A sweet story from Russia to Spain to Manila

This is sweet. And quite precious. It is almost like a love story.

Long ago and far away there existed a nutty, sugary treat so grand it was always served to the czars and czarinas of Russia. Made of fine ingredients — like the best cognac, almonds, lovely premium butter, fresh eggs and sugar — it was a virtually unrivalled indulgence to be had at the end of every meal, and perhaps even during the meal. It was called the Russian Imperial Torte or, when it got to Spain, Tarta Imperial Rusa.

How it got to Spain, don’t ask anymore, I do not know and no one can say for sure. What’s important is that it did get there, and thank heavens for that because it eventually found its way to the Philippines. Yes, it is here, but that is getting ahead of the story. For the moment, let’s stay in Spain.

In the 1940s, there was a famous restaurant by the beach in Puerto de Sta. Maria, a small village in the province of Cadiz called Parador de Fuente Bravia, owned and operated by a certain Gloria Jimenez. The restaurant was so famous that a lot of French people frequented the place and it was always featured in French magazines. During the dictator Franco’s time, Gloria Jimenez would often be tasked to fly and cook for him, usually to make some special fish dish he was very fond of in addition to, naturally, the Tarta Imperial de Rusa that she was known for doing so well.

Now comes the really good news. Gloria Jimenez happens to be the aunt of Juan Carlos de Terry, fondly called JC by all, owner of Terry’s here in Manila. It could have been earlier but JC says he was a boy of about five or six years old when became aware of the presence of the Imperial Torte in their home. His mother would prepare it often in their kitchen. As if that was not enough, a chef who worked under his aunt also ended up working for them eventually. Naturally, the Tarta Imperial de Rusa was in his repertoire. JC cannot say for sure if his own mother got the original recipe from Gloria Jimenez herself or the chef who worked under her. Whatever the case, it was what it was: as if destiny decided that the integrity of the original recipe would be safe with the De Terrys.

I say that, and not entirely lightly, because with the passing of time the original recipe was tweaked a little bit here and there. As it went back and forth different kitchens at different times in different worlds, the unavailability of certain ingredients and inherent human resourcefulness (factor in, too, cost efficiency), made way for this and that ingredient in the original recipe to be either omitted and/or substituted for something else that “could work just as fine.” The almonds became cashews, or plain roasted peanuts sometimes (eventually it would and could also be macadamias and pistachios), the cognac easily became rum, the premium butter just margarine. That gave birth to what we popularly know now as sans rival and it all worked out fine, albeit in a different way.

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But ignorance is indeed bliss (and never more so than in this case) and you can never really truly crave for what you have never tried. We all got along just fine and dandy with all the delicious sans rival cakes we have ever had the pleasure of meeting in our life. I was fine, I’m sure you were, too. We were not missing anything. Or so it seemed.

One fine night, over good food and wine and even better company at Terry’s on Pasong Tamo I met the Imperial Torte.  The name intrigued me and while waiting for it to get to our table its history came tumbling out like a precious gold nugget. I felt like I had just stumbled upon a treasure! And we all did that night. It was great love at first bite for me, to say the least, and although I have felt this way quite a few times in the past — about a delicious pound cake, great chocolate chip cookies and mighty biscottis — I know, this early in my love affair with the Imperial Torte, that it will be forever. This is from the original, unadulterated recipe, the way they made it for the czars and czarinas of Russia back then. How could I not have known about this when I have frequented Terry’s countless times in the past eight, maybe nine years? A virtual treasure right under the nose of a hopeless foodie like myself and I never even knew! Because I tend to order my favorites all the time, look what I’ve missed. Being a creature of habit does have its downside. All that is part of the past now, and the present is sweetly glorious. My sweet cravings will never be the same.

Unlike the sans rival, the Imperial Torte is not as sweet but it is nuttier, and somehow the layers are more compact. It is really, really delicious, with it richness and decadence, but it’s not nakakaumay. If fitting into my clothes wouldn’t be a problem, I would eat a great big slice after every meal, every day.

JC says the secret, really, aside from using only the best ingredients, is in the way the almonds are roasted and how the caramel is made. “That is everything,” he says. For New Year’s Eve I ordered a whole cake, about the size of a Macbook, but much, much thicker. It lasted less than a day — from New Year’s Eve till New Year’s Day lunch only.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out why.

Here’s the thing. This recipe is practically endangered. It has been tugged and pulled too many times that no one knows anymore how to make it the good, old original way — that is, save for two. JC still does it in their kitchen right here in Manila at Terry’s, and the only other recipe still lives in Puerto Sta. Maria in Cadiz, Spain, courtesy of yet another guy who happened to work under the chef who worked for Gloria Jimenez. You get the picture.

This sweet dish has both history and a life. I love it.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the sans rival cakes we know so well; they are delicious in their own right. But it just feels strangely so good, so delightfully yummy, to come so close and to have such easy access to the real thing, the one that started it all.

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For orders, call Terry’s, with branches on Pasong Tamo, Makati (844-1816), The Podium (638-5725), and Salcedo (889-3194).

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There will be a workshop on Introduction to Lectio Divina on Feb. 28, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at the Roozen Hall of Don Bosco Parish, corner A. Arnaiz Avenue and Amorsolo Street. To register, contact the COP Secretariat at 750-0231.

Lectio Divina is listening to the word of God in scripture, a way of listening as if we were in conversation with Christ and He were suggesting the topics of conversation. It aims to deepen our relationship with Him beyond mere acquaintanceship to an attitude of friendship, trust and love. Please try to make it there, it will surely be a beautiful day.

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