New Los Lunas bakery and cafe serves up Sephardic cuisine
In recent years, some New Mexicans have begun recovering a fascinating and forgotten history, hidden hundreds of years ago when Spain began forcibly converting its citizens to Catholicism, a time known as the Spanish Inquisition.
It was during this dark time that many of Spain's Jewish citizens fled to the New World. While many, if not most, converted to Catholicism, some continued to practice their former religion in secret.
After several generations of this Crypto-Judaism, the old customs and the ways of the New World merged, people married into other cultures and adapted to their new home, and eventually in New Mexico a unique culture was created.
Today, more and more people are tracing their ancestry to discover a Sephardic heritage, a culture that has influenced New Mexico in many ways, including its unique cuisine. There are different groups of Jews, the Sephardi came from the Iberian Peninsula, including Spain.
Margaret Montez and her family are among those who have embraced their Sephardic roots. It was in researching the ways of her newfound ancestors that Montez discovered a culinary connection, which along with her longtime dream of opening a bakery, inspired her decision to open Bethlehem Bakery and Café in Los Lunas.
"In doing the study of the foods, I discovered that a lot of New Mexico food is actually Sephardic food that we eat in New Mexico," said Montez.
She used menudo, which they serve at the cafe, as an example, pointing out a recipe for tripe in the cookbook she uses, "A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain's Secret Jews" by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson.
To eat the lining of the cow's stomach comes from the Bible, she said. A recipe for biscochitos is also in the book, but under the guise of a different name, along with several other recipes that have a strong resemblance to foods regularly eaten at New Mexican tables.
Most of the pastries Bethlehem Bakery and Café offers are as recognizable as biscochitos, only with less familiar names. Some of the goodies the bakery offers are sufganiyot — doughnuts filled with raspberry or lemon filling or Bavarian cream; and babka, which are cinnamon rolls, and green chile challah bread, a bread traditionally eaten by Jews on the Sabbath and at holidays but with a distinctly New Mexican twist.
All the food is made from scratch right behind the counter as fresh and flavorful as if it had been made by your abuelita.
The cafe and bakery is operated by four generations of Montez's family, from her 6-year-old grandson, Michael, to her mother, Clorinda. Montez's two sons, Joseph and David, and her daughter, Esther, and her husband, Chad, also work at Bethlehem Bakery and Café.
Montez, who was born in Albuquerque, learned to cook from her mother and grandmother before spending 18 years in Santa Fe as a Carmelite nun, where she did all the baking for the convent.
She said a Jewish couple who split their time between Valencia County and Chicago are regular customers of the bakery and have told her that her food is not only authentic, it's better than some they've had in New York and Chicago.
"There is a uniqueness about New Mexico food," she said, "That's why it's unique, it's Sephardic, it's a blend of that."
The Bethlehem Bakery and Café is located at 227B N.M. 314 NW in Los Lunas. To reach the bakery and cafe, call 565-2000. Menus and additional information on the Sephardic connection to New Mexico can be found on its website at www.bethlehembakerycafe.com.
Contact Ungelbah Daniel-Davila