Mar del Plata – On a hill, where Colón Avenue falls to the Atlantic, there is a museum that stores 30,000 snails in its windows. In them lives part of the history of all the seas and, behind them, the story of a man who’s no longer here
The story of an obsessive collector who left for the city a treasure of the ocean, but also created many years ago with two other men what is one of the hallmarks of Mar del Plata.
The forced souvenir of travelers. An irresistible mouthful of sweet tooth. A coveted gift like dulce de leche for Argentines who live abroad and, in some cases, almost as coveted as yerba mate: the alfajores Havanna.
The man was called Benjamín Sisterna and, with Demetrio Elíades and Luis Sbaraglini, launched in 1948 a product that today is known well beyond the sandy coasts that year after year summons tourists of all levels, but with the same taste for the alfajores.
Don Benjamín Sisterna was born in Jobson Vera, Santa Fe, and years later he was already walking through the streets of the missing town of Santa Felicia selling black cakes. Then he was a pastry chef in the capital of his province and at 18 years old, he arrived in Buenos Aires, where he worked as an employee in the traditional Los Dos Chinos confectionery.
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One day his brother sent him a snail from the South. It was the beginning of a passion. Another day he joined Luis Sbaraglini and created Santa Monica Alfajores; a less refined version of the “Merengo” Santa Fecinos and sold them in kiosks of the city of Buenos Aires.
He was already on the road to the distribution of the alfajor when in the 1940s a life led him to Mar del Plata, where he associated with Demetrio Elíades, owner of the Havanna confectionery, located in Avenida Rivadavia.
The sweet legend was born. “My father told me that the name was for Cuba, but he never knew how to answer why they wrote it that way,” says today his only son, Pablo Sisterna, whom in honor of Benjamin raised the “Museum of the Sea” at the top of Avenida Colón.
“My father told me that the name was for Cuba, but he never knew how to answer why they wrote it that way”
In the corner of Elíades’s coffee, alfajores were made in front of everybody and this format still lasts today. After the chocolate alfajores came the dulce de leche, the lemon cookies and the Havannets conitos. The success was greater than expected and “the alfajor almost became Marplatense at the hands of Havanna,” says Pablo.
At the end of the 50s, while Benjamin traveled the world looking for snails, there were already eight stores. In the 60s Sbaraglini and Elíades died, but the factory did not stop since the 60’s seemed more than generous for the business. The brand won the rights to display its name in the prestigious “Eden palace building”.
Between alfajores and snails
In the ’80s the alfajor became an Argentine souvenir, the brand granted concessions and franchises and Benjamín Sisterna continued to lead the firm, traveled, and already gathered a collection of 20,000 snails.
The old sweet formula was still triumphing. Mr. Sisterna kept diving until his last trip when he got the piece he longed for all his life for; an Adansonian Pleurotomania. He went down to the depths until the age of 75 and in 1995, when he was 80, he died and left a collection of 30,000 pieces from 3500 different species.
“He was a dreamer with his feet on the ground that brought his dream to reality. I thank him because he taught me that it is worth dreaming,” reflects Pablo Sisterna inside the imposing museum which showcases giant fish tanks where rays, eels, breams, crabs and small sharks swim.
Two years ago the company was sold to the Exxel Group and the history of the great alfajor continues in other hands. A cycle was completed, one initiated by Sbaraglini, Elijah and Sisterna.
“Are you leaving today? Are you leaving tomorrow? Do not forget to bring Havanna alfajores.”