Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Roots of Catalan Cooking

Not my own work - blogger blagged. Es de otra

Few cuisines are as attached to their historical roots as Catalan cookery is. Carla Passino compares today's fare with the medieval original.

'Catalans eat more graciously and better than other countries.' This may sound like a rave review by a food critic smitten with the menu at top Catalan restaurant El Bulli, but it was actually written in the 14th century by Francesc Eiximenis, a theologist who occasionally occupied his time with the rather more mundane concerns of eating and drinking. (bloggers note: he seems like a good sort)

Catalonia - intended as the larger area where Catalan is spoken - was as much a beacon of European cuisine in the Middle Ages as it is today, or perhaps more. It influenced cooking styles throughout the continent and especially in Italy, where it arrived through Sicily, Sardinia and Naples, which became part of the Catalan-Aragonese kingdom between the 13th and early 15th centuries. In a quirk of destiny, the Catalans were probably bringing back to Italy a much embellished version of what the Italians themselves had brought to Catalonia in Roman times.

The core of Catalan cuisine is of Roman origin, according to Rudolf Grewe, who was one of the foremost scholars of Catalan food history. The Romans brought to Catalonia bread, wine and oil - 'the classical triad' which, according to medieval food historian Massimo Montanari, fed imperial ideology and the food model it imposed throughout the Roman Empire. And Roman writers mentioned oysters from Tarragona, mountain hams and clams as local delicacies. (Bloggers note: well apart from the oysters and clams, the bread, wine, oil and ham are the same today...daily fare that is, not centuries old!)

However, this basic fare was greatly enriched in medieval times, when Catalonia became a flourishing centre of commerce which rivalled with Venice and Genoa for naval hegemony. Set at the heart of the Mediterranean, the country introduced and adapted many foreign influences into its culinary tradition. Arab cookery was especially important. The Moors held much of the Iberic peninsula throughout the Middle Ages and their traditional ingredients, such as rice, lemons or bitter oranges, made their way into local cuisines throughout Spain.

The Libre de Sent Sovi - which (presumably?) dates from 1324 and is one of the oldest cookbooks in Europe - lists a number of dishes made with aubergines, spinach or sugar which have a clear Moorish origin. Aubergines, for example, are served with almond milk, or cooked in a casola (casserole), and the book gives two recipes for alatria, pasta of Hispano - Arabic origin. Trade with the Muslim countries and Africa also brought in spices, which played a major part in medieval Catalan cuisine.

Cloves, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon - which were thought to have medical properties - were widely used in medieval Catalonia. A simple mig-raust (later known as mirrauste) of almond milk, in the book de Sent Sovi, calls for pepper, ginger, cloves and the ubiquitous cinnamon - as well as sugar.

Some recipes use saffron, which had already been known in Roman times but found a new lease of life in Moorish-influenced Catalonia. Not only did the spice become an integral part of Catalan cuisine and the cuisines which descended from it, but - cultivated as it was in Valencia and Roussillon - it fueled a booming trade with Germany and central Europe until the 16th century.

The Libre de Sent Sovi also carries one of the earliest recipes for two founding elements in modern Catalan cuisine: picada and sofregit. A paste made with ground almonds, herbs and spices, picada is to Catalan sauces what roux is to French ones: the quintessential ingredient, the cornerstone of good sauce-making. Sofregit, which may have influenced the Italian soffritto, was a stir-fry of chopped onions, garlic and herbs that was and is still used to flavour all sorts of dishes. The contemporary version is practically identical to the medieval one, save for an ingredient: the tomato, which came to Spain and Catalonia from America in the 16th century. (Bloggers note: tomatoes, potatoes and! Imagine a day without at least one of them today?...or hamburgers)

Beyond the individual dishes, however, it is the creative approach to ingredients which has remained a constant in Catalan cuisine from the Middle Ages. Sweet-and-sour combinations, for example, were common throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, but lost currency in later centuries. In Catalonia, however, they have remained an important part of the local heritage. Today's rabbit with pears, for example, or duck with fruit have their roots in the marinated mutton with pears and quince that appears in the 16th-century Libre Del Coch.

The other pillar book of medieval Catalan cookery, the Libre may have been written in the 16th century although it was published in 1520. The author was a Mestre Robert, who in later editions is identified as Robert or Rupert de Nola, head chef to Alfonso V El Magnánimo, king of Aragon, Valencia, Mallorca, Sicily and Sardinia, king of Naples and earl of Barcelona between 1442 and 1458. The book was probably a present for Alfonso's son, Ferran, who later became king of Naples, and it may have been a prime vehicle through which Catalan recipes penetrated Italian cuisine.

In typical medieval fashion, the Libre has plenty of sweet-and-sour dishes. One for all is the fritter of new cheese with sugar and honey, a version of which has survived practically unaltered in the former Catalan colony of northern Sardinia, where it is called a sebada or seada.
Mestre Robert often suggests sprinkling some sugar and cinnamon to give more oomph to his recipes, although, he says 'there are people who believe that you shouldn't sprinkle sugar on pottages cooked in meat stock and everything depends on the taste of the lord of the house.'

Sweets, such as marzipans and all sorts of fritters, feature prominently throughout the book - an indication that desserts played as important a part on the Catalan medieval table as they do today, although their serving style was different at the time. Another cookery book from the period is entirely devoted to 'totes maneres de confits' - from confit lemons to codonyat, a quince cheese which is still popular today. Perhaps it was familiarity with these recipes that prompted 15th-century Italian food writer Bartolomeo Sacchi, known as Platina, to say that the Catalans were undisputed masters in Lenten confectionery.

By then, the conquest of the Americas was looming on the horizon, and with it would come the last key ingredients of Catalan cuisine. Tomato, for example, added the finishing touch to the sublime simplicity of pa amb tomaquet - toasted bread with garlic, tomato and olive oil - while chocolate found its way into the saucepan to jazz up hare. (Bloggers note: chocolate as well, come on! What chance do we have!!)

Once again, new flavours went to add layers of complexity and riches to the Catalan pot, bringing it very close to culinary heaven. It is testament to the incomparable art of contemporary Catalan chefs like Ferran Adrià of El Bulli and Santi Santamaria of Can Fabes that they managed to improve on it.

(Bloggers note: El Bulli is not open all year and details of it and Can Fabes can be found via Google)

Category: Foreign



Span Ows said...

Gavin, (or anyone!) if you read this and translate it into Catalan (Google is now available in Català) I'll owe you 50 pints of your favourite ale! (if we ever meet!...or in the classic line from the film Shrek 2, "unless I never see you [again] or if I forget"!)

Gavin Corder said...

Las raíces de cocinar catalán
No mi propio trabajo - el blogger blagged.

Pocas cocinas están según lo unido a sus raíces históricas mientras que es la cocina catalana. Carla Passino compara precio de hoy con la original medieval.

los ' catalanes comen más graciosamente y mejoran que otros países.' Esto puede sonar como una revisión del delirio de un crítico del alimento golpeado violentamente con el EL en la parte superior catalán Bulli del restaurante del menú, pero fue escrita realmente en el 14to siglo por Francesc Eiximenis, un theologist que ocupó de vez en cuando su tiempo con las preocupaciones algo más mundanas de comer y de beber. (nota de los bloggers: él se parece como una buena clase)

Worth a beer Span? Had to do to Spanish then Catalan!

Span Ows said...

Thanks for the effort looks about 98% Spanish to me but worth a pint or 4!

I've actually written to the author to get permission to add her details and maybe web link to her site in the text.

Span Ows said...

Christ on a bike! The photo appears in every comment!