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Cervantes’ Gastronomy

There are lots of quotations and references to Spanish Golden Age in which the novel takes place. Both poor and noble people, as well as diminished gentleman, had food was the central role.

Gastronomy is present in the novel from the very same second phrase: «…An olla of rather more beef than mutton, a salad on most nights, scraps on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, and a pigeon or so extra on Sundays, made away with three-quarters of his income…» it was what Don Quixote ate. It was Cervantes’ Gastronomy.

That continuous presence of gastronomy catches a sight of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’s adventure—the name of the vassal remembers by itself the importance of food for the writer, always lack of emolument—where at least one dish is mentioned or reminded in every chapter. This has turned the adventure book into a real kitchen treatise—studied and used in houses and restaurants since its releasing—, the Bible of Castilla-La Mancha Gastronomy, including Madrid outskirts.

100 Recipes in Don Quixote

Cervantes’ gastronomical tradition—as there is near one hundred cooking recipes into Don Quixote— is still being clearly present in today’s cooking, and more concretely into Madrid and Alcalá’s gastronomy. Since 17 years ago, the City Hall of Alcalá celebrates annually the Cervantes Gourmet Days, during October—Cervantes’ month par excellence—when every kind of celebrations and commemorations around Alcalá’s writer baptism day is celebrated.

The most notable local restaurants participate in the gourmet days and offer menus for a fixed prize including Quixote’s recipes, mixing traditional ingredients with renewed techniques. Among them, there are several recipes made with cod, as tiznao cod with smooth garlic cream, ajoarriero, comfit cod fillet with atascaburras museline (smashed potatoes, garlic, oil and cod) or Pavía soldiers (cod fried in batter) with roasted peppers.

Besides those recipes, there are others such as roasted lamb or mourning and devastation croquettes (scrambled eggs with slices of bacon and chorizo or lamb brains). The Castilla-La Mancha roasted pepper toast and the crisply tasajo (deer meat and smoked and dried goat) along with many other dishes can be tasted those days. Discover the flavors of the best traditional cooking from the Golden Age and, at the same time, lighten, low fat and calories.

Bread, Wine and Rotten Pot in Cervantes’ Gastronomy

Cervantes’ gastronomy spread through Cervantes’ work gives a clear image of what it was eaten during seventeenth century in Spain, which fundamentally, as it was pointed many times by Sancho Panza, consisted on not eating or eating just a little.

The difference between a nobleman and high clergy diet (including monasteries’ monks)—which was plentiful and varied— and the popular one was immense. It was different to the point that it was unthinkable that people reached to eat any kind of food present at rich people tables; unlike today, when supermarkets are full of great quality products, some of them high prized with a wide variety and accessible for most consumers.

As Cervantes showed, general population was characterized by poverty and so their feeding was based on bread (rye or wheat mixed bread) and wine, rather watered down, that was also considered as food.

Bread was accompanied by salted food, such as tasajo, dried meat or dried fish—obviously in that period fresh fish could not be moved to the center of the peninsula—like cod, in which so many dishes are based on, or the similar ling, and trout. Equally, soups were basic in their diet, generally made of flour and boiled legumes or vegetables, in case there were some. Those who had the possibility of including some meat or dried beef (dried goat or smoked dried deer) reach their height with the rotten pot (olla podrida), a dish for popular festivities made with different meats and dressings. Sancho told us this way: «…That big dish that is smoking farther off,” said Sancho, “seems to me to be an olla podrida, and out of the diversity of things in such ollas, I can’t fail to light upon something tasty and good for me…»

The name of rotten pot, which have become the current cocido with its different types; from Madrid’s one to the mountain region one, from escudella to maragato—which in turn comes from another similar dish of Jewish roots, adafina. According to experts, the name evolved from the Spanish word poderida, meaning powerful, due to its powerful ingredients. Others disagree and said that such a name refers to the Spanish word poderida, as the final result was a white soup with the same color as rotten fruit, after its great time of cooking.

However, the fact that Sancho claimed his hunger does not mean it was the usual situation, as most people menu included milk and cheese or bread with onion in the morning, vegetable stew, pap, fried breadcrumbs or legumes at lunch and some soup at night. In case you were little richer, as the Ingenious Gentleman, diet included some more meat than for peasants and common people, taken mainly from sheep and lambs instead of cows.

The Cooking of Hunger

In fact, not only Cervantes’ literature but all novels from picaresque period are full of starving characters who were too poor to afford food, to the point that Quevedo himself called it the “hunger literature”, as Cervantes stated: “no hay mejor salsa que el hambre, y como esta no les falta a los pobres, siempre comen con gusto”.

If Don Quixote’s diet was crisp, Sancho’s was miserable, as he told himself: “Sancho ate without requiring to be pressed, and in the dark bolted mouthfuls like the knots on a tether, and said he, “You are a proper trusty squire, one of the right sort, sumptuous and grand, as this banquet shows, which, if it has not come here by magic art, at any rate has the look of it; not like me, unlucky beggar, that have nothing more in my alforjas than a scrap of cheese, so hard that one might brain a giant with it, and, to keep it company, a few dozen carobs and as many more filberts and walnuts”.

Popular food described by Cervantes at that time was not a guaranteed good, as not even the supply was stable. According to the cities, and in particular in case the crown and court resided in there, urban grown in population, leading to the increasing of prizes due to defects in transports, and in times of hunger, bad harvests…, which made people eat without expecting to eat another time that day.

That is why, it was not so important to enjoy food as to fill up as much as they could. When the opportunity showed up—as chronicle hunger sensation was general and even nobles had that idea of feeding to burst—gluttony was a highly extended capital sin among people of that social class. As an example, feasts of Austria dynasty kings, within seventeenth century, could be composed of hundreds of dishes.

Houses of nobles and high clergy eat that way, with admirable celebrations such as the one described in the famous passage referring to Camacho’s Wedding: «…The first thing that presented itself to Sancho’s eyes was a whole ox spitted on a whole elm tree, and in the fire at which it was to be roasted there was burning a middling-sized mountain of faggots, and six stewpots that stood round the blaze had not been made in the ordinary mould of common pots, for they were six half wine-jars, each fit to hold the contents of a slaughter-house; they swallowed up whole sheep and hid them away in their insides without showing any more sign of them than if they were pigeons. Countless were the hares ready skinned and the plucked fowls that hung on the trees for burial in the pots, numberless the wildfowl and game of various sorts suspended from the branches that the air might keep them cool…«.

Lorca’s Fried Breadcrumbs

Fried breadcrumbs made by bread and fried with chorizo and slices of bacon or other side dishes such as peppers or sardines have their sweet version, in which only breadcrumbs are used and toasted and mixed with milk, they are called white breadcrumbs, or chocolate ones, also called mulatto breadcrumbs.

These last were taken as a snack in more than one chance by the poet Federico García Lorca, which moved to Alcalá to taste them—to Hostería del Estudiante (opened in 1929), where they were typical—, when he went to visit the painter José Caballero (also stage designer of La Barraca, Lorca theater group), who resided in Alcalá.

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