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Who Makes the Best Pastries in Spain? The Nuns, of Course.

A pilgrimage for Seville’s convent pastries requires a sweet tooth—and a little faith.

My host mother in Seville, clutching a white pastry box, placed a paper-wrapped cookie in my palm as if delivering a sacrament. Christmas and the end of my semester abroad were two months off, but the gifting had begun.

Mantecados de las monjas,” Carmen sang, “the most delicious flavor of Christmas.”

Unwrapped, the treats “from the nuns” resembled shortbread, but the taste and texture were otherworldly. Made per tradition with manteca—Iberian pork fat—the cookie was crisp on the outside, silky on the inside, its Moorish influence revealed in cinnamon, almond, and toasted sesame seeds.

Carmen devoured her mantecado. “Only one a day,” she said, closing the lid on the pound of cookies, “or we’ll get fat.”

The next day, the pastry box was empty.

Ten years later, on a trip to Seville with my husband, I was on a mission to find mantecados, which reigned in my memory as the holiest of all dulces de convento, sweets made by Spanish nuns using centuries-old recipes. 

What beer is to Trappist monks, dulces—sweets—are to the Spanish convent sisters: an artisanal craft that fulfills the monastic call to ora et labora, prayer and work, and doubles as a source of income. Wooden turnstiles built into convent walls allow cloistered nuns to sell sweets unseen.

We arrived during the archdiocese’s La Muestra Anual de Dulces de Convento de Clausura, a confection fair held the first week of December at the Real Alcázar, a 12th-century palace and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Muestra provides a quick dulce fix for holiday shoppers: Mountains of marzipan, famous San Leandro yemas (miniature cones of egg yolk and sugar), and mantecados on sale from convents across Seville province. But, as I had learned when a hungry student, dulces taste best bought from the source—the convents. We skipped the crowded Muestra in favor of an old-fashioned pastry crawl.    

Scroll through the slideshow below and save these stops to your own trip plan:

  • Original 27f14c343e7233c711a6e22030d792a5.jpg?1474321452?ixlib=rails 0.3
    Monasterio de San Clemente
    Go for holiday cookies (such as the doughnut-shaped roscos) and gluten-free options (say, the corazon de Sta. Gertrudis, a heart-shaped marzipan tart). —Anna Vodicka

    This appeared in the...
  • Original convento de madre de dios.jpg?1474921275?ixlib=rails 0.3
    Convento de Madre de Dios
    Take in Mudéjar-style architecture with your magdalenas, marzipan-stuffed dates, and bienmesabe—“tastes good to me”—a confection of honey, egg yolk, and ground...
  • Original convento de santa ine%cc%81s. refectorio.jpg?1474921406?ixlib=rails 0.3
    Convento de Santa Inés
    Order mantecados in sesame and almond, and tortitas de aceite , olive oil cakes, through a turnstile surrounded by azure tile and murals. —Anna Vodicka

    This appeared in the November/December...
  • Original sevilla. iglesiasanta mari%cc%81a de jesu%cc%81s1.jpg?1474922863?ixlib=rails 0.3
    Convento Santa María de Jesús
    These enterprising sisters make mouthwatering mantecados and practice the art of bookbinding. —Anna Vodicka

    This appeared in the November/December 2016 issue.</em>
  • Original 878e79f0cefb8430b3314a012114bde0.jpeg?1475595780?ixlib=rails 0.3
    Convento de San Leandro
    The sisters of San Leandro have been making gooey, yolk-and-sugar yemas for more than 400 years. —Anna Vodicka This appeared in the November/December 2016 issue.

Our journey began inside Seville's labyrinthine Jewish Quarter, where the exquisite white 15th-century wall at Monasterio de Madre de Dios stopped us short. In Seville, convents are often structural palimpsests, a church on top of a mosque on top of a synagogue. Awed by eight-pointed star windows that evoked Arabian nights, we almost missed the ceramic sign advertising VENTAS DE DULCES, sweets for sale. God is in the details.

We stepped inside, found the torno, a turnstile in the wall, and rang a bell.

¡Ave María purísima!” an invisible woman chirped from the other side.

¡Sin pecado concebida!” I replied in custom. Hail purest Mary, conceived without sin! “¿Hay mantecados?

No,” the nun replied. She recommended the house specialty, magdalenas. We plunked euros on the turnstile. The wooden wheel spun. A sack of sugar-crusted cupcakes appeared. (They disappeared minutes later, after we dipped them in café con leche at the countertop of nearby Bar Alfalfa.)

Sticky-fingered but not sated, we walked to Convento de Santa Inés. Inside, a leafy courtyard led to the confectionery turnstile set in a 14th-century wall with faded frescoes and handpainted azure tile. I rang a bell.

¿Hay mantecados?” I asked.

The sister answered yes—did we want almond, sesame, or sugar? Ave María, indeed.

We ordered traditional sesame seed. The wheel spun, producing a carton of mantecados artesanos, hand-shaped by nuns.

That first bite was everything I remembered, the alchemy of toasted almond flour kneaded with fat and sugar and a flourish of cinnamon. I was in heaven.

Wandering on to Santa María de Jesús and San Leandro, I was relieved to find my favorite confectioneries still operating. Only 15 cloistered convents remain in Seville, down from 41 in 1993. Next-generation nuns are an endangered species, and renovations of Reconquista-era buildings aren't cheap.

But necessity is the holy mother of invention. To expand their market, San Clemente sells gluten-free piñonadas, pine nutstudded marzipan. (When a nun with celiac disease entered, they designated one oven as gluten-free.) Other convents sell sweets on the web through a “torno virtual.

“We don’t need much,” Sister Inés at Convento de Santa Inés said. “We live simply. People help us how they can. But baking is a way for us to work, to live.

By siesta hour, we were full, high on sugar and the thrill of the exchange between secular and sacred worlds. I decided I would savor the remaining mantecados—one perone day, as Carmen had said—for the duration of our trip.

Days later, after traveling south, I searched the bags.

“Where are the mantecados?” I asked my husband.

“I figured they’d get ruined in transit,” he said, looking guilty. “I ate them.”

I confess: I cried. I thought I might commit a mortal sin.

Then we laughed and I absolved him. But only after he swore we’d return to Seville another year, in December.

Legendary Proportions

Two towns in Andalucía claim birthplace dibs on the mantecado, but legend tips the scales toward Estepa, a village 90 minutes east of Seville. According to local lore, 16th-century nuns created the recipe. The Reconquest left a surplus of grain and Iberian pigs, bringing about increased donations of wheat and lard—the rich, rendered fat of jamón ibérico—to the convents. Behind those sacred walls, the mantecado was born. But it was an enterprising and well-fed señora who created national demand for the mantecado, perfecting the recipe in 1870 and ordering her husband to sell them en route to Córdoba. Today, Estepa’s 12,000 inhabitants refer to her affectionately as “La Colchona”—“The Mattress”—and credit her for the town’s 20-plus mantecado factories, which churn out 44 million sweet pounds between September and December, when Estepa’s unemployment rate drops to 7 percent. Then everyone takes an eight-month sugar-induced siesta.

For mantecados from Estepa, visit La Colchona, a shop on Calle Cuna a few blocks from Plaza Salvador.

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