On Argentina’s north Atlantic coast, a city obsessed with sugar and nostalgia
When the wind blows the right way over the ocean, the town of Mar del Plata smells of sugar melting in a pan of salted butter. Throughout this oversized seaside town on Argentina’s north coast, the promise of something sweet emanates from cafes, ice cream parlors, and bakeries, mingling with the strong saltwater breeze. Crunchy, crunchy churros and turns of earth with sweet crumbs; chocolate covered cannoli cradle ice cream centers; and borrachitos – brioche soaked in rum and syrup – provide the perfect midday pick-me-up. But at the top of this sugar altar, a candy reigns supreme: the alfajor.
“The Alfajores are the essential memory of Mar del Plata”, screams Cristina Colacci over a conveyor belt which noisily crushes and spits dozens of blond cookies in an oven. “If you didn’t come home with a box of alfajores, were you even here?” “
Colacci is the matriarch of Trufles, a family-owned factory that has only made alfajores for the past six decades. Much of the production is still done by hand: every day the team of Trufles sandwich hundreds and hundreds of delicate butter cookies around a dulce de leche and an almond filling, then soak them. in a bowl of meringue, smoothing each one with a butter knife. âThere is no machine that can do this,â explains Colacci. âEven if you visit the factory of a giant brand, there is a line of about 20 people whose job it is to coat alfajores in meringue.
This alfajor glaseado is more often referred to as marplatense – an unequivocal nod to the origin of pastry, but also an attitude that envelops the city. At the turn of the 19th century, Mar del Plata was founded as a summer getaway for the country’s elite who built opulent oceanfront estates and a long promenade modeled after European seaside towns. As Argentina’s working and middle classes developed, Mar del Plata became an aspiration – a dream getaway to forget the reality of the big city and afford the carefree life along the Atlantic. . The sentiment still rings true there today.
Beginning in the 1950s, the masses began to descend each summer and kept coming. The developers have built hotels, theaters, casinos and, most importantly, Alfajor factories. A handful of savvy local businesses have capitalized on the country’s burgeoning obsession and built cookie empires. In 1969, Havanna, the company credited with popularizing the alfajores of Mar del Plata, established itself as alfajor royalty and built the city’s tallest skyscraper. Forty floors higher, their logo still sits atop the skyline, still watching over the city.
Despite years of industrialization, the artisanal producers of alfajor de Mar del Plata have remained resilient. In fact, these bakeries are so plentiful that they inspire fanatic Instagram accounts like Mariano Lopez, a crime journalist turned alfajor historian. Alfajores Marplatenses, where he records the minutiae that makes each baker unique, from the integrity of a cookie’s crumble to its height-to-fill ratio.
On my last trip, I spent five days eating as many alfajores as possible. Every Instagram story I’ve posted has elicited responses of pure delight, often from complete strangers recommending their own favorites. “Son como los que se hacÃan antes”, everyone said: They are like those of yesteryear.
âEveryone always laughs when they see that,â Susana Araya warns me before pointing a hair dryer at a leaf of alfajores. She uses the styling tool to blow excess chocolate off the cookies to create the characteristic mosaic texture of her Alfajores. The baker works alone this afternoon soaking, drying, wrapping and labeling hundreds of alfajores while her mother, Sylvie Chedeville, runs the shop. “It’s nothing,” Araya explains. “We used to write each flavor by hand and pick and dry wildflowers to attach to each.”
Chedeville moved from Buenos Aires to the coast in the 1980s. She initially sold pastries to local restaurants, but the way her friends reacted to her alfajores convinced her and her daughter to transform. their family kitchen into a full-time factory. Thus, the women opened a shop under the name of Armandine D’ozouville (named after Chedeville’s grandmother) selling six different flavors. Twenty years later, their selection has swelled to 34 and counts.
âAn idea is just going to pop into my head and I can’t help but think about it until we have the final recipe,â Chedeville explains as he walks me through a mental checklist of his flavors. Rum and raisins, pulpy orange marmalade and almonds, fig jam with walnuts, coconut and white chocolate and, my favorite, the sambayÃ³n, a classic dulce de leche injected with a heavy hand of cognac.
The little shop is built in the Chedeville house in Atlantida, a wooded suburb of Mar del Plata. It regularly attracts visitors who have heard about it by word of mouth, sometimes from as far away as Morocco. On a typical summer day, she can sell 2,500 alfajores or more.
In Malfatti, Fede Di Meglio and his family take a more focused approach. Three years ago, during a difficult financial crisis, Di Meglio’s mother, Susana Guillarduci, started making alfajores from a recipe she saw on TV to sell in their neighborhood in the quay district of the city. Today, the family still makes only one type of alfajor: honey and cocoa cookies, stuffed with dulce de leche, then dipped in semi-sweet chocolate.
âAfter my mom perfected the recipe, she handed it to us and told us to get down to business,â says Di Meglio. âHis job is done. Now it’s up to me, my dad and my brothers. Initially, the family did not use cookie cutters and they dipped each alfajor by hand, hence the name: Malfatti translates to “poorly done” in Italian. “Nothing was uniform,” says Di Meglio, “but that’s how we developed our reputation.”
Business is booming now. Today, the Di Meglio family browses over a ton of chocolate and dulce de leche every month; and now they use machines to fill and coat each alfajor with a meticulous layer of chocolate. Di Meglio examines each of them, smoothing out any gaps with a butter knife, taking care to maintain an irregular, handmade aesthetic. “Some big companies might look at them and say they are distorted,” Di Meglio comments. “But for us, they’re perfect.”