Alfeñique is a sugar confection of Arab and Spanish origin which was introduced into Mexico to replace the Aztec tradition of molding offerings with amaranth (a kind of pseudo grain).
The pieces are made from a paste which consists of powdered sugar, a vegetable adhesive, lemon and stiffly beaten egg white. The damp paste is similar to clay in consistency, allowing the creation of decorative figures either by hand or in molds. Interestingly enough, while the pieces are perfectly edible, they are quite hard and don’t melt easily in the mouth… so they are rarely eaten.
The best-known of these are the sugar skulls for Day of the Dead, which are decorated, often highly so, and traditionally feature the name of someone living, including children, for whom the piece is intended. These skulls are nearly indispensible on Day of the Dead altars in many parts (but not all) of the country.
Most of those skulls are mass-produced, but in Toluca, there is still a tradition of making these skulls, and even a number of innovative figures, in the traditional way.
Each October, the city sponsors the Feria del Alfeñique from mid-October to just after Day of the Dead. Its centerpiece is a market for artisans to set up stalls and sell their creations. Skulls dominate (including a newer version made of chocolate), but there are also caskets, crosses, miniature of other altar offerings such as pots of mole sauce, animals, skeletal figures, including those imitating various occupations, and more.
The artisans also make special pieces for the annual competition.
More recent years have seen the addition of various cultural events on the days of the Feria from its inauguration to its closing. These include dance and musical performances, plays, workshops and conferences. The 2016 version began on Octo 15 and runs through Nov 2.
Program can be found here.
Feature image credited to Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs