Conversion and Cake

The symbolic importance of food and food practices (or ‘foodways’ in academic speak) to religious culture is readily apparent at this time of year. During Lent it is traditional for Christians to fast, marking the beginning of the Lenten period by using up fat, eggs and flour in pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. At Easter we consume chocolate eggs  – a pagan fertility symbol hijacked by Cadburys – and hot cross buns – a reminder of the crucifixion. A recent lecture by Eric Dursteler (Brigham Young University) at the University of York on food and conversion in early modern Spain brought to the project’s attention the complex role played by foodways in cultures where large numbers of people converted – willingly or otherwise – from one faith to another.

For instance it was thought possible to ascertain whether a conversion to Christianity from Islam was genuine by watching the convert to see whether they ate pork or drank wine (both prohibited by the Koran): two abstentions that would have been very noticeable in pork and wine loving Spain (Jamón has since been elevated to almost divine status). The ways in which people prepared food, as well as their dining habits, could also be marks of cultural and religious identity: the employment of kosher or halaal practices, sitting on the floor while eating, or using particular herbs and spices, all pointed to particular cultural groups.

An interesting incidence of a particular foodstuff (rather than a human consumer) converting from one faith group to another was highlighted by the food writer Claudia Roden in a recent edition of the Observer Food Monthly which focused on Spanish food. In an excerpt from Roden’s new cookbook The Food of Spain she listed a recipe for ‘Tarta de Santiago’ (almond cake). This cake – usually decorated with the cross of the Order of Santiago – is a speciality of the area around the cathedral of Santiago de Copostela in Galicia, which houses the relics of the Apostle St. James. It is commonly displayed in pastry shop windows for the perusal of pilgrims making their way to the shrine. Roden, who has previously written on Jewish cuisine in The Book of Jewish Food, hypothesises that the Tarta de Santiago is a Jewish Passover cake (a cake which hasn’t been leavened with yeast), a delicacy which had been ‘converted’ into a Catholic form, much like the Jewish communities who had been forced to convert (conversos) during the fifteenth century under Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain. Roden notes that the Galician city of A Coruña still houses a synagogue and an old Jewish quarter founded by Jews fleeing an earlier attempt at conversion on the part of Berber Almohads in Andalusia in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, perhaps bringing with them a recipe for almond cake. Whatever the truth of the matter this story of a converted cake stands as a useful reminder of how religion shaped European communities, culture and cuisine.


Tarta de Santiago

Serves 10

Blanched Almonds 250g

Eggs 6, separated

Caster sugar 250g

Orange grated zest of 1

Lemon grated zest of 1

Almond extract 4 drops

Butter to grease cake tin

Flour to dust cake tin

Icing sugar for dusting the cake

Grind the almonds finely in a food processor. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar to a pale cream with an electric mixer, then beat in the orange and lemon zest and the almond extract. Add the ground almonds and mix very well. With a cleaned mixer, whisk egg whites until stiff and fold into egg and almond mixture – the mixture is so thick you need to turn it over quite a bit into the egg whites. Grease a spring-form cake tin around 28 cm in diameter (preferably non-stick) with butter and dust with flour, then pour in the mixture. Put the cake in an oven preheated to 180C/gas mark 4 for 40 minutes or until it feels firm. Let it cool before turning it out. Dust the top with icing sugar. If you like, cut the shape of a Santiago cross out of paper and place it in the middle of the cake before dusting with icing sugar.

Claudia Roden: The Food of Spain  (Michael Joseph: 2012)

Postscript: Having eaten Tarta de Santiago courtesy of my local Tapas restaurant in Stoke Newington I can recommend giving this recipe a go – brilliant with a strong cup of coffee.

See also:

Claudia Roden, The Book of Jewish Food (Penguin: 1999 second ed.)

Ken Albala, Pancake: A Global History (Reaktion Books: 2008)

2 thoughts on “Conversion and Cake

  1. I also found relationship between food and conversion interesting.

    I looked at James Wadsworth’s ‘The English Spanish Pilgrime’ and it seemed to me that he often used descriptions of food in order to construct the narrative of his conversion. For instance, in Chapter III, when he is setting up his criticism of the Jesuits, he describes their diet in detail – perhaps this helps to portray them as excessive? He writes that on Tuesdays and Thursdays after an afternoon of recreation, they return to a “rost mutton.” The image of a heaving roast often signals plenty and excess.

    Later on, in Chapter VIII, after his conversion, he is imprisoned in France accused of being a spy. Again, he uses food to describe his experience. He writes that he went three days “without meate or drinke; at the end whereof they bought me a dish of tripes with a peece of bread and water… they gaue mee a purse besides with a long cord to bee put out at a hole to beg the almes of passengers, not having any victuals giuen me.” I thought this description of meagre or complete absence of food might serve two functions. Firstly, it contrasts with the excess of the Jesuits he described earier, and secondly I thought the description kind of presented an image of sacrifice – perhaps he is trying to show how he is willing to forgoe everyday comforts such as food in order to serve his new religion?

    Anyway, breakfast calls after all this talk of food, so I’ll leave it there!


  2. This reminds me briefly of your lecture last year. How coffee was associated to ‘Turks’ or Muslims at the time; being a symbol of control projected by the newly arrived Muslims. Attempting to control the Catholics with their coffee houses. I would say they succeeded.

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