Among the diverse countries of Latin America, one thing they all share is the dessert known as dulce de leche (Spanish) or doce de leite (Portuguese). There are variations on the exact recipe and uses in every country, but all are based on the same two main ingredients: milk and sugar. This particular product made by Nestlé comes in a 13.4 ounce aluminum can with a paper label. It was probably produced in a large factory owned by the international corporation. The label states the name of the product line, La Lechera (the milkmaid), along with a drawing of the milkmaid and a suggested use of spreading the contents on a piece of bread. Although the depiction of a milkmaid is probably not realistic for a mass produced product, it provides visual appeal for the consumer. Along with being specified as dulce de leche, other names used in particular countries are included: Cajeta, Arequipe, Manjar, Fanguito, or Caramel. The rest of the label includes nutrition facts, ingredients, and a product description, all in English and Spanish. Inside the can lies a thick, creamy, caramel-colored spread made of milk, sugar, agar, sodium bicarbonate, and disodium phosphate.
Latin American cuisine is very diverse, influenced by a mix of indigenous, European, African, and Asian ingredients and styles. However, the rich desserts full of sugar and milk which are popular in the region come from a European tradition of sweet-eating among the wealthy which spread to all social classes in the New World. Sugar itself has been an important product in shaping the history of Latin America. It was first brought by Columbus to the Dominican Republic, and eventually large plantations were established in coastal areas, especially in the Caribbean islands and Brazil. They were producing sugar in such large quantities that lower prices led to increased consumption. “Sugar was transformed from a luxury product into one of everyday use by even the poor,” and remains one of the most widely used and cheapest domestic products (Cambridge). Likewise, animals’ milk for human consumption was also introduced by European settlers, who brought cows and goats with them on their ships.
The origins of the dulce de leche dish itself are disputed. There are several legends as to where it came from. One popular story is that it was accidentally invented in Argentina in the 19th century by a maid of General Juan Manuel de Rosas. She was preparing lechada (a drink of boiled milk and sugar) when she got distracted by the arrival of General Juan Lavalle, who had come to sign a peace treaty. Someone tasted the burnt lechada and a new delicacy was born. However, many countries today claim it as their own. In 2003 Argentina declared dulce de leche to be a traditional Argentinean product, and lobbied UNESCO to be its recognized place of origin. Uruguay was worried they would no longer be able to export the product and asked for it to be recognized as a product of both countries. The matter has still not been resolved, but it is domestically and commercially produced in so many places that it seems unreasonable for anyone to claim ownership.
Dulce de leche is a very versatile and popular product. It can be eaten alone, on bread or cake, alongside flan custard, or in between two cookies known as alfajores. This Nestlé brand is particularly significant because it shows industrialization and globalization at work. It has been mass produced to be shipped anywhere in the world, and for people to save time rather than making it from scratch. It is exported to countries outside Latin America as well, including the U.S., allowing U.S. Americans to be exposed to a new food item as well as for Latin Americans to easily access a familiar food from their homeland. After all, it can be found even in ubiquitous chain supermarkets such as Stop-and-Shop or Wal-Mart and in small ethnic Latino groceries as well. Now that people in other parts of the world are growing to love dulce de leche, it can be found in Haagen-Dazs ice cream, Starbucks coffee, and brownie recipes. Of course, there will always be those who believe it tastes best homemade on the kitchen stove.
“Dulce de Leche”, 18 Sept 2007, http://www.cooksinfo.com/dulce-de-leche
“What is Dulce de Leche?” The Cupcake Project, 26 Jan 2008, http://www.cupcakeproject.com/2008/01/what-is-dulce-de-leche.html
“Life is Sweeter with Dulce de Leche”, 29 Nov 2011, http://bsas4u.com/blog/en/2011/11/life-is-sweeter-with-dulce-de-leche.html
Beatriz Alvarez, “South American Famous Dessert – Dulce De Leche”, 19 Jan 2009, http://ezinearticles.com/?South-American-Famous-Dessert—Dulce-De-Leche&id=1897385
Peter Sharpe, Sugar Cane: Past and Present, http://web.archive.org/web/20110710203319/http://www.ethnoleaflets.com//leaflets/sugar.htm
Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas, The Cambridge World History of Food, http://www.cambridge.org/us/books/kiple/sugar.htm