Santiago de Compostela
In the far north-west of Spain, there is a city where pilgrims from all around the catholic world travel to not only experience the remarkable old city but mainly to visit the tomb of St. James within the cathedral and the “Porto de Gloria”. This is the cathedral’s main entrance which is decorated with 200 figures representing the Apocalypse and the figure of Saint James welcoming the pilgrims at the end of their journey. Santigo de Compostela, located in the province of Galicia, is a UNESCO World Heritage city with beautiful Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque buildings and highly worthwhile visiting in its own right. However, in this post, I want to explore the origins of the famous “Tarta de Santiago” (St. James cake).
But who was St. James?
In the Bible
According to the Bible, James, his father and his brother John, later St. John, were out on Lake Galilee fishing without success when Jesus appeared to them and filled their fishing nets. After witnessing this miracle, James decided to spread the Gospel across Israel and the Roman Empire. He believed so firmly in Jesus’ words that he even traveled to Spain to spread the word. When James returned to Jerusalem, he was martyred for his faith by King Herod, who decapitated him. Saint James, to whom the epithet of “the Great” was henceforth added, is known as the first apostle to die. As he was not allowed to be buried following his martyrdom, his remains were taken to Santiago de Compostela by some of his followers who buried him there. In the ninth century, his remains were discovered and moved to a tomb in Santiago de Compostela. Today, his remains can still be found in the Cathedral of Santiago and because Santiago de Compostela is the third most frequently visited place of pilgrimage in the Catholic world following Jerusalem and Rome, Pope Leo declared it a shrine.
During “La Reconquista“
According to legend, once James’ bones were discovered in a Roman necropolis, a sanctuary was built for his relics, which soon attracted pilgrims from all over Europe. At the same time, it became a source of strength for the Christian fighters against the Moorish rule. Saint James became the powerful protector of Christian Spain.
The oldest image of the Subjugator of the Moors is found on a 12th-century Romanesque relief in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. This story relates to the Battle of Clavijo in 844. There Santiago, riding on a white horse, is said to have appeared descending from heaven and, through his intervention as a battle leader, helped the Christians to defeat the Moors. In a seemingly hopeless situation, Santiago is said to have turned the fortunes of war in favor of the Spaniards also later on – even during the conquistadors’ military advances in Central and South America.
The Order of Knights of St. James of the Sword, also known as the Order of Compostela, founded in 1161 to protect Christian pilgrims, became important for the reconquest of Spanish soil. Their importance faded after the conquest of Granada in 1492.
…and what about the Cake?
Despite all this history, the cake’s origin remains unclear down to the present day. The earliest reference to the cake was made in 1577 and is attributed to Pedro de Porto Carrero during his visit to the University of Santiago. At the time, the cake was called “Tarta Real” (“Royal Cake”) and it seemed to have been a local speciality of Santiago de Compostela. July is the most popular month to eat the cake, as the 25th of July is Saint James’ name day.
200 grams of sugar
200 grams of almonds
2 teaspoons of grounded cinnamon
zest of an entire lemon