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ghosts of the PAST : The roots of Spanish cooking

July 16, 1992|CHARLES PERRY

Today, Spain is one of the cornerstones of the European Economic Community, but its cookery still has roots in the Near East.

The Moors, who ruled most of Spain for 400 years or so and lingered on in the south for another 400, left a powerful mark on the local cuisine. It's impossible to imagine Spain today without the lemons and eggplants they brought from the Near East, or paella without their rice and saffron.

The Moorish influence was so strong that modern Spanish uses Arabic names even for some ingredients that were probably known in Spain before the Moors came, such as Swiss chard (acelga) and basil (albahaca). Spain had been an olive oil producer since Roman times, but the Spanish words for olive (aceituna) and olive oil (aceite) are borrowed from Arabic.

This is certainly odd, but it's a little easier to understand when you know how the Moorish occupation worked. To us, Spain may seem a hot, dry country, but to people from the largely desert regions of North Africa and the Near East, its climate was incredibly lush. It's not by accident that Spain was the only place where Arab poets regularly wrote nature poetry.

So the Moors settled mostly on farms, contrary to the usual imperial situation, where invaders settle in cities. Spanish agricultural terminology reflects the fact that the Moors dominated the countryside.

The Moors brought sophisticated irrigation and crop management techniques from their water-hungry homelands, and the result was a boom in Spanish agriculture. New crops were developed too, the most notable being the artichoke, which is a variety of the cardoon grown for its gigantic flower bud (the "choke" is what would develop into the flower). The name artichoke comes from an Arabic word for cardoon, al-kharshuf.

Some familiar Spanish dishes still bear Arabic names. Escabeche, the ordinary word for fish or vegetables pickled in vinegar (such as canned jalapenos en escabeche), comes from the Arabic sikbaj ; albondigas is the Arabic word for meatballs, al-bunduqa. The recipes for sikbaj and al-bunduqa given below come from a 13th-Century Arabic cookbook written in Spain and known as the "Manuscrito Anonimo."

The French like to think that they invented puff pastry in the 17th Century, and full-blown pate feuilletee , with its hundreds of layers, definitely did appear at that time. But it was just an elaboration on rough puff paste (demi-feuilletee) , which had been invented in Moorish Spain centuries before.

We know that rough puff paste was developed there because the earliest recipes for making pastry of paper-thin layers come in Arabic cookbooks written in Spain. The "Manuscrito Anonimo" and another 13th-Century Arabic book with the classic medieval title "The Superfluity of the Table" both give the same recipe: Roll the dough out thin, grease it, roll it up and shape it into a loaf, then roll it out thin again. The recipe even mentions that you can repeat the process to create more layers.

What clinches Moorish Spain as the home of puff pastry is that this was not the only way of making layered pastry given in the 13th-Century books. Moorish Spain in fact had an obsessive interest in the whole topic of layering. Thin sheets of dough were stacked on top of each other and baked, or twisted together and inflated before baking. Or a sheet of dough would be fried on both sides, another raw sheet would be stuck to it and the resulting "sandwich" would be fried, and then a third, fourth and fifth sheet would be cooked onto the structure, building up a sort of layered cake.

This interest in layering was not limited to the Moors, because the most primitive layering method--stacking thin breads on top of each other--has a Spanish name, folyatil , which is an early form of the Spanish name for puff pastry, hojaldre. Even after the Moors left, for a couple of centuries Spanish cookbooks continued to describe several of these odd recipes for layering.

As for Christian Spain, it was writing cookbooks in the 14th Century, almost as early as France and Italy. The oldest recorded recipes in Spain, apart from those written in Arabic, are from Catalonia. The 16th-Century Catalan dishes given below come from the most famous Catalan cookbook, "El Llibre de Coch" (ascribed to an unknown Master Robert de Nola), the first cookbook published in Spain.

Catalonia lost its independent existence as a result of the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in the 15th Century, which created the modern country of Spain. Before that time, whether as the County of Barcelona or the Kingdom of Aragon, Catalonia had ruled a substantial territory in Italy and southern France. The French and Italian cookbooks of the 15th Century give recipes for several Catalan dishes, such as capirotada , a dish of layered meat and bread moistened with a garlicky cheese sauce.

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