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Feeding Body and Soul on St. James Way

The second my fingers touch the cool stone surface of the Portico de Gloria at the entrance to Santiago de Compostela’s imposing Cathedral in Galicia, Spain, I feel I’ve cheated.

The five grooves of the Portico’s central column into which my fingers slip so easily have been imprinted by the millions of pilgrims who through the ages, trekked hundreds and hundreds of kilometers to enter one of the holiest shrines of the Catholic religion (the walk is known as the Pilgrimage of St. James or St. James Way and it’s UNESCO World Heritage Site), and all I did to get here was to take a short flight.

I feel even worse as I dig into a hefty slice of Tarta de Santiago, that almond cake covered in fine icing sugar that’s an emblem of this city. But I can’t help it: The delicious Tarta is ubiquitous in Santiago and a must-have for visitors, whether they’ve walked the requisite 100-kilometer minimum of trail that must be covered to be considered a pilgrim, or not.

Today, logistics have simplified the Camino de Santiago (you can even travel on horseback or by bike to get to the Cathedral), but the Tarta has remained virtually unchanged since it was first made in the late 1500s, says Marcelo Tejedor, owner of the Michelin-starred restaurant Casa Marcelo in Santiago.

“It’s a pretty basic, dense, compact and filling tart,” Tejedor says, “simply made with almonds, eggs, flour sugar and some lemon, and you’ll find variants across Europe, in France and Italy, for example.”

But the Tarta is also truly symbolic of Santiago -- the final resting place of St. James the Apostle, where each July 25th, residents and visitors alike celebrate the Feast of St. James – and it’s recognized worldwide by the Cross of the Order of Santiago, which, Tejedor says, was first emblazoned on the cake in 1924 by the Casa Mora bakery.

Across Galicia, establishments from the humblest to the most elite, pay homage to the Tarta and respect both the history and symbolism of a cake that in 2010, garnered the European Union’s Protected Geographical Indication status.

For Tejedor, though, embellishment is the utmost form of respect: In 2009, he created a recipe for smaller, individual-sized portions of the Tarta, with a molten almond interior.

“I haven’t strayed too far from its origins and mine won’t ever substitute for the original Tarta,” he says, “but it’s my duty as a chef in Santiago to be part of the evolution of this cake, and my way of honoring it.”

Tarta de Santiago

  • 1 pound 7 ounces almonds
  • 5 sticks plus 6 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
  • 2 pounds egg yolks (about 3/12 dozen large eggs)
  • 14 ounces plus 2 3/4 ounces super fine sugar
  • 9 ounces egg whites (from about 9 large eggs)

Get the full recipe. 

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