In Bizkaia we like honouring people, and we take cooking in general and baking cakes in particular very seriously. As a matter of fact, a number of traditional cakes from our province were first made as a gift. Simple ingredients like egg, butter, flour, sugar or chocolate are used to make the finest sweets and please the most discerning palates.

A hundred years ago, a pastry chef from Bilbao wanted to bake something really special for Carolina, his daughter, on her birthday. He made a puff pastry filled with meringue, egg yolk and chocolate. Today, you will find Carolinas in nearly every patisserie in Bilbao and Bizkaia at large. Carolinas are celebrated at Fiesta de la Carolina, when Bizkaia’s Pastry Union gives out more than 3000 Carolinas for free at Plaza Nueva in Bilbao.

Butter sweet rolls are very popular in Bilbao too. They were introduced by Swiss cousins Bernardo Pedro Franconi and Francesco Matossi, who opened a pastry shop in the Old Town. They cut a typical Swiss brioche in two and spread butter on both surfaces, thus creating the wonderful roll we can enjoy today.

Rice cake is another classic. It is a puff pastry filled with custard that Basque fishermen brought from the Philippines in the late nineteenth century. Initially, it was made with rice flour (hence the name), but today it is made with wheat flour.

Even though there are similar cakes, there are no Russian pies like the ones you will find in Bilbao. Originally, it was a gift from Empress Eugenia de Montijo, wife of Napoleon II, to Russian Tsar Alexander II.

Nougat and healing sweets

People in Bilbao and Bizkaia eat Sokonusko for Christmas – a variety of nougat that chefs have been making for three centuries now. Actually, it was invented in a Mexican town, Santa Ana de Soconusco, located in a cocoa tree growing area.

Legend has it that an explorer from Bilbao, Íñigo Urrutia, made a trip to Mexico in search of El Dorado city of gold. Instead of El Dorado, he found top-quality cocoa beans, used by the Mayans to make the drink of the gods. A pastry chef based in Bilbao’s Old Town came upon the Sokonusko recipe by chance. Today, this type of nougat is the king of the Basque Christmas dinner table.

Santiaguitos are also deeply rooted in the Basque food culture. They are marshmallow candies first made in 1698. Sweet and flavoursome, they also have healing properties; they are said to be an effective remedy for a sore throat, feeling like a caress on the palate. The name Santiaguito is a tribute to Santiago Olavide, a very nice short man who created this sweet treat centuries ago. The recipe has been passed down from father to son for generations.

How to get there

  • If you are in the mood for a tempting treat, any pastry shop or café in Bizkaia sells show-stopping cakes and sweet rolls. Butter sweet rolls are so popular that they are sold in other European countries and the US as well. In any case, the best place to try all these mouth-watering sweets is wonderful Bizkaia, where you can wash them down with a cup of coffee and milk or a glass of pacharán (liqueur made from blackthorn berries).

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