Over 100 years ago, a young woman in a town near Seville started making and selling snacks called tortas de aceite, using an old family recipe. Made from nothing more than flour, water, sugar and olive oil, with a little aniseed and sesame for flavouring, these thin, round biscuits were individually wrapped in greaseproof paper, printed with their inventor’s distinctive logo, to protect them.
The tortas soon became popular and gained fame beyond Seville to the rest of Spain. Over a century later, the olive oil biscuits are still produced nearby under the founder’s name: Ines Rosales. These days the company sells 12 million packets a year all around the world.
The fact that a woman managed to start a business in 1910 is cause for astonishment, and celebration, in itself. Sadly, Ines Rosales died too soon, aged just 42. The business stayed in the family until her son sold up in 1982.
The tortas de aceite from Castilleja de la Cuesta have become a global success story. Adapting to more modern, international tastes, in 2009 flavoured versions were introduced, in both sweet (orange is my favourite) and savoury (rosemary and thyme). The “sweet olive oil tortas”, as they’re known in English, are a hit from Japan to the US, the biggest export market, where they’ve been sold since 1999; cinnamon flavour is the top seller (you can buy them at Whole Foods Market). China offers a set of up-and-coming new customers eager to sample these unusual snacks.
I was curious to see how they’re made, and since the Ines Rosales factory is very near my home, last summer I went to visit. The factory outgrew its high street location nearly two decades ago, and is now located in a town about 20km west of Castilleja, though the company’s official headquarters is still in the town. (Interesting facts about Castilleja de la Cuesta, which is in the Aljarafe region to the west of Seville: it was the home town of Rita Hayworth’s father; and conquistador Hernan Cortes, who conquered Mexico, died here.)
It is always intriguing to learn about a company which is expanding, despite the crippling economic crisis which has been affecting Spain for nearly five years. Each day 350,000 tortas are made by the nimble hands of local women, working on a production line behind a window. Men don’t make the grade for manual dexterity, when it comes to flattening the tortas, as with Carmen’s 18th-century cigarette factory in Seville.
These Sevillanas deftly transform the little balls of dough into flat pancake-type rounds so fast you can barely see them doing it. You have to watch very carefully – blink and you’ll miss it.
Then they sprinkle sugar on and the tortas are baked, so the sugar melts and goes crispy. Oh yes. And since each torta is hand-made, they all look different. This is one of the main selling points of these traditional snacks – they’re not made in a mould – a cookie-cutter, literally. They’re shaped by human hands into individual biscuits.
I had a go at making tortas de aceite in a cooking class last year. Mine were passable, but I only made about 20, and had plenty of time to make a hash of it. These ladies are on a production line and make 21 tortas per minute each. Quality control is strict, with photos being taken of the tortas to ensure they meet exacting standards of size and shape. Those which don’t make the grade – purely for aesthetic reasons – are donated to an NGO to distribute, while 100kg a week are given away to the most in-need families.
The company is unusually forward-thinking for Spain, in that some years ago they introduced a sugar-free torta, while other traditional biscuits, normally laden with manteca (lard), come in non-animal product varieties.
Last year the tortas de aceite of Seville province were officially registered by the European Union as an Especialidad Tradicional Guarantizada – which translates as Traditional Speciality Guaranteed. This tells consumers that it’s a product made from traditional raw materials, produced using a traditional method. Basically, the tortas have been made the same way for a very long time – on a larger scale now, but using the same ingredients and hand-made process.
The orange tortas are one of my family’s top merienda (tea) choices, while the rosemary and thyme ones are a fab accompaniment to that well-earned Friday evening glass of wine. Or put some grated cheese on top and grill gently for an instant, super-tasty pizza. Ines Rosales have loads of recipe suggestions on their website, suggesting the savoury ones (sesame and sea salt is the other non-sweet variety) as ideal summer-time outdoor nibbles. A little piece of Andalucia to impress your guests.
While the classic tortas are widely available, as Spanish like them with their coffee (I don’t like aniseed, which is why the new flavours are more to my taste), not all the other varieties are easy to find, even a few km from their home-base where I live. For this reason I was very excited to hear that the first-ever Ines Rosales shop is opening soon in the centre of Seville – in Calle Hernando Colon, near Plaza San Francisco to be exact. Be sure to visit when you’re here.