Chocolate maker Maria Romero’s eyes shone as she returned to her childhood in Quilmes, a town in the province of Buenos Aires, and her first encounters with alfajores. “My first memory of eating them was when I was little,” she says. “We had these kioscos [small convenience stores] inside the school and would run to the break to buy an alfajor. I have fond memories of standing and listening to the children shouting the names of the different brands – Jorgito, Capitán del Espacio, Fantoche. If you were hungry, needed something sweet, felt sad, you bought one. Sometimes you just need an alfajor to survive.
In its most common form, an Argentinian alfajor is a pair of chewy, crumbly cookies sandwiching a layer of dulce de leche (a thick, super-sweet caramel-type confectionery) and covered with chocolate or sprinkled with sugar or dried coconut. Romero describes alfajores as “cookies” – a cross between a cookie and a cake – and made a career out of it. After working for the Savoy in London, luxury chocolatiers Artisan du Chocolat and Rococo and the Hilton in Buenos Aires, she now runs the British company Sur Chocolates, which produces gourmet alfajores.
Romero places alfajores alongside Malbec wine, beef and yerba mate (an incredibly popular herbal tea) in Argentina’s culinary pantheon – and she’s not alone. About a billion alfajores are sold in Argentina each year, according to the Buenos Aires tourist office, and hundreds of varieties are available in kioscos, supermarkets and bakeries across the country, from the frozen kingdoms of Tierra. del Fuego in the extreme south at the top, arid plains of Jujuy at the extreme north.
“You can find them everywhere,” said Allie Lazar, Buenos Aires-based food writer and blogger Pick Up The Fork. “Each kiosco sells a large selection of alfajores. Most Argentines have a sweet tooth, and dulce de leche is essentially a national treasure, so alfajores have long been the perfect treat or quick snack. They are also a great accompaniment to the contrast of yerba mate, which tends to be quite bitter.
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The Alfajores are an integral part of Argentine popular culture, appearing in works as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, The Aleph, and the much-loved Mafalda comic book. When he was young, one of Lionel Messi’s coaches rewarded him with alfajores for every goal he scored. They are so essential to Argentinian life that the national constitution would have been drafted in a alfajorería (alfajores shop) in the middle of the 19th century.
Although they are a relatively simple product, alfajores have a long and complex history. Facundo Calabró, creator of the blog Catador de alfajores (Taster of alfajores) and author of the book En busca del alfajor perdido (In search of the lost alfajor), explains that they date at least from the 8th century, when a biscuit Arabic sugar, syrup, nuts and cinnamon arrived in the Iberian Peninsula during the Moorish conquest. Versions of Andalusia and Murcia then evolved, taking the name alajú or alfajor – derived, some linguists believe, from the Arabic word al-fakher (“Luxurious”) or the ancient Arabic word al-huasu (“Filled” or “stuffed”). Cylindrical in shape and made from ground almonds, hazelnuts, breadcrumbs, sugar, honey and spices such as cinnamon, these versions are still traditionally eaten in some parts of Spain at Christmas and in some areas are available all year round.
But the alfajores have really taken off in Latin America. “In the 16th century, during the [colonial period], the alfajor arrived from southern Spain and spread throughout the Americas, mainly through convents. It started to hybridize, taking ingredients from each region and losing others, ”Calabró said. Puerto Rican Alfajores are typically made from ground cassava, for example; while Chile, Peru and Mexico – among others – use their own versions of dulce de leche. But if they are now found throughout Latin America, they are above all synonymous with Argentina, the largest producer and consumer of the product.
Sometimes you just need an alfajor to survive
Today, the Alfajores in Argentina are far removed from their Spanish and Arab predecessors. The most common artisanal version – and the style typically found in bakeries – is known as the alfajores de maicena, with a dulce de leche filling and a dusting of sugar or dried coconut. “But like most food that has arrived in Argentina, the alfajores have received provincial twists,” said Paula Delgado and Claudio Ortiz, chefs at Estancia Los Potreros, which will publish its first cookbook in 2021. “Our chefs are returning to the recipes they prepared taught by their mothers, aunts, grandmothers. Here in the province of Cordoba, the alfajores are usually filled with a sweet quince paste. All our gauchos [cowboys], cooks, cleaners and staff sit down in the afternoons to discuss life and politics around alfajores and mate tea. They are an integral part of Argentine culture. “
The most well-known type of store bought alfajor is the marplatense, which is filled with dulce de leche and covered with chocolate. It takes its name from the coastal town of Mar del Plata, home of leading brand Havanna, which opened its first bakery in 1947 and now has boutiques and cafes across Argentina. But there are countless variations beyond the classic marplatense. Rummage through the shelves of a kiosco and you will find them covered with sugar icing, meringue or yogurt; filled with jams, ganache, mousse or peanut butter; and flavored with coffee, fruit, nuts or spirits such as rum or whiskey. There are vegan, gluten-free, rice cake and even three-tier versions. People form deep attachments to particular brands, according to Romero’s husband Emanuel: “Argentines have to belong to one or the other. Like in football, for example, you support Boca or River. With alfajores it’s a bit the same thing – you belong to a brand and you defend it.
Despite their popularity in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America, alfajores are relatively unknown in the rest of the world, although that is starting to change. Havanna opened a store in Florida, the first in the United States, in 2017. “There are also Havanna stores in Spain and over 100 in the rest of Latin America,” said Mariano Oliva, CEO of Havanna USA . “We sell about half a million alfajores a year in the US and have a plan – on hold for now. [because of Covid] – to open more locations. The Alfajores have phenomenal potential. “
In the UK, Romero’s creative alfajores – yerba mate, malbec, and dark chocolate and mint are just a few of the flavors – have also proven successful. “Our dream is to take [alfajores] everywhere, ”she told me.
Yet, as alfajores expand globally, the question of exactly why they are so popular in Argentina remains unanswered. Delgado and Ortiz blamed it on the national sweet tooth; Oliva suggests a strong emotional attachment that develops in childhood; and Romero thinks it’s due to a “shared passion”. For Calabró, the reasons for Argentina’s love for the alfajores remain a “great mystery”.
“It is obvious that they are part of our collective identity,” he said. “[But] love each other alfajores because they are part of our identity or are they part of our identity because, for some strange reason, we have decided to love them? There is still no answer.
Recipe: Alfajores a la Mar del Plata
By Maria Romero from About chocolates
110g unsalted butter
80 g icing sugar
Zest of half an orange
40g of eggs
1 tablespoon of honey
200g self-rising flour
5g cocoa powder
500g dulce de leche (ideally dulce de leche repost)
600g dark chocolate 70%
Makes 20 alfajores
Using a food processor or mixer, combine the butter, orange zest and icing sugar. Then add the egg and honey and continue to mix until they are pale and creamy. Finally, add the flour and cocoa powder and mix without overloading the dough. Cover the dough with cling film or parchment paper and refrigerate for at least two hours.
Roll out the dough to 2 mm thick and cut into circles with a 6 cm cutter. Place the cookies on a baking sheet lined with baking paper, leaving a little space between each and bake for 6 minutes at 190 ° C.
Once the cookies have cooled, fill a pastry bag with dulce de leche and use it to cover one side of the first cookie. Flip a second cookie (to make sure the outer sides of the alfajores are both as flat as possible), place it on top of the first, and press down gently. Repeat with the rest of the cookies. For best results, go for 24 hours, but if you can’t wait, you can go straight to coating.
Temper the chocolate then dip the alfajores one at a time. Make sure each one is completely covered in chocolate, using a palate knife to remove excess from the top and smoothing the base over the edge of the bowl, then carefully place on a parchment-lined platter or of cellophane. Once the chocolate is dry, the alfajores are ready to eat.
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