BBC – Journey – The gooey ‘biscake’ eaten by thousands and thousands

Chocolatier Maria Romero’s eyes shone as she returned to her childhood in Quilmes, a city in the province of Buenos Aires, and her first encounters with alfajores. “My first memory of eating them was when I was little,” she said. “We had these kiosks [small convenience stores] at school and would run over during recess to buy an alfajor. I have very strong memories of listening to the children shouting the names of the different brands – Jorgito, Capitán del Espacio, Fantoche. When you were hungry, in need of something sweet, sad, you bought one. Sometimes you just need an alfajor to survive. “

In its most common form, an Argentine alfajor is a pair of soft, crumbly biscuits that enclose a layer of dulce de leche (a thick, super-sweet, caramel-like confectionery) that is coated in chocolate or dusted with sugar or dried coconut. Romero describes alfajores as “biscuits” – a cross between a biscuit and a cake – and made them a career. After working for Savoy in London, the luxury chocolate makers Artisan du Chocolat and Rococo, and the Hilton in Buenos Aires, she now runs Sur Chocolates in the UK, which makes gourmet alfajores.

Romero places alfajores alongside Malbec wine, beef, and yerba mate (an incredibly popular herbal tea) in Argentina’s culinary pantheon – and she’s not alone. About a billion alfajores are sold in Argentina each year, according to the Buenos Aires Tourist Board, and hundreds of varieties are available in kiosks, supermarkets, and bakeries across the country, from the icy areas of Tierra del Fuego in the far south to the high, arid plains of Jujuy in the extreme north.

“You can find them anywhere,” said Buenos Aires-based food writer and Pick Up The Fork blogger Allie Lazar. “Every kiosk sells a wide range of alfajores. Most Argentines are pretty cute, and dulce de leche is basically a national treasure, so alfajores have long been the perfect quick treat or snack. They are also a great accompaniment to the contrast of yerba mate, which is quite bitter. “

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Alfajores are an integral part of Argentine popular culture and appear in works as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Aleph and the popular Mafalda comic. As a youth, one of Lionel Messi’s coaches rewarded him with alfajores for every goal he scored. They are so central to Argentine life that the national constitution is said to have been drawn up in an alfajorería (alfajores shop) in the mid-19th century.

Although a relatively simple product, alfajores have a long and complex history. Facundo Calabró, creator of the Catador de alfajores blog (Taster of alfajores) and author of the book En busca del alfajor perdido (In search of the lost alfajor), explains that they date back to at least the 8th century when an Arabic biscuit Sugar, syrup, nuts and cinnamon came to the Iberian Peninsula during the Moorish conquest. As a result, versions developed from Andalusia and Murcia, which took the name alajú or alfajor – derived, as some linguists believe, from the Arabic word al-fakher (“luxurious”) or from the old Arabic word al-huasu (“filled” or “filled”). . These versions have a cylindrical shape and are made from ground almonds, hazelnuts, breadcrumbs, sugar, honey, and spices like cinnamon. They are traditionally eaten in parts of Spain at Christmas and are available all year round in some areas.

But alfajores have really proven their worth in Latin America. “In the 16th century, during the [colonial period]The Alfajor came from southern Spain and spread throughout America, mainly through the monasteries. It started to hybridize, taking the ingredients from each region and losing others, ”said Calabró. Alfajores in Puerto Rico are usually made from ground cassava. Chile, Peru, and Mexico use their own versions of Dulce de Leche, among others. Although they are now common throughout Latin America, they mainly represent Argentina, the largest manufacturer and consumer of the product.

Sometimes you just need an alfajor to survive

Today, alfajores in Argentina are a long way from their Spanish and Arabic predecessors. The most common homemade version – and the style commonly found in bakeries – is known as alfajores de maicena, with a dulce de leche filling and a dusting with sugar or dried coconut. “But like most of the foods that came to Argentina, the alfajores have taken on provincial twists,” said Paula Delgado and Claudio Ortiz, chefs at Estancia Los Potreros, who will publish their first cookbook in 2021. “Our cooks are returning to their previous recipes, taught by their mothers, aunts, grandmothers. Here in the province of Cordoba, alfajores are usually filled with a sweet quince paste. All of our gauchos [cowboys]In the afternoons, cooks, cleaning staff and staff get together to discuss life and politics over alfajores and mate tea. They are a huge part of Argentine culture. “

The most famous type of store-bought alfajor is the marplatense, which is filled with dulce de leche and coated in chocolate. It takes its name from the coastal town of Mar del Plata, the birthplace of the leading Havana brand, which opened its first bakery in 1947 and now has shops and cafes all over Argentina. But there are countless variations beyond the classic Marplatense. Browse the shelves of a kiosk and find those covered in icing, meringue, or yogurt. filled with jam, ganache, mousse or peanut butter; and flavored with coffee, fruits, nuts or spirits such as rum or whiskey. There are vegan, gluten-free, rice cake and even three-decker versions. According to Romero’s husband Emanuel, people are closely related to certain brands: “Argentines must be one side or the other. As in soccer, you support Boca or River, for example. It’s similar with alfajores – you belong to a brand and you defend it. “

Despite their popularity in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America, alfajores are relatively little known in the rest of the world, although this is gradually changing. Havana opened a store in Florida in 2017, the first in the United States. “There are also Havana stores in Spain and over 100 in the rest of Latin America,” said Mariano Oliva, CEO of Havana USA. “We sell about half a million alfajores annually in the US and we have a plan that is being put on hold for now [because of Covid] – to open further locations. Alfajores have phenomenal potential. “

In the UK, Romero’s creative alfajores – yerba mate, malbec, and dark chocolate and mint – have also proven to be hits. “Our dream is to take [alfajores] everywhere, ”she told me.

As alfajores expand worldwide, the question remains why exactly are they so popular in Argentina. Delgado and Ortiz traced it back to the national sweet tooth; Oliva suggests a strong emotional bond that develops in childhood; and Romero believes this is due to a “shared passion”. For Calabró, the reasons for the Argentine love for alfajores remain a “great mystery”.

“It is obvious that they are part of our collective identity,” he said. “[But] Do we love alfajores because they are part of our identity, or are they part of our identity because for some strange reason we chose to love them? There is still no answer. “

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Recipe: Mar del Plata-style alfajores
By Maria Romero from Sur Chocolates

110 g unsalted butter
80g powdered sugar
Peel of half an orange
40g eggs
1 tbsp honey
200g self-raising flour
5 g cocoa powder
500 g Dulce de Leche (ideally Dulce de Leche confectioner)
600 g 70% dark chocolate
Makes 20 alfajores


Mix the butter, orange peel and powdered sugar with a food processor or blender. Then add the egg and honey and keep mixing until it is pale and creamy. Finally, add flour and cocoa powder and mix without overworking the batter. Cover the dough with cling film or parchment paper and refrigerate for at least two hours.

Roll out the dough to a thickness of 2 mm and cut out the rounds with a 6 cm cutter. Place the biscuits on a parchment-lined tray, leaving some space between them and bake at 190 ° C for six minutes.

Once the biscuits have cooled, fill a piping bag with dulce de leche and use it to cover one side of the first biscuit. Flip a second biscuit over (making sure the outsides of the alfajores are as flat as possible), place it on top of the first, and gently press down. Repeat with the rest of the cookies. For best results, leave it on for 24 hours. But if you can’t wait, you can go straight to the coating.

Temper the chocolate and dip the alfajores one after the other. Make sure everyone is completely covered in chocolate. Use a palate knife to remove excess material from the top and smooth the bottom around the edge of the bowl. Then carefully place it on a tray lined with baking paper or cellophane. As soon as the chocolate has dried, the alfajores are ready to eat.

Culinary Roots is a series by BBC Travel that blends in with the rare and local foods that are woven into a place’s heritage.

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