October 10, 2011

Los Dulces de Sant Donís: A Valencia valentine tradition

This Sunday, the 9th of October, was "El Día de la Comunidad Valenciana," an important local holiday in Valencia marked by many public celebration events (a mascletà and a parade of the Community flag) as well as occasional outbursts of regional pride and separatist sentiment. I'll probably cover these topics another year. This year I want to mention a particularly lovely tradition that also falls on the 9th of October: the "dulces de Sant Donís," mazapán sweets taking the form of fruit that you can find in your local horno and which are traditionally given as a gift to one's lover. La Mocadorà de Sant Dionís (colloquially call "Sant Donís") is for many Valencians the local equivalent of America's Saint Valentine's or Barcelona's Sant Jordi (for those of you familiar with it), and for the week leading up to it the city's bakeries are decorated with these colorful artisanal delights.

The 9th of October is very important in the history of Valencia because it is the day of the Christian king Jaume I's triumphal entrance into the city of Valencia having defeated the Muslims and removed them from the region in 1238. It is the stuff of local legends, and I'm sure there will be many more opportunities to fill you in on all the myths, traditions, and local iconography that surrounds Jaume I the Conqueror.

The story behind the dulces de Sant Donís is interesting in itself. According to one site, in the 18th century, following the Spanish War of Succession, the Bourbon royal family prohibited the celebrations and especially the use of fireworks surrounding the 9 D'Octubre festivities. As a response to this ban, the local bakers in the city produced sweets using mazapán which took the shape of hand fireworks (petardos), and whose phallic and round forms were also said to evoke male and female sexual organs. The piuleta i tronador, whose nomenclature also has a sexual ring to it, became a classic sweet for men to buy their beloved, often wrapping them in a scarf or "mocador" in Catalán (a.k.a. pañuelo in Spanish) the namesake for the holiday tradition.

The piuleta i tronador surrounded by the "huerta de Valencia".

This valentine tradition is an opportunity for bakeries to flex their artisanal skills
and demonstrate the art of baking.

Alongside these valentine sweets, bakers also made mazapán sweets in the shape of fruits and vegetables, "fruites de massapà" to evoke the fertility of "la huerta de Valencia" (literally the "orchard", but more figuratively the "fertile agrarian region of Valencia"). Legend was that fruits and vegetables had been gifted to Doña Violante de Hungría, the wife of Jaume I, by the people of Valencia when Jaume I entered the city back in the 13th century. Valencians could rebel symbolically against the Bourbon slight on their local traditions by gifting these sweets to each other. And eventually a new tradition was born in parallel with the 9 D'Octubre regional celebrations. Following this tradition, a woman could keep her scarves gifted to her year after year and thereby have a collection marking all the years together with her beloved.

If it's a fruit or vegetable it's healthy for you to eat, right?

Whether or not you're feeling regional pride for Valencia or sentimental affection for your lover, it is difficult to resist these adorable and creative confectionery creations. They're a big hit here in the city. Last year the city's confectioners estimated they used around 40,000 kilos of mazapán to make them. (Addendum: by tradition all the fruites de massapà will taste the same, made from the same mazapán base, except the potatoes and mushrooms which have cinnamon added to them.) So if you walk by a bakery in Valencia the week leading up to 9 D'Octubre, be sure to drop in and buy some. They're as much a visual work of art as culinary joy, quite a treat!


Pep said...

Why do you say "Doña Violante de Hungría"? She was not in any way related to Spain (it didn't exist at that time) nor to Spanish language.

An Expat in Spain said...

Hi Pep,

I can understand the confusion. I've adjusted the language a bit in the entry. I wasn't saying she was tied to the Bourbons, but rather that the 13th century act, gifting fruits and vegetables to her, became a symbolic foundation for the 18th-century invention of the tradition. So that sentence about her is parenthetical to the Bourbon story. Hopefully it reads a bit better now.

Not sure I agree with your comment about her being "not in any way related" to Spain or Spanish language. As queen of Aragon, I'd say she was related to both. Though not in our modern sense of Spain or Spanish. I suppose it is a question of degree. I'm feeling a little tired of people trying to sever off certain regions from Spain and Spanish language these days. Such cultural purification strikes me as dangerous.

Jason Martin said...

In love with the presentation of food.
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