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Behind Convent Walls: Sweet Habits

Behind Convent Walls: Sweet Habits

This article was first featured in Life & Thyme.

A long history of convent-based confectionary has bequeathed a tradition of sweets in Mexican culture.

During the colonial period (1521-1821) of New Spain—the term used to refer to modern-day Mexico—convents were powerhouses that occupied whole city blocks. Their gardens were lush, their kitchens like laboratories equipped with balances, graters, pots, pans, metates, and comales. They were stocked with the finest local ingredients, as well as those entering the country from the Manila Galleons, which sailed annually across the Pacific Ocean between Manila in the Philippines (then a Spanish colony) and the port of Acapulco, connecting Mexico to Asia. It was the world’s first global trade route and the means of a rich cultural exchange that would forever change the culture and cooking of Mexico, not to mention Europe and Asia.

The church and the viceroy had first claim on everything coming into the country, a privilege that benefitted convent kitchens immensely. Native to Asia, lime and tamarind brought a sourness linked to modern Mexican food; spices like cinnamon, pepper, and cloves met chocolate and chiles to form the perfect marriage in mole, the creative sauce invented in seventeenth century convent kitchens. The combination of sweet and sour flavors characteristic of Asian cuisines became part of the Mexican diet. Sugarcane introduced a type of sweetness unlike that of honey, which led to the creation of unique desserts. To many, Mexican sweets may be less familiar than the country’s better-known savory dishes, but confectionary became common practice in the convents of the viceroy.

During the viceregal period, Mexico’s population was multicultural and multi-ethnic with indigenous populations, Spaniards, Asians, Africans, and every racial mixture in between. In order to be admitted into these early New World orders, young women had to be of Spanish or Creole (Mexican born with Spanish blood) descent and come with a dowry, a symbol of the family’s piety. Being admitted to a convent was considered a badge of honor among New Spain’s elite.

The first convent in Mexico, Nuestra Señora de Concepción, had been established by 1540. Between 1550 and 1811, sixty convents were founded. As more Spanish families settled in the New World, convents became a type of boarding school for upper class young women who brought mixed race servant girls with them. In addition to teaching religious doctrine, reading and writing, some convents offered classes in sewing, embroidering and painting. But cooking was the real stand out. Convents became places where unique flavors and culinary traditions quietly merged; their kitchens were the first area where women would make a mark on high cuisine.

European cooking was the primary influence on early convent confections and nuns found inspiration in cookbooks such as Los Cuarto Libros del Arte de la Confitería (The Four Books on the Art of Confectionary) by Miguel de Baeza (1592), and Francisco Martinez Montiño’s Arte de Cocina, Pastelería, Vizcochería y Conservería (Art of Cooking, Pastry, Savory Pastry and Preserves) of 1611, both published in Spain.