Working for pastries

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The discovery of a 1940s grandfather clock, supposedly from La Campana bakery, sparks a tasty visit to one of the city ’s oldest and most beloved establishments.

It has seen a SPANISH REPUBLIC, two dictatorships and three kings. It has seen the creation of  the Bellas Artes Museum in 1904 and the opening of the Metropol Parasol, or Las Setas (The Mushrooms), in 2011. It has seen the first democratic municipal elections in 1979 and the Universal Expo in 1992. It has seen of the processions of 128 Holy Weeks and 128 years of the transformation of the city. It is the pastry shop La Campana, one of the oldest and most famous establishments in Seville.

Located on the corner of Sierpes Street and La Campana Square in the heart of town, this pastry shop preserves a Seville of the past. To the right sits a Cien Montaditos bar, a popular sandwich chain, to the leftis McDonalds, and Starbucks is across the street. Since its founding in 1885, La Campana has seen its surroundings transform into a bustling, tourist-centric shopping mecca. But the shop exists much like a statue, scarcely changing as the world buzzes and moves around it.

Sitting outside on a sunny day is an ideal place to watch the world go by. Car horns blare and motorcycle engines roar in the streets, as chattering crowds of locals with shopping bags, tourists with maps, student groups, and street performers playing the accordion bustle by La Campana. Passersby often stop at one of the outdoor tables to greet a seated friend or relative with a kiss on each cheek. “If you sit outside long enough, you are bound to see someone you know,” says Carmen García, 27, a waitress and shop assistant of three and a half years, native of Seville. In the span of 10 minutes, one seated family serendipitously greets a relative, a nun, and a teacher as the acquaintances pass through the busy corner.

“I want the fish,” a young man sitting at a table outside tells the waitress in an English accent as she looks back at him, the request clearly lost in translation.

“You know, the one that looks like a fish,” he says making a fish-face.

“Ah! Peces nata?” the waitress asks, referring to one of the cream-filled pastries.

! Yes!” the Englishman exclaims, visibly happy to have successfully navigated the language barrier. “La Campana,” he muses as the waitress walks away. “Look at these ladies. Look what they’re wearing!”

The employees add to the antiquated feel, with women wearing blue and white aprons,  reminiscent of traditional Swedish milkmaids, and men wearing pinstripe vests and bowties. Outside the store the diverse clientele range from old local couples to tourist families who together experience one of Seville’s most beloved establishments. “The tourists come with their guide books in hand,” Carmen jokes. “La Campana is a tourist destination in Sevilla, just like the Giralda!”

In November of 1885, Antonio Hernández Merino returned from the Philippines, where he made his money as a landowner in Manila, to build La Campana in the heart of Seville. The building itself has occupied the same corner since 1734, and Merino named his confitería after the plaza where it was built. The interior was designed in a lavish neo-Mudejar style, with Islamic reminiscences. Among other delicacies, they began selling traditional Andalusian sweets such as yemas sevillanas, a pastry made from egg yolk, merengues, and polvorones, which are Spanish shortbread cookies.

Since its construction, La Campana cemented itself as a staple of Sevillan culture. Not only has the bakery become a renowned institution, it has also made an appearance in Currito de la Cruz, a 1948 bullfight film based on the book by Alejandro Pérez Lugín. La Campana also had a role in the 1995 novel La piel del tambor by Arturo Pérez Reverte. Famous Spaniards have frequented the cake shop, including flamenco performers Manolo Caracol and Lola Flores. Until the proclamation of the Second Republic of Spain in 1931, La Campana was an official provider of sweets for the royal family, and king Alfonso XIII came here during his springtime visits to Seville.

After a historical renovation celebrating its centennial anniversary in 1985, the current store does not appear much different than it did in the beginning of the 1900s. Ownership has been passed down over the years through Merino’s family, and now Borja Hernández and his cousin José Antonio Hernández run the bakery as the fourth generation. Although the times and owners have changed, tradition remains the same.

Not only is the business family-run, but it is also runs like a family. “My favorite part about working at La Campana is Carmen!” jokes Raimundo, or Ray, a lively 29-year-old bartender at La Campana. “All of my coworkers are good friends, we have fun working here together like a family,” ha says. Ray, a native of Córdoba, has lived in Los Remedios neighborhood for 10 years, and has taken the bus to work at La Campana almost every day for the past six years. Some days Ray works a regular shift from 9 am to 5 pm, and other days he must come into work at 4 am to prepare for the day.

Next to its modern neighbors, La Campana appears as though it has been transported from another century. The wooden storefront is carved with flowers; images of women dressed like milkmaids plaster the windows, and La Campana is written in gold letters against a blue background overhead. Sweets of all kinds sit on display in the window in the springtime, including colorful bomboneras dressed in hooded capes and carrying candles like nazarenos (penitents) of Semana Santa. People on the street gather around the windows to gawk at the pastries, giant chocolate cakes, and boxed candies wrapped in bows.

Ray says that La Campana also makes special pastries for the Christmas season, the busiest time of the year, named mantecados. “I don’t like pastries much,” he says, a surprising statement from someone who has worked in a confitería for six years. “But my favorite at La Campana are the merengues,” Ray concedes.

Stepping inside the store is like stepping back in time. White columns stretch from the tiled floors to the delicately carved white and bronze ceilings. Behind the counter hangs a large, ornately framed painting of baby angels, reminiscent of the style of Michelangelo. A heavily stocked wooden bar lines the wall behind one of the many glass cases, each full of a variety of sweets including 10 flavors of ice cream, tartaletas de fruta (fruit tarts), palmeras (palmiers), muffins and more.

Carmen can remember visiting La Campana for cakes and sweets as a child, especially for the milhojas de turrón. She has a great advantage now. “My favorite part about working here is all the free pastries, of course!” she says with a laugh.