Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Adventure in the Cloister, or, How to Buy Sweets from Invisible Nuns

Monastery of Corpus Christi / Monasterio del Corpus Christi
04/24/12 - Plaza del Conde de Miranda, 3

A Step-by-Step Guide to Buying "Dulces del convento"

In college, I was startled to see a flock of nuns in full habit out for a jog on New York’s Riverside Drive, their white veils flapping in the breeze.  I grew up far from nuns, in a southern California beach town that seemed to exist outside time.  While it’s true that I fled the land of lotus-eaters in order to attend an all-female school in New York, I was lured by Barnard’s location, rigor, and scholarship aid.  I can't imagine renouncing the secular world or the company of men, whom I find delightful much of the time.  Still, I can admire the good works of nuns around the world, as they tend to the poor, the powerless, and the sickest among us. The Vatican’s recent crackdown on American nuns for their devotion to issues of social justice shows how completely out of touch it has become.
I wrote earlier about the art collection in Madrid's Monastery of Barefoot Noblewomen, a cloistered order in which only two dozen nuns remain.  Another cloister has resided in the Monastery of Corpus Christi (also known as Las Carboneras) since the year 1605. 

Church entry, Plaza Conde de Miranda, 3 (doorway to sweets is at R, not shown)
To help support themselves, the nuns bake traditional sweets, which they sell while hidden behind a wooden turnstile within the convent. The recipes, it is said, have been passed down through the ages from the time of the Romans and the Moors.  Here is the buying process as I found it today:

1. Once I arrived at the set of carved wooden doors to the right of the church entrance, I rang the top bell, marked monjas (nuns).  When a voice answered, I stated my business, “Dulces, por favor,” and a nun buzzed me in. 

Ring the bell on the right side

2. I proceeded through a dim corridor that led to a small, open courtyard.

Go straight through doorway

Almost there
3. Then I passed through another short hallway, a small open space, and at last a doorway where a revolving counter is set into the left wall.

The price list for sweets is posted. A friendly, self-appointed Roma lady might be present to guide you through the process. Her Spanish was as rudimentary as mine, but I didn’t mind her assistance--nor could I avoid it!

Today's selection of sweets

4. A disembodied voice behind the wall addressed us and the nun placed the selection of sweets upon a revolving counter (the torno), then turned it until the items appeared on our side of the wall.  I told her I’d like one of each, and placed the money on the counter.  The nun turned the counter yet again, and she tallied the total aloud in a wavering voice.  “She’s really old,” the Roma lady informed me, as the voice started to tabulate a second time.  I pictured a four-foot nun of about one hundred and ten.  My change arrived, another group entered, and I left with my sweets: a box of starry pastas de almendra, and a bag of galletas, lightly scented with lemon.

Arrival of the dulces

Tea time. Crisp sugar biscuits (L) and chewy almond sweets

S1 and S2: the testers

After all that, how did they taste, you ask?  -- ¡Riquísimo!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hand-Made in Spain, for Peasants and Queens

Royal Tapestry Factory / Real Fábrica de Tapices
04/16/12 - Calle Fuentarrabía, 2

We have the same taste
Just last weekend, I finally entered the renowned house of espadrilles Casa Hernanz (Calle de Toledo, 18), accompanied by two friends.  After determining our place in the ragged line, we mentally recorded the styles and colors we wanted to try.  The espadrilles (or, as the Spanish call them, alpargatas) may not be stitched entirely by hand, but they are made the old way, and still a bargain. The pair in this picture was 12 euros. 

At the other end of the cost spectrum, the Royal Tapestry Factory fulfills custom orders at a dignified pace, much as it has done since the early 18th century, when King Phillip V started a factory in Madrid with the help of Belgian master weavers. The current factory, a brick building near the Atocha train station, has been in operation since the 1880s. It contains a museum with a half-hour guided tour for 4 euros.

The museum tour lets you watch highly-skilled artisans at work (no photos allowed, but you can view the process from home in this 3-minute video).  In fact, we stood inches from the blue-smocked workers. We observed their fingers flying, and heard the thump of their mallets as they tamped down woven threads.  My tour group of inquisitive middle-aged Spanish ladies even engaged the artisans in banter. 

Tapestry based on a Goya illustration, Royal Tapestry Factory

One can only guess at prices.  Four people will labor for two years to make a tapestry that covers an entire wall.  The carpets I saw were too gorgeous to tread upon, even in virgin alpargatas.