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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Turrón (Spanish nougat)
Foods From Spain: Turrón, A Spanish Delight

Foods From Spain: Turrón, A Spanish Delight

Over the years, the term turrón (Spanish nougat) has been used to embrace a wide range of sweets made of honey, sugar and nuts, including pastes composed of a mixture of these ingredients and cooked to the point of turning hard. There is some controversy over the origin of the word turrón: the most plausible suggestion is that it is a borrowing from Germanía slang, in which it means ‘stone’ (traditional Alicante turrón looks rather stone-like and is presented as a block or brick). However, other writers on the subject suggest that it was the sweet that gave Germanía its word for ‘stone’, rather than the other way round.

Covarrubias (1539-1613) seems to suggest that the name turrón comes from the verb turrar, meaning to toast (derived from the Latin torrere: to cook over coals, to toast). The word is not likely to be of Arab origin. This chapter deals with the two main varieties of traditional turrón – known as turrón de Jijona and turrón de Alicante– which are made with almonds, and a variant on the latter - turrón de Agramunt, whose recipe also includes hazelnuts.

Turrón origins

Turrón origins

The origins of this sweet are uncertain. The first recipes that mixed honey and almonds are likely to have been generated in the Far East, and to have been brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the Arabs and Berbers. The first written references to a sweet called turrón occur in the 15th century: the term appears for the first time in a letter written in 1453 by Queen María of Trastámara (1401-1458) to the nuns of Santa 1.Clara or Sisters of St Clare. Playwright Lope de Rueda (1510-1565) also refers to turrón in one of his plays in 2.1541. Everything seems to suggest, however, that it had been invented some time before, since the earliest extant reports feature it as a well known product requiring no further explanation. It may have spread into Christian Spain after the reconquest of Alicante towards the end of the 13th century.

Muslim and Jewish sweets

Both the area in which turrón appeared and its composition are suggestive of sweets made by the Arabs, Mozarabs (Spanish Christians living under Muslim rule) and Sephardic Jews. All these groups were already making similar sweets, known as halva, which occurs all the way from India to the Mediterranean. As a rule it is made with wheat semolina or sesame and egg white, is sweetened with honey or sugar, and sometimes contains nuts and fruit. Like turrón, it is presented in the form of a block, stick or tablet.

Early turrón was made with just almonds, egg white and honey – all the raw materials were in plentiful supply in Spain’s Levante (eastern coastal area). There are known to have been almond plantations in that part of the country since ancient times, and the area that produced turrón was also famed for the quality of its honey. As time went by, and probably from the 17th century on, some of the honey came to be replaced by sugar.

16th century turrón expansión

Experts disagree about whether the first typically Spanish turrones were made in Jijona or Alicante (although the hard type is known as Alicante and the soft as Jijona, both towns actually produce both types and, indeed, various others). Later, the manufacture of turrón spread into neighboring districts, from where, but particularly from Jijona, it very soon started to be exported by sea, and was also bound for inland Spain, to the rest of Europe and North Africa. So turrón was already very widely distributed by the 16th century. One of the first places it reached – it is not known whether through direct Andalusí influence or because of Aragón’s dominion over the region - was Naples, where the classic torroni that are made all over Italy today soon appeared (taking its name from the Spanish). There is evidence to show that this Christmastime sweet was exported to the royal courts of Europe very early on. An early chronicler, writing in the Levante in the early 17th century, tells us that “…the turrón of Jijona put in little boxes is taken all over Europe as a singular 3.gift”. Another describes mid-17th century turrón thus: “Being made of honey and almonds alone, its pieces resemble white marble and it is much esteemed at any table in wintertime”, going on to say that “…they are taken by sea and land to countless places, even Rome and the royal 4.Court”.

There are records of different types of turrón being made in the Modern Era. Among the main types are: turrón duro (hard turrón), also known as turrón de almendra or turrón de Alicante, made by toasting almonds, beating up honey (or a mixture of honey and sugar) in a pot over the fire, adding the almonds and egg whites, mixing well and then pouring into wooden boxes lined with rice-paper; turrón blando (soft turrón) also known as turrón fino or turrón de Jijona, differed from the first type insofar as once mixed, it was allowed to cool and was then ground up, first with hammers and then with refining stones known as chocolateras, until it formed a fine paste, was then heated up again and poured into poplar-wood boxes lined with white paper; turrón blanco (known as lo blanch), which is similar to Toledo marzipans; turrón de alegría (so called because it is made not with almonds but with sesame seeds, or alegrías); hazelnut turrón; pine-nut turrón, and several 5.others.

Seasonal business

Seasonal business

The manufacture of turrón was timed to coincide with the arrival of winter and the celebration of Christmas Eve. Work probably started in September or October (when almonds are harvested) and lasted through to mid-December. This seasonal production was generally undertaken at family level: all inhabitants of the town were free to make turrones without needing to belong to any Guild.

In the mid-17th century, the wax-chandlers’ guild of the Valencian College of Confectioners applied for the privilege of controlling turrón production, limiting its manufacture to collegial wax chandlers and confectioners, requiring the qualification of maestro to be allowed to make it, and paying the relevant taxes on the whole process: this would effectively bring the tradition of family manufactured turrón to an end.

Although it put up a fight, Alicante eventually succumbed to the Valencian College and its requirements. Jijona, however, did not, and this proved a commercial shot-in-the-arm for the town: it was not bound by the guild’s requirements and, furthermore, there were so few collegial confectioners that they could not meet the demand for turrón and had to allow it to be produced elsewhere in the vicinity. Jijona remained free of guild control despite the legal dispute in which the college kept the town embroiled until the guilds were abolished in the 19th 6.Century.

Turrón international trade

Free trade legislation in 1765 and 1778 opened up trade with the Americas from the port of Alicante and made cheaper cane sugar imports permissible, thereby helping to meet the growing demand that local honey production could not satisfy. From the second half of the 18th century on, therefore, cane sugar replaced a significant proportion of the honey in the turrón recipe.

Right from the start, the Jijona turrón makers had spread the word about their product as they went around selling it in all the big inland towns where, every Christmas, they would hire paradas - stalls, or pitches, under the arches of the plaza, or in shops or stairwells - to which they laid traditional claim year after year. They very soon set up equivalents all over the western Mediterranean basin (Algeria, Morocco) and the entire American continent (the United States, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Venezuela and, especially, Cuba): there were 191 such posts in 7.1915, many of which subsequently became factories.

Industrialization of artisan methods

Industrialization of artisan methods

During the 19th century, eating turrón at Christmas became the custom all over Spain. The vendors from Jijona continued their international expansion and sales within the Peninsula, where they were readily recognizable by their traditional uniform: men wore a tight black suit, white stockings and sash, a round black brimmed hat with flattened conical crown and canvas shoes, while the women wore a shawl, flounced skirt and plaited hair. Increased production was made possible by the industrialisation that revolutionized the sector, and the introduction of steam engines. Furthermore, at the close of the century, big brand names emerged that would control turrón production throughout the 20th century: El Lobo, El Almendro, La Jijonenca...

A report about Jijona and turrón compiled in 1931 reveals that artisan turrón-making was still plentiful, and estimates local production to be around 150 tonnes per year at most. As this was considerably less than the quantity consumed, it is clear that a lot was being sold as turrón de Jijona that was not the genuine 8.article.

In 1936, the Spanish Civil War (1936 -1939) broke out, interrupting the period of intense commercial activity that had begun in the 1920s, when electrical industrial machinery took over from steam power in much of the sector. The turrón industry did not regain its pre-war buoyancy until the 1950s and 60s. In the 1980s, this largely local industry, mostly still located in the little town of Jijona (around 7,500 inhabitants) and, to a lesser degree, other neighboring districts such as Alicante, Alcoy, Villena and Cocentaina, had to cope with a major upheaval: its distribution and sales networks were affected by the presence of super- and hyper-markets which, were offering ‘own brand’ products. The pattern of competition had also changed: the big manufacturing families were dealing with new economic behaviors, some of them being bought up by multinationals while others merged amongst themselves or with other big food sector 9.groups.

The merging with, and acquisition of, companies in the field by foreign groups finished off many Jijona companies, which in the 1990s had to adapt to novelty yet again: consumer taste had shifted, and was demanding a change. Companies had to adapt sales strategies to these new tastes and create many new varieties of turrón: coconut, coffee, egg-yolk, pistachio, and so on.

Recognition for an historic product

Despite the many new varieties of turrón, only two of them have a long, recognized tradition: the Jijona and Alicante types. Although efforts to protect these brands internationally began in the 19th century, the Regulatory Council for the Designation of Origin Jijona (the second regulatory council created in Spain) was not set up until 1939. In 1991, the new Regulatory Council was constituted and, for purposes of recognition within the EU, became known in 1996 as the Regulatory Council for Specific Designations Jijona and Turrón de 10.Alicante.

In 2000, a new Protected Geographical Indication was presented to the public, backed up by evidence of an historical tradition stretching back to the 18th century; this was turrón de Agramunt, made in the Urgell district of Catalonia. Its recipe is based on the traditional one for turrón de Alicante, but it comes in two varieties –almond or hazelnut – and is presented either as a rectangular block or a flat cake.

Authors

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).

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

Turrón origins
Anonymous portrait of María de Trastamara (1401-1458), future queen of Aragón who first mentioned the word turrón in a letter to the Sisters of St Clare.

Seasonal Business
Dulces y frutos secos sobre una mesa. Sweets and nuts on a table. Tomás Hiepes (1595-1675), Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Turrón International trade
Advertising poster for Jijona turrón, by Febus advertising agency from Alicante. ©Consejo Regulador IGP Jijona y Turrón de Alicante.

Industrialization of artisan methods
Women making wooden cases, typical packaging for turrón. ©Consejo Regulador I.G.P. Jijona y Turrón de Alicante.