Roman Catholic Church capitalized on pre-existing pagan festivals and traditions and gradually honed them to the purposes of the new religious beliefs that were imposed after Christianity was institutionally adopted during the Roman Imperial period.

Some foods that had traditionally been eaten on Roman feast days continued to be eaten to mark the new Christian festivals; others were introduced later, either via the gastronomic traditions of each region (in some cases developed versions of other, Jewish or Muslim, gastronomic traditions), or by creating particular sweetmeats specifically for a religious celebration - a process that, in most cases, took place in the convents and monasteries of the Roman Catholic monastic orders.

In addition to local or regional patronal saints’ days, the main Christian festivals are Christmas (25th December),which commemorates the birth of Jesus; Epiphany, or the Feast of Kings (6th January), which celebrates the recognition of Jesus as the son of God by the three kings from the Orient; Holy Week and Easter (moveable feasts between March and April), which commemorate Jesus’ last days of life (the entry into Jerusalem, the Passion, Death and Resurrection); and Lent (40 days before Easter), a symbolic period of spiritual retreat, reflection and penitence, practiced in conjunction with fasting and general abstinence.

The history and description of the main products of Spanish confectionery and bakery are dealt with in a later section, but some noteworthy ones are mentioned here because of their association with festivals of the Church calendar. Typical Christmas sweetmeats include turrones (Spanish nougat), mantecados (buns made with pork lard), polvorones (little crumbly shortcakes), mazapanes (marzipan shapes), guirlache (nut brittle), alfajores (nut and honey buns) and cocas dulces (sweet pizza-like tarts).

On the Feast of Kings, it is the custom to eat roscón de Reyes (a ring-shaped loaf of sweet bread studded with crystallized fruits). The sweetmeats typically eaten during Holy Week are: torrijas (milk-soaked bread fried and coated in honey syrup), hojuelas (fried puff pastries), leche frita (fried squares of egg custard) and monas de Pascua (oven-baked pastries often topped with hard-boiled eggs). The many sweetmeats associated with Lent include pestiños (fried pastry fingers) and buñuelos (fritters), while eating hornazos (cakes or pastries in which eggs are embedded) or cocas (pizza-like flat-breads with various toppings) is the traditional way of celebrating the end of the Lenten period in many Spanish towns and villages. These are just a few examples from a seemingly infinite repertoire of sweetmeats associated with religious festivals.

The 19th c.: towards industrialized confectionery

Among the rural population, honey continued to serve as the main sweetening agent, cane sugar remaining a luxury commodity until mass produced beet sugar brought prices down towards the end of the 19th c. When honey began to be ousted by sugar, it recovered value as a product in its own right rather than as a sweetening or preserving agent. The closing decades of the 19th c. saw honey enjoy a new dawn and Spain consolidate its position as Europe’s main honey producer and 23.exporter.

Sugar became the essential product for making modern sweets, desserts and fruit preserves: juices, syrups, fruit preserves and pastes, creams, candies, liquorice, buns, turrón, wafers, biscuits, sponge cakes, tarts , cakes, chocolate and chocolate-coated sweets.

When the British introduced cacao-growing to Ghana in 1879, the resulting boom established cocoa as a mass-consumption commodity all over the world (it had been in general use at all social levels since the early 19th c. in Spain).

The Swiss began manufacturing chocolate bars in the mid-19th c. Daniel Peter’s (1836-1919) idea of making a creamy paste out of milk and chocolate took years of experimentation before, in 1875, he succeeded in bringing it to fruition, producing the first milk chocolate with the help of evaporated milk manufacturer Henry Nestlé, who mixed the cocoa paste with sweetened condensed milk. The next significant step occurred in 1879, when Swiss pharmacist Rodolphe Lindt (1855-1909) cleverly mixed processed cocoa butter back into the mixture, thereby creating a texture that was solid and crunchy yet also creamy and melt-in-the-mouth.

Although chocolate was by then already used as an adjunct to various baked goods, the invention of the chocolate bar as we know it today (refined cocoa, sugar, cocoa butter, aromats and lecithin) was a revolutionary event in the history of confectionery, and chocolate and chocolate-enrobed sweets would play starring roles in that sector from then on.

Contemporary confectionery and baking in Spain

The wave of industrial development that characterized the late 19th c. became consolidated in Spain in the first half of the 20th c.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, new sweetening agents were discovered and put to use industrially in parallel with sugar, colorants, aromats and substances that enabled sweetmeats to be given new textures. New confectionery and bakery products were also made, coexisting in the Spanish marketplace with traditional sweetmeats which have continued to be made, retaining their artisan character, up to the present day.

Traditional confectionery products of Spain

Traditional confectionery products of Spain


A Spanish alfajor is a sweetmeat of the alajú type (a biscuit made of almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, honey and spices), generally cylindrical in shape. Alfajores are of Arab origin and have been made since the Middle Ages. Andalusia is one of several regions with a long tradition of making them (Cuenca and Murcia provinces are other well-known founts). They spread widely in the Americas, where different variants have evolved.

Caramelos, Candies and boiled sweets

Caramel is melted sugar that has been hardened before it reaches crystallization stage, though it also exists in liquid form. In Spanish, ‘caramelos’ are candies/boiled sweets made of caramel that has been flavored or dressed with various natural or artificial substances. The term derives from the Latin name for sugar cane (canna melis). Arab peoples had been making sweets based on caramelized sugar (with additions such as nuts, fruits, flowers and spices) since ancient times. In the 19th c., the range of caramelized sugar confections was extended with more elaborate variants.

In the first half of the 19th c., asses’ milk with marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) became fashionable as a remedy for coughs and colds, and a Logroño sweet-maker invented sugared pastilles that contained those ingredients. By 1830, asses’ milk pastilles were one of the best-selling pharmaceutical sweets, which were also available in a version incorporating chocolate, as a praline and as a 24.syrup. Celestino Solano added coffee to the mixture, thereby inventing the café con leche sucking sweets (toffees) that are still sold under the Solano brand today. In the late 1930s, a confectioner in Tafalla (Navarra) created yet another variant by adding pine-nuts to the café con leche mix.

Marshmallows, those spongy sweets made of sugar, water, whipped egg-white, gum Arabic and aromats, also take their Spanish name, malvaviscos, from the same plant (they are also known as nubes [clouds] and esponjas [sponges]), having been made originally with an extract obtained from the mucilaginous root of the marshmallow plant, which has cough-suppressing properties.

Until the early decades of the 20th c., candy production in Spain continued to be almost artisan until the arrival of North American and Central European sweets (such as Pez and Ricola) served as a spur towards the industrialization of Spanish sweet manufacturing.

In 1958, Spaniard Enric Bernat’s (1923-2003) brainwave of embedding a stick in a spherical boiled sweet so that a child could eat it without getting sticky developed into a remarkable success story. With a logo designed by painter Salvador Dalí, the sweet was marketed as Chupa chups, a name now used generically for a lollipop. Variants on the original appeared later: the conical pirulí and flat piruleta.

Chocolates, Bombones, Chocolate and chocolate covered sweets

Cocoa products are dealt with in more detail in a chapter of their own: A history of chocolate in Spain.

Dulce de membrillo, mermeladas, jaleas, Quince paste and other fruit preserves

These products have a chapter of their own: A history of jams, jellies, marmelades and fruit pastes in Spain.

Flores escarchadas. Candied/crystallized flowers

Flowers have been used in cooking for millennia. The best and most frequently used flowers for crystallizing or candying are apple and plum blossom, rose petals, violets and pansies. The simplest way of making them is to dip the flowers in a mixture of beaten egg-white and water and then coat them with powdered (icing) sugar. La Violeta, a shop in central Madrid, still makes and sells candied violets and violet sweets (of convincingly natural flavor) as it has done since 1915.

Frutas escarchadas.Candied/crystallized fruits

Candied or crystallized fruits are made by boiling them in syrup – a preserving technique that has been used since Antiquity. In Spain, they are eaten at Christmas and used for decorating cakes and desserts.

The best crystallized fruits are reputed to come from Aragón: they are a typical product of this region, particularly of Calatayud, one of the regions’ biggest towns. The current product range includes crystallized pieces of apple, pear, peach, apricot, cherry, fig, plum and chocolate-coated orange. Written references dating from the early 17th c. attest to the area’s long tradition as a source of top quality preserved fruits.

Frutos secos garrapiñados. Candied nuts

Candied nuts are raw nuts, particularly almonds, coated in caramelized sugar. They have been made in many parts of Spain, particularly Castile, since the early 19th c., those from Briviesca (in Burgos), Medina de Rioseco and Villafrechos (in Valladolid), Alcalá de Henares (in Madrid), Alba de Tormes (in Salamanca) and El Bierzo (in León) having a particularly good reputation. Like other similar sweets made from caramel and nuts (praline, fudge, nougat), they are popularly believed to date back to the invasion of Spain by Napoleon’s troops in 1808, though they may well have been introduced to the royal kitchens by the French cooks employed by the new Bourbon dynasty at the start of the 18th c.

Guirlache. Nut brittle

This mixture of nuts and solidified caramel, generally presented in a block (like turrón-Spanish nougat-) is of French origin (the name derives from the French griller = to toast) and is another example of a sweet believed to have been popularized by the Napoleonic troops around 1808. High quality guirlaches have been made in Zaragoza Province since that time; the recipe was almost immediately taken up in the Levante region of eastern Spain, a traditional turrón producing area, and guirlache from Alcoy is particularly well-known. Classic guirlache is made with almonds, though there are also versions made with other nuts, especially hazelnuts, walnuts and pine nuts.

Helados. Ices

Ices are frozen sweet confections that can be divided into two types: ice creams, made with sugar or other sweetening agents, dried lactic extract and fats (they can also contain fruit, nuts, chocolates and aromats); and iced lollipops and sorbets, which contain only sugar or other sweetening agents, water, and aromats.

The Ancient Romans made sorbets out of snow, honey and fruit, and the Arabs used to add fruit juice to snow. The idea of mixing snow with milk, thereby creating the first ice cream, seems to have emerged first in the kitchens of one of the royal dynasties of Europe in the 16th c. Spain’s Golden Age (15th – 17th centuries) provides many testimonies to the importance accorded to cold drinks during that 25.period. In the 17th c., the kitchens of Madrid’s Royal Palace were regularly stocked with snow from the Peñalara mountains. It served not only for refrigeration, but was also used with juices and other ingredients to make different sorts of edible ices, depending on how solid it was: sorbetes when more liquid, and garrapiñas when more 26.solid.

Horchata de chufa

From the Middle Ages on, flavored fresh water and various other soft drinks were drunk in Spain, including cinnamon water, aniseed water, and equivalents flavored with salsify, fennel, rosemary, jasmine, lemon, and so on. Horchatas are typically Spanish sugared drinks made from almonds, tiger nuts (little tubers that grow on the roots of Cyperus esculentus), or grains of ground rice, aromatized with cinnamon, lemon zest, or other spices. These drinks, and their name, derive from the Romans’ hordeata (barley water) which was adapted to make use of new ingredients brought in, or given greater prominence, by the Arabs from the 8th c. on in the territories occupied by the present-day region of Valencia. All of them are made domestically as a dessert or soft drink, but horchata de chufa is also a commercial product that sells very well during the summer months.

Mazapanes. Marzipan shapes

Marzipan is a baked ground almond and sugar paste. Almond and honey pastes were eaten in Ancient Greece, yet the Arabs seem to have been the first to mix almonds with sugar and to make the new sweetmeat mixture known throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Toledo (a Muslim city from the early 8th to the late 11th c.) is one of the places with the longest tradition of marzipan production.

Peladillas. Sugared almonds

In Spain, peladillas are both a Christmastime sweet and a christening gift. They are made by covering almonds (though pine nuts are also given the same treatment) in a layer of colored, hardened sugar. They are produced mainly in the turrón-making province of Alicante, those made in Alcoy being considered particularly good.

Regalices. Liquorice products

Liquorice extract is used to make a very singular kind of caramelo. The roots of the liquorice plant (Glycyrrhiza glabra L., similar to laurel sumac) have been consumed since ancient times as a natural sweet for sucking. Known in Spanish as paloduz (a corruption of palo dulce = sweet stick), the flavor of liquorice root hovers somewhere between sweet and bitter, and it is still sold in the streets of Madrid and other provinces of Spain during fiesta celebrations and at traditional markets (simply labeled ‘regaliz’).

Extracts obtained from these roots contain a natural sweetener nearly 50 times sweeter than sucrose: glycyrrhizine, which also possesses expectorant and anti-inflammatory properties. This substance is used for making regalices, which are rubbery-textured sweets aromatized with aniseed oils. Many variants on this sweetmeat occur all over the world: in Spain and other parts of Europe, the most common form is ‘black liquorice’, marketed as pastilles, sticks, bars, tubes and spirals. In some parts of the world, including Holland, salty versions containing ammonium chloride are sold.

The liquorice plant has been cultivated in Spain since the Middle Ages; reports from the mid-18th c. mention the existence of liquorice extract 27.factories.

In the mid-19th c., liquorice extract pastilles for medicinal use began to be produced and marketed. In 1906, Barcelona pharmacist Manuel Juanola (1874-1963) manufactured rhombus-shaped liquorice pastilles that also contained menthol and eucalyptus. They were a huge success, so much so that they are still sold in chemists’ shops to this day.

Tocino de cielo. Rich egg custard

Tocino de cielo is one of Spain’s egg yolk desserts. It is traditional to Andalusia, whose winery owners used to use egg white to clarify their wines, donating the superfluous yolks to local convents rather than waste them. The nuns put them to use in sweetmeats; this one consists of a mixture of egg yolk and syrup which is baked in the oven until it sets into a firm custard.

Turrón. Spanish Nougat

Turrón is one of the most international of Spain’s sweetmeats. Reflecting its importance in the confectionery and bakery repertoire, this sweetmeat has a chapter to itself: A history of turrón in Spain.

Yemas. Candied egg yolks

Yemas are another classic, artisan-produced, Spanish sweet made of egg yolks and flavored sugar by a method that endows them with a shelf-life of over 60 days without the aid of any artificial additives. La Flor de Castilla, an Avila company, has been selling what it calls ‘yemas de Santa Teresa’ since 1860, in honor of Saint Teresa of Jesus, born close to Avila.

Traditional Spanish baked goods

Buñuelos. Fritters

Buñuelos are made by frying little portions of flour, milk and egg batter in oil. The fried puffs are eaten either just as they come or filled with cream, confectioner’s custard or chocolate. There are savory variants, too. They originated in the morisco (Muslim converts to Christianity) communities in the south of the Iberian Peninsula during the Modern Era, and spread rapidly throughout Latin America. They used to be eaten with hot chocolate before churros took over that role.


Churros are a typically Spanish food, and are also eaten in many parts of Latin America. They are made by preparing a dough with flour, water and salt, then squeezing it through a piping bag so that it emerges in a cylindrical shape, lengths of which are fried in hot oil. The crisp sticks or loops can be eaten just as they are, with coffee or hot chocolate, or dusted with sugar, or filled with confectioner’s custard or chocolate. Churros are a classic snack in Madrid, where thicker versions, known as porras, are also made. Despite the long tradition in the capital of eating both types with a cup of hot chocolate, no literary references to the custom occur before the 19th c.

Cocas dulces. Sweet cocas

Coca is one of the most classic and widely-known dishes of Catalan cuisine. Also known as cóc in some Catalan-speaking areas, and fogassa in Roussillon, it bears a strong resemblance to a pizza or focaccia – indeed, some claim that coca was the prototype for Italy’s pizza, taken there by the Catalans during the period when the Kingdom of Naples was a possession of the Kingdom Crown of 29.Aragón. In essence, it consists of a bread dough base topped with assorted ingredients, and can be savory or sweet, open or closed. Open, savory cocas are very much like Italian pizzas, generally rectangular in shape, though this can vary, and they can also be closed like pies or turnovers. Sweet cocas come in a wide variety of shapes, including a ring-shape, and are traditionally eaten to mark religious festivals.

Ensaimadas. Majorcan coiled buns

Ensaimadas are coiled, oven-baked buns made from a fermented dough of flour, egg, sugar and pork lard, traditional to the island of Majorca. There are written references to ensaimadas dating back to the 30.17th c.. They became popular during the 18th c. and even better known beyond their immediate sphere after the publication of an account of the Archduke of Austria’s travels around the Balearic Islands in the 31.19th c.. They are eaten plain o filled with cream, confectioner’s custard or cabello de angel.


Hornazos is a generic name for various types of bun, sponge cake and sweet bread made in many parts of Spain (particularly in Castile and Andalusia), all with the common characteristic of containing a filling of some sort. Traditionally made and eaten at Easter-time, many contain hard-boiled egg (sometimes with the shell still on), a survival from the days when Lent was strictly observed and required abstinence from meat and eggs: the eggs that hens laid during the Lenten period were boiled and stored inside these buns. In other parts of the country, sausage (chorizo, for example) or fat and lean pork are used for the filling. In some exceptional cases (such as the type of hornazo made in Córdoba known as ‘Fernán Nuñez’) they are filled with confectioner’s custard, chocolate or angel hair. The most classic examples are made in Ávila, Toledo, Salamanca, Valdilecha (Madrid), Córdoba, Granada, Cádiz and Jaén. In the Valencian region and Murcia, Easter pastries containing hard boiled egg and known as monas de Pascua are made and eaten to mark the end of Lent. Interestingly, they are of Arab origin.

Mantecados. Individual sponge cakes

Although mantecados are made and eaten all over Spain, they originated in Andalusia. These little, square, oven-baked cakes take their name from the manteca de cerdo (pork lard) used in the recipe along with flour, egg and sugar. Some well-known variants contain ground almonds or spices such as cinnamon and sesame. They date back to a period in the 16th c. when there was an overabundance of wheat and lard in Estepa (the town in Seville province where the best mantecados are still made). They started to be produced industrially in 1870, when some of Estepa’s artisan bakers began selling them in Córdoba. By 1934, there were 15 small-scale mantecado factories in Estepa and there are 30 in the region today.

Polvorones. Shortcakes

Polvorones are a variation on mantecados. Like them, they are made from pork lard, flour and sugar but also contain ground almonds; they contain no eggs, and use a higher proportion of flour to lard. The result is a crumbly biscuit with the texture of compressed powder. Polvorones are traditionally eaten at Christmas, when they are presented as paper-wrapped ovals. The most famous ones come from Estepa (Seville).

Roscón de Reyes. Epiphany loaf

This ring-shaped sweet bread aromatized with orange flower water and decorated with crystallized fruits contains a hidden surprise. It is traditionally eaten on 6th January (Epiphany, known in Spanish as El Día de Reyes Magos [Day of Kings]) with a cup of hot chocolate. The tradition that attaches to it harks back to cakes of dates, figs and honey that were eaten in Ancient Rome during festivities dedicated to the god Saturn at the time of the Winter Solstice. In Roman times, it was customary to tuck a dried bean into the bread so that it could be found by a child, who would then be declared king for the day (games with beans were also very typical of Spanish popular culture). By around the year 1000, the Church had successfully transformed the pagan festival into a Christian one. Julio Caro 32.Baroja (1914-1995) explains that, in Navarra in the 14th c., the title was conferred by the Kings, and the chosen child was dressed up as a king and presented with gifts of money and wheat for his family. With the passage of time, the ceremony became absorbed into the family setting. The tradition was maintained particularly in France (where the role of ‘bean king’ fell to the poorest child in town) and it was apparently imported from there by Flemish soldiers in the 16th c., though it did not take root until the arrival in Spain of Philip V, the first of the French Bourbon monarchs, in 1701. Centuries of tradition now attach to a loaf whose ingredients and aromas are typical of Arab sweetmeats. The hidden bean was gradually replaced by other surprises, mainly little porcelain figures.

Other Spanish baked goods

Since every part of Spain has its own typical sweets and baked goods, their very number and variety make their history hard to trace. They include rosquillas (doughnuts), pastas (pastries), bollos (buns), merengues (meringues), bizcochos (sponge cakes), tartas (cakes), galletas (biscuits) and tortas (flatbreads – the recipes for which can include aniseed liqueur, pork lard, pork scratchings....). Worthy of special mention is leche frita (literally, ‘fried milk’), a home-made dessert of thick custard made with flour, milk and sugar, cut into portions which are then dipped in beaten egg and fried in olive oil.

Another dessert that tends to be made at home rather than commercially is torrijas, a sweet version of French toast, made by soaking slices of bread soaked in sugar-sweetened milk aromatized with cinnamon and lemon, then dipping them in beaten egg and frying in olive oil.

Sobaos pasiegos, little cakes traditionally associated with the Selaya and Pas valleys in Cantabria, used to be made with bread dough to which icing sugar, butter, eggs, lemon zest and liqueur were added, though since 1896 the bread dough has been replaced with flour; pestiños are fried biscuits made from a batter of flour, wine, sherry, oil, honey, aniseed liqueur, sesame, sugar, salt and lemon zest and are typical of Christmastime celebrations in southern Spain; hojuelas are another type of fried biscuit made of flour, milk and eggs, sweetened with sugar or honey and eaten in Castile on specific religious festivals. Tortas de aceite – flat-breads or cakes made with olive oil, wheat flour, sugar, yeast, aniseed liqueur and sesame - have been artisan produced by Seville company Inés Rosales for almost a century, and are now exported to China, Japan and the United States.


Enrique García Ballesteros, (BA in Early Modern and Modern History and MA in Communication and Journalism) is a Spanish historian, writer and journalist. He has published over a hundred scientific and general interest articles on history and the media in prestigious magazines such as Historia National Geographic and La Aventura de la Historia. He has also authored biographies, interviews and book reviews for major institutions and the Spanish press. He is a regular contributor to the Spanish national daily newspapers El Mundo and Público (now online version only).

Research coordination: María del Carmen Simón Palmer, has a phD in history and is a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council, CSIC. She is a member of the governing body of the Real Academia de Gastronomía. Her published works include: La cocina de Palacio (1591-1932), (Castalia, 1997) and Bibliografía de la Gastronomía y Alimentación en España, (Trea, 2003).

Translation: Hawys Pritchard, M.A. (University of London) is a freelance translator currently based in Wales and Mallorca. Her work has appeared in various books and magazines (including Spain Gourmetour) that reflect her interest in food, wine, travel, art and architecture.

Photo credits

Sweetmeats in Antiquity/New Roman jobs
Funeral urn of Roman miller and baker (1st C), Musei Vaticani, Rome, Italy. Licensed under Creative Commons by Chris 73

New ingredients, new sweetmeats/Preserves and jellies in Spain
Cover of Ruperto da Nola cookery book Lybre de doctrina per a ben server, de tallar y del Art de Coch (circa 1490).

Sweets and the religious festivals of Catholic Spain
Still life. Venta de abanicos y roscas. Vendors of fans and bread rings. Ramón Bayeu (1746-1793), Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

Traditional Spanish baked goods
Women preparing "polvorones" or shortcakes. ©Consejo Regulador I.G.P. Jijona y Turrón de Alicante