Tolosa is a place to remember for five reasons:
1. It’s famous for beans.
2. It’s famous for the best Carnaval celebrations around.
3. It’s the birthplace of Xabi Alonso, the Real Madrid player who was kicked in the chest during the final match of the 2010 World Cup.
4. I worked in Tolosa last year.
5. It’s home to a couple of fantastic confiterías, or confectionery shops.
There are other reasons, of course, but for now we’ll focus on this last one. One of the two main confiterías, Gorrotxategi, has a confectionery history museum, and Iñaki and I went there for a sweet (gah, sorry) tour.
They’ve collected confectionery equipment from around the area ranging from the most basic of primitive tools up to the beginnings of motorized kitchen appliances. Our guide was a fountain of information, and I wish I’d taken notes…although I could be writing for days.
Several hundred years ago, doing more than icing cakes and making bonbons, the town confectioner held a high-status position, right up with the priest and mayor. The confectionery shop was typically located on each town’s Calle Mayor (or Main Street) at number one or two, and the confectioner ran a sort of general supply outlet. Coffee, chocolate, and sugar were all luxury items, and the confectioner controlled their distribution, giving him quite a position of power. Eventually he can to be responsible for roasting coffee beans, preserving fruits as jams or candies (so that they could then be sold and eaten out of season), making chocolate (both the drink and sweets), processing honey and making candles, grinding flour and baking bread, making caramels (a way to mark up the prices of his sugar supply), preserving eggs during the scarce months (betcha didn’t see that one coming), and distilling liquors, among other things.
My favorite part was a series of mixers, the first of which was a large bowl and a paddle that was turned with the hands, then a model with a rope pulley, followed by another with hand-cranked gears.
Later, when businesses had electricity, mixers and all other appliances were connected to a central motor that turned on everything at once. Each machine had a separate breaker so that selected machines could be used while others were turned off. Unfortunately, when the motor broke, nothing in the shop could be used..
And finally, the precursor to what we Kitchen-Aid fans find indispensable: a stand-alone mixer with its very own motor:
An interesting side note: while the more modern pieces were rusted and unusable, the older ones (as in, hundreds of years old) with waxed ropes, wooden gears, and stone bowls worked as if new..
Making caramels was a way to restructure raw sugar, flavor it, and mark up the prices. Sugar was cooked, flavored, spread out on this stone to cool, cut into squares, and then pressed with a picture-stamp to indicate the flavor (mint leaves, strawberries, etc.).
An interesting innovation by confectioners was that of conserving eggs so that they could be used during the chickens’ “slow” season. The scarcity of eggs during the winter months caused their price to rise sharply, which greatly worked in the favor of confectioners. By placing raw eggs in large clay jars and covering them with a mixture of water and quicklime, eggs could stay fresh for months at a time, providing a steady supply to customers willing to shell out a bit more (again, so sorry).
(Describing how to preserve eggs in the 19th century style…very important, of course):
I’m missing plenty of pictures and info, but don’t you worry. I’ll be going back there again for sure.
After our tour we headed to the shop and ran away with some goodies and then took a stroll around town.
Baby got back:
Saw this dog:
Woke ‘im up: (um, does his paw look unattached??)
So these trees, which you will inevitably wonder about: they’re hideous for several months of the year after being cut back in the fall. When spring comes, however, tons of tiny branches sprout from the top and fill with leaves and by summer streets around the Basque Country are covered with a beautiful canopy. There are even some streets where I suppose the trees are either older or planted closer together and the top branches actually grow outwards enough to fuse together and create a continuous arch. It’s stunning! But for the moment, this is what we get…
The market on the Oria River:
It’s a charming town, just thirty minutes by train from San Sebastian, and somewhere I wouldn’t mind setting up camp at some point, hint-hint.