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Cooking the Classics: Tarta de Santiago

Cooking the Classics: Tarta de Santiago

A closer look at the Tarta de Santiago, the traditional Spanish cake that pilgrims eat during the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

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Food, like art, has stories to tell. Of its origins, its inventors, its traditions. Recipes are meant for everyone, and are meant to be reproduced. There are interesting issues in whether recipes can be copyrighted (as Edgar Tijhuis explored in this magazine), but for more basic recipes, they are works of art created by everymen, meant for everyone.

But occasionally a dish has a pedigree that warrants its own biography. The cake known as Tarta de Santiago, for example, tells a whole story.

Before we slice into the cake itself, we need to know a bit about the Order of the Knights of Saint James, Santiago. And about the city of Santiago de Compostela, and its famous cathedral, a destination for pilgrims from around the world.

Saint James and the Camino de Santiago

First off, who’s this Saint James character? Well, there were a number of saints named James. One of them, described in the Bible as Jesus’ brother, was the first bishop of Jerusalem. The main James, the one who was among the Twelve Apostles, was James the Great, son of Zebedee and brother of Jesus’ favorite disciple, John. He is the one whose remains are said to rest at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. This James was the first of the apostles to have been killed for his faith. Depending on which version of the story you believe, James either preached in the Holy Land, was executed by the leader there, Herod Agrippa, in 44 AD and his body was transposed to Spain, or he preached in the Iberian Peninsula and was killed and buried near Santiago. 

The tradition is told in the Historia Compostelana, written in the 12th century. This relates that the saint’s bones were discovered during the reign of King Alfonso II (791-842) and that is when the pilgrim route opened. Called the Way of Saint James (Camino de Santiago), pilgrims show their destination by wearing a scallop shell in their hat, a symbol of the saint.

The Order of the Knights of Saint James, or Orden de Santiago, was established in the 12th century, contemporaneously to the writing of Historia Compostelana. It’s originally calling was to protect pilgrims en route to Compostela. Founded as an independent order, in 1493 it was incorporated into the Spanish crown. The symbol, the Cross of Saint James, is a sword and a fleur-de-lis: the sword refers both to the military nature of the order, and the means of Saint James’ martyrdom, the decapitation by sword.

From Torta Real to Tarta de Santiago

Which brings us to the cake, which unsurprisingly hails from Galicia and the Compostela region. The ingredients are simple: ground almonds instead of flour provide its body, bound with sugar and eggs. The flavor comes from the almonds and lemon zest and a liqueur or sweet wine. A crust is optional — I think it’s more traditional-looking without one. But the key to identifying it is the insignia, the Cross of Saint James (cruz de Santiago), outlined in powdered sugar.

The earliest reference to the cake came in 1577, recorded by a certain Pedro de Porto Carrero, during his visit to University of Santiago. At the time, the cake was called Torta Real, “royal cake.” It seems to have been a local specialty Santiago de Compostela, expanding outward within Spain only during the 20th century. It was noted by pilgrims traveling to Santiago de Compostela, still one of the most popular pilgrimage routes in the world, with around 200,000 per year making the journey, most on foot. July is the most popular month to eat the cake, as the 25th of July is the apostle Saint James’ name day.

Making this cake is, well, a piece of cake. Doing so without the crust saves time (and I am nothing if not lazy in the kitchen), and it’s just a matter of mixing the correct proportions. No technique per se required, which suits me fine. A delicious cake with a rich history, and easy to prepare? Ole!

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