The roots of Catalan cooking

Wednesday February 9, 2005

‘Catalans eat more graciously and better than other countries.’ This may sounds 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.

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.

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, a 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 was 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 fuelled 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.

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.

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.

Two recipes from the Libre del Coch, adapted to modern cookery

Saluiat or Sage omelette


10 sage leaves

4 eggs

salt and pepper OR cinnamon and sugar

vegetable oil or lard

Beat four eggs. Finely chop the sage and add it to the eggs. Season the mixture. Heat oil or lard into a 10in/24cm pan. When the oil is hot, pour in the egg mixture and cook omelette style. The original recipe does not have salt and pepper in it, but it seasons the omelette with cinnamon and sugar after it has been cooked.

Arros ab brou de carn or Rice in meat stock


750ml stock

100 to 150ml milk (sheep’s, or goat’s or almond to stick to the original)

200g rice


1 or more eggs

sugar [optional]

Pour the stock into a saucepan and bring it to boiling point. Add the rice and stir. When most of the stock has evaporated, add the milk little by little. Continue stirring until all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is cooked. Season with cinnamon. The original recipe then lets the rice lie for one hour before adding the eggs, but modern palates may prefer to add them right away. In typical medieval fashion, Mestre Robert doesn’t say how many eggs should be added to the dish so it is down to the cook’s preference. Add one egg for a risotto-like consistency or three or four for a frittata-like texture. Mestre Robert also sprinkles some sugar on this dish.

El Bulli

Cala Montjoi 30


Tel: +34 972 150 457

Fax: +34 972 150 717


Open from 1 April to 30 September only

Can Fabes

Sant Joan 6

Sant Celoni

Tel: + 34 938 672 851

Fax: +34 938 673 861