Do you know what the most important Christmas treat is in Spain? One would expect it to be a cake or bread of some kind, like Italian panettone, German stollen, Bulgarian koledna pitka, or Jewish lekach. Or cookies, gingerbread cookies, after all, are a Christmas staple in half the Europe (and the other half is quickly catching up); who’s to say that Spain isn’t one of them?
But alas, the Spanish have decided to be original! While they have plenty of traditional holiday treats, including a cake called Rosca de Reyes (though it’s eaten on January 6th, not Christmas) and shortbread cookies called Polvorons, it’s turron - a type of nougat candy - that takes the crown during the winter holiday season. Celebrating Christmas without turron seems to be impossible: it’s present at every store and every home, even among those that don’t particularly enjoy the treat (not that any Spaniard would ever admit it).
So let’s explore what Spanish Christmas nougat is like, how it came to be, and - most interestingly - how it became the seminal festive treat, eclipsing all the others.
What Exactly is Turron?
Turron or Spanish nougat is a confection made with honey, egg whites, sugar, and toasted nuts, typically almonds.
In Spain, there are over half a dozen nougat varieties (and the list seems to be growing by the year), but it’s the two traditional turron types that are widely known:
Turron de Alicante, also known as Turron Duro: hard nougat from Alicant. It’s usually a white (unless flavored with chocolate) compact block containing whole roasted almonds (around 60% of overall turron mass).
Turron de Jijona (Xixona), also known as Turron Blando: soft nougat that’s considered the oldest Spanish turron variety, with the original recipe dating to the 15th century. Almonds are turned to paste and combined with turron mix. About 64-65% of the overall mass is almonds. This turron is soft, crumbly, and often caramel-colored instead of white.
You can check out our brief turron overview for more information about the various types and grades of the Spanish nougat.
How Turron Came to Spain:
As always, when there’s no specific name to point toward, the question of where a particular food originated from becomes a matter of contest, especially when the food in question is as iconic and intrinsic to the country’s identity as turron is for Spain.
Most historians believe that the modern turron is a revised version of a classic Moorish treat. The Moors ruled parts of Andalucia from the early 8th until the late 15th centuries - a period incredibly formative to Spanish identity, the influence of which is still firmly entrenched today in language, architecture, and, of course, food.
This claim is strengthened by the fact that the first mention of a similar-sounding treat turun appears in an 11th-century book, “De Medicinis et Cibis Semplicibus,” written by a Cordoba-based Arab pharmacologist and physician Ibn al-Wafid.
Many supporters of this theory consider halvah, a traditional Persian (Iranian) confectionery made with various grains, sesame seeds, and nuts, to be the progenitor of turron. The first reference to halva dates back to the 7th century, so it’s probable that it first spread throughout the Muslim world. And then, the invaders brought it with them to the Iberian peninsula, where it underwent several modifications until it finally took the form it has today.
Others, however, feel like giving this much credit to the Moorish rule needs to be more accurate. By the time the Moors came along, almonds and honey were already among the staple products on the Iberian Peninsula. There are recipes dating back to Greek and Roman times that liberally utilize both ingredients to make various sweets. For example, the Greeks used to make a treat with honey and crushed almonds for athletes participating in the Olympic games as a means to increase their energy and endurance.
Or, as Almudena Villegas, a food historian and member of the Real Academia de Gastronomía, points out: “There is an infinity of recipes with almonds and honey that appear in sources dating back to Roman and Greek civilizations. Moors weren’t the only – or the first – people to use almonds and honey to create their sweets.”
Is it feasible that the Moorish cooking customs had at least some level of influence over what turron became? Indeed. Their cultural impact undoubtedly permeated every aspect of living back then; it wouldn’t be surprising for a local dessert to take its cues from some traditional Moorish sweet in that period.
But as it’s been rightly pointed out, sweets made with almonds and honey have been a staple of the Mediterranean basin since Roman times, at least, if not the Greek empire. Turron could very well be a purely Spanish treat, just one that got a few tweaks along the way.
Interestingly, a romantic legend is attached to turron’s creation, claiming that its birth was influenced not by the Romans or the Moors but by the Scandinavians. Or, more specifically, one Scandinavian princess.
It’s a famous legend in Jijona (arguably the world capital of turron) that claims that centuries ago, a king fell in love with a Scandinavian princess, married her, and brought her home. The princess, whose new home resembled nothing of her old one, fell into deep melancholy. The King, desperate to alleviate his new queen’s heartache, decided that if he couldn’t bring her the real snow, then he’d get the next best thing. The servants planted thousands of almond trees all around the castle by his order. Once the trees bloomed, everything was covered in their white flowers, resembling the snow-covered slopes.
According to the tale, once the queen saw the sight, she regained her happiness. But now the city had a problem: once the trees had fruits, there was an abundance of almonds that needed to go somewhere. The inhabitants of Jijona had to become inventive so that the precious nut wouldn’t go to waste. Turron de Jijona was one of the treats born out of their experimentation.
So where’s the truth? Indeed, the tale about the Scandinavian princess seems like the least likely one, but it’s hard to say more. Was turron already here when the Moors took over Andalucia and got reshaped under their influence, or were they the ones who brought it to the Iberian peninsula? We don’t know and are not likely to ever learn the whole truth.
Yet one thing is undeniable: regardless of how turron came to be, whether it was an import or a homegrown delicacy, celebrating Christmas in Spain without turron is unimaginable.
Turron and Christmas: How the Nougat Took Over the Winter Holiday Season
Here’s where things get a little bit murky. We know that by the 16th century, turron was already a staple Christmas treat. Apparently, it was so prevalent that the expenses the Alicante municipality made on it ate into the royal coffers, and not in an insignificant way, either. There’s a document signed by Philip II of Spain dated by the year 1595, in which the King forbids spending more than fifty pounds each year on turron and figs, as the city economy cannot afford it.
But when exactly did it become a staple Christmas treat? We don’t know. In the mid-to-late 15th century, it was still considered to be a treat exclusively for noblemen, and by the 16th century, it was a tradition among the masses, at least among those who had a coin to spare. What transpired between the years 1475 (the earliest alleged publication date of the first turron recipe) and 1582 (the first mention of turron being used as currency during the season) is anyone’s guess. But somehow, a treat so expensive it threatened the King’s coffers became one of the most important holiday treats.
Considering the high cost of its main ingredients (almonds and honey), it’s quite likely that turron became a Christmas staple due to practical necessity, not out of some association with older traditions. Most people simply couldn’t afford to spend money on turron year-round, would that they could. So they did what people wont to do and pampered themselves on special occasions with a treat they couldn’t afford to spend money on the regular. In medieval Christian Europe, there was hardly a more special occasion than Christmas.
There seems to have been another contributing economic factor to turron becoming tied to the winter holidays: it became a form of currency during the season. A document from Alicante City Council dated by the year 1582 claims that the municipal workers received payment for their services in December “part in money and part in an arroba of turron.” It’s unclear when the practice started, but it most certainly contributed to the King’s demand the city curb its expenditure on turron thirteen years later.
There’s another old Christmas turron tradition that no one really knows the origins of. In Spain, it’s not the Santa Clause the children write the letters to, but the Three Kings (i.e., the biblical Magi). The Magi are supposed to arrive on the night of January 5th on their way to Bethlehem. And while on their way to bestow their presents upon baby Jesus, they leave the presents for children on doorsteps along the way. Since their journey is so difficult and lengthy, it’s customary to leave out milk, water, and turron for them to eat to show your appreciation. If the child doesn’t find anything the following day, it means the three kings have gotten enough strength to return home safely.
Check out Yummy Bazaar’s Turron (and Torrone) Assortment for Gourmet Christmas Nougat Options!
Yummy Bazaar hosts one of the largest online assortments of authentic, gourmet-quality nougat from around the world! You can find everything from traditional Spanish turron to Italian torrone, French nougat, and even Taiwanese-style soft nougat. Our selection includes both classic turron de Jijona and turron de Alicante, as well as turron Yema Tostada, Chocolate turron, and more novel flavored options with pistachios, walnut cream, fruits, and coconut! All you need to do is set aside a couple of minutes of your time and stock the cart with the ones that strike your fancy the most! We’ll take care of the rest, ensuring your nougat gets delivered to your doorstep ASAP, so you can organize a proper Spanish Christmas spread!