Q & A: Medieval Catalan Jewish Food (more familiar than you might imagine)

I just discovered, through DNA testing, that my ancestors lived in Girona. They left when the Alhambra Decree was issued. Do you have any recipes of Jewish specialties from Girona?  Thank you.  Ronit

Sure, Ronit! It may well be you know one or two already, as Catalonia’s medieval Jewish recipes were its first culinary exports.

If you’re familiar with spinach with pine nuts and raisins, you probably think of it as an Italian or Italian Jewish dish.  You’d be right. But there, too, in its endless regional variations (adding lemon and garlic in Rome, chive and anchovy in Genoa, sweet onion and vinegar in Venice, etc.), the basic recipe is attributed to the arrival of Sephardim at the time of the expulsion from Spain.

This classic dish is still eaten all over Catalonia, and you’ll be just as likely to find it made with chard as with spinach. Dressed simply with salt, pepper, raisins, pine nuts and olive oil, today’s typical traditional Catalan recipe is far tamer than European food was in the spice-crazy Middle Ages.  In that era spices were wildly expensive and people who could afford them made a big show of using them. Recipes wereoverwhelmed with a riot of seasonings; two or three fragrant herbs, easily seven or eight exotic spices, three kinds of nuts, sugar, vinegar, and floral essences (mostly rosewater) all might go into a single dish. Tastes have changed dramatically.

Interesting to note is that the sweet & sour element which was so important in Medieval Iberian cooking – and surely would have been found in this spinach dish – remains a component of the recipe in its many Italian guises, but has vanished altogether from the Catalan version. I believe this may be as much a reflection of political prudence of the era as a simple shift in taste. This recipe reincorporates elements of the Medieval style pretty faithfully. In the context of Jewish Mediterranean cooking it’s hard to think of this as anything other than Italian, but it is the way our Sephardic ancestors’ ancestors cooked – whether they passed through Italy or went straight to ports of the Ottoman Empire. Feel free to claim it as your own.

recipe

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7 Comments

Filed under History, Recipes, Your Questions Answered

7 responses to “Q & A: Medieval Catalan Jewish Food (more familiar than you might imagine)

  1. Thank you so much. I can’t wait to visit your restaurant when I travel to Catalonia!

    Yours,

    Ronit

  2. Absolutely correct. I love heavily spiced food like Indian food, which still does include a lot of those things, so I just blame it on my “medieval” taste buds. LOL. I in fact own, and have read, a book about spices and medieval cooking. Not only did they use exotic spices, floral essences, nuts, sugar and vinegar, they also played with their food to make it look like something it wasn’t- a roasted peacock with the feathers put back on, artichokes shaped like hedgehogs, etc. What’s interesting is that, as Italian cooking takes off, cooks and chefs began to celebrate the newer, simpler tastes as being “Italian” whereas the old, ornate medieval style of cooking was denigrated as being associated with the despised French. This is a dichotomy still present in both fields of cooking- I’ve known plenty of Italian chefs who denigrate French cooking’s complexity and praise Italian cuisine’s freshness and simplicity. I refuse to arbitrate that debate, however. Both French and Italian food have their charms.

  3. David

    I visited Ginora when I was living in Barcelona, and found it to be a fascinating experience. Although my family is mostly Ashkenazi (from Romania, Russia, and Poland), I found it really fascinating to learn about Sephardic history and food. Next time I’m around your part of the world, I’ll make sure to visit your restaurant.

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