That doesn’t sound too appealing now, does it? But in reality, Tortas de Aceite — my latest gastronomic discovery — are very much so. I had come across them in my usual curious browsing at the Mercadona in Villalonga. They were in a section far removed from the other baked goods and pastries, which I thought rather odd. But who am I to question the stocking logic of supermarkets? There was another woman there before me, and she’d matter-of-factly put four packets (!!!) of them, just like that, in her shopping basket. I was about to ask how they tasted like, but her generous purchase was endorsement itself. At 89 cents for 6 pieces, it was worth a try. Reading the ingredients, I expected these large biscuits or cookies – for they are not really cakes (tortas) as such, being described as crisp (crujientes) on the packet — to make a good accompaniment to a morning cup of coffee. Or tea, in my case. (It’s been quite a number of weeks since I foreswore coffee.)
I found them delightful indeed – with a barely perceptible hint of anise, a few sesame seeds, not cloyingly sweet despite the crunchy sprinkled sugar glaze (I have a low threshold for sweetness, unlike M) , and oh so beautifully crisp. The perfect partner for my lemon verbena (hierba luisa) tea, the leaves for which I pick fresh each morning from a bush in the garden.
(Apologies for this divergence.) The lemon verbena bush is currently throwing up spires of tiny white flowers, and every time I collect my daily quota of shoot tips, they exude a floral and somewhat resiny perfume — so unlike the leaves’ citrusy scent, that I could not place at first where it was coming from. A profuse thank you to the person whose excellent judgment and taste had chosen it and planted it. Back in April, it had looked dead, with its bare trunk and branches severely cut back, and totally unrecognizable. However, by mid-May the first leaves had peeked out and a sniff confirmed it as lemon verbena. Oh joy! I hadn’t known that lemon verbena could develop such a sturdy, woody trunk. I’d only ever seen them illustrated as rather frail-looking shrubs.
But… back to the anise- and sesame-flavoured tortas de aceite. They are truly and wonderfully good in their simplicity and honesty – traits rarely encountered in contemporary pastries stocked in a regular supermarket, where most include artificial flavours and colours (even so-called ‘natural’ ones are not), and other non-essentials added to improve baking behaviour and shelf-life and heaven knows what else. The unmistakable honesty and intrinsic goodness of these tortas’ flavour remind me very much of the same qualities found in Japanese crisp crackers of rice flour called senbei. At least those that I first tasted back in the 1970s. And much like senbei, I suspected that tortas de aceite must have quite a long tradition.
And sure enough, a brief internet search confirmed that tortas de aceite have been made commercially for over a century – though presumably their domestic origins are much, much earlier. The picaresque novel Guzmán de Alfarache (allegedly more popular in its time than Lazarillo de Tormes or Don Quixote), written by Mateo Alemán, published in 1599, and whose protagonist is a converso, mentions them:
Dale mis encomiendas, aunque no lo conozco, y dile que me pesa mucho y parte con él de aquesa conserva, que para ti, bien mío, la tenía guardada. Mañana es día de amasijo y te haré una torta de aceite con que sin vergüenza puedas convidar a tus camaradas. (Guzmán, Cátedra, 1987, 486, cited from Wikipedia, emphasis mine; see translation in the wiki entry.)
Its history is as a celebratory sweet for Easter, influenced by Arab and Jewish cooking traditions, as evidenced by its use of aniseed, sesame seed, and the use of extra-virgin olive oil (rather than the proscribed lard). The flat disk shape is also rather reminiscent of artisanal Passover unleavened breads called matza. The pastry — shaped by hand and produced in Castillejo de la Cuesta in western Sevilla province to the original recipe formulated by Ines Rosales Cabello in 1910 — was granted an EU designation of protected origin (denominación de origen protegida) in 2013.
The packet I bought was not the Ines Rosales brand; rather, a local one made nearby in Alicante. Nevertheless it was of excellent quality. One of the ingredients listed intrigued me: matalauva. This turned out to be aniseed, with variant spellings matalahúva and matalahúga; its etymology, like that of ajonjolí (sesame seed) is Arabic. There is a link between these crisp traditional delights and the American actress Rita Hayworth.
Have a lovely week ahead, everyone!!! It’s been unseasonably cool these past few days here in Villalonga that I’ve had to put socks and a jumper on. More like spring than midsummer. Great!!!