Chocolate Conquers the Convent

Learn about the confectionery revival of the Poor Clare convent of Santa María de Bretonera in Belorado.

By Real Academia de Gastronomía

Miriam García

Egg varieties (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

The Poor Clares and the Gifted Eggs

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Sweet confections are a common denominator among Spanish convents, but the religious order of the Poor Clares stands out in its own right for the variety and quality of its confectionery.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

According to the nuns, there is one main reason behind the quantity of sponge cakes, muffins, and donuts that have been made at the nunneries for centuries. It is down to the tradition of gifting dozens of eggs to the Poor Clare convents to plead for good weather for wedding days, harvests, and other tasks.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

The reason that eggs were gifted rather than other ingredients is unknown. There are those who believe it could be down to the similarity between the name for egg white (clara in Spanish) and the founder of the order, Clare of Assisi.

Egg varieties (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

In 1993, there were 53 Poor Clare convents across the country where this tradition of gifting eggs to the nuns was still ongoing. In the community of Derio, Vizcaya, with which the nuns of Belorado have a close relationship, they collected 600 eggs during one summer.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

The Poor Clare Convent of Belorado: Centuries of History

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

The convent of Santa María de la Bretonera, in the town of Belorado, is on the route of the Way of St James, in the middle of Riojilla Burgalesa. It is a typical example of how the manufacture and sale of confectionery has enabled the nuns not only to contribute to their own sustenance, saving the convent and the congregation at a complicated time, but also to cement themselves in modern times with an optimistic view to the future.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

The oldest parts of the monastery of Belorado date back to the 13th century, when the religious community settled there. Today, 13 sisters live in the convent.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

The nuns of Belorado explain that the Poor Clare convents have always made confectionery, even when it was not intended to be sold, but to gift to benefactors and family members on special occasions. In this convent, donuts were the most popular sweet treat, along with the flan of Sor Lucía, which would always make a star appearance at celebration meals and parties.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Regeneration and Change of Rhythm in the Convent: Chocolate

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

In 1999, a group of young sisters transferred to the convent to accompany the community of eight elder nuns during their final years. They found the monastery in a precarious situation; the second floor was in very poor condition and had to be temporarily closed while the church was refurbished, along with other important areas.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

The elder nuns subsidized their income by making socks, but soon after arriving at the convent, the youngsters decided to take a markedly different approach; they made chocolates. There were a number of reasons for their choice, but not least to avoid competition with the pastries already being sold by other Poor Clare convents in the province.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Confectionery has a significant added value, and chocolates can be made in a workshop without the need for an oven, which would be very expensive to install and maintain. They began making chocolate truffles using completely artisan methods, under the guidance of Manuel Morgades from the bakery Pa de Pessic de Arbeca in Lleida.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

To start their chocolate-making journey, they also received invaluable help from friends of the convent, who put them in touch firstly with the cook Pedro Subijana, and later with the master baker Paco Torreblanca, who became their advisor on all things chocolate. In time, they bought some items of machinery that enabled them to manufacture and coat sweets and truffles on a production line, to increase productivity.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Early on, it was decided that all sales of the chocolates from Belorado would take place outside the convent, and they ruled out the idea of distributing the sweets through their turntable. This does not stop large numbers of people approaching the convent to try to buy their chocolates. The sisters prefer to distribute them through stores in their town, so that they can also benefit the village of Belorado, other towns in the area, and catering services.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

In 2015, the food critic José Carlos Capel heard tell of these convent chocolates; he approached the convent on two separate occasions asking for them. However, it is impossible to break through the impenetrable wall of the turntable, and the sisters in charge are determined to send potential chocolate buyers to the town's stores.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Mr Capel did not give up hope, and he eventually managed to contact the nuns through the province's promotional organization, Burgos Alimenta, and the mayor of Belorado himself. He convinced the chocolate-making nuns to show their creations at the gastronomic congress Madrid Fusión in January 2016.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

At Madrid Fusión, the success of the chocolates from Belorado was such that the online chocolate store (launched on the web only a few months beforehand) and the convent's telephone line both collapsed. The congregation then decided to open a store at the convent.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Maintaining Traditions in the Present

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Another consequence of the regeneration of the congregation after the year 2000 was the publication of Recipes for Desserts and Confectionery from the Convent (Las Recetas de los Postres y Dulces del Convento). Published in 2015, it was written by Sor Myryam de Nazaret, the sister in charge of the workshop, with studios for confectionery and baking.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

The recipe book assembles the tradition of the simple confectionery made at the Poor Clare convents, as well as from the families of the nuns of the congregations. These enhance the sweet heritage of the convent in Burgos with confections from different regions in Spain, such as sweet potato pastries.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Other recipes in the book include the aforementioned homemade donuts, made by the nuns since at least the early 20th centuryThese donuts are completely entrenched in the donut and fried goods tradition of Spain. The dough is made from flour, eggs, sugar, anise-based spirit, and butter, and scented with cinnamon. The dough is then shaped into rings which are fried in oil.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

It also includes traditional confectionery associated with the convents in the public imagination, such as muffins, macaroons, and buns.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Looking to the Present and the Future

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

The Poor Clare convents are grouped into federations; the congregation of Belorado is part of the federation of Cantabria. It is very common for there to be contact and collaboration between convents within the Poor Clare order. The convent of Belorado works closely with that of Derio, in the Basque Country. There too, the convent was revitalized with new blood and new ideas, and the sisters regularly travel between the two.

In Derio, the nuns also have a store where they sell confectionery and other monastic products; not just those made in Poor Clare convents, but also from other orders such as the Dominicans.

In Derio, the nuns also have a store where they sell confectionery and other monastic products; not just those made in Poor Clare convents, but also from other orders such as the Dominicans.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

In Santa María de Bretonera, the nuns live in relative enclosure, and no longer use a turntable. The tiny convent store has been set up behind a railing, where the turntable would once have been. This is where they make most of their sales today.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

In Belorado, the only products they make for sale these days are chocolates. These are made year round, using only the best raw materials, in a similar vein to Valrhona chocolates. They offer a fairly limited, but carefully selected, range of products, which are manufactured, packaged, and presented with care and attention. They include the famed chocolate-covered orange straws, the truffles with which the venture began, and chocolate-covered dried fruit candy.

Credits: Story

Text: Miriam García
Image: David de Luis

With thanks to the congregation of Santa María de la Bretonera in Belorado for inviting us into their convent and workshop, and telling us their charming story.

This exhibition is part of the Spanish gastronomy project, España: Cocina Abierta (Spain: Open Kitchen), coordinated by Google Arts & Culture and Spain's Royal Academy of Gastronomy (Real Academia de la Gastronomía). The section on culinary legacy was coordinated by María Llamas, director of the Alambique cookery store and school.

Acknowledgements

Lourdes Plana Bellido, president of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Elena Rodríguez, director of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy and Carmen Simón, academic of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

www.realacademiadegastronomia.com
www.alambique.com

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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