More than a year ago, I was with a group of friends talking about our upcoming move to Madrid when one friend exclaimed “You must find these amazing cookies made by nuns” and proceeded to tell me a story about her quest to find these special cookies during a trip to Madrid. It ended well for her; she found the cookies after following a nun and finally asking her if she knew of the convent that made the cookies. She didn’t remember the address, the area of town, the order of the nuns. I figured I’d never find these cookies.
But you know I wouldn’t be telling this story unless I found those damn cookies.
Last week, I took a food tour with the wonderful company Madrid Food Tour. This four-hour tour of the culinary delights of Madrid (all located in charmingly historic places with delightful backstories) was not only one of the most fun days in Madrid I’ve had to date, but also incredibly educational. For instance, I now know how to tell if a restaurant is more than 100 years old, and that the darker green Madrid-style olive is called campo real and gets its mild and savory taste from being marinated with oregano, fennel, and garlic.
But back to the cookies.
After a delicious little breakfast of the lady-finger like soletilla cakes dunked in little cup of rich but not-to-sweet hot chocolate (way better than churros and chocolate, in my opinion) and some vermouth on tap, our small group stood in front of a door to an unassuming old brick building close to Madrid’s main historic plaza.
“I hope they answer today,” said our tour guide, Englishman/Spain expert/foodie Luke.
Then it dawned on me. “Are these the nuns with the cookies?!”
“These are the nuns with the cookies,” he confirmed.
Luke rang a bell on the building, a convent, which has no sign, just a small plaque near the doorbell that list the hours for the “venta de dulces” (sale of the sweets). After a few rings, an old woman’s voice on the speaker told us to come in. Luke pushed the ancient wooden door open and we ducked down to fit through its miniature frame. We walked through a hallway until we were in a small room with a low wooden revolving window. Luke leaned into the window and told a nun, who was completely obscured from sight on the other side of the window, that we were there for the cookies. She muttered something and while we waited our guide explained these were cloistered nuns who are called Las Carboneras from the order of San Jerónimo. From the time they join the convent, they never go outside. That means a priest must leave to get the ingredients for the cookies.
The lazy Susan-type contraption in the window creaked to life and soon the cookies were swiveled into our side of the window, nestled in a white cardboard box. Luke placed money on our side of the window and spun it back to the nun, who in turn spun back some change, along with a blessing of “May the virgin be with you.” Sure, and those cookies were with us too. Out back in the sunlight of the square, we each took a moist star-shaped cookie (called pastas de almendre) and took our bites. And they were delicious. More like cake, really, a tad chewy, with a nice almond flavor. Really, really good. But who knows, perhaps it was something about being part of a century-old tradition and feeling like I discovered a really good secret that made them all the more delicious.
But, as is the case with many secrets that seem so good, I found out that lots of people on Google know about the nun cookies. They are not a secret at all. Selling sweets is one of the only sources of income for these cloistered nuns and others in Europe, so I don’t feel too bad about sharing with you the location: Monasterio del Corpus Cristi, Plaza Conde de Miranda, 3.
Hours later, I was home and in elastic-waisted pants to accommodate all I had eaten. I had another nun cookie and thought “This was the perfect Spanish day.” A rainy Friday turned sunny, several drinks before 4 pm (vermouth, a very good Rioja in a century-old tavern, and cider from the northern region of Asturias). I tried the best Spanish tortilla of my life and had sampling of cheeses that included a blue so pungent it was practically fizzing in my mouth (in the best possible way). It was as if the gods were smiling down on me. Or maybe it was the nuns.
To food adventures,
The Dame in Spain
Note: Madrid Food Tour invited me on the its Ultimate Spanish Cuisine Tour at its expense. The views expressed in this blog post are entirely my own.