I always associate an overabundance of sweets with the Christmas holidays, but in Cuenca, the holiday of sweet abundance is in June, coinciding with the religious celebration of Corpus Christi. For one week, vendors line the streets surrounding the New Cathedral in central Cuenca, tables laden with cookies and candies of every color and flavor imaginable. Just walking down the sidewalk is enough to give you a sugar high and make your teeth ache. I feel like I’ve stepped into my favorite childhood board game, Candyland, or like I’m touring Willy Wonka’s factory. Most of the tables hold the same types of treats. Imagine colorful little balls of sugar encrusted around figs or berries or tamarind. There are pink, orange, green and white chunks of ‘fudge’ (as far as I can tell, it’s fudge – I didn’t try it!) along side guava jelly bars. Most interesting, I think are some of the more traditional Ecuadorian pastries. There are quesitos (dulce de leche, or caramel, sandwiched between communion wafers), empanadas (little pie-like pastries filled with fruit jellies), and alfajores (a wide variation of sandwich-like cookies consisting of chocolate, jelly, or dulce de leche sandwiched between shortbread). I mostly sampled the cookies, as those tend to be homemade, unlike the candies (and won’t overload you with sugar quite as quickly!) One of my favorites is the thumbprint jelly cookie – a very crispy shortbread cookie with the flavor of anise – much the same as my great-grandmother would make for Christmas from her German-Russian recipes. The vendors spend a lot of time arranging their tables to optimize the mouth-watering potential of their displays. There are nougats of various colors and sizes, and cream puffs and churros filled with cream or dulce de leche might line the edges of a display. If you’re a fan of peanuts or chocolate, you’ll find peanut and sesame bars, chocolate-dipped rice crispies, and chocolate-coated marshmallows and truffles. I wonder how many of these different cookies actually have origins in Europe, because many look and taste a lot like the cookies my mom, grandma, and great-grandma would make. Lots of shortbread, some with a colorful glazes in fancy colors. Most of them are quite crispy and would stay fresh for some time (or perhaps, like the German Christmas cookies, they’re designed to get better with age). My favorite treats are the ‘cocos’ – basically, what North Americans call ‘macaroons’. Some are covered in chocolate, and some are very large and encrusted in sugar. But I prefer the bite-sized ones. I could go on, at the risk of having you abandon your computer and run out the door to buy some sweets. Apparently, people are not the only creatures excited by the presence of so many sweets. After a couple of days, the bees start to arrive. These aren’t just any bees – they are domestic bees raised by the local monks for honey. They come for their annual fix of Corpus Christi sugar, then return to their hives. I have to admit, the candies are bit less appetizing when bees are buzzing around your head and crawling all over potential merchandise. The sweets of Corpus Christi are another one of those mystifying traditions for me. I’ve been scouring the web for information about how a solemn religious festival became home for sugar gluttony. (Hmmm…can we think of anything that crazy in North America or Europe?) One of my Spanish teachers said that it’s a religious holiday combined with a pagan festival. Not surprising. I’m told that Cuenca is the only city that has this tradition. In addition to the sweets, those who choose to celebrate the more religious aspects of the holiday have the option of attending mass twice a day, at 7am and 7pm. On the other hand, those more inclined to the secular or pagan aspects of the holiday can stay for the party each night in Parque Calderon, for music, dancing, drinks, and a nightly firework display. So there are plenty of opportunities for indulgences of various sorts!
One thought on “Cuenca’s 7-day tribute to the sweet tooth”
Such colorful sweets!! Like the colorful clothes they wear. Wonder what they do with all the leftovers, if there are any. 😊