Spanish nougat: Tasting the Holidays All Year Long
Aluicante turrón, made with honey, sugar and Marcona almonds. Photo by: Fernando Madariaga/©ICEX
Author: Adrienne Smith/©ICEX
Many would say that turrón (Spanish nougat) is the heart and soul of the Spanish Christmas season, a time when this beloved sweet magically appears on dining room tables all over the country. A centuries-old confection, typically made from honey, sugar and almonds and shaped into large rectangular tablets, turrón has done more than endure the test of time: it has flourished. Nonetheless, companies are striving to get Spaniards and foreigners to see turrón as more than a Christmas sweet by promoting new varieties and innovative gastronomic applications.
Nowadays, turrón (Spanish nougat) might be made with a variety of toasted nuts, such as almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts and walnuts; or incorporate things like candied fruit, chocolate, caramelized yema (egg yolk), marzipan, liquor and sesame seeds, among others.
Its texture can be hard, soft, crunchy, crumbly or creamy, and even the shapes and sizes of certain formats are evolving from the traditional rectangular tablets or round tortas to new smaller portions. Given this variability, coming up with a working definition for turrón seems pretty daunting. There are, however, three specific kinds of turrón that have been designated with a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI): Alicante, Jijona and Agramunt turrón. This designation not only recognizes the quality of these products, but also their geographic, cultural and historic ties to the places they’re made and the ingredients used in their confection.
The last time I brought up the subject of turrón with my Spanish in-laws, it launched a two-hour family discussion that centered on trying to remember grandfather’s favorite brand. It was hardly the first time we had sat around the dining room table surrounded by stacks of open boxes of turrón, each of us championing our favorite. It was, however, the first time we had done it in August. I had just returned from a visit to the town of Jijona (also called Xixona), the area responsible for around 68% of all traditional turrón produced and consumed in Spain, while accounting for 52 million euros in annual sales.
The birthplace of turrón
Jijona is located in Alicante province, about 25 km (15.5 mi) from the city of Alicante and the Mediterranean Sea. The town climbs gently up a rocky mountainside on the edge of a sweeping valley of green piney forests. In the 1,020 m (3,346 mi) Carrasqueta mountain pass overlooking the town, the summer air is potently scented with the wild thyme, laurel, lavender and rosemary that cover the mountains and lend their delicate aromas to the honey that is produced here in large quantities. Another of the area’s bounties, almond groves, carpet the valley below.
Perhaps it’s the abundance of these natural ingredients that have given Jijona the nickname “the birthplace of turrón”, though I imagine it also has to do with the fact that these confections have been made here for over 500 years.
The authentic PGI Alicante and Jijona turrón originated and are still exclusively produced in Jijona. The hard white Alicante turrón came first and initially consisted of cooked honey with whole toasted almonds. Its existence is noted in many 16th century documents, including a play by celebrated Golden Age playwright, Lope de Vega (1562-1635), and a letter signed by King Phillip II (1527-1498) in 1595. It was this king's Master Chef who is thought to have instigated the consumption of turrón at Christmas, a trend that eventually migrated to the rest of the population where it evolved into tradition.
Around the 17th century, egg whites were incorporated into the mixture, improving its consistency and imparting the characteristic white color. The recipe was modified again in the 18th century, coinciding with the cultivation of sugarcane in the Americas. As sugar became more available, turrón makers began to substitute it for part of the honey. Finally, Alicante turrón is typically covered with a thin, white edible wafer called an oblea (now made from potato starch), which keeps the turrón from sticking together.
A soft change
Jijona turrón is considered the child of the Alicante version. Its name was first used in the 17th century in reference to a softer turrón made with ground almonds. During the 19th century, the quality of this creamier and more refined product was improved, thanks to the advent of industrial cooking techniques. In any case, its invention has been attributed to several different factors. According to Sagrario Sirvent, Marketing Director at Almendra y Miel, “Jijona turrón was created to meet the storage challenges presented by hard Alicante turrón in very dry or very humid climates.”
It also gave elderly people and children a softer, more tooth-friendly option. Alexis Verdú, of the PGI’s Regulatory Council, adds that Jijona turrón was created in response to the wild popularity of marzipan, a sweet made with sugar and ground raw almonds. Jijona turrón is made using the Alicante turrón base of cooked honey, sugar and egg whites, to which ground almonds are added. The mixture is then cooled before being ground in a mill and refined until achieving the texture desired by the maestro turronero (Turrón Master). Finally, it’s cooked again in a special spherical receptacle called a boixet, which functions like a slowly heating mortar and pestle. The finished turrón is placed in molds and left to sit for a day or two to let the excess almond oil seep out.
For both Alicante and Jijona turrón, it’s interesting to see how little things have changed over the centuries. This is apparent in the antique photographs on display at the Regulatory Council offices and in the excellent Turrón Museum at Almendra y Miel, which was opened the 1960s.
Personalizing the recipe
Despite the well-established recipes, which must adhere to strict requirements established by the Regulatory Council, the slightest variation in ingredients or techniques can have an immense impact on the quality, texture and flavor of the final product. I had the opportunity to see this first-hand during my trip to Jijona. The approximately 20 companies range from small operations like that of Primitivo Rovira e Hijos, which produces around 30,000 kg (88,184 lb) a year in a historic workshop in the town center, to mid-sized and larger companies that inhabit the handful of industrial parks on the outskirts of town.
My first stop was Mira y Llorens, a company founded by three sisters in 1969 and better known for its brand, El Artesano. As we toured the bustling factory, Marketing Manager Patricia Gómez explained how factors such as cooking temperatures or the amount of honey (10% minimum) can greatly affect a final product. At Pablo Garrigós Ibáñez, owner Pablo Garrigós, who runs the company with the help of his daughter, Henedina Garrigós, believes that, “a good product must be heated very slowly.” However, he goes on to explain that the most important factor in determining a turrón’s quality is the quantity and type of almonds it contains. Indisputably, the best almonds are the famed Marcona variety that comes from this region.
Quality aside, there are other factors that have helped these turrón reach the level of distribution and fame that they’ve achieved, both in Spain and abroad. In the late 19th century, turrón makers left Jijona to sell their wares in the rest of the country, often directly from carts or temporary stands set up on street corners, doorways or marketplaces.
Every person I spoke with here emphasized the fact that people from this town have always had a deeply ingrained entrepreneurial spirit and fortitude. Although many vendors focused on Spanish cities like Barcelona and Madrid, others traveled as far away as Europe, North Africa, South America, and particularly Cuba, where some intrepid Jijonencos even set up factories. Today, exporting turrón from Jijona is still an important and growing part of the business. According to the Regulatory Council, between 2009 and 2010, the production of Jijona and Alicante turrón destined for export outside the European Union grew by 34.62%, with total exports of almost 600 metric tons.
This market, however, is expanding. Almendra y Miel currently exports to 41 countries including destinations in Europe, Latin America, the United States, China and the Middle East. Mira y Llorens exports 13% of its turrón to many of the same markets. Pablo Garrigós (from Pablo Garrigós Ibánez), who has been exporting for 23 years, considers his approach as somewhat atypical, looking away from Spanish-speaking countries and towards places like Kuwait where, “the link between turrón and Christmas doesn’t exist.”
With such a long history in Spain, it’s natural that the turrón tradition should extend to other corners of the country. The town of Agramunt, in Lleida (Catalonia, northeast Spain), has its own history of turrón that, according to oral tradition, can be traced back for several hundred years.
The honey is slowly cooked, either alone or combined with sugar, and then stiffly beaten (also unique) egg whites are added to the caramel colored mass, turning it white. Finally, toasted peeled hazelnuts (or occasionally almonds) are added and stirred until perfectly distributed throughout the mixture. The “dough” is scooped onto a floured table to be divided into the portions needed for the traditional round tablets that are pressed between two wafers.
There are currently four companies that make PGI Agramunt turrón. The largest of these is Turrones Vicens, a family operation that has been making these traditional sweets since 1775. They didn’t stop there, however. Today, the company produces around 80 different varieties of the most innovative turrón I’ve ever seen. In addition to endless versions of the classic Agramunt turrón, others are dipped completely or partially in white, milk or dark chocolate, or covered in pistachios, gold “leaf”, orange slices, pineapple or fluffy coconut. There are traditional-style turrón with surprising centers of brownies, cherries soaked in Kirsch, coffee praline or macadamia nuts, and the list goes on. Company owner, Ángel Velasco, is said to be a creative genius when it comes to inventing new flavors of turrón, and truly, these artistic and delicious combinations couldn’t be the result of anything less.
Innovating the future
Whether talking about turrón from Alicante, Jijona, Agramunt, or anywhere else, their importance as a holiday tradition is indisputable. Almost all turrón consumption in Spain takes place from mid-December to early January, and many factories operate only during the three or four months prior. Although the expanding export market is helping overcome the seasonal nature of this business, companies still face the challenge of convincing Spaniards that turrón is delicious all year round.
One way to accomplish this is by sparking consumer interest through innovative approaches to products and formats. Pablo Garrigós emphasizes the need for continual innovation, from the packaging—which he revamps every ten years—to the product itself. An example of this is his collaboration with the University Miguel Hernandez in Elche to study the enrichment of sugar-free Jijona turrón with an all-natural probiotic and high fiber substance called inulin, which is extracted from wild chicory roots.
Innovation and product development is also vital at Almendra y Miel. This company, which produced a staggering 1,592 tons of turrón in 2010, is perhaps better known by its incredibly familiar brand names: El Lobo and 1880.
This juxtaposition of old and new is apparent upon visiting the company’s installations in Jijona. The building’s entrance is a wall of glass that casts light into the glossy modern lobby, graced by a lavish crystal chandelier, boldly patterned sofas and antique photographs of turrón makers. On one side, a heavy wooden door welcomes people into the informative Turrón Museum, which, in addition to its incredible collection of antique photographs, tools and other historic items, offers visitors the opportunity to view the working factory below.
Another burgeoning trend is the creation of modern boutiques intended to entice people into eating turrón year-round. In the Gourmet Experience section of the Alicante Corte Inglés, I stopped by Concept, a “sweet and chic” store set up by Henedina Garrigós. In addition to turrón-flavored ice cream, a traditional summer product, this New York-style shop has a selection of delicious cupcakes, muffins and cakes that creatively combine turrón with chocolate, fruit and other flavors.
Almendra y Miel recently opened a luxurious boutique in Valencia called Espacio 1880, where it sells premium 1880 products packaged in sleek black boxes and elegant gift assortments. Last spring, the store hosted a party under the motto, “No one can tell you when or how”, featuring a unique way to enjoy turrón year-round: in cocktails! Made with the company’s liquid turrón, the featured cocktails included combinations like Chocolate Jijona turrón with turrón truffle foam and a touch of pineapple, and Red fruit fusion with white chocolate turrón truffle foam and coconut.
Adrienne Smith is a sommelier, chef and freelance writer. She has spent the last decade eating and drinking her way through Spain.