Sales of Mexico’s Epiphany pastry remain strong despite pandemic

By Monica Rubalcava

Mexico City, Jan 6 (efe-epa).- Although sales have fallen somewhat this year due to economic uncertainty and workplace changes stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, Mexico’s traditional “Rosca de Reyes” (King Cake) Epiphany pastry is still pulling in customers at bakeries nationwide.

One of the master bakers tasked with serving up this traditional delicacy amid the global crisis is 27-year-old Martin Baltazar.

Highly experienced despite his young age, he shares the name of one of the Three Wise Men, or Three Kings, said to have visited Jesus after his birth bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

“Sales are down a bit, but we’re still selling,” he told Efe with some resignation in his voice.

Traditional celebrations in Mexico were altered and truncated like never before in 2020, with people largely heeding health officials’ advice and social distancing to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Independence Day in mid-September was observed without festivities and people largely refrained from visiting the graves of their deceased loved ones on the Day of the Dead in early November. This year’s Epiphany, or Three Kings’ Day, also is being celebrated on Wednesday with similar precautions.

Even so, the popular slogan “las penas con pan son buenas” (bread makes worries fade) is alive and well in Mexico, where believers and skeptics alike will find no shortage of rosca desserts at pastry shops and bakeries.

This now very Mexican custom has its origins in Spain and is closely associated with Epiphany, a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ.

According to traditional Christian belief, the oval shape of the Rosca de Reyes and its decoration with candied fruits represent the bejeweled crowns worn by the Three Wise Men.

In Mexico, it also is common for a small plastic baby to be baked inside the pastry as a symbol of the newborn Jesus and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt to escape King Herod’s assassins.

Whoever finds the figurine in their slice of cake immediately becomes the baby’s godparent and must host a tamale dinner on Feb. 2 (Candlemas, or Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ) for all who shared the pastry.

“People are normally wary, and everyone tries not to end up with the figurine. But it used to be seen as good luck, like a blessing, to find the figurine in the cake,” the baker said.

Baltazar, who told Efe that he has fond memories of going to bakeries as a child with his relatives and later went on to study gastronomy, currently works at Elizondo, a pastry store in Mexico City founded in 1943.

“Here in Elizondo it’s been a tradition for nearly 80 years, following the same process using flour, salt, butter, eggs, sugar and yeast. To garnish (the cake), we use three-colored cactus candy (the Mexican flag’s red, green and white), fig, orange peel and cherries,” he added.

But keeping that tradition alive has not been easy.

Bakers have been barred from using ingredients like biznaga (an American species of cactus threatened with extinction) and instead had to rely on guava paste as a substitute.

Meanwhile, viral images of Roscas de Reyes with “Baby Yodas” or other figurines unconnected to religion show the extent to which customs are changing.

“I think it’s now more of an atheist tradition. Ever since they started selling Roscas de Tacos (rings of tacos) or (roscas) with fillings, it’s not so much true to tradition,” said Baltazar, who defends the classic pastry without outright rejecting the modern offshoots.

Although overall sales and large-scale orders have been reduced due to the pandemic, Baltazar said the situation for bakeries and pastry shops is not all doom and gloom.

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