Betsy from Atlanta made her Buenos Aires debut in April – and what did she stockpile? That’s right, alfajores. This perfectly circular Argentinian food, pronounced “alpha whore” in its singular format (not my gag, but I whip it out when I can) embodies everything Argentinians relish putting in their mouths. Is it a cake? Is it a biscuit? Who cares? An alfajor can combine chocolate, dulce de leche, meringue, coconut, icing sugar, jam and even mousse – it would be an all-encompassing meal if only it had a meaty filling. Now there’s a thought…
As any armchair linguist knows, Spanish words beginning with “al” have Arabic roots and this favourite sweet Argentinian food is no exception, coming from the Hispano-Arabic al-hasú for “the filling.” Although this sentiment clearly refers to the middle bit of this cake-biscuit (biscake, anyone?), an alfajor is certainly, in my case, a mission I think twice about undertaking – just the half for me.
The history of alfajores stretches back to the 16th century in southern Spain and as immigrants made their way to the New World, the alfajor ended up on the banks of the River Plate. This chocolate-coated biscake also found its way to Peru, where it was used to fill up hungry Spanish soldiers. That’s right, they came, they ate alfajores and they conquered. For a bit. Indeed, the alfajor even turns up in Mateo Alemán’s picaresque novel Guzmán de Alfarache (1599).
However, the modern alfajor recipe shouldn’t be confused with the finger-shaped Andalucian one which is an almond, honey and walnut gastronomic time bomb. Having ditched nutty, gooey goodness of Spanish-slash-Arabic origin for gooey goodness incorporating a milk, dark or white chocolate coating and a local dulce de leche filling, the alfajor has certainly adopted an Argentinian identity.
Now emblematic with holidays, good times and tea time, their popularity peaked alongside the coastal resort of Mar del Plata in the 1950s when brands such as Havanna and Balcarce began mass production of finger-lickin’ foil-wrapped goodness, but also spawning retro anti-classics such as Capitán del Espacio. When the Buenos Aires masses upped sticks for two weeks’ sun and fun, they’d inevitably bring back a dozen to share among friends and family. That was before inflation because in 2011, expect to fork out over 50 pesos for a dozen that will be scoffed and not scoffed at.
Dulce de leche – Photograph by Kim Love
Other cities have added special ingredients to make alfajores recipes their own. In Córdoba you’ll eat quince-filled alfajores while Santa Fe is renowned for flaky ones, guaranteed to make a mess and overloaded with dulce de leche. Across the River Plate in 2010, 25 industrious chefs got together in Minas, Uruguay, to celebrate their first National Alfajor Day to make a Guinness World Record-size alfajor which weighed in at 464 kilos. Yikes.
I’ve asked around but no Argentinian has denied to me their desire to gobble up an alfajor. It’s an integral part of the diet in Argentina, so much so I believe it’s now part of their genetic make-up.
Furthermore, Argentinians are pretty specific about the alfajor they choose. Ezequiel from Belgrano is all about maizales – alfajores which are whole-grain or made with chía flour, while Veronica from Corrientes reckons “alfajores are better than chocolate” and goes for triple-decker Tofi Triple ones. Matias from Buenos Aires, however, reckons Guolis alfajores, with the largest dollop of dulce de leche squished in the middle I’ve ever seen, are the best on the market.
Two different kinds of alfajores – Photograph by Kim Love
Meanwhile, foreigners living in Argentina are split on the debate. Irish Eamonn reckons Argentinians play up to the fact that they love these sugary circles of, well, sugar to the non-natives. As mentioned previously, I can only manage a half of one. But when I suggested an alpha-whore-tasting session (okay, an alfajor one) to my flatmates, they couldn’t believe their luck, probably because I was offering to pay. Personally, my idea of gastronomic heaven involves a hunk… of extra-mature cheddar.
If you want to give making your own a go, Arcor has two recipes in Spanish for mini alfajores, while the recipe provided by that stalwart of home baking Martha Stewart includes the vital ingredient of dulce de leche although her alfajor doesn’t look visually correct to me. Sorry Martha.
Feel free to invite my flatmates round to help you lick the bowl – but I’ll stay tucked up at home with my hunk.
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