One of the highlights of the Christmas season in Spain is the proliferation of turrón, a nougat typically made from honey, sugar and nuts. Either hard or soft, prepared with yema (egg yolk) or without it, turrón is a favourite in Spanish gift baskets and seasonal displays.
But the best turrón won't be found in a supermarket — at least according to many Spaniards. If you want an artisanal-quality turrón, you have to go to the nuns.
I headed to Salvatierra/Agurain, a small town in northern Spain’s Basque country, whose convent is known for making several kinds of turrón. The Convent of Hermanas Clarisas has its beginnings in the 15th Century when one of the town’s citizens bequeathed her home to women who wanted to spend their lives in contemplation. Today, almost 600 years later, 22 sisters live a cloistered lifestyle dedicating their time to both prayer and work.
“For us work is a gift,” said sister Contxi, the nun in charge of the obrador, the convent’s workshop where all kinds of sweets are made. Turrón is one of their most sought after.
While it’s widely believed that the history of turrón dates back to when large parts of the Iberian Peninsula were under Moorish rule, sweets that contain almonds and honey – the main turrón ingredients – have been known in the Mediterranean basin since Roman times.
“Turrón is purely Mediterranean,” said Almudena Villegas, a food historian and member of the Real Academia de Gastronomía, the Spanish Royal Gastronomic Society. “There is an infinity of recipes with almonds and honey that appear in sources dating back to Roman and Greek civilisations. While many of today’s theories point to the Moors as the source of both turrón and other sweets made from those ingredients, that’s not necessarily the case. Moors weren’t the only – or the first – people to use almonds and honey to create their sweets.”
Though historians may not be able to pinpoint who is responsible for the creation of turrón, legends on its origins abound: from a romantic tale of a king who planted a sea of white-flowered almond trees to help his beloved overcome nostalgia for her wintery Scandinavian homeland, to a more prosaic story of a 16th- or 17th-century contest to come up with foods that could be preserved for long periods of time without going rancid.
The latter may be more than just a legend.
“We have to remember,” Villegas said, “that although now we often speak about eating well, not so long ago our ancestors spoke mostly about just eating. Both almonds and honey are nutrition- and calorie-rich, and combining them gave people the energy they needed to live and work. They also have the advantage that they travel well and don’t spoil.”
Whatever its history, turrón’s modern-day story revolves around two towns in the south of Spain: Jijona and Alicante. Their turrón is the best known in the country, carrying the Denominacíon de Origen (Protected Geographical Indication). Alicante’s turrón is hard and crunchy, a white block of hardened sugar, honey and sometimes egg white interspersed with whole almonds, while Jijona’s turrón is soft and chewy, the almonds crushed to a paste and incorporated into the other ingredients. Yet, although these two are considered classics, today’s turróns come containing chocolate, dried fruits, walnuts, pine nuts – and sometimes even whisky.
On the other side of the country, Hermanas Clarisas de Salvatierra makes several kinds of turrón. Their most popular is Turrón de Trufa, prepared with chocolate beans sent by their sisters in Ecuador. The second-most-in-demand is Turrón de Yema Tostada, a soft turrón containing egg yolk mixed with ground almonds and sugar, and finally burned on top with a special iron. The convent sells about 2,000 300g-blocks of this turrón each Christmas season.
When I arrived, the sisters had everything ready to show me how to make Turrón de Yema Tostada.
Each nun was in charge of a specific step: one making almond flour, another separating yolks from the whites, yet another burning the tops of finished turrón blocks, and several others engaged in packaging. Except for the noise of the almond grinder, it was quiet in the obrador.
“For us it’s very important how we work,” sister Contxi said. “It’s important to work in silence to have the ability to hear ourselves. Everything is unity and everything is harmony, and depending on how we work, things turn out one way or another. Being together with other sisters – and being together bien (well) – is an important part of this work.”
Another important part is the quality of the ingredients. The sisters have chosen almonds from Castellón, a town in Valencian Community in the south of Spain.
“We tried almonds from different places on the [Iberian] Peninsula and the ones from Castellón had the strongest taste,” sister Contxi said. She then segued immediately into describing the trial and error part of the job.
“We follow the traditional recipes, of course, but we also – according to our own preference – sometimes change a thing or two. Like for the Turrón de Yema Tostada, the instructions we received [from professional turrón makers] were to cook the initial sweet syrup at 118C. We’ve been doing it at 113 to 114C – depending on whether almonds are fresh or not – because cooking it at 118C seemed to make the turrón too dry.”
When I asked sister Contxi which turrón is her favourite, she smiled. “I’ve had a sweet tooth since I was little,” she said, “and I like them all as long as they are well made.”
Which they no doubt are at the Convent of Hermanas Clarisas. The evidence is the demand: close to a hundred packages, boxes and bags of the delicious creations stacked against the wall, waiting to be shipped across the country.
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