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Catalan Panellets, the odyssey of a culinary tradition born in Constantinople

Catalan Panellets, the odyssey of a culinary tradition born in Constantinople

Post ID: 3874 | POSTED ON: Nov 02, 2011
 
 

BARCELONA (ACN)– The 1st of November is celebrated in Catalonia as the day of ‘Tots Sants’ (All Saints Day), a festivity where families gather to honour the memory of those who have passed away but also a tradition that comes with its own seasonal food. Bakeries and cake shops from all over Catalonia work uninterruptedly to produce enormous amounts of one of the most valued sweets in Catalonia in just a few days: the panellets. This small dessert is presented in a wide range of shapes and colours. However, as simple as it may look, since its birth the panellet has gone through a process of refinement that reflects Catalonia’s own cultural heritage.

Early November is the time for nature’s wilting: trees lose their leaves, some animals retreat to hibernate and the earth turns barren. Through centuries, countless civilisations have celebrated the arrival of autumn as one of the most significant dates of the year and, as a result, many traditions have endured the test of time. This feast is given different names around the world but regardless of the denomination, it remains a day for honouring the dead.

The Catalan tradition of ‘Tots Sants’

This is the Catalan day of ‘Tots Sants’ (Catalan for All Saints Day), which is celebrated every November 1st. Usually, the tradition demands that families visit the cemeteries and bring flowers to the tombs of their deceased loved ones. But the roots of ‘Tots Sants’ date back to Roman times, explains Josep Fornés, Director of the Ethnological Museum of Barcelona. In 27AD, the son in law of Roman Emperor Octavius Augustus built a temple honouring all the Pantheon’s gods to celebrate a military victory, tells Fornés, a tradition inspired in a Celtic ritual, in which spirits were seen as home protectors. 500 years later, Pope Boniface IV “purified” the temple and in the 9th century, Pope Gregory IV christianised the tradition to honour “all saints”.

The association of venerating the deceased with funerary meals shares a Roman origin as well. “The Romans celebrated funerary meals where they worshiped their ancestors, who were seen as good spirits. They used to offer food and, due to the relevance of the situation, it could not be just any type of food”, recounts Fornés. Therefore, the tradition to honour “all saints” and to celebrate their memory in the community with a traditional meal evolves in parallel, and at a certain moment one cannot exist without the other. This celebration evolved from originally accepting death as a quotidian fact to a nowadays more recreational type of celebration mainly due to the influence of Halloween.

Panellets to celebrate All Saints in Catalonia

Despite the evolution of the festivity, ‘Tots Sants’ is still considered a perfect excuse to gather the whole family and eat the traditional dishes of the season. In Catalonia, the celebration revolves specially around a certain type of sweet: the panellet. A few days before the feast, bakeries and cake shops work full-time to fill their shop windows with enormous amounts of this small but highly demanded dessert, which nowadays is offered through a wide range of forms and flavours.

A very simple recipe

The panellet original recipe is not at all complicated: almond, egg and sugar, or what is commonly known as marzipan pastry. The union of these three simple ingredients can be modelled in different shapes and coated in a wide variety of ingredients. Traditional panellets are those coated in pine nuts, almonds or coconut powder and the ones with quince jelly filling. As President of the Patisserie Guild of Barcelona, Joan Turull points out that this sweet is the embodiment of an “ancestral tradition, a feast that comes after the harvest of pine nuts and almonds”. And he adds that due to its high energy value, it might have been the perfect snack for those who worked in the fields during the last century and had to spend many hours out in the bitter cold.

Quick but accurate process

La Colmena cake shop in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter is considered one of the oldest in the business of panellets. The process of elaboration starts one week before the festivity. “It is not a long process”, says the baker Josep Carrió while he decorates apanellet tray at La Comena’s workshop, “but we usually prepare the marzipan pastry the day before, which also helps to improve the taste”. When talking about panelletbaking, “the thinner the almond, the better”, points out Carrió, who also recommends mixing the sugar and almond well, to achieve a uniformly textured pastry. Flour is strictly forbidden, as well as including potato or sweet potato inside the pastry, because it leads to a decrease in the quality of the product, although it may look like a measure to save money at first glance. “Many people have abused the use of potato”, affirms the baker, who prefers to stick to the original recipe “passed from grandparents to children”.

Innovation in the agenda of the bakeries

Traditional coated panellets are the kings of the ‘Tots Sants’ feast. But they are not the only type of this sweet on display in bakeries. New ideas for ingredients are welcomed in an attempt to attract more clients. At Barcelona’s School of Patisserie, for instance, first year students not only learn the basic steps of panellet creation, but they also experiment with currently popular flavours such as strawberry, coffee, orange or cream. At La Colmena, Carrió reveals that every year they produce “26 different types of panellets”. Their last attempt was kiwi and passion fruit flavoured sweets but the truth, he says, is that “they do not have as much output as the traditional coated sweets”.

Luxury in small bites

Over the past ten years, the consumption of panellets has maintained a slightly increasing pace until the 2008 global crisis struck the Spanish economy. “A few years ago we could easily sell ‘cartloads’ of panellets but the crisis makes us expect a downward forecast”, complains the President of the Patisserie Guild of Barcelona. The fact that this sweet elaboration requires almonds turns panellets into one of the most expensive pastries of the season. According to Joan Turull, who owns his own bakery in Terrassa (Greater Barcelona) since 1969, average prices “go from 35€/Kg –that of a small town bakery– up to 45€/Kg –the price at a bakery in Barcelona’s downtown–.” Despite the price, its traditional significance prevails and many different age groups visit the pastry shops to order panellets for their family or friends.

An ancient origin

“The panellet is an extremely sophisticated sweet”. This is the first statement from Josep Fornés, Director of the Ethnological Museum of Barcelona, when tackling the mystery of the panellet’s origin. Its main ingredients –almond and sugar, or probably honey at the beginning of its existence- “make one suspect that it comes from the refined scope of the Eastern Mediterranean”. Fornés believes the birth of the Catalan sweet was during the magnificent times of the Constantinople court, when bakers would have used pistachio nut instead of almond to elaborate the pastry. With the Arab invasion of the Iberian Peninsula and throughout the Middle Ages, marzipan and other sweets like nougat or quince jelly took root in Catalan culture. But the panelletstands out for a peculiar detail, highlights Josep Fornés when he speaks about how it became popular in Catalonia: as an exotic food coming from another culture, the panellet “was at first a sweet only found in capital cities, places that were able to produce surplus and had access to commerce”. Capital cities, such as Barcelona at the time, boosted traditions by first absorbing the foreign customs and second, by reconverting them into a new custom that would endure until today. The panallet or ‘small bread’ would be the result of this process, assures the anthropologist.

In the twentieth century, during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, the Catalan language was banned and all names had to be translated into Spanish. Nevertheless thepanellet kept its original name because “it was sheltered by the Catholic Church”, who favoured the Spanish dictator since the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, explains Fornés.

Other ‘Tots Sants’ traditions

During the feast of ‘Tots Sants’ another characteristic scent travels through Catalan towns. It is the smell of grilled chestnuts and sweet potatoes that can be bought at little stands on the streets. Fornés recalls that chestnuts have always been a “wild fruit” that poor families used to eat after making flour out of them. The tradition of the Castanyera (the chestnut seller) is more recent than the panellet: during the late nineteenth century, peasant wives from the Pyrenees collected chestnuts in communal forests and then descended into cities to sell them. Since then it is normal to find chestnut sellers on street corners in every city and offer these seasonal fruits to help pedestrians fight the cold weather.

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