I·ATE Food Term of the Week: Tarta de Santiago (St James’s cake)

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This week, for our I-ATE Food Term we embark on a journey to the magical city of Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia (northwest of Spain). In this article, we will present to you one of the most typical and well-known desserts of the region: St James’s cake (torta de Santiago in Galician). Keep reading to find out more about the history and the origins of this tasty almond cake. 

The history of St James’s cake

You have probably already heard of the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St James. Several paths compose the pilgrimage route that leads to the breathtaking Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of the Apostle St James are believed to lay. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arrive to the Galician city every year and, after admiring the beautiful cathedral, a traditional sweet treat awaits them: the tarta de Santiago. 

As with many other traditional recipes, the origins of the cake are quite unclear. The first written reference dates back to 1577, when Don Pedro de Portocarrero visited the University of Santiago de Compostela and studied the meals given to the professors during a ceremony. Among these meals, there was a spongy almond cake called “royal cake” (torta real), which would later become the current tarta de Santiago. 

Nevertheless, the first reliable recipes would appear in the 19th century, in the Cuaderno de confitería, compiled by Luis Bartolomé de Leybar, and in El confitero y el pastero, by Eduardo Merín. The chronology and Galician origin of both books (we would have to wait until the 20th century to find the recipe in a Spanish cookery book) can confirm that this cake is strongly linked to the Galician gastronomic tradition. 

Almonds, sugar and eggs: that is it!

The St James’s cake is made of simple ingredients and is easy to prepare. Almonds, sugar and eggs are all you need to bake it, although there are alternative versions with lemon or orange zest, sweet wine or cinnamon. 

What makes this cake unique is its decoration: a top coat of icing sugar with an outlined imprint of the cross of St James on top. It was 1924 when the founder of the cake shop “Casa Mora”, in Santiago de Compostela, decided to use the silhouette of the cross to decorate the cakes. His idea became soon popular, since he managed to combine a traditional Galician product with an unequivocal symbol of the city of Santiago. Ever since, all tortas have the silhouette of St James’s cross on top.

The tarta de Santiago and the European Union 

In 2006, the European Union gave the tarta de Santiago the PGI (protected geographical indication) status. According to the rules stated by the PGI, the cake must be prepared in Galicia and contain at least 33% of almonds in order to be called tarta de Santiago.  

The Galician cake was also chosen to represent Spain in “Café Europe”, a cultural initiative put forward by the Austrian presidency of the European Union in 2006. 

If you are curious about European cakes and want to learn more about their interesting names and origins, check out our articles about Tarte Tatin, Sackertorte and Crostata.

References


Irene-Arto-Escuredo-Termcoord

Written by Irene Arto Escuredo, Schuman Terminology Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit (DG TRAD). She holds a BA in Translation and Interpreting by the University of Salamanca (Spain) and is currently carrying out a Master’s degree in Institutional Translation.