The bakers of Seville await curious travelers with a sweet tooth

Sweets are the specialty at the Monasterio de Santa María del Socorro in Seville, Spain

This week is Holy Week, the week before Easter, a time Catholics around the world mark with centuries-old rituals and traditions. In Spain, nuns are busy baking and selling elaborate sweets, a major source of income throughout the year, but especially at Easter. I visited a few of these Bakers of Seville a few years ago to find out more about their life and work. In honor of the season, here's a look back at what I found:

SEVILLE, SPAIN - In a city where even the tapas bars display images of the Virgin Mary next to pictures of bullfighters and flamenco dancers, finding something sinfully sweet to go with your morning coffee is a religious experience.

Perhaps it's a sign of Southern Spain's zest for the good life, but it's Seville's oldest tavern that's my landmark for navigating the maze of narrow streets that lead to the Convento de Santa Inés, the medieval home of a group of Catholic nuns devoted to feeding the stomach as well as the soul.

A Tapas bar in Seville
At El Rinconcillo, hams hang from the ceiling and bottles of sherry line the dark wooden counters. Around the corner, is Calle Doña María Coronel, a street named for the convent's founder, a Sevillian noblewoman said to have disfigured herself by splashing boiling olive oil on her face to escape the advances of King Pedro the Cruel.Shuttered windows covered with iron bars hide what's behind high stucco walls, but a little brown door has been propped open to the sidewalk. In the garden courtyard, under a shaded portico, there's a wooden Lazy Susan built into a ceramic tile wall.

Next to it is a typed list of more than a dozen types of homemade cakes, cookies and sweets for sale labeled simply "Las Dulces."

I ring the buzzer.

"Ave Maria," says a voice from behind the wall. "Sin pecado," Spanish for "Without sin," is the traditional reply, but I freeze.I know something of nuns and pastries, having been raised Catholic, and warned in high school by Sister Rosario that if my math skills didn't improve, I'd never get a job in a dime store.

She was right. I got a job in a bakery instead, and have been an admirer of edible art ever since. But, standing here now, able to hear but not see the woman behind the turnstile, I feel as if I'm back in third grade examining my conscience before confession, trying to figure out if I could have committed adultery.

I answer with a cheery "Buenas Dias" instead. "Las sultanas por favor," I say, sliding a few euros into the Lazy Susan and giving it a spin.

Sweets appear on a Lazy Susan
A cash register drawer opens and closes. A few seconds later, around comes a plastic bag filled with a dozen, feather-weight macaroons called sultan's lovers. They go into my shoulder bag to be eaten later that afternoon while I wait out a thunderstorm in the Alcázar, a Moorish palace that conjures up images of sultry Arabian nights.

Secret recipes

If Spain is the next Italy when it comes to food and wine, then the Southern region of Andalusia is the next Tuscany.

The best sherry comes from the vineyards of nearby Jerez; the best ham from the village of Jabugo where hogs feed on acorns from scrub oaks and cork trees. But ask anyone who lives in this gentle city of pocket-sized squares and cobbled streets, and they'll tell you the best sweets come from Seville's convent kitchens.

They keep alive a tradition begun centuries ago when nuns made sweets as gifts for their patrons, mainly wealthy families whose daughters entered the religious life after Christians recaptured the Iberian peninsula from the Arabs in the 13th century.

A cathedral was built on the site of a former mosque, and Seville was transformed into a convent city, with as many as 30 in the late 1600s, along with dozens of churches, chapels and religious shrines.

Today, with vocations down and their benefactors gone, the nuns support themselves by turning out artisan pastries sold to the public through the Lazy Susans, called tornos.
The nuns are "clausura," meaning they work and live in secluded sections of their convents called cloisters, sheltered from the distractions of the world outside.

Devoted to a life of prayer and work, ora et labora, as it's said in Latin, they maintain silence much of the time and go out only when they need to. Heard but not often seen, they know their customers by their voices, and guard some of their ancient recipes as closely as their secret lives.

Arab influences

The convents lie within the compact historic center, some taking up two or three blocks in art-filled medieval palaces donated centuries ago by kings or their founders' families. A store called El Torno across from the cathedral sells a sampling of convent sweets, but those interested in going to the source will be rewarded with sweet surprises and a walk through some neighborhoods tourists rarely see.

Working with ingredients such as eggs, almonds, honey and sugar, introduced to Spain by the Arabs, each group of nuns has developed its own specialties from recipes handed down through the generations.

The names are quirky — there are Brazos de Gitanos (gypsy's arms), Orejas de Fraile (friar's ears) and Suspiros de Monja (nun's sighs) — but the products are simple and natural, and handmade with no preservatives.

Among the most popular are yemas, little volcano-shaped candies made from a 500-year-old recipe by the Augustines at the Convento de San Leandro, housed there since the 1300s in a former palace donated by King Pedro. They use only the yolks of the eggs, and donate the leftover whites to Santa Inés for its sultanas.

Yemas, made with only the yolks of eggs, are popular convent sweets.

The Hieronymite sisters at the Convento de Santa Paula in the colorful, working-class quarter of La Macarena, make mulltiple varieties of marmalades, quince paste and a caramel flan called tocino de cielo (heavenly bacon) in a monastery complex that includes fruit orchards, a 15th-century church, gardens and a museum.

Before it was a popular song and dance step, La Macarena was home to a much-loved religious image, the Esperanza Macarena, Virgin of Hope. While exploring the neighborhood, visitors can stop also at the Carmelite Convento de Santa Ana for its anise-flavored twists called pestiños, then lunch at one of the tapas bars on San Lorenzo Square, or shop along the Calle Amor de Dios at kitschy boutiques with names like Glam and Flamenco Cool.

Behind the walls

With Easter preparations in high gear, the bakers of Seville are busy turning out traditional treats such as torrijas made with bread soaked in white wine, dipped in egg, then fried and coated with sugar or honey, and the "gypsy's arm," a rolled sponge cake with rum cream.
Over the years, some of the orders have modernized, shortening their habits and veils, and increasing their contact with the public. A few have Web sites and e-mail addresses. 

At the Convento de Santa Paula in La Macarena, nuns run a small shop where they sell their marmalade in flavors such as bitter orange, jasmine and rose, and invite visitors into a small museum filled with art treasures donated by wealthy patrons.

Visitors to the museum can look out a window into the courtyard of the cloister. Other areas are private, but when I asked about where they do the baking, the friendly mother superior, invited me to pass my camera through the turnstile. She came back a few minutes later with a photo of a large ceramic tile above the oven picturing two nuns stirring a pot of stew.
Perhaps because I speak only enough Spanish to keep repeating "Please, I would really like to see your kitchen," apparently sometimes confusing the word "pig" for "kitchen," two other convents agreed to let me inside.

Working for God

At Santa Inés, María Luisa Fraga, the head of an association that helped the convents market their products, and the mother superior, showed me through the chapel. In the choir, an area of the church screened off for the nuns, the preserved body of their founder lies in a casket which they open to the public once a year.

A unique blend of Muslim and Christian architecture styles, called Mudéjar, left much of Catholic Seville with a distinct Islamic feel. In the cloister at Santa Inés, upstairs rooms, each marked with a crucifix, surround a courtyard garden with walls covered in decorative ceramic tiles. An outdoor arcade leads to a small kitchen where a group of younger nuns are making almond cookies and the house specialty, little round pastry balls called bolletos, made with flour, sugar, olive oil and sesame.

The best or at least the largest variety of sweets — 60 types in all — come from the Monasterio de Santa María del Socorro, a convent housed in a 16th century building that stretches for several blocks near the Plaza San Marcos and a row of neighborhood cafes, fruit, flower and fish shops.

The sisters, members of the Concepcionistas Franciscanas who came to Seville in the 1500s, support themselves by baking, bookbinding and running a five-room inn.
The brass-studded torno is at a side entrance below a ceramic tile image of the Virgin Mary. I reach inside an iron gate and ring the buzzer. Sister Inmaculada (more recently promoted to mother superior) greets me and leads me down a walkway shaded by delicate archways. There are wooden benches and potted ferns and a swimming pool for the days when temperatures can top 100. Spread out on the kitchen counter are brandy-spiked chocolate truffles, bite-sized almond meringues and marzipan-filled dates. 

For the bakers of Seville, life is filled with sweet surprises. "Everyday is the same," one of the nuns told me, "but all the moments are different."


Click here for a list of convents around Seville and their specialities. Not sure what to buy? Ask for a "surtido," an assortment. Even though the pastries are made without preservatives, they tend to keep well and the nuns package them for easy transport. 

Convent walking tours can be arranged through Paseando por Sevilla. 

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