Routes and roots: a talk by Claudia Roden

This post was contributed by Rebecca Heald, a student on Birkbeck’s MSc Social and Political Theory.

I remember as a child my mother making us falafel as a treat. Whenever she did so, she would tell us the story of a couple in Cairo and how they would order falafel from the place below where they lived and hoist them up to their balcony using a pulley. At the beginning of their time living there they were young and lithe; but slowly, with the falafel and the convenience of obtaining them, they became round. I know now this story came from Claudia Roden’s legendary 1968 A Book of Middle Eastern Food.

Roden is one of Britain’s most revered cookery writers. She was born in Egypt in 1936 into the extensive Sephardic Jewish community living there until the 1956 Suez Crisis. Once propelled into exile, she began to miss the food she grew up with and set about gathering recipes. Subsequently she explored and documented a number of cuisines and she has just published her eleventh book, The Food of Spain.

As in Roden’s other work, recipes become a vehicle for history and emotion. This book, like the others, is an extremely personal offering. Experiences over the five years she spent researching the book triggered memories she didn’t know she had. Roden’s family was descended from Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492; her grandmother spoke an old Judeo-Spanish language called Ladino, and once immersed in Spain, traces of the old Muslim presence reminded her of the Arab and Jewish world she grew up in.

The starting point for her research was to ask everyone she met for their favourite recipes, what their parents and grandparents cooked, how they lived and what region they were from. Almost without exception the recipes confirmed that Spain is a country of carnivores. They also belonged to what Roden calls the “rural world”, going against the fact that now 80% of Spain’s population live in cities, not on the land, and seemingly in contrast to Spain’s now fashionable culinary avant-garde. The Catalan writer Josep Pla wrote that cooking is “the landscape in a saucepan”. For Roden, in recipes, there are also ghosts: she sees who was there before.

In the case of Spain, those who were there before include Jews, Muslims, Romans, Visigoths, French, Italians, Belgians, and Germans. In previous books Roden has used recipes to explore the differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews: history, joys and hostilities. Here in Spain, Roden finds that much of the food tells the story of population movements from north to south, coast to mountain to centre, and also, importantly for Spain, the Spanish Inquisition. Pork is shown to be a tool of the Inquisition. Putting it in everything was proof of being Christian. One never knew when the Inquisition was coming, but it seems it often came at lunchtime.

Now many regions are proudly rediscovering their past, many of those Roden meets declare they are descended from conversos. Every dish has a story, and often this is something to celebrate. Upon eating Santiago cake, made of almonds, sugar, eggs and oranges, Roden declares, that none of the ingredients are local to Galicia and it tastes like a Jewish Passover cake. Her hosts are delighted and push her onto local television to share her observation. The area has been celebrating its Jewish history for tourists and on a local farm they have been reenacting weddings complete with ceremonies under a hoopa. Roden’s culinary analysis was welcome confirmation of the fact that in Galicia there were many Jews who converted rather than leaving.

Roden herself has summarized ‘Spain’s regional dishes are memories and people want to hold on to them,’ a sentiment to which The Food of Spain bears rich and delicious testament.

This event was organised by the Birkbeck Food Group, part of the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

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The Food of Spain

This post was contributed by Evie, who also blogs at Saffron Strands.

It took Claudia Roden five years to research her most recent book The Food of Spain.  Sixty minutes was never going to be enough for this whistle-stop tour of the country and its cuisine.

Each visit Claudia made to Spain unearthed more food memories than she could have hoped for.  Each contact led to yet another person to meet.  She would talk food favourites, festivals and folk history in kitchens as “people open up in the kitchen, not in the living room”.  Most, be they workers or nobility, spoke of peasant cuisine being central to their food memories.

Claudia’s thesis is that Spain’s history of conquering armies meant a population on the move and tastes were, by necessity, unsophisticated. The aristocrats despised vegetables and ate meats, mostly game, though rabbits were left to the lower orders. In Bourbon and Habsburg times the Spanish nobility ate French cuisine. They followed the lead of King Philip V who employed cooks trained in the French court at Versailles. The current haute cuisine in Spain, she was assured, was a cuisine of “today”, though chefs claim to look to the roots of Spanish food for inspiration.

A quote from the Catalan writer Josep Pia “A country’s cuisine is its landscape in a cooking pot” was apt.  The diversity of the landscape of Spain has led to three styles of cooking: the sea; the plain; and, the mountains.  Claudia pointed out that, unlike Italy, dishes are not contained within regional borders.

The food of the wet, mountainous north was influenced by early French pilgrims walking the pathways of St. James, and by the maize, potatoes, beans and peppers brought back from South America by returning priests. The Visigoths introduced cider apples and pigs leading to dishes such as the Asturian roast pork with apples and cider.  The ebb and flow of religious intolerance can be seen in the foods of Jews who arrived in northern Spain to escape the rule of the Berbers in the 12-13th centuries.  To Claudia’s mind, the famous Tarta di Santiago is a good example.  In this sweet dish of almonds, eggs, sugar, butter and citrus she can see the Jewish Passover cake.

The hot, interior Plain was perfect for ranching and pastoral farming, feeding the rich on roast meats and the poor on “spoon” dishes.  After 1492, the Moriscos (Muslims forced to convert to Christianity) remained in the region until the 17th century leaving a legacy of Moorish dishes which we learnt exceeded that of Andalucia.  The fried breadcrumb dish ‘migas’, now widespread in Spain, came about when the Moors were banned from eating couscous.

The coast and Balearic Islands shared the mild climate and cuisine of other Mediterranean countries.  In Cordoba, on the Ruta de Caliphate, Claudia had enjoyed aubergine soaked in milk, floured, fried and drizzled with honey.  Having eaten a very similar dish in Morocco, it was difficult to argue its origins did not lie in Moorish rule. Later, Catalans re-populated these Arab-taken areas and brought their cuisine to the mix.

In all regions the clergy exerted a powerful influence over food.  The Catholic decree that fish be eaten on Fridays resulted in salt cod being named as the preferred fish of many Spanish people today, even those living near the sea.  Pork was a tool of the inquisition.  This can be seen in some areas of the country where the sheer number of dishes containing a little pork is a clear sign that the Inquisition was active. On Saturdays the clergy would check for smoke from the chimneys of homes to prove both Muslims and Jews were compliant in their conversions.

As in many European countries, the monasteries were famous for the quality of their cooking and in the convents pastries were baked for benefactors.  Attempting to extract recipes, Claudia was frustrated to find the convent visited was that of a ‘closed order’, with only Sister Immaculata having dispensation to speak.  This significant problem was later resolved by an unintended invitation to the Sisters to become Friends on Facebook where they happily ‘conversed’.

Claudia Roden’s talk was enjoyable if a little disjointed.  The time limit left speaker and audience a little breathless.  A bit more time and we could have benefitted much more from her learned yet engaging approach to her subject.

Talk based on The Food of Spain by Claudia Roden
Pubished by Michael Joseph

This event was organised by the Birkbeck Food Group, part of the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

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