When we think of Spanish convent pastries, we imagine a group of old nuns gathered together in the dark and humble kitchen of some small Gothic or Baroque cloistered convent, hidden away in the old part of town. We picture them working quietly, baking elaborate, time-consuming treats from ancient recipes that have been passed down over the centuries by the previous nuns who lived there.
Yet when it comes to the only convent in Barcelona that still makes sweets to support themselves, we should throw our biases out the window – Santa Maria de Jerusalem defies all stereotypes.
The original convent of the Poor Clares of Saint Mary of Jerusalem was founded in 1453, next to the Sant Josep Monastery, which was later torn down and replaced by the Boqueria Market (officially the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria). Over the years, the religious order had to move to different locations within the city due to military conflicts between Napoleon’s empire and Bourbon Spain (1807-1814); a yellow fever episode (1821); violent riots between the Spanish army and working-class residents, socialists, anarchists and republicans during the last week of July 1909; and the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). In 1970, a new monastery was built in its current location, on the foothills of Tibidabo Mountain, famous for its spectacular views over Barcelona.
“Baking erases age and cultural differences; it’s a great bonding activity.”
Despite living in seclusion, surrounded by nature and far from worldly noise, the nunnery has never been totally removed from contemporary concerns. The last global financial crisis hit it hard, and in 2011, the 20 nuns who were living there were forced to change professions. “We had no choice,” explains 94-year-old Sister Maria del Sagrat Cor. “Our liturgical sewing and embroidery workshop stopped making enough money to pay our expenses.”
Being good friends with the abbess at Cantalapiedra, a convent funded by pastry making in the Salamanca region, she decided to send Sisters Luz, Felicidad and Victoria over to learn all the ins and outs of baking over the course of three months.
Once the nuns were back, they had the knowledge but not the infrastructure. “We needed €35,000 to get a proper oven and we had no capital. Finally, we managed to find a €3,500 second-hand oven in Seville and, with the help of a few volunteers, they brought it to Barcelona and fixed it for free. The whole process of setting up our pastry business was truly providential,” says Sister Maria del Sagrat Cor. She is thrilled with the professional shift as “we are currently 14 nuns between the ages of 27 and 94 from Spain, Colombia and Kenya. Baking erases age and cultural differences; it’s a great bonding activity.”
The experience of buying sweets in Spanish convents is an archaic ritual that happens behind closed doors. Clients enter a small room in the convent with a lazy Susan turntable installed on the wall (torno, in Spanish), a price list and a buzzer. Once they decide what to get, they ring the buzzer and the voice of a nun greets them with, “Ave María Purísima” (“Hail Mary Most Pure”), to which they have to reply, “Sin pecado concebida” (“Sinless conceived”) and make their order. The torno transports boxes of sweets and money back and forth between the customer and the nun. The transactions are based on trust and finish when the nun bids the customer farewell by saying, “Vaya con Dios” (“Go with God”).
Santa Maria de Jerusalem is no exception. The price list shows 20 different homemade products: conventional confections like muffins or tea cookies; Catalan and Spanish seasonal sweets such as panellets and nougats; and their own creations. The best sellers are alegrías (butter cookies half covered with chocolate), estrellas (two star-shaped buttery cookies joined with chocolate) and dulces de almendra (almond cookies).
“Our assortment has changed over time. When we first started, our products were very much influenced by the Cantalapiedra nunnery. Nowadays, after learning from many mistakes, we have succeeded at creating our own treats. They make us feel very proud,” Sister Maria del Sagrat Cor tells us with total satisfaction. The secret ingredient to their success? “We only use the best butter available in the city,” says the Sister.
While we recommend making the climb up into the hills for these treats, it’s not your only option for convent sweets: Not far from Barcelona Cathedral, there is a small café called Caelum that specializes in nun-baked pastries from all over Spain. Unfortunately, they don’t sell Santa Maria de Jerusalem’s baked goods, but it’s still an excellent place to get a sense of what Spanish convent pastries taste like.