The forty days of Lent have gone by. But the torrijas will still be around. It will always turn up at unexpected places on the menu throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Once you have had a bite and eaten the last morsel you will be craving for more just like Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
Torrijas are elaborated with slices of leftover bread and slices of lemon – and concocted with eggs and soaked in milk. Then the mixture is fried in oil. The syrupy pastry is finally topped with generous portions of sugar, cinnamon or clove.
Many varieties exist and you can even add liquor or wine.
The tasty dessert brings many families together so similar to the lost souls in the Spanish Yuletide nougat advert beckoning them home. Close pararells can be drawn to the millions of Americans tracing their steps back home in the Thanksgiving commercial.
Torrijas have gained a monumental status tickling the taste buds of the whole nation.
Having a sweet tooth I decided to accept the invitation extended to me by Rocio (as charming and lively as the late songstress Rocio Jurado) and Stephanie (more charismatic and attractive than the Monegasque princess bearing the same name) to come to Vait, a swanky bake shop awash with lively young and elderly Spanish folks with a sprinkling of tourists just off the Puerta de Alcala.
Mario Sánchez, the person in charge of the bakery, expounded on the ingredients of the torrijas and then took his leave, apologizing for being in a hurry since he was going to have a busy schedule. But he was thoughtful enough to instruct the elegant sales assistants to serve me a complimentary torrija and a cup of coffee.
After the heavy and sweet breakfast and feeling akin to the cats in T.S. Elliot’s Possum Book of Cats I stepped out the bakery replete and enormously satisfied.
THE TORRIJA: FROM A NUN´S CONVENT THROUGH REALMS OF ROYALTIES TO THE SWANKY AND THE LOWLY HANGOUTS OF THE CURRENT TIMES
The torija recipe figured prominently in the colossal Libro de Arte de Cozina, an interesting read for foodies on varied Spanish cuisine written by Domingo Hernández de Maceras. Torrijas also appeared in a massive best-selling work by Franciso Motiño who was at the service of the royal family of Spain during the reigns of Felipe II and Felipe IV. Iberian cooking was at its best then while art and literature flourished. It was the Spanish Golden Age.
The torrija has its origins in the Middle Ages where some nuns racked their brains during Holy Week and came up with a brilliant scheme to create a delicacy that would be compatible with the custom in the Christendom to abstain from eating meat for forty days during the long Lenten season.
They devised a recipe that called for simple home ingredients for the poor as well as the affluent. The new dessert would consist of flour, cinnamon, sugar, honey, orange, milk and wine.
Many many years later the simple recipe caught on and the torrija would still be very much around after the Lenten solemnity gave way to joy and exhilaration. As whole families assembled together and exchanged news, taverns began to serve the delicacy and discovered that in doing so they enjoyed brisk business. Children frolicked on the premises, adding a lively ambience especially in the icy cold months of winter when the Lent, which falls in spring, would be just a memory.
No wonder celebrated dramatist Juan del Encina (1469-1529) exclaimed after sampling his first torrija, “Add honey and hell of a lot of eggs to make torrijas!”
Versions of the torrija is everywhere. Neighboring France came up with pain perdu (“lost bread”) which is “fried” sans oil. The United Kingdom and other countries followed suit and soon this sweetmeat came to be known as French toast.
Torrijas crossed the Atlantic and got to Argentina and Uruguay. There is a slight difference in the ingredients, though – bread crumbs, beaten eggs fried and made into balls. And then sprinkled with sugar. They began to be known as tacones (high heels) but of late the term has fallen into disuse and are now known as torrejas.
THE TORRIJA ROUTE
A route was introduced not only to revitalize the Lenten Spanish culinary delight but also to bolster the industry here in Spain as so many of the pastry shops have folded in the past few years since most of the owners have retired.
How times have changed !
Now torrijas turn up as dessert in many eateries and homes throughout the year.
Actually, even without the introduction of the torrija route there is a revival of the sweet sister act to keep sweet toothed customers coming for more. But of course the route helps.
Unless otherwise stated, photos are by S. Rellim
The “lost bread,” by Jonathunder (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Jonathunder), used here under the Creative Commons Attribtuon Share Alike 3.0 license
A page of the Arte de Cozina by Francisco Motiño, photographer unknown
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