The Ethereal Breakfasts of a Bygone Era
Meringues at El Riojano
El Riojano is nothing if not baroque. Their meringues—the pastel tones, the ethereal consistency—would not be out of place in a Rococo hall graced by Marie Antoinette. Or we could instead order the so-called “saint’s bones” (huesos de santo), cylindrical marzipan sweets made to celebrate the memory of the dead. But between life and the grave, between the meringues and the saint’s bones, I, of course order the meringues, although in the end it doesn’t matter: of all the goodies in this place, none will be saved from the condemnation of the World Health Organization.
El Riojano’s is the debris of a “piccolo mondo antico” in the center of Madrid, where the stores once belonged to families and not to franchises and had mahogany windows and not plastic counters. Without a doubt, this packaging of another time will scare away a few tourists in a country better known for its noisy tapas bars than for its tea rooms. But the reverent window display of El Riojano remains as it always has, a recollection of 1855, when the bakery was founded, and above all a memory of the preferences of the Spanish monarchy during the years of the very sweet-toothed Maria Cristina of Habsburg. It was she herself who sent the palace craftsmen to carve the Italian marble and to build the Cuban wood that still adorns their display cases.
The last decades have lost the oh-so-madrileña Sunday morning custom of going from the church to the confectionery. The consumption of pastries has been steadily declining in the last decades: dietary concern, strict municipal regulations, and the difficulty of being a baker have conspired to end an urban tradition that already belongs to another era. Even preferences have changed: who today doesn’t prefer, say, a donut to one of those sugar-coated pastries found in the zarzuelas—Spanish operettas—of the 19th century?
However, the bakery persists for now. After a stroll through the Puerta del Sol, an assortment of meringues in El Riojano is still able to brighten up the morning and provide the necessary calories for the day.