This simple tart is inspired by the Tarta de Santiago, a very dense, moist, almond cake traditionally served during Holy Week in Spain. It usually features the image of the St. James Cross dusted in powdered sugar but I went with a scallop shell instead. Venus goddess of love, beauty and fertility mythically arose from the sea on a scallop shell and April is the month she takes ascendence in the wheel of the heavens. She is the green, the viriditas of spring and in Rome, she had no less than three festivals this month, all of which involved offerings of cakes in return for her blessings of fertility. (see more here).
The Tarta de Santiago is not a traditional cake offering to Venus, but to St. James The Great. Aside from being a popular Easter cake, it’s most famous for being the richly-deserved reward for pilgrims – along with a cup of good coffee -who complete the five-hundred-miles Camino de Santiago or Saint James’ Way. St. James is considered the founder of the Camino, an ancient pilgrimage route across Europe which lead to Galicia in northern Spain where the remains of the saint are believed to be buried. It consists of a vast network of pathways marked by images of gold scallop shells, a long-standing symbol of the Camino itself.
Which is why my cake is a “Tarta De Venus”. According to Louise Sommer, author of the Hidden Camino ‘The trademark Camino scallop shell was a focus of pre-Christian Celtic rituals in Galicia long before the birth of James. The scallop shell is also a pagan fertility symbol connected with the goddess Venus and the divine feminine.”
In her book, Sommer recounts her personal journey along the Camino and her many discoveries, such as the many sites along the pilgrimage built over the more ancient shrines and temples to Cybele, Asherah, Venus and other goddesses of antiquity. This reverence for the divine feminine continued in strong regional religious traditions with Mary Magdalene and The Virgin Mary at their heart.
She writes “ The Camino talks about powerful and ancient traditions where women were spiritual leaders, equal to men; traditions that had existed for thousands of years across many cultures before the rise of the Roman Catholic church. The essence of these traditions hid a deep insight and understanding of a very powerful knowledge”.
To find out more you’ll just have to read her book (and check out her website!). But to sum up, let’s say it all makes me suspect that the Tarta may have been a cake, like so many cakes offered to goddesses throughout antiquity, co-opted by Christian food traditions. And in this case, by St. James. And it is an interesting coincidence (or not) that almonds were also a sacred food of Venus. Hence my Tarta de Venus!
Like the Tarta de Santiago, it is such a sweet simple cake and fail-proof to bake. There is no flour, only ground almonds, sugar, lemon zest, cinnamon and plenty of eggs. Often some kind of alcohol, sweet wine, brandy, grape marc was splashed in. In Galacia the region of Spain (from which the Tarta de Santiago descends) a homemade herbal liqueur known as Orujo de Hierbas was often used. It could contain bay leaves, lemon leaves, sage, cloves, cinnamon chamomile, mint, juniper berries or lemon verbena, among others.
Not having any Orujo de Hierbas on hand I turned to my apothecary of elixirs and eventually chose a rose petal, rosehip and quince brandy, all signature flowers and fruits of Venus. Next, I made a quick simple syrup with some of my favourite Venusian herbs. This is dribbled over the finished cake, as is the traditional custom, then allowed to dry before adding the final dusting of icing sugar. As a finishing touch, I sprinkled rosehip powder before baking – you can see it swirled on top of the cake below.
The recipe still needs a few tweaks and when it’s done it will be up in time for Easter at Gather Victoria Patreon. You can also search the countless recipes for Tarta de Santiago online and make your own version, whether it’s traditional or more inspired!
My final result was dense and more like an almondy-lemony confection than a cake – which is why I guess it’s considered a tart. But it was wonderful, nourishing comfort food. And despite its simple appearance, I’m telling you it was truly luscious and I can’t wait to make it again.
We may not be able to feast with family and friends or have 2 cups of almond flour in the cupboard right now – but I hope you can find a special and delicious dish to make this holiday. Cakes, bread and other foods offered to Venus and ancient Goddesses were believed to ensure blessings of fertility, and abundance to the land, crops, animal and people. So with this cake, I wish you all many blessings to your spring tables. May you have a joyful and peaceful celebration despite difficult times.