Santiago de Compostela in Spain’s Galicia region: the medieval town hums with reverential visitors, some of whom have walked hundreds of kilometres on the ancient pilgrim routes to view the tomb of Saint James, whose relics are said to be held here.
The patisserie to try, on view in the windows of the cubbyhole shops clustered in narrow streets round the cathedral, is the tarta de Santiago, an almond meal tart infused with citrus and decorated with a cross and scallop shell – the symbol of this pilgrimage.
Claudia Roden describes this tart in her new cookbook The Food of Spain, which is a glorious uncovering of food from every corner of the country.
Roden’s view is that the celebrated tart in this most Christian of cities is a legacy of Jewish people – on the basis that it a typical Passover cake, made when leavened products cannot be consumed. According to Roden, in the 12th century, when the Berber Almohads tried to convert the Jews in Al-Andalus (the Muslim south) they fled to the Christian north bringing with them their Judeo-Moorish cuisine.
Passover sees any leavened bread products, known as chametz, cleared from the home in observant Jewish households. Because almond meal is a rich alternative to flour, it makes a perfect cake for the Seder meal.
In Santiago de Compostela it is served in a pastry shell, but the filling holds up as a cake on its own. It’s the pastry-less version that Roden has included in her book. It is made of almond meal, so no flour, and beaten eggs provide the only raising agent.
Roden had already popularised a similar orange and almond cake when she wrote a seminal book on Middle Eastern Food in 1968. This recipe sees whole oranges boiled for two hours before being pureed – pith and all – and then combined with the almonds and eggs, ending much the same way as tarta de Santiago. Nigella Lawson updated this recipe with clementines, giving it a new audience in the 2000s. These cakes are often spotted as a gluten-free option at cafes and bakeries.
Almond cakes aren’t decadent or showy fare. They tend to be low and flat, moist and delicate. They’re restrained for a cake – perfect for morning or afternoon tea, or dessert when you’re still full from dinner.
Tarta de Santiago is one of hundreds of food stories that Roden illuminates in The Food of Spain. At the heart of the book is an appreciation of the multiple influences that have created Spanish culture and its cuisine – among them Arabic, Jewish and the impact of New World food discoveries. Definitely worth getting hold of.
How to make tarta de Santiago – almond cake
The recipe for Claudia Roden’s almond cake is available here on the BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour website.