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The origin of Spanish Christmas turrón

Assortment of turrón and Christmas sweets for sale

On the origin of the turrón (nougat) there are only hypotheses or, rather, conjectures, as most enter more into the terrain of legend than that of theory.

In principle, it seems reasonable to place its cradle in the Mediterranean basin where almonds and honey abound, the basic ingredients of nougat to which, centuries later, sugar would join ... But since almond trees come from Central Asia some conclude that nougat was invented in China, despite a lack of evidence. What did come from the East was sugar, which was incorporated into Arab gastronomy from the 7th century, following the conquest of Egypt, where sugar cane from India was grown. It was brought to the Iberian Peninsula by Muslims in the 10th century and cultivated in areas of the South and the Levant.

But, going back to turrón, most sources attribute an Arab origin to it due to the profuse use of honey and almonds in Muslim pastries. In fact, a sweet with similar characteristics to nougat is mentioned in One Thousand and One Nights. On the other hand, in the 11th century a Lombard scholar named Gerardo de Cremona translated and published a book by the Cordoba doctor Abdul Mutarrif, with the title De medicinis et cibis semplicibus, in which he speaks of the salutary qualities of an Arabic sweet called turun. The similarity between the words turun and turrón as well as between the ingredients of both, has led to placing the origin of turrón in the turun of the Arabian peninsula. It arrived in Spain with the Muslim invasion of the 8th century; it adapted especially well throughout the Mediterranean strip due to the abundance of almond trees and honey; and from here it was exported to Italy and France. This is the most widely accepted theory, however there are a couple of conflicting facts.

Long before the Middle Ages, before the Arab turun and the sweet mentioned in Persian tales, during classical antiquity, Greece was already making a sweet based on honey and crushed almonds (like the Jijona nougat) that the participating athletes in the olympic games ate before competitions to increase their vigor. They were the energy bars of old.

On the other hand, as Sebastián de Covarrubias explains in his Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española (Treasury of Castilian or Spanish Language) of 1611, the word turrón does not derive from Arabic turun but from Latin torrere which means toasted, and refers to the way in which the ingredients are cooked. It seems rather that it is the Arabic term that derives from the Latin.

The first time that the word turrón appears written in Spanish is in Arte Cisoria, a didactic kitchen treatise written by the scholar Enrique de Villena, nicknamed "the Astrologer", in 1423: "Others, turrón, nuégados, wafers, letuaries and such things that the curiosity of the princes and genius of the Epicurians found and introduced into the use of the people." 

The first nougat recipe does not appear until a later date between 1475 and 1525, in the anonymous book Manual de mujeres en el cual se contienen muchas y diversas recetas muy buenas (Women's manual in which many and diverse very good recipes are contained). The original manuscript is in the Palatine Library of Parma and is a practical treatise on the activities that high-ranking women had to carry out or lead in the family sphere with recipes for medicine, cosmetics and cooking. 

The nuégados that Don Enrique mentions next to the turrón are sweets in which walnuts replace almonds. They are originally from Jewish cuisine and, for this reason, there is no shortage of those who place the birth of nougat in this cuisine. During the Middle Ages, they were made both in Aragon and in French Provence (where almond trees were not introduced until the 17th century).

What no one seems to dispute is that the Spanish version of nougat appears in the province of Alicante, at least since the 15th century, although there is also a nougat tradition in Castuera (Badajoz) that dates back to Arab times and continues to the present day.

Nougat turrón is part of an assorted family of sweets of ancient origin, all of them made up of nuts mixed with a sweet paste. They receive the generic name of halva, from the Arabic halwä which means sweet. The halva are spread over a vast territory that goes from Asia: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh ... the Middle East where they are very popular: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Arabia, Egypt ... to southeastern Europe: Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Cyprus… The ingredients vary according to the region, and can be sesame paste, sunflower seeds or wheat semolina; the sweet can be honey or sugar; and can contain walnuts, hazelnuts, dates, raisins ...

Fernando Galiana Carbonell, historian and official chronicler of Jijona, in his book Anales y documentos históricos sobre el turrón de Jijona (Annals and historical documents about Jijona nougat), indicates that primitive forms of turrón were already known in that city prior to the 14th century. The Jews made a sweet paste, halva, similar to soft nougat, and the Mudéjars (Moors) made a nougat by mixing honey with sesame, walnuts or almonds.

Already in the 16th century, it was the Alicante nougat that gained fame throughout the Peninsula, entering the court of Carlos I and captivating the taste of the nobility. In 1570, the Sevillian playwright Lope de Rueda makes him the protagonist of his passage La generosa paliza (The generous beating), in which Dalagón punishes his servants because: they have eaten his pound of Alicante nougats that were on the desk.

During the 16th century, the custom of consuming nougat only during the Christmas holidays was already a tradition, probably because their high price prevented most Spanish families from consuming them more regularly. In a document from the Alicante City Council dated 1582, it is stated that municipal employees: ... from time immemorial, each year, said city of Alicante customarily, for Christmas parties, pay their salaries, part in money and part in a present that they are given, of 'an arroba of nougats' ... And apparently, the expenditure that the Alicante municipality made in these sweets was so high that Felipe II, in an Order signed in 1595, demands: "... that in nougat and fig bread to present At Christmas, I forbid and command that my city (Alicante) cannot spend more than fifty pounds each year."

This tradition is also collected by the Alicante lawyer and writer José Guardiola Ortiz in his book Conduchos de Navidad, which he attributes to Francisco Martínez Motiño, who was head of the kitchens of Felipe II, Felipe III and Felipe IV. He places the action in 1585. In February 1584, a Japanese legation sent by the shogun Toyotomi Hideyosi and made up of princes of Bungo, Arima, and Omura, who had converted to Catholicism, had landed in Lisbon. From there they traveled to Madrid to pay homage to King Felipe II. In the story, Don Francisco later accompanied them to Alicante, where they would embark for Italy to attend the coronation of Pope Sixtus V. On the way they passed through Jijona to see the Tibi reservoir that was being built by Juan Bautista Antonelli, the most ancient in Spain and the most important in the world until the arrival of the Enlightenment and its great engineering works. On his way through Jijona, the author affirms: "all the houses in Jijona smell like hot steam of honey because they make nougat in all of them." And it is that in those years, on the dates before Christmas, no less than one hundred families from Jijon traveled to the main Spanish and European cities to sell their nougat. In 1610, the Valencian historian Gaspar Juan Escolano wrote in his 'Decades': "The nougat from Jijona, put in little boxes, is taken throughout Europe as a unique gift."

Hard and soft nougat

Nougat from Alicante (duro / hard) and from Jijona (blando / soft)
La.blasco, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Until the seventeenth century, turrón was manufactured both in Jijona and Alicante. The guild of master confectioners used sugar, and that of nougat used honey, and each one was governed by its own rules. During the second half of the century, at the time of Carlos II, the powerful Valencian confectioners' guild (the oldest in Europe and the first to found an Official Pastry School in 1644) sued against the Alicante nougat makers to absorb them by subjecting their activity to the regulation of its own statutes. For this reason and due to the growing popularity of chocolate, the production of turrón in Alicante was greatly reduced. Jijona, being further away, did not attract the attention of the Valencian union corporations, thus became the main center for the production of turrón.

Already in the 18th century, Madrid confectioners complained to King Carlos III of the competition that the nougat makers of Jijona and Alicante made to their businesses. The King listened to their demands and promulgated an ordinance that prohibited the itinerant sale of nougat, except in the forty days before Christmas. It is not true that this is how the custom of restricting the consumption of nougat to the Christmas period originated. On the contrary, based on that tradition that, as we have seen, predated the sixteenth century, the king found a way to please some without causing too much harm to others.

Sugar is not mentioned among the ingredients of nougat until the 18th century, coinciding with the massive plantation of sugar cane in Latin America and with the opening of American trade to several Spanish ports, Alicante among them. Thus, in the Chronica de la muy ilustre, noble y leal ciudad de Alicante (Chronicle of the very illustrious, noble and loyal city of Alicante), written by Dean Vicente Bendicho in 1640, that ingredient still does not appear: "The turrón that is commonly said of Alicante, which when made only of honey and almonds looks like its pieces white jaspers. The nougat made in Jijona at the beginning of the 18th century already contained sugar, which contravened the union regulations of confectioners, but made its price cheaper and made it available to the less favored economies."

Myths and legends

The lack of precise data on the origin of nougat, has been abundantly supplied by legends, fables and tales of all kinds. In Jijona, which could well hold the title of world capital of turrón, they have a tender and romantic legend to explain it. The current location of the city dates from the end of the 12th century, when the Almohads built the castle of which the ruins still remain, and the population gathered under its protection on the slopes of the hill crowned by the bastion. Legend has it that, many, many years ago, a king lived in that castle who married a beautiful princess from northern Europe. The girl with stubby eyes and blonde locks longed so much for the snowy landscapes of her native Scandinavia that she fell into a deep melancholy, which filled her loving consort with despair. To remedy the sadness of his princess, the king had thousands of almond trees planted around the castle and, when they flourished, the landscape that could be seen from the battlements seemed covered by a blanket of snow. Thus, the princess regained joy and the king happiness. And the local peasants, making use of that enormous quantity of almonds, invented the nougat. 

A beautiful legend and very appropriate, if it were not already traced to this other Cordovan legend that has nothing to do with nougat although it does with almond trees and with love: Abd al-Rahman III was the first Umayyad caliph of Córdoba. His favorite wife was a beautiful Granada-born woman named Azahara or al-Zahra (Orange Blossom Flower). So in love was the good caliph that, in her honor, he had a most luxurious palatial city built eight kilometers from Córdoba and called it Medina Azahara or Madinat al-Zahra (City of Azahar Flower). But despite the luxury and wealth that the caliph offered her, the beautiful Azahara was sad and Abderramán could not see her smile. When she finally confessed that her melancholy was due to the fact that she longed to contemplate the snows of the Sierra Nevada, the caliph promised: "I will make it snow for you in Córdoba." So it was. He had a forest in front of the city cut down and hundreds of almond trees planted in their place, so close together that in spring the white orange blossoms formed the promised blanket of snow.

Another legend attributes the invention to a contest called by a caliph who, concerned about feeding his troops during long campaigns, was looking for a nutritious food, easy to transport and that would take a long time to spoil. Nougat was the winning recipe. Yet another attributes it to the ingenuity of the inhabitants of one city who invented it under the pressure of famine during a siege. That city may well have been Jijona, which for centuries occupied a frontier position. However, this same fable is also attributed to the invention of marzipan.

Italians have their own legend to claim the invention of nougat. In the city of Cremona, on October 25, 1441, the marriage between Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti was celebrated, a wedding that assured the family more than half a century of dominion over the Duchy of Milan. The chef created for the occasion a dessert based on honey, egg white and almond, which reproduced the most emblematic monument of the Lombard city, il Torrazzo, the bell tower of the cathedral. For this reason he called his dessert torrone, from torrione (tower). Although, in reality, torrone, like turrón, derives from the Latin torrere and means toasted, the story is really suggestive ... but it is nothing more than a tale invented, apparently, by the painter Massimo Gallelli during the previous years to the First World War to promote the products of a nougat industrialist. In 1914, the fable was collected and published by the Cremona Chamber of Commerce, giving it an air of verisimilitude ... and until today. We do know that in the year 1529, a tower-shaped dessert was served at a banquet, because Cristóforo di Messisbugo, cook, writer, mayor of the Casa de Este and organizer of lavish court banquets left a written record of this. But the Cremons, who even today continue to boast of having invented the nougat based on this legend, insist on ignoring that the Venetians, since the Middle Ages, consumed a dessert made with honey, almonds and spices during Christmas. They also ignore the fact that in many places in southern Italy, in Campania, Sicily, Calabria, and especially in the city of Benevento, they make a sweet called cupeta that they consider the ancestor of nougat. Tradition says that this sweet was already prepared in the region in ancient Roman times under the name of cupedia, as recorded in the writings of Tito Livio and Marcial. However, specialists affirm that in the writings of these Roman authors of the 1st century, the word cupedia is not found anywhere. Yes there is a very similar word, cuppedia, which means delicacy and that appears in texts by Cicero and Plautus among others. In Sicily, on the other hand, the cupeta is called cubaita, a word of Arabic origin that points to the Arabic origin of nougat.

Barcelona also has its own legend, although somewhat later. In 1703 the city was ravaged by the plague. The authorities summoned the pastry chefs to a contest to make a delicious sweet that, in addition, would serve as a restorative to the battered surviving citizens. The winner was Pedro Torró with a sweet made with honey and almonds. His surname gave name to the nougat (torró in Catalan). The story adds that the bishop ordered the priests to recommend to the parishioners the consumption of this dessert in the period between the Immaculate Conception and the day of Kings. In another version, the contest won by Torró would have taken place during the siege of Barcelona in 1651-52.

Turrón is currently produced in several countries in Latin America, in France, Italy and Spain, which is the world's leading producer of turrón, marzipan and Christmas sweets, and which exports to many countries in Europe, America, Asia and the Middle East. The Spanish alone consume forty-six million kilos of nougat every year, approximately one kilo per person, which places us at the head of the world and far ahead of the rest.

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