The fact that Cartagena de los Indias needs a place where one can pay homage in special fashion to sweets, or confectionery, is rooted in its history. Since the time it was founded in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia the city has suffered so many bitter experiences that it has required to be injected with a daily dose of sweetness right up until today. Cartegena was one of the most important bastions, overseas, of the Spanish Empire: a primary trading place for slaves, for gold, a well-equipped centre of politics, of administration, hub of the Inquisition – and, as such, an attractive target for attack. First, the residents had to defend themselves for a whole century against pirates of the likes of Francis Drake, thereafter they had to deal with a totally exaggerated (yet unsuccessful) attack by the British. Cartagena was among the first cities to rebel against and break away from Spanish colonisation, only to be promptly and most brutally re-integrated into the empire. It was only in 1821 that the troops of Simon Bolivar were able to also liberate Cartagena – Bolivar gave the city the surname that it has proudly vaunted ever since: «La Heroica».
El Portal de los Dulces, «the colonnade of confectionary», is the perfect antidote. In the right-angled network of little streets, dreaming, as it were, down the ages, behind the massive walls and bastions of the city, is the Portal, a sugar-filled vein. The passage is well about 400 metres long and pushes its way through the ground-floors of urban houses from the colonial period with colourful facades and wooden balconies. At one end is the window-counter of «Cambios y Comisionas Oscar» inside which, at any given time, a young woman can be seen sitting and counting money. At the other end has sprung up the «Hard Rock Cafe» of Cartagena, at which young bands from Colombia sometimes show off their talents, or at least their volume, right in the morning. In-between lies this row of about two dozen tiny, white-washed stalls, all of which sell more or less the same sort of sweets and confectionery: «Enyucado», «Caballito», «Panderito», «Melcocha», «Casadilla», «Diabolina», «Alegria», «Suspiro» – names that all «sigh» the happiness of the dalate and promise salvation via swallowing. Otherwise, the little bits look as though they have all been produced in the same factory – if there’s any handwork at play here, then one has to be able to detect a difference between the various stalls. Nowhere are there any claims, really, that the sweets are «artisanal» -- only, if they are not, where then is the need for two dozen stalls to stand cheek-by-jowl in a row? Well, one doesn’t need to understand everything.
Nevertheless, one is rather irritated when, in the morning, one sees how the saleswomen shovel the pieces of confectionery out of large cartons into glass jars with slightly rusty lids, in which the sweets are then prettily presented in neat rows all day long.
At the stalls one sees mostly women, the youngest among them looking as though she needs a lot more time to sprout breasts; the oldest as if it has been an eternity since she spat out her last tooth. In one stall sits an old lady whose movements are so slow that a sloth would, in comparison, look like it were in a tearing hurry. She presses a Bola de Harina against her slightly open lips, because she must first moisten the cake dough with her saliva before she can soak sugar, flour and butter in it. It looks as though she’s sharing an inner kiss with the cake, her amado de esta mañana.
Customers one sees seldom: one can hardly imagine the circumstances under which the trade in this greasy dustiness can actually make a profit. The seductions seem like seductions from another age and time – a time during which the biscuit tin was the epicentre of the sweet universe. Today, every kiosk sells delicacies, which are mostly dreadful creations of the chemical laboratory, but which nonetheless stimulate our senses and our feeding frenzy.
The saleswomen seem to nurse no ambition whatsoever to offer their own products or specialities. Perhaps it is no longer about the product itself, but about contributing towards the preservation of a symbol – as well as about having a place, a professional membership, a task. In a world full of uncertainties, quite the image of Colombia today, El Portal de los Luces is certainly a place of solid indisputability. That, probably, is what the traditional confectionery of this market wants to show us: the Muñecas de leche (milk sweets) most probably represent the Blessing Baby Jesuses of yore. But time has made little boys of the young Pantocrators, who have laid a finger on their lips as if they wish to remind us that we have a secret to cherish, a sweet nota bene.
First Publication: 3-3-2014