Thursday, February 11, 2016

Food for Fasting in Early Modern Catalunya

"...and then take clean blanched almonds and extract milk from them, but goat milk would be better..."

So specifies a recipe from Ruperto de Nola's "Book of Cooking" (Llibre de Coch / Libro de Cozina), a text published in the Catalan and Castillian languages in 1529. (This quote, and all others in this post, are taken from the translation by Robin Carroll-Mann, available in full at If goat milk would be better, why, then, does de Nola specify almond milk?

It is because the dish is for Lent, and this imposes precise requirements on the food.

In de Nola's time, periods of fasting in the liturgical calendar had expanded to cover nearly a third of the year - the entire seasons of Lent and Advent (save for the Sundays therein), plus every Friday and every Wednesday throughout the year save those which fell on major feast days. On these days, no animal products were to be consumed whatsoever - almost like being a modern vegan, save for the fact that seafood didn't count as "animal" and so was acceptable.

De Nola tells us a few things about how to adapt recipes for the season of fasting, in his second part which deals for dishes in the Lenten season:
Although the foods that you can make for meat days are infinite, many of them can be made in Lent, because in the chapters on those foods where I say to blend them with meat broth, those sauces or pottages can be thinned with salt, and oil, and water, but first you have to give it a boil; and in this manner, it is as good as meat broth if it is well-tempered with salt, and if the oil is very fine

Other recipes, however, take a bit more work. Consider this recipe for mirrauste (Cat. mig-raust "half-roasted", a dish which also appears in other sources from Catalunya and Italy):
Cook a hen, and then cut it up; and take unpeeled almonds, slightly toasted, and grind them; and extract the milk from them and cast them in a kettle; and cast in ground sugar and cinnamon, and cook the milk a little.  And then take the hen, and cast in within, and cook it a little; and then, take a little grated white bread and cast it within; and after it is thick, set it aside; and on the dishes cast sugar and cinnamon.
Naturally, this dish of stewed chicken (which, per other recipes including one in de Nola, is meant to have the chicken roast until it is half done and then finished by stewing in the sauce) cannot be made during Lent. At least, this seams natural to us today, for there is no obvious substitute for the chicken - but in his Lenten section, he ends the entire work with a "mirrauste of apples"!
You must take the sweetest apples and peel off their skin, and quarter them; and remove the core and the pips. and then set a pot to boil with as much water as you know will be necessary; and when the water boils, cast in the apples.  And then take well-toasted almonds and grind them well in a mortar; and blend them with the broth from the apples; and strain them through a woolen cloth with a crustless piece of bread soaked in the said apple broth; and strain everything quite thick; and after straining, it cast in a good deal of ground cinnamon and sugar; and then send it to cook on the fire, and when the sauce boils remove it from the fire; and cast in the apples which remain well drained of the broth; but see that the apples should not be scalded; so that you can prepare dishes of them; and when they are done, cast sugar and cinnamon on top.
Fish dishes were also a staple of Lenten cooking in de Nola's day. With "fish days" falling so frequently throughout the year, it's likely people didn't care to eat fish as frequently the rest of the time - at least, de Nola's failure to include a single fish recipe in his first part is perhaps evidence of this. But on the Mediterranean coast, seafood was abundant, fresh, and certainly a staple of the Lenten diet. In fact, de Nola notes, some people liked these dishes the best:
It seems to me that I have talked enough of many kinds of foods, and of the differences between them; and of serving and preparing all kinds of cooked dishes, and foods for meat days as well as for Lent.  And although some say that the Lenten foods are not as advantageous as those for meat days.  To this I say, that it is but the choice of individuals -- because there are lords who are more pleased with some foods than others -- and diverse appetites of individuals; but because one desires that it should be so...
"Escabeche" is a term for cooking fish and then preserving it in a sauce, usually a vinegar-based one. For meat days, de Nola extends the technique to rabbit and to pickling vegetables, but for fish days he offers the following recipe:
Take a crustless piece of bread soaked in white vinegar, and take blanched almonds, and toasted hazelnuts, and pine nuts, and grind everything together until it is well-ground; and when it is ground, blend it with fish broth, and then strain it through a woolen cloth; and then take a few raisins with the seeds removed, and grind them well with the other things, and set it to cook.  And cast in the pot all fine spices and saffron, because the sauce ought to be very deep in color, and sweet in taste, and black; however, the sweetness should be from honey.  And when it is thick, remove it from the fire; and then take the fish when it is cold, and put it on a plate, and cast the escabeche on top.

However, this sauce should be eaten with pandora or dentex before any other fish; and when you cook it, cast on the escabeche.  And when it is cold, put a little ground cinnamon on top; and then stick in some pine nuts, point upwards, all around the plate, and shredded parsley.

And this sauce is commonly served cold, but [served] hot it is not bad.
Other fish dishes are found also,  such as pan-fried mahi mahi, as are plenty of varieties of shellfish. This wealth of recipes makes it clear that, despite the nature of the Lenten season, it was not a time of doing without, for a variety of excellent dishes could be cooked which were utterly compliant with its requirements.

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