Spanish Cooks and The Essence of Their Art

“Just like in the movies, when the hero finally gets up to the ticket window and the clerk slams it shut.” That’s the thought that ballooned in my mind when I walked up to the doors of the Museo del Prado in Madrid on a Monday morning.


No Velazquez.

Of course, Monday. Here’s something mnemonic for travelers:  Monday = no museums.

Even though I really wanted to throw a hissy fit worthy of Scarlet O’Hara, I did what I always do when disappointed by something in life:  I looked for something to cook or to eat. Since cooking was out of the question at the moment, eating seemed like a good thing to consider.

Across the street, I saw a large hand-lettered sign, like the sandwich boards in front of American diners. 


I darted through the traffic like a ball in an old pinball machine and pushed open the door of the place.

As I sat down at the long bar, I couldn’t believe all the different dishes I was seeing. I glanced at the clock — only 10 a.m. And yet people jammed the joint, pointing to this dish and that, swilling glasses of red wine and smoking incessantly. What was that old saying, “When in Rome … ?”

So I found art that day anyway.  I gorged on some of the very same dishes that Velazquez included in his art.

Served in clay cazuelas, that food inspired artists like Velazquez to paint. And cooks/chefs like Francisco Martínez Montiño and Diego Granado Maldonado to, well, cook.

Francisco Martínez Montiño — chef to Philip III — named his book Arte de cocina, pastelería, vizcochería y conservería (1611).

And his rival, Diego Granado Maldonado, named his Libro del Arte de Cozina (1599).

Martínez Montiño’s book went through 22 editions before 1760. In that book, in a way common to some people even today, he passive-aggressively nails Granado Maldonado, out of jealousy aiming to destroy the other’s reputation. (For just one modern example, see Madeline & Julia.) According to Alicia Rios, Martínez Montiño wrote the following:

The intent I have in writing this little book is that there are no books which can assist those who serve the Office of the Kitchen, and that they cannot commit all of it to memory. Only one I have seen, and so mistaken, that it is enough to ruin whoever uses it, and composed by an Official who is almost unknown in this Court; and in this way the things of the Book are not practiced in a way that any Apprentice can benefit from, least of all the Spanish. (From Culinary Biographies, p. 272.)

Like Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq in his tenth-century Baghdadi cookbook, Martínez Montiño begins his work with an admonition on the importance of cleanliness in the kitchen:


De la limpieza de la cocina,

y del gobierno que ha de tener el Cocinero mayor en ella.

Otra cosa tengo experimentada, que hombre que sea torpe, o patituerto, nunca salen oficiales, ni son bien limpios. Procurese que sean de buena disposición, liberales, de buen rostro, y que presuman de galanes, que con ello andarán limpios, y lo serán en su oficio, que los otros, por ser pesados, tienen pereza, y nunca hacen cosa buena, que el oficio de la Cocina, aunque parece que es cosa facil, no es sino muy dificultuoso.

Funny, isn’t it, how nothing really changes?


Chapter One

Of cleanliness in the Kitchen
And the discipline that the head Cook needs there.

Another thing I’ve experienced, that clumsy men, bandy-legged, never are they skilled nor very clean. Look for those with a good disposition, free spirits, handsome features, and who think like winners, with all that they will be clean in their persons and will also be clean in their work, but the others, being sluggish and lazy, never will produce anything good, thinking that the job of a Cook is an easy thing, when it is nothing but difficult. (Translation by C. Bertelsen)

© 2010 C. Bertelsen


6 thoughts on “Spanish Cooks and The Essence of Their Art

  1. I’m not sure I would have handled my disappointment as well as you Cynthia. Although, Tapas live would almost certainly tame my frustration.

    I wish I could delve into the selection of books you share. I find them so confusing at times, I’m still trying to get through The Inns of Greece and Rome, without much progress. Thankfully, I get to enjoy your wonderful posts into the past.

    Thanks for sharing…

    I’m delighted you’re coming to the picnic. The letter M is yours. Can’t wait!!!


  2. Yes, those bandy-legged cooks could be something! Seriously though, it’s likely that these people suffered from childhood rickets and that led to the condition of genu varum, which in turn led to arthritis, mostly of the knees. So these maligned cooks may just have appeared to be slow and lazy, but in fact could not move fast.


  3. I must watch out for bandy-legged cooks! Maybe the Monday tapas crowd were the continuing Sunday night crowd? I can see why the siesta is required! As always, a very interesting post. Now I want to tuck into some fried chorizo!


  4. Well, I agree that there may be exceptions to the Monday rule, but for the most part, it’s a wise thing to remember. And yes, I thought the morning tapas thing a bit much, especially sheep brains in their original “container!”


  5. Beautiful painting!

    Monday museum closings are not quite universal. In Paris some museums open Monday and close on Tuesday (example: the Centre Pompidou). Frustrating!

    I lived a few blocks from the Prado for a month once, and was amazed that _beer_ with tapas was a late-afternoon favorite among the stunningly dressed office workers who socialized in the bars before going home. I suspect that tapas in the afternoon are a way of coping with the 11PM (or sometimes even later) dinner hour. But I never really understood Spanish habits. Interesting that you found tapas in the morning — I thought that was when they had coffee and pastry.



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