By Carol Pucci
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE TIMES/CAROL PUCCI VIA KRT
Sister Mercedes de Santa Clara shows off the kitchen at the Convento de Santa Ines in Seville.
SEVILLE, Spain — In a city where even the tapas bars display images of the Virgin Mary next to pictures of bullfighters and flamenco dancers, finding something sinfully sweet to go with your morning coffee is a religious experience.
Perhaps it’s a sign of southern Spain’s zest for the good life, but it’s Seville’s oldest tavern that’s my landmark for navigating the maze of narrow streets that lead to the Convento de Santa Ines, the medieval home of a group of Catholic nuns devoted to feeding the stomach as well as the soul.
At El Rinconcillo, hams hang from the ceiling and bottles of sherry line the dark wooden counters. Around the corner is Calle Dona Maria Coronel, a street named for the convent’s founder, a Sevillian noblewoman said to have disfigured herself by splashing boiling olive oil on her face to escape the advances of King Pedro the Cruel.
Shuttered windows covered with iron bars hide what’s behind high stucco walls, but a little brown door has been propped open to the sidewalk. In the garden courtyard, under a shaded portico, there’s a wooden lazy Susan built into a ceramic tile wall.
Next to it is a typed list of more than a dozen types of homemade cakes, cookies and sweets for sale labeled simply "Las Dulces."
I ring the buzzer.
"Ave Maria," says a voice from behind the wall. "Sin pecado," Spanish for "Without sin," is the traditional reply, but I freeze.
I know something of nuns and pastries, having been raised Catholic and warned in high school by Sister Rosario that if my math skills didn’t improve, I’d never get a job in a dime store.
She was right. I got a job in a bakery instead and have been an admirer of edible art ever since. But, standing here now, able to hear but not see the woman behind the turnstile, I feel as if I’m back in third grade examining my conscience before confession, trying to figure out if I could have committed adultery.
I answer with a cheery "buenas dias" instead. "Las sultanas, por favor," I say, sliding a few euros into the lazy Susan and giving it a spin.
A cash-register drawer opens and closes. A few seconds later, around comes a plastic bag filled with a dozen feather-weight macaroons called sultan’s lovers.
They go into my shoulder bag to be eaten later that afternoon while I wait out a thunderstorm in the Alcazar, a sprawling Moorish palace that conjures up images of sultry Arabian nights.
If Spain is the next Italy when it comes to food and wine, then the southern region of Andalusia is the next Tuscany.
The best sherry comes from the vineyards of nearby Jerez; the best ham from the village of Jabugo, where hogs feed on acorns from scrub oaks and cork trees. But ask anyone who lives in this gentle city of pocket-size squares and cobbled streets, and they’ll tell you the best sweets come from Seville’s convent kitchens.
Seventeen of them around the province keep alive a tradition begun centuries ago, when nuns made sweets as gifts for their patrons, mainly wealthy families whose daughters entered the religious life after Christians recaptured the Iberian peninsula from the Arabs in the 13th century.
A cathedral was built on the site of a former mosque, and Seville was transformed into a convent city, with as many as 30 in the late 1600s, along with dozens of churches, chapels and religious shrines.
Today, with vocations down and their benefactors gone, the nuns support themselves by turning out artisan pastries sold to the public through the lazy Susans, called tornos.
The nuns are "clausura," cloistered, meaning they work and live in secluded sections of their convents, sheltered from the distractions of the world outside.
Devoted to a life of prayer and work, (ora et labora in Latin), they maintain silence much of the time and go out only when they need to. Heard but not often seen, they know their customers by their voices and guard some of their ancient recipes as closely as their secret lives.
Seven of the convents lie within the compact historic center, some taking up two or three blocks in art-filled medieval palaces donated centuries ago by kings or their founders’ families. A store called El Torno across from the cathedral sells a sampling of convent sweets, but those interested in going to the source will be rewarded with sweet surprises and a walk through some neighborhoods tourists rarely see.
Working with ingredients such as eggs, almonds, honey and sugar (reflecting the Arabic influence), each group of nuns has developed its own specialties from recipes handed down through the generations.
The names are quirky — there are Brazos de Gitanos (gypsies’ arms), Orejas de Fraile (friar’s ears) and Suspiros de Monja (nun’s sighs) — but the products are simple and natural, and handmade with no preservatives.
Among the most popular are yemas, little volcano-shaped candies made from a 500-year-old recipe by the Augustines at the Convento de San Leandro, housed there since the 1300s in a former palace donated by King Pedro. They use only the yolks of the eggs and donate the leftover whites to Santa Ines for its sultanas.
The Hieronymite sisters at the Convento de Santa Paula — in the colorful, working-class quarter of La Macarena — make 14 varieties of marmalades, quince paste and a caramel flan called tocino de cielo (heavenly bacon) in a monastery complex that includes fruit orchards, a 15th-century church, gardens and a museum.
Before it was a popular song and dance step, La Macarena was home to a much-loved religious image, the Esperanza Macarena, Virgin of Hope. While exploring the neighborhood, visitors can stop at the Carmelite Convento de Santa Ana for its anise-flavored twists called pestinos, then lunch at one of the tapas bars on San Lorenzo Square, or shop along the Calle Amor de Dios at kitschy boutiques with names like Glam and Flamenco Cool.
Before Easter, the bakers of Seville were busy turning out traditional treats such as torrijas made with bread soaked in white wine, dipped in egg, then fried and coated with sugar or honey, and the gypsy’s arm, a rolled sponge cake with rum cream.
Over the years, some of the orders have modernized, shortening their habits and veils and increasing their contact with the public. A few have Web sites and e-mail addresses. But opening storefronts, or putting up signs advertising their wares, is not in their plans.
"The people of Sevilla love this . . . to come here and to speak with the nuns and feel something about the contemplative life," says Sister Virtudes, 76, mother superior at San Leandro, Seville’s oldest religious cloister, with 36 nuns, ages 20 to 80.
With the exception of its art-filled church, most of San Leandro is off-limits to outsiders, so we talk in a visitors room, separated from each other by a crisscross wrought-iron grill.
More accessible is the Convento de Santa Paula in La Macarena. The nuns run a small shop where they sell their marmalade in flavors such as bitter orange, jasmine and rose and invite visitors into a small museum filled with art treasures donated by wealthy patrons.
Visitors to the museum can look out a window into the courtyard of the cloister. Other areas are private, but when I asked about where they do the baking, Sister Remedios, 77, the friendly mother superior, invited me to pass my camera through the turnstile. She came back a few minutes later with a photo of a large ceramic tile above the oven picturing two nuns stirring a pot of stew.
Perhaps because I speak only enough Spanish to keep repeating "Please, I would really like to see your kitchen," apparently sometimes confusing the word for "pig" for "kitchen," two other convents agreed to let me inside.
At Santa Ines, Maria Luisa Fraga, the head of an association that helps the convents market their products, and Sister Mercedes de Santa Clara, 71, the mother superior, show me through the chapel. In the choir, an area of the church screened off for the nuns, the preserved body of their founder lies in a casket, which they open to the public once a year.
A unique blend of Muslim and Christian architecture styles, called Mudejar, left much of Catholic Seville with a distinct Islamic feel. In the cloister at Santa Ines, upstairs rooms, each marked with a crucifix, surround a courtyard garden with walls covered in decorative ceramic tiles. An outdoor arcade leads to a small kitchen, where a group of younger nuns is making almond cookies and the house specialty, little round pastry balls called bolletos, made with flour, sugar, olive oil and sesame.
I learn that the voice behind the torno belongs to Sister Rebeca, 43.
With fewer Spanish women interested in religious life these days, many of the convents’ newest members are coming from Latin America, India and Africa. Half the 14 sisters who live here are from other countries, including Sister Rebeca, who comes from a family of 20 brothers and sisters in Mexico.
Life is simple. Mass at 7 a.m., baking from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., lunch, then more baking until 5 p.m. Bed around 10:30 p.m.
"Ora e labora," says Sister Rebeca. "We are working for God."
The best or at least the largest variety of sweets — 60 types in all — come from the Monasterio de Santa Maria del Socorro, a convent housed in a 16th-century building that stretches for several blocks near the Plaza San Marcos and a row of neighborhood cafes, fruit, flower and fish shops.
Nine sisters, members of the Concepcionistas Franciscanas who came to Seville in the 1500s, support themselves by baking, bookbinding and running a five-room inn.
The brass-studded torno is at a side entrance, below a ceramic-tile image of the Virgin Mary. There’s no sign, only a mustard-yellow frame around the doorway with the address, No. 30, painted above it.
I reach inside an iron gate and ring the buzzer. Sister Inmaculada, 34, greets me and leads me down a walkway shaded by delicate archways. There are wooden benches and potted ferns and a swimming pool for the days when temperatures can top 100.
We meet Sister Jesus Maria, 68, a cheerful woman wearing a white habit, a brown veil and a broad smile. After 27 years here, she knows her customers. No need for a sign out front, she says. "The people know about it, and they are coming."
Spread out on the kitchen counter are brandy-spiked chocolate truffles, bite-size almond meringues and marzipan-filled dates. We chat about the new pope, the Spanish president and President Bush, and she shows me a new book about the convent with a few not-so-secret recipes.
"What’s it like to spend year after year behind these walls?" I start to ask Sister Inmaculada as she walks me to the door. She came here 18 years ago, when she was 16. But I don’t. Earlier, I asked Sister Remedios, the mother superior at Santa Paula, that question, and she gave me the answer.
For the bakers of Seville, life is filled with sweet surprises.
"Every day is the same," she told me, "but all the moments are different."
IN THE KNOW
If you go:
For a list of convents around Seville and their specialties, see www.sevillaclick.com/sevilla/008compras/008curiosidades.htm. Information is also available at www.andalucia.com/cities/seville/convents.htm
The convents are marked on the maps handed out at hotels and tourist offices. Seven are in the city center (the rest in surrounding towns), all within walking distance of each other and the major sites.
Torno hours vary. Most are open from around 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. and for a couple of hours in the afternoon starting around 4:30-5. Churches and chapels are usually open to the public before or during Masses. Times are posted outside.
Not sure what to buy? Ask for a "surtido," an assortment. Prices start at around $2.50, depending on the item and the quantity. Even though the pastries are made without preservatives, they tend to keep well, and the nuns package them for easy transport. San Leandro packs its yemas in little wooden boxes ($10 for a 1pound box) to stay fresh for 15-20 days.
The museum at Santa Paula, Calle Santa Paula, is open 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (admission, $2.40).
The Monasterio de Santa Maria del Socorro, Calle Bustos Tavera, 30, runs a small hostelry with five rooms, all with private bath ($48-$59). See www.santamariadelsocorro.es.
El Torno, a shop on the Plaza El Cabildo, across from the cathedral, sells convent sweets from around the province. Look for a sign on Avenida Constitucion that says "Dulces de Convento." Open 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and 5-7:30 p.m. weekdays and 10:30 a.m.- 2 p.m. weekends.
Convent walking tours can be arranged through Paseando por Sevilla. Three itineraries cover eight convents. ($42 per person). See www.paseandoporsevilla.com.
Contact the Spanish National Tourist Office at www.spain.info and www.turismo.sevilla.org.