Before diving into the titular dessert, I should cover a bit of history of the background of the tarta de santiago.
James — known in Spanish as Santiago — was named by Jesus as one of his 12 apostles, making him privy to Jesus’ preaching and predictions. As a consequence of his loyalty to Jesus, James was martyred by King Herod in the year 44, after which his remains shipped to coastal Galicia, a region in present-day northwestern Spain. Eventually, he was reinterred in what is now Santiago de Compostela; his burial site is exactly where in 1075, King Alfonso VI commissioned the construction of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Nowadays, this cathedral is as important a spot for Catholic pilgrims as the Vatican and Jerusalem.
As with just about anything historical, it’s difficult to say whether or not James had visited Hispania (today’s Spain and Portugal). However, he is viewed as the patron saint of both Spain and Galicia, having helped the Catholics fend off the Moors in a mythical 9th century contest called the Battle of Clavijo; if you’ve never heard of the Mandela effect, it’s when a large number of people think something has happened, yet the event never did.
Riveting, but where’s the dessert?
To prepare a tarta de santiago, or “pie of James,” the primary ingredient is peeled almonds. It is said that almonds have been in Spain since the 600s, and that the tarta de santiago has been around for hundreds of years; though, no one is sure for how long, and if almonds have always been the main ingredient.
Other main components include eggs, lemon zest, and sugar; coincidentally, if gluten is a problem for you, this dessert can be made without issue. To distinguish it from other almond-based pastries, the remate, or final touch, is adding powdered sugar on top, along with the design of the cross of Saint James the Apostle. The design of the cross also became the symbol of the Order of Santiago, a group founded in the 12th century to protect pilgrims and defend Catholics; the cross’ reddish color refers to the blood shed by James when he was martyred.
I tried the tarta de santiago in Santiago de Compostela twice, and found it to be subtle as far as almond-based desserts go, with just the right amount of lemon flavor to balance the buttery sweetness of the almonds. Try it à la mode, with vanilla or raspberry ice cream, for extra goodness.