The term artesanía roughly translates to “handcrafts” or “folk art” although cultural differences mean that the terms are not completely equal. For example, the adjective artesanal can and often is applied to certain processed foods such as bottle salsas, chocolate, coffee and alcohol if said products are made at a home or by a small enterprises that do not use industrial methods.
Despite the temptation cover some of these artisanal goods (as they ARE wonderful), I have stuck to products that fit the definition of handcrafted in English. However, there is one tradition that truly blurs the line between edible and non-edible “handcrafts.”
Alfeñique is the creation of a sugar paste, which is then molded into various decorative shapes. The term is not known to foreigners, but anyone who has been to Mexico during Day of the Dead (esp. in central Mexico) has seen its most representative product… a highly decorative sugar skull, with a place to add the name of a person. If the skull is placed on an altar dedicated to loved ones passed on, it can take the name of the deceased. If it is a gift to be eaten, then the name of the recipient.
The craft has a long history in Mexico, from the early colonial period. A number of sources link it as a replacement for the pre-Hispanic making of figures of amaranth seed and agave syrup, which was banned by Catholic religious authorities. This old link is probably why the tradition is most firmly rooted in the old colonial cities of central and southern Mexico.
Unfortunately, the cookie-cutter sugar skulls seen in supermarkets and even traditional markets are unlikely to be “artesanía” but rather more mass-produced. That does not mean there are no longer true artisans who work in sugar paste. They can be found in most of Mexico’s central states, Puebla, Estado de Mexico, Veracruz, Michoacán, parts of Zacatecas… but the center of truly creative sugar work is the city of Toluca, just west of Mexico City.
Here the paste is used to make all kinds of figures, not just skulls and while figures such as animals and such can and are made for other occasions, by far most of the production is for and related to Day of the Dead. The city has had a fair dedicated to its production of alfenique and other Day of the Dead crafts for years now and recently opened a museum dedicated to the craft as well.
The finished pieces are perfectly edible, but in reality most are not eaten. It is not sugar candy in the modern sense. It is a mixture of powdered sugar and egg white, with colors added depending on what the paste will be used for. In the case of skulls, the base is thicker and formed with a mold. The decorative elements are made with a softer paste that is piped on, much the way that decorative icing is applied onto fine cakes. Both harden to something that is not only very hard to break with the teeth, but really does not melt in the mouth (a la Jolly Ranchers) because of the protein in the egg whites. In the past, they were certainly eaten, as sugar used to be an expensive commodity. But today, if one wants skulls or other decorations that can truly be enjoyed as candy, items made from other materials can be had. At the Feria de Alfeñique, artisans demonstrate skills in making items from chocolate, amaranth (a nod to the past), tamarind, peanut marzipan, wafers and pepita (a sweet paste made from pumpkin seeds). While skulls are still central, the Toluca event also features other items such as coffins, miniatures of food items often found on Day of the Dead altars, (mole, breads, fruits…), full skeletal figures and animals, in particular, the deer.
The Feria de Alfenique begins in mid October and runs through Day of the Dead on November 2. The stands are open every day during the entire time, with cultural activities such as music and craft workshops available on weekends.
All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia. Featured photo of lighted sugar skull by Dulceria Tradicional Zarco of Toluca
Photo: 4th generation alfeñique maker Judith Gonzalez at her booth at the Feria de Alfeñique in Toluca.