For Me, All Roads Lead to Spain

Sagres 1
A Piece of Sagres, a Piece of History (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Standing on the edge of the cliffs in the merciless wind, I struggled to keep my unruly hair out of my eyes. A losing battle it was, for I could barely see the roiling blue water below. No trees, scrubby grass, an old whitewashed church, and a modern lighthouse.

Nothing else.

Sagres,* perched on the tip of Portugal’s bleak Algarve region, now resembles a deserted airfield more than a spot that witnessed one of the greatest revolutions in human history. It is the perfect place for getting up to speed with sails unfurling. And its bleakness hides a romantic history. Some steps away from the cliff where I stood, Prince Henry the Navigator created a school for mariners. Those pioneering men learned well and eventually sailed around the world, driven in search of riches, including spices. Many of those spices played important roles in the Galenic humoral theory so entrenched in medicine and cuisine at the time.

Spanish, as well as Portuguese, navigators attended Henry’s school, as did Christopher Columbus, whose path led to Los Reyes Católicos, particularly Queen Isabella. And the rest, as the trite saying goes, is even more history.

As for cuisine, all roads led back to Rome. Or just about.The antecedents of Spanish cooking lie in Roman sensibilities, with the Roman’s excessive use of exotic and costly spicing, a practice that lasted longer in Spain than in the rest of Europe, thanks to the prolonged Arab presence for over 800 years.**

The history of cookbooks in Spain (and, by default, Latin America) rests primarily on one thirteenth-century Spanish cookbook that has survived the molds and fires of time, An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook. Another, Llibre de Sent Soví, in fourteenth-century Catalan, recorded  222 recipes  as prepared before the influx of foods from  the  Americas.  Other  manuscripts  dating  from  this  time  period also demonstrate borrowings from Sent Soví, namely Le livre du cuisinier de l’eveche de Tarragone, written in 1331; and Com usar de beure e menjar, written by a cleric,  Francese Eiximenis (1337 – 1409), who quipped somewhat nationalistically  that  “com catalans mengen pus graciosament e ab millor manera que altres nacions,” or that “Catalans eat more  graciously  and better  than  do other nations!”

Yet another cookbook, this one from the fifteenth century, Libre de totes maneres de confits, included 33 recipes for fruit confits, may have been based on material from the Sent Soví manuscript. The anonymous author of the Manual de mugeres en el cual se contienen muchas y diversas recetas muy buenas also cherry picked recipes from Sent Soví.

Arab sources such as the 10th-century Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Dishes), by Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq, provide a glimpse of the roots of spicing patterns used in medieval Spanish cuisine and throughout Europe. Characteristic ingredients found in Spanish cooking owe much to the presence of Arabs, who dominated the Iberian Peninsula from 711 to 1492. Many of the following spicing ingredients still appear in familiar recipes found in Spanish cooking:


Celery seed
Cloves                               Fennel                                         Parsley
Black pepper
Cubeb pepper

Convent and monastery cuisine impacted so strongly on Spanish kitchens, it is likely that the daughters of conversos (Jews or Muslims or their descendants who converted to Catholicism in Spain and Portugal in the14th and 15th centuries) made significant contributions. These women entered religious life to avoid marriage with Christians and brought their familial food traditions with them, along with their trunks of clothes, and passed those traditions on to their new communities. In particular, nuts, eggs, sugar, honey, raisins, and frying oil enriched baked goods and other confections. Another source of Moorish cuisine lay with the transfer of Moorish slaves to the New World by Spanish religious orders.

In Mexico, housewives could buy cookbooks as early as 1584. But, these came from Spain. According to John Super – in a presentation in Puebla, Mexico, on July 7, 1992, at the Simposio 1492: El encuentro de dos comidas – no cookbooks were published all of Latin America during the colonial period.

One of the most widely used cookbooks, Ruperto de Nola’s Libro de guisados, manjares y potajes, appeared in Castilian in 1525. Nola’s original title read Llibre del coch, likely written in Catalan or Limousin. Chef to Fernando, King of Naples, Nola mixed recipes from many different areas: Aragon, Provence, Valencia, Italy, and, of course, Catalonia. These formed the basis for many cookbooks that came later. Because Nola also added cooking times, ingredient quantities, and how-to dos, it is not unreasonable to conclude that like many early innovations, this pattern of cookbook writing became fixed.

But perhaps the most important Spanish cookbooks appeared in 1611, written by Martínez Montiño, head of kitchens for both Philip III and Philip IV of Spain..

Let’s consider Martínez Montiño’ s Arte de cozina, pastelería, vizcocheria y conservia.

Many of the recipes call for enormous amounts of meat, a fact reflected in the copious numbers of livestock – mostly sheep – raised in the vast open areas of Extremadura, Spain.

A recipe of interest appears on page 460 of Martínez  Montiño’ s opus: mutton in an adobo sauce. Carne adovada is a popular modern New Mexican dish, but completely different from the manner presented in Arte de cozina, pastelería, vizcocheria y conservia. Martinez Montiño mentions carnero forty times, providing cooks a large number of options for cooking one of the more common meats eaten by the colonialists.

As a matter of fact, colonialists in the New World disdained eating the deer and other game preferred by Native Americans, so the presence of recipes and the availability of sheep points to heavy ingestion of meat. Ingredients for this dish included bacon, honey, wine, almonds, “all spices,” cinnamon,  saffron, lemon or orange juice, and sliced bread tell a likely tale of beekeeping, importation of almonds and spices, and cropping of wheat. Knives, colanders, and large pots, all implied or explicit pieces of equipment suggest the possible presence of these items in the households, or at least some sort of substitutes.

Like many herbals, the sixteenth-century Spanish herbal, the Manual de Mugeres (Mujeres) (“The Manual of Women” or “Women’s Manual”), spills over with recipes for both food and medicinal treatments, including cosmetics. As is the case with many such books in Spain, Mugeres owes a debt to the Arabs. And to Mestre Robert’s (Ruberto de Nola) possibly 15th-century Llibre del Coch, originally written in Catalan and pirated heavily from an earlier (likely 14th-century) cookbook, The Cookbook of Sent Soví, both mentioned above.

The cookbooks tell a story, one that leads me back to Sagres, where, as the wind howled, I stooped down and grabbed a small pitted stone. Every time I touch the stone, I think of that day when I stood staring out to sea, marveling at the courage of the men who dared to break with the past and seek an unknown future, one that changed the whole trajectory of world cuisine.


See Carolyn Nadeau’s Contributions of Medieval Food Manuals to Spain’s Culinary Heritage (.pdf).

*For a visual display of Sagres, take a look at this video from Rick Steves.

**Catalonia proved to be an exception to the rule, as the Arabs lost their hegemony there in 801.

2019 C. Bertelsen