Photo by Pablo Pariente de Torre
Panellets made with pine nuts, as delicious as they are expensive - created by La Colmena pastisseria in Barcelona
Autumn in Barcelona is special. The smell of roasting chestnuts and freshly baked sweet potatoes combines with the sight of falling red and gold leaves from the plane trees. Sure it gets colder, but you can keep your heater stored away until December, as this is Catalunya and not Camden or Cardiff. The stately buildings also take on an eerie aspect in the reflections on the pavements of the Eixample after sudden bursts of rainfall.
For me, however, best of all are the panellets. Nothing beats the delight of passing by the window of one of Barcelona’s historic pastisseries (cake-shops) such as La Colmena, Mauri and Forn Mistral and seeing panellets on sale for the first time of the season. You marvel at the care taken to produce such delightful sweets and then try to resist the temptation to dash in and buy a bagful.
Just where did these ‘tiny breads’ come from? (The literal translation of panellets is 'bread that is much smaller than usual'.) In contrast to the Pa de Sant Jordi, invented in a Barcelona bakery just 25 years ago, panellets are part of an ancient tradition, according to Josep Fornés, director of the Ethnological Museum of Barcelona. “Panellets may have originated in the court of Constantinople,” he explains. “They would have originally been made from a marzipan mass of pistachio and honey, and were only consumed by the elite of society. It is probable that they were brought to other regions of the Mediterranean by the Arabs.” Fornés highlights the fact that, with time, people started to make the sweets at home as the ingredients were relatively easy to find. As the fame of the sweet spread, those people who lived in places they couldn’t find pistachio would instead use almond, and as sugar became available, it was also included in the mixture. Only much more recently do we see the use of potato and sweet potato in the recipe.
In Catalunya, the panellet is associated with La Castanyada, takes place on October 31st, the eve of All Saints Day; on that day, chestnuts, sweet potatoes and panellets accompanied by moscatell (sweet wine) are all eaten at family get-togethers. According to Fornés, this association derives from the local tradition of funerary food. “As in ancient Rome, in Catalunya there was a strong tradition of consuming special food at burials,” he says. Fornés also emphasises the point that panellets were originally very much an urban food and it took time for their popularity to spread outside the cities. In addition, the relatively expensive panellets would have been consumed only in small quantities by the working class of the city, who would have been more used to celebrate La Castanyada with chestnuts and sweet potatoes.
In recent times however, the fame of the panellet has spread and Fornés believes that this is due mainly to the pastisseria industry, which has done an excellent job in marketing the product. He also underlines the role played by Catalan schools in the process. “Since the Eighties, it has been typical to learn how to make panellets at school. Students have then passed on their skills to their parents. This has contributed greatly to the current success of the sweet.”
What of the invasion of Halloween? Dressing up as ghosts and trick or treating? Will this help to erode the popularity of the traditional castanyada? Fornés doesn’t think so. “La Castanyada is now celebrated with new vigour by young people across society and this will help to keep the celebration alive. It is currently a much more communal festivity whereas before it was more intimate and kept strictly within the family.”
To investigate further, I visited one of Barcelona’s most celebrated pastisseries, La Colmena on Plaça de l’Angel. Its owner, Josep Maria Roig, has seen a significant change in how panellets are produced and sold over the years: “In the past we used to produce panellets only for the day of La Castanyada and we used to make them in huge amounts. They were sold by the kilo and customers would form large queues round the store to buy them. Nowadays, we spread their production throughout the year and produce far less than before. They are now often sold by the unit.”
This change is partly due to the increased price of the product. Roig emphasises that quality ingredients, such as those used at La Colmena are significantly more expensive than those used by supermarkets and the bakery chains that have been rapidly springing up across the city. Prices for pine nuts and fine almonds have seen sharp rises in recent years according to Roig, and other sellers have simply replaced these ingredients with potato and the addition of extra sugar. “Supermarkets are also able to add preservatives to the product to lengthen their shelf-life whereas our panellets must be sold on the day they are produced in the bakery,” he adds.
La Colmena also produces other festive foods such as la coca de Sant Joan, els bunyols de Quaresma, la Mona and el tortell de Reis, as well as less famous festive pastries such as el volant de Sant Cristòfol and les tisores de Santa Llúcia (see More Info below) but Roig recognises that these latter delicacies are now fading in the public’s memory. “Only the older people remember these traditions now. Young people don’t even know about them.” This reflects a deeper change in Catalan society—Roig believes that many of Barcelona’s residents are these days too busy to indulge in these more obscure pastries. “In the past people would always remember to buy these special foods at the bakery and have them for dessert at home with the family to celebrate specific festive days. Now, many festive days are no longer holidays and workers will tend to eat out [for lunch]. If it is a holiday, many will decide to simply leave the city for the day or for the weekend.”
As Josep Fornés reflects, “traditions should evolve with society. Only those that have success will remain. We have to celebrate traditions and not make them sacred, as when traditions stop being useful, they die.”
Nevertheless, Catalunya’s pastisseria industry seems secure thanks mainly to the high level of quality and sophistication of its production. Many customers are still prepared to pay high prices for the best coca or panellet as it remains difficult to produce something of equal quality in the home. To produce these foods takes great skill and dedication, as Fornés underlines, and it is hoped that the pastisseria industry will be able to maintain its proud tradition in the modern world. A concern for Josep Maria Roig is whether family-run establishments are able to pass on these skills from father to son as they have done through many generations. “These days when the pastisser retires, there is no one to carry on the business as the younger generations prefer to go to university and continue their studies rather than stay in the firm. Who knows, but with the current crisis, perhaps they will be persuaded to stay after all.”
Strolling back home from La Colmena through the narrow streets near Plaça Sant Jaume, I notice a distinct cooling of the temperature. The sun is in my eyes as it follows a low arc across the sky. Autumn is on its way and yet thoughts of panellets, moscatell and the aroma of roasting chestnuts help to lighten my mood.
Les tisores de Santa Llúcia
This is a brioche pastry in the shape of a pair of scissors (tisores in Catalan). It is usually filled with marzipan, cream or custard and covered with sugared fruits and icing sugar. It is eaten on December 13th, the feast day of Saint Lucy, who is the patron saint of opticians, tailors and any trades that require good vision. The pastry has the shape of scissors because it is the basic tool of the tailor and also because the Romans took out Santa Llúcia’s eyes with a pair of scissors before cutting off her head, for being a Christian. Inside the cake there is a surprise, usually a small figurine of the saint herself or a seamstress.
El volant de Sant Cristòfol
Another brioche, this time created in the shape of a steering wheel (volant). It has the same possible fillings and toppings as the Santa Llúcia scissors, but this one is eaten on July 10th, the feast-day of Saint Christopher, who is the patron saint of motorists and travellers. In some towns where St. Christopher is the patron saint, cars and motorists are blessed on that day to be protected in the future.
El martell de Sant Eloi
This cake takes the form of a hammer (martell), usually with marzipan or cabell d’angel (angel-hair) inside and fruit on top. Eloi was a French silversmith in the sixth century, and later became the patron saint of blacksmiths, silversmiths and other. industries in which the hammer is seen as the main tool. His feast day is celebrated on December 1st. However, since the industrial revolution, all the trades that he protects have diminished and, as such, his saint’s day is rarely marked nowadays. Inside the cake, you’ll find a china figure related to the smithing industries.
CALENDAR OF FESTIVE FOODS IN CATALUNYA
January 1st: Tronc or Pastís de Cap d’Any; New Year log or cake
January 6th: Tortell de Reis; Kings’ Day ring cake
January 17th: Tortell de Sant Antoni; Saint Anthony ring cake
January 25th: Tortell de Sant Pau; Saint Paul ring cake
‘Fat Thursday’ (Thursday before Carnival): Coques de llardons; Savoury Catalan flatbread with crackling pieces on top
Lent: Bunyols de Quaresma or de l’Empordà (also known as brunyols); small ring donuts with sugar and aniseed
March 19th, Sant Josep: Crema catalana and flam; egg puddings
Easter Monday: Mones; Elaborate chocolate shapes for children
April 27th: Pastís de la Mare de Déu de Montserrat; Montserrat cake
June 23rd: Coques de revetlla (also for Sant Pere on June 29th and Sant Jaume on July 25th); Sweet flatbreads made with glacé fruits
July 10th: Volants de Sant Cristòfor (see above)
October 31st/November 1st: Panellets
December 1st: Martell de Sant Eloi (see above)
December 13th: Tisores de Santa Llúcia (see above)
December 25th: Torrons, neules and troncs de Nadal; Christmas nougat, wafer biscuits and log
December 31st: Tronc or Pastís de Cap d’Any; New Year log or cake