In Christianity, St James, son of Zebedee, was one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles. Western Christianity celebrates his feast day on 25 July.
Although it’s spread across the globe now, in part thanks to tourists and pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago, the chief dish for celebrating the Feast of St James is the torta de Santiago, from Galicia, northwest Spain.
Legend has it that St James’s remains are at the cathedral of Santiago de Campostela in Galicia. Iago is one of many Iberian variations on the name James, which is itself the English version of the Hebrew Jacob, Yaʿqob. In ancient Greek it became Iakobos, which was Latinised as Iacomus, which came Iacobu in Vulgar Latin, which in turn evolved into the Galician Iago – hence Santo Iago, Santiago.
Cake or tart?
Although torta (Galician, also the same in Italian), tarta (Spanish), tarte (French), torte (German) are related to the English word “tart”, in the sense of open-top fruit pies, they all derive from the Late Latin torta, possibly meaning a small bread. By Medieval Latin the word had come to mean a cake or a pie/tart. The full etymology isn’t certain, lost in the mists of time and the convolutions of Latin evolving into various different European languages. It’s salient in the case of torta de Santiago though, as it’s a product that breaks down those pie/tart/cake distinctions: it can be made with or without a pastry case.
The defining characteristic of the torta is a slightly citrusy mix of ground almond, egg and sugar. And, if you’re going for a bit of decorative iconography, a cross of St James on the top in icing sugar.
Jewish or Christian?
Claudia Roden posits the torta may have its origins in Jewish food, writing: “The Galician city of A Coruña is on the Jewish tourist route. There is a synagogue and an old Jewish quarter there. Jews from Andalusia, fleeing the Berber Almohads’ attempts to convert them, came to Galicia in the 12th and 13th centuries.”
Something related to the modern torta de Santiago may have emerged in Christian 16th century Galicia with the torta real (“royal tart”) or bizcocho de almendras (“almond cake”). A more recognisable modern incarnation is generally traced to an 1838 book by one Luis Bartolomé de Leybar, as a tarta de almendra.
The bottom line, as ever, is to take the notion of ancient traditions with a pinch of salt – so many things we like to imagine were practised fully-formed in the middle ages were instead more likely invented or at least consolidated in the 19th century.
Some versions include grape marc, aka grape pomace – ie the leftovers from pressing – which is interesting and makes sense if you have a vineyard. I don’t. The version in the Moro cookbook, meanwhile, adds membrillo (quince paste); I don’t have a quince tree either. Almonds and citrus is enough for me.
6 eggs, separated
250g caster sugar
1 lemon, zested
1 tsp orange blossom water
Almond extract, a few drops
250g ground almonds (either pre-ground or grind blanched almonds in a food processor)
Butter, for greasing
Icing sugar, for dusting cake
3. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar to a thick pale cream, ideally in a mixer or with handheld beaters.
4. Beat in the zest, orange blossom water and almond extract.
5. Beat in the ground almonds.
6. Whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks. Note – if you’re using the same beater attachments them spotlessly, as any fat will stop the whites beating properly!
7. Add a blob of the egg whites to the almond batter and beat it in. It’s a thick mixture so this is to lighten it up slightly to make it easier to add the rest of the egg whites.
8. Add the rest of the egg whites and fold in. Don’t beat! You want to retain the airiness.
9. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin.
10. Bake for about 35-45 minutes, until the cake feels firm.
11. Let it cool in the tin then turn out.
12. Before serving, dust with icing sugar. You can cut out a cross of St James/Santiago to decorate the top. Have a look online for a shape to give you a template.