Almonds of Alcalá (glazed almonds) are Alcalá’s sweets par excellence, in addition to costrada and ring-shaped pastries. Probably of Arabic origin, there are documentary evidences of its existence since eighteenth century, so they have been traditionally famous as Alcalá’s gastronomic ambassadors.
Almonds of Alcalá are made with almonds and toasted sugar syrup. It is a simple but exquisite recipe, used with expertise by the enclosed Convent of the Clarisas of San Diego, whose nuns are called “almonders”. The nuns of the Order of St Claire had worked as dressmakers from time immemorial, and are also known as “Diegas of Alcalá” by being their patron San Diego of Alcalá.
Turnstile and Glazed Tiles
If you are in Alcalá and fancy to get the delicious city’s souvenir in question, you just have to get closer to city center, to calle Beatas, on the corner of plaza de San Diego—where the University is situated. There, the Convent of the Clarisas of San Diego is placed, a modest building of plastered façade, in front of which Alonso de Carrillo archbishop’s statue is set.
Buying Almonds of Alcalá is a real ritual, in as much as you are purchasing in a convent versus a conventional shop. First, you should go through the wooden main door to access an anteroom covered of glazed tiles, there, a small window prevent from taking a sight of the inside. On top of it, a collection of samples is provided: all kind of chests, boxes and packages made of wood, cardboard or plastic, and also different sizes and weights are showed, with their correspondent prices.
Through the small window or turnstile—name this way because its swevelling—you will call the nuns and make your order, receive it and pay it, without seeing the face of the woman who is serving you, as she is an enclosed nun.
Buying Almonds of Alcalá from nuns is not only a commercial exchange but also a revival of the traditions of Alcalá’s convents, from such a peaceful square where you can enjoy the façade of the Cisnerian University.
The Eighteenth Century Recipe
To “candy” is to cover something in a lumpy liquid, in case of Almonds of Alcalá, this liquid is syrup that dries up and covers the nuts. It is a simple recipe, in which the only precaution you should observe, is not to get burned with the syrup splash—which are very painful—for what it is very useful to wear gloves or similar. The tradition advices to prepare them in a pan or copper pot, so the almonds do not “stick” to the recipient.
This is the traditional recipe from the confectionary master Juan de la Mata, in his famous book “Arte de la Repostería” [The Art of Confectionery], from 1747: “A pound of almonds shall be taken—without removing the second shell—afterwards, place them in a rough cloth—or serviette—, fold that cloth, strongly, so any almond comes out, and shake them comprehensibly, completely cleaning the blight on the almond; add half pound of feathered sugar and cook it until getting a blowing mixture; let them aside and shake them with a wooden spoon until both, almonds and sugar, stay dried; then, return them over a low heat and continue shaking them around the cook plate, moving or turning the pot, so the almonds get covered with sugar until they get crunchy. A while after, they get totally dry so you can keep or serve them. You can prepare them any color you want; you just have to add coloring at the same time the mixture starts to dry.”
Convent of the Clarisas of San Diego
The delicious Almonds of Alcalá are made into the convent or monastery of the Clarisas of San Diego, founded in 1671 by doña Catalina García Fernández. Catalina García was the youngest of five children, daughter of don Bartolomé García and doña Catalina Fernández. She was born in Santorcaz in 1639, and lost her mother that same year. Thus, her aunt, María Fernández—who lived in a house today part of the convent—took charge of her. Catalina García got married at the age of fifteen, had three children and widowed in 1662. Since that moment, she tried to join one of the three Alcalá’s Franciscan Convents; although, it was not until 1665 when she got into the Franciscan Convent with the habits of the Third Order of Penance, and chose the name of Catalina de Jesús y San Francisco. In 1671, a school for girls—named Doncellas Pobres de Santa Clara—was created in a part of the house that her aunt, María Fernández, had previously donated with that aim. Afterwards, the school was turned into a beguinage (reason why they are called beguines) and later, into the monastery that it is today.
On the convent façade, whose principal architectonical feature is the simplicity of its lines, it stands out the image of San Diego de Alcalá, who was canonized by Sixto V in 1568. The figure holds a cross and miraculous flowers in his hands, though they are roughly visible due to its security metallic grilles. The Saint remains were removed from the silver urn they were kept in, into the Magisterial Church—current Magisterial Cathedral—and placed here to clean it in 1967.
The presence of the Cisneros Cardinal coat of arms is another important element to stand out within the main door. This presence is explained on account of the allocation of the University printing—founded by the Cardinal—inside the houses María Fernández, aunt of Catalina, gave to the school. Hence, historian has concluded that the famous Complutensian Polyglot Bible could be printed in there.
Outside, in the small square and before resuming your walk, you have the possibility of taking a sit on one of the stone benches and contemplating the bronze statue of Carrillo Archbishop, made by the sculptor Santiago de Santiago in 1987… while savoring some Almonds of Alcalá from the nuns.
Almonds of Alcalá in Literature
Almonds of Alcalá are famous all over Spain, and thus, they are quoted by more than one illustrious writer. For instance, they are mentioned in the fundamental novel of Spanish narrative from the second half of twentieth century, “The River” , of Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio: “Though in this area we have but sugared almonds, in Alcalá de Henares. For heaven’s sake! The almonds! They are pretty famous! Aren’t they? Of course they are! They have your lordship, Alcalá’s almonds.”
Also the writer and journalist Luis Carandell talks about them in his book “El expreso de Madrid” [Madrid Express] where he says: “Sugared almonds! Alcalá’s almonds!” The shout of a vendor in Alcalá de Henares’ station was like a reward to the passenger who had passed the night on the train. He was almost arrived to Atocha’s station. About the end of the forties’ when I, as a student, native of Barcelona, living in Madrid, started to frequent the passenger cars of second class or, as it was called at that time, “Madrid Express”, travelling was truly an expedition.
(…)The buffets along the stations of the journey offered a great variety of local products: Alcalá’s sugared almonds, sponge soaked in wine and syrup from Guadalajara…”.
The tourist says:
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