The cloistered nuns of Barcelona are seldom seen in public. Almost as secretive are the cookies they bake from their convent across the city and surrounding areas, following recipes that date back centuries.
Little is known about the precise origins of these so-called "cloistered cookies," made using eggs, brown sugar, and star anise but Spanish nuns are thought to have developed their baking prowess in the 11th century when famine hit the hilltop municipality of Toledo in the heart of the country. With no wheat in their storerooms to bake with, the nuns of the local Convent San Clemente cobbled together the only ingredients they did have—sugar and almonds—to create a mixture we now know as marzipan.
From this unlikely culinary triumph, Spanish cloistered nuns developed a knack for baking sweet goods, which led them to experiment further with the Spanish fritter suspiro de monja or "nuns sight" and torrijas, a kind of French toast.
But it was the cookies that proved most popular, spreading from Toledo to convents in and around Madrid, Seville, and Barcelona where they are still produced and sold today. The hard part is finding them.
I begin my search in the north of Barcelona, near the Gaudi Park Güell architectural gardens before moving to churches around the tourist-heavy pedestrian mall of La Rambla. I'm met with blank stares when I ask sombre ecclesiastical-types the whereabouts of these "clandestine cookies," so I move on.
The security guard at the Gaudi House Museum tells me that unlike Madrid, in Barcelona, it is almost impossible to buy the nuns' baked good through slots in church walls, but that in the city's Barri Gotic or Gothic Quarter there is a hidden bakery that may sell them. He just can't remember the name.
Trying to score nun-baked cookies like a frantic junkie may seem like an unusual way to get your sugar fix but in Spain, it's something of a time-honoured tradition. Following the Toledo marzipan triumph, Spain's devout, wealthy families would commission nuns to make them sweet cakes, buns, and cookies. The nuns used this extra income to assist with the cost of running their respective convents.
Trying to score nun-baked cookies like a frantic junkie may seem like an unusual way to get your sugar fix but in Spain, it's something of a time-honoured tradition.
Before long, I walk past the Barcelona Cathedral and into a labyrinth of lanes that are eventually swallowed up by the Barri Gotic. Each narrow lane is clad with cobbled streets and gargoyles, dotted with shops selling local produce. The deeper I walk into the maze, the more I feel like I've stepped back centuries in time. Even the strong stench of urine and cured meat seems a million miles from the usual Friday night fumes of La Rambla.
Making a detour into a cosmetics shop, I ask the owner if she knows where I can find the nuns' cookies. With a smile and an enthusiastic gesture, she points towards a place called the Caelum, a bakery built on top of a medieval Jewish bath.
I soon find the place on the corner of two non-descript lanes deep within the Quarter. An elderly couple are chomping on cake, silently fighting over the last crumbs, while a pair of teenagers talk and drink coffee. I spot a stout woman packing cookies behind the counter. I know I'm in the right place
"Ola, are all of the goods here baked by the nuns?" I ask.
"Yes, they are." she responds. "That will be 8.95 euros, por favor."
This is as far as the conversation goes but finally, in my hands, I have the elusive cloistered cookies—neatly wrapped on a tin foil tray and adorned with a sticker telling me that they were baked at Monasterio Cisterciense Nuestra Senora de Vico, a convent around four hours from Barcelona.
They also look as dry as the sun worn city bricks on which they were baked.
I find a shady spot and taste my first bite. Strangely, the cookies aren't as crumbly as they look and are infused with a haunting twang of aniseed. They're nothing like the Sun Feast or Oreos sold in Barcelona's tourist-friendly convenience stores, nor the sticky delights sold in its specialist bakeries.
Instead, they're close to a piece of history—an ingredient that's worth the hunt.