Sweets - Mantecados de Estepa
by Fiona Watson Flores
The crumbly Christmas cookies collectively known as mantecados, which you will see in the months leading up to Christmas, individually wrapped and sold either by weight, or in a box, are made in a town located in the eastern part in Seville province, Estepa.
The mantecados traditionally are made with icing sugar, flour and manteca (lard, or pork fat), although these days you can find plenty of vegetarian versions, made with EVOO (extra virgin olive oil), as well as gluten-free and sugar-free.
Within the mantecado grouping are polvorones (oval shaped, with ground almonds) and alfajares (denser, made with honey and sweet potato). Mantecados themselves are circular and come in various flavours, including coconut, chocolate, hazelnut, almond, lemon, and vanilla.
There are 25 mantecado factories in Estepa, of which 22 are registered in the IGP (Indicacion Geografica Protegida, or Protected Geographic Domain). They are the main employer in the town, operating from September to December, and providing work for many families. The machinery used in the factories is also made in Estepa. Many mantecado factories are still family owned; the most famous include La Ponderosa, La Estepeña, and La Despensa del Palacio. Some are open for visits by the public.
Their history dates back hundreds of years: at the end of the 16th century, the 2nd Marquess of Estepa founded the Santa Clara convent in the town. He had nine children, two of whom, his daughters, Maria and Juana, were sent to take the orders there. The clarisa nuns started to make pastries in the 18th century, using lard from the traditional autumn matanza (pig slaughter), and scarce and expensive New World ingredients such as cocoa.
Later, in the late 19th century, a woman from Estepa called Micaela Ruiz Tellez made mantecados using a special technique – roasted flour, which produced a soft, smooth dough. Her husband had a job which involved travelling to cities such as Cordoba, so he would take the biscuits on his business travels to sell them. She changed her recipe so that the biscuits would not be damaged while being taken on the journeys – they were firm and dry on the outside, and crumbly in the middle.
The lard cakes or biscuits were filling snacks for children, and adults would always have many of them in their pockets.
Mantecados were handmade until the 1970s, when machines were introduced. Some of the machines used have been used in the factories for many decades.
Before motorways were built in Andalucia, Estepa was a stopping off point between Malaga and Seville, another reason for people to buy mantecados.
Now they are exported all over Europe, to the Spanish expatriate market in the UK, France and Germany, and even as far afield as Australia, though the majority are sold within Spain.