“Open, Maria”: How to buy the oldest sweets in Spain
Updated: Jun 10
Dulces Conventuales (Convent Sweets) are mostly made
by nuns who are cloistered and remain one of Spain's most ancient culinary traditions. Blanca Valencia shares her memories of purchasing these sugary treats with prayers.
During the long hot summers of Guadix in the province of Granada, where I would spend my holidays, our parents would get rid of us girls at siesta, by sending us to a convent to learn how to cross-stitch. Guadix is a quiet town but at that time back in the the 80’s, it was as if time had stood still. I know this might sound as if I have read way too many Federico Garcia Lorca plays about repressed women, but this summer "camp" was quite common. I was probably 8 or 9 when I started attending it, and my cousins and I would sit in the shaded part of the patio, take out our little cross-stitch kits and spend a couple of hours being inducted into this most feminine art.
“ The nuns of my childhood had a knack for delicious cookies made with pork fat, a remnant of the Spanish Inquisition."
However, the sweetest part of those summers for me was buying sweets made and sold by another set of nuns, the cloistered ones. As is in much of Spain, many of Granada’s convents sell baked goods, candies, and religious memorabilia, and their nuns have a gigantic repertoire of the some of the oldest recipes in Spain. The nuns of my childhood had a knack for making egg yolk sweets (a result of enormous number of egg yolks left over from wine clarification with egg whites), and delicious cookies made with pork fat, a remnant of the Spanish Inquisition when eating pork was a sign of being a true Christian.
Buying convent sweets in Southern Spain has more in common with Amazon than with a traditional store. For starters, you need a password and there is no visible human interaction. In the convent hall you will find el torno, a wooden contraption that rotates. Normally there is a doorbell, but sometimes it is an actual bell whose rope you must wring. Then, if you are lucky, you will hear, from behind the torno, a voice murmuring the magical words, “Ave Maria." Your journey to taste Spain's oldest sweets has begun.
Some years back, when I was in Granada, I was keen to take my young daughters in this most unusual food shopping trip, as I had found the experience thrilling as a little girl. Our first attempt at the Carmelite nuns in San Jose Monastery was disappointing. The door to the convent was open and the big hall was imposing with handmade floor tiles and carved wooden doors. There was a long price list on the wall. The torno used to pay was open, but unfortunately, when we rang the doorbell, nothing happened. The next day yielded similar results, except that this time we met the fruit seller who was delivering bright red fresones or strawberries. Maybe they were at mass or praying, he told us.
Undeterred, we made our way to the Clarisan nuns in San Anton convent, another religious order I knew it well since I had gotten married in a church attached to a Clarisan convent where I dutifully donated 10 dozen eggs, as the custom dictates, so it would not rain on my wedding day. My daughters and I rang the doorbell by the torno and within seconds we heard “Ave Maria,” which my Protestant Hispano-Irish daughters wrongly assumed was Abre, or Open, Maria.
The correct response, and hence the password, is “Sin pecado concebida (born without sin),” which is a response of a popular Spanish prayer, the traditional response to Spanish confession, and also what you must say if you want to buy convent sweets. Once I said this, our unseen nun became businesslike. “¿Qué quéreis pedir?” she said. What would you like? We ordered bizcochadas, a genoise type muffin and fried dough nut cookies which we ate in the Plaza de la Trinidad.
I was raised Catholic. My daughters were not. And while my daughters will never wear the first communion dresses they so covet from Dunnes Stores in Dublin, they have learned an integral prayer of the Catholic church. The next time, when the desire for an empanada filled with cabello de angel (angel hair), a threaded jam from pumpkin, overcame us, we went to the convent, and my daughters rang the doorbell and rattled off the prayer, as if they had been doing it their whole lives.