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Bakers of Seville follow sweet tradition
Seville is known for its convents, where sisters keep alive a centuries-old tradition of making treats.
BY CAROL PUCCI
SEATTLE TIMES
16 April 2006

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 Ines, the medieval home of a group of Catholic nuns devoted to feeding the stomach as well as the soul.

At El Rinconcillo, hams hang from the ceiling and bottles of sherry line the dark wooden counters. Around the corner is Calle Dona Maria 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 having worked in a bakery. 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.

A cash register drawer opens and closes. A few seconds later, around comes a plastic bag filled with a dozen featherweight 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 Alcazar, a sprawling Moorish palace that conjures up images of sultry Arabian nights.

SWEET TRADITION

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.

Seventeen of them around the province 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, 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.

Seven of 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.

SPECIAL TREATS

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 Ines for its sultanas.

The Hieronymite sisters, at the Convento de Santa Paula in the colorful, working-class quarter of La Macarena, make 14 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 pestinos.

For Easter, the bakers of Seville turn 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. A few have Web sites and e-mail addresses. But opening storefronts, or putting up signs advertising their wares, is not in their plans.

"The people of Sevilla love this ellipsis -- to come here and to speak with the nuns and feel something about the contemplative life," says Sister Virtudes, 76, mother superior at San Leandro, Seville's oldest religious cloister, with 36 nuns, aged 20-80.

With the exception of its art-filled church, most of San Leandro is off-limits to outsiders, so we talk in a visitors room, separated from each other by a criss-cross wrought-iron grill.

More accessible is the Convento de Santa Paula in La Macarena. Here the 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, Sister Remedios, 77, 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.

At Santa Ines, Maria Luisa Fraga, the head of an association that helps the convents market their products, and Sister Mercedes de Santa Clara, 71, the mother superior, show me through the chapel.

A unique blend of Muslim and Christian architecture styles, called Mudejar, left much of Catholic Seville with a distinct Islamic feel. In the cloister at Santa Ines, 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 Maria 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.

Nine 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. There's no sign, only a mustard yellow frame around the doorway with the address, No. 30, painted above it.

I reach inside an iron gate and ring the buzzer. Sister Inmaculada, 34, greets me and leads me down a walkway shaded by delicate archways. We meet Sister Jesus Maria, 68, a cheerful woman wearing a white habit, brown veil and a broad smile. After 27 years here, she knows her customers. No need for a sign out front, she says.

Spread out on the kitchen counter are brandy-spiked chocolate truffles, bite-sized almond meringues and marzipan-filled dates.

"What's it like to spend year after year behind these walls?" I start to ask Sister Inmaculada as she walks me to the door but I don't. Earlier, I asked Sister Remedios, the mother superior at Santa Paula, that question, and she gave me the answer.

For the bakers of Seville, life is filled with sweet surprises.

"Every day is the same," she told me, "but all the moments are different."
 
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