One takes a fat young sheep, skinned and cleaned. It is opened between the two muscles and till that is in its stomach is carefully removed, In its interior one puts a stuffed goose and in the goose's belly a stuffed hen, and in the hen's belly a stuffed young pigeon, and in the pigeon's belly a stuffed thrush and in the thrush s belly another stuffed or fried bird, all of this stuffed and sprinkled with the sauce described for stuffed dishes. The opening is sewn together, the sheep is put in the hot clay oven, or tannur, and it is left until done and crisp on the outside. It is sprinkled with more sauce, and then put in the cavity of a calf which has already been prepared and cleaned. The calf is then stitched together and put in the hot tannur, and left till it is done and crisp on the outside. Then it is taken out and presented.
That is the recipe for a royal dish published in an early 13th-century book on Spanish-North African cuisine by an anonymous Spanish Muslim author from Valencia. The book is clearly intended to be a practical manual, written without any literary pretensions, yet it contains more than 500 recipes that give us an intriguing glimpse into a cuisine so original, creative and complicated that it reminds us of the vast world of Chinese cooking. It is the cuisine of al-Andalus - Muslim Spain.
Such brilliance required an appropriate setting, and indeed, from today's perspective, al-Andalus at the time of its greatest flowering - 200 years before the date of the cookbook - seems to have been a blessed world, an admirable civilization of both delicacy and vigor in architecture, poetry and other arts; a world where some of the most advanced philosophers, scholars, scientists and artists in Europe thrived (See Aramco World, September-October 1976). It was a world of tolerance where Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisted peacefully.
In the 10th century, when only about 40,000 people lived in Paris, the great Andalusian city of Cordoba had a population of half a million. It had lighted streets, libraries with hundreds of thousands of volumes, some 700 mosques and 900 public baths. The homes of the wealthy had fountains, plumbing and running water.
Splashing, moving water was music to the ears of the Muslims of al-Andalus, whose heritage lay in the deserts of North Africa. So was the grinding sound of the large and small norias, or water wheels (Arabic na'ura) by the arroyos and rivers (See Aramco World, May-June 1973). A few of the wheels exist to this day: They were built to last. They also inspired many poems, such as this one by Mahbub the Grammarian in the 11th century:
She sobs and weeps her streams of sparkling water,
She weeps, and the garden smiles with many a petal
Of deepest red, of white and brilliant yellow;
You'd say the smith made scoops of pearl, and not of metal.
Masters of irrigation, hard-working Arab cultivators transformed the dry Spanish countryside of which their people's conquests had made them masters. Water was channeled to fields and vegetable gardens, and the earth responded by bringing forth a cornucopia of riches, many of them never before grown on the Iberian Peninsula.
Wheat fields thrived and were expanded. The already famous olive groves grew immensely to cover vast tracts of rolling land, much as they do today. The cultivation of lemon trees, started by the Romans, was improved; so was that of the bitter orange. Originally from China, the sweet orange was introduced and acclimated to al-Andalus by the Muslims, as were banana plants and date and coconut palms. The date-palm groves at Elche, still productive today, were already famous in the days of the caliphs.
During January and February, then as now, valleys and fields seemed covered with snow. At closer range, the snow resolved itself into perfumed forests of almond trees in white and pink bloom. Originally from Central Asia, almonds, in one form or another, were a feature of almost every Anadalusian dish, and are part of uncounted Spanish dishes now.
Just as important, sugar cane brought from the Nile Valley swayed in the gentle, warm winds of semi-tropical regions like the lower Guadalquivir Valley and in Velez Malaga the Motril along the Mediterranean - where it still grows. Sugar had been unknown in Europe until the arrival of the Arabs in Spain.
In the famous vegetable gardens of al-Andalus grew beans of several kinds, endives, spinach, chard, radishes, leeks, carrots, celery, onions, eggplant and artichokes. Their quality, and their importance, apparently touched the poetic strings of the Andalusian soul. One Ben Sara from Santaren wrote this curious poem dedicated to the eggplant in 1123:
It is a fruit of spherical form, of agreeable taste,
Fed by abundant water in all the gardens.
Trapped by the cover of its leafstalks,
It looks like a red lamb's heart held in the talons of a vulture.
Vineyards produced the seedless corinto grapes, which were used to make rubb, a syrup used in the same way as honey. Diluted with water, it was also a refreshing drink - one still found today in Spain under the name arrope. Grapes were also eaten as fresh fruit and used to make wine and vinegar. Mostly, though, they were dried for use in cooking: Nearly all the traditional dishes included a mixture of sweet and savory ingredients, though the sweet was sometimes only represented by the honey and raisins in the condiment called almori.
Almori seems to have been used in every other dish that appears in the Valencia royal cookbook. It consisted of salt, honey, raisins, pine nuts, almonds, hazel nuts, and possibly some flour, all pounded into a paste which was then allowed to harden in the sun. As needed, pieces were broken off, soaked, and added to the ingredients of a dish. Sometimes the mixture was baked and served as a sort of pie.
Cherries, apples and pears were cultivated in the Ebro and Jalon river valleys and the much-appreciated figs nearly everywhere. The ones from the Seville area were the favorites.
A colorful sight and a mighty experience for the nose were the market places of al-Andalus. As one would expect from the tremendously varied cuisine of the region, the markets were piled full of all kinds of vegetables and fresh and dried fruit, meat such as lamb and veal, and a variety of game and fish, particularly tuna, shad, and sardines. And - most spectacularly - they included thousands of aromatic herbs and spices. Saffron, cumin, aniseed, mint, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, coriander, parsley and mustard were spices considered indispensable in the kitchen. Many were not known or cultivated in Spain before the Muslim invasion.
Golden, pungent, delicate saffron was used as a spice, not just for coloring. Some quite ordinary recipes called for a dirham - nearly three grams, or a tenth of an ounce - of saffron, a quantity worth about four dollars at today's prices even in Spain, where it is still grown and used in many rice dishes. Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, each tiny thread of it plucked by hand from the blossom of an autumn-flowering crocus; in the markets of al-Andalus there were mounds of it.
Drink vendors were everywhere. There was always tea, steaming hot, very sweet and perfumed with fresh mint; and arrope-like drinks were popular. Water was also served, often with the refinement of a dash of rose water or orange-blossom water in the cup.
Meatballs, a spicy sausage called mirgas, fried fish, and a kind of cheese cake today called almojabana were noisily hawked at food stalls. Another survivor in Spanish markets today is the churro, a kind of fritter which is now sprinkled with powdered sugar rather than, as in the old days, being dipped in boiling honey.
"Cuisine has the great advantage of having no political loyalties," said philosopher Feliciano Delgado Leon of the University of Cordoba. He was discussing the survival of Arab influences in Spanish cuisine. "People and invaders and ideologies come and go, but invaders adapt to local foods and vice versa. One of many, many things we got from the Arabs was the use of vegetables. The vegetables were not something that accompanied a meal: They were a meal in themselves. And they were cooked. You see it in all the Arab recipes from here. And we in Andalusia still cook our vegetables like that."
"The cuisine of al-Andalus - ahh!" The eyes of Don Jose Garcia, owner of Cordoba's fine El Caballo Rojo restaurant, lit up. "It is like a book whose first chapter gives no indication of where you are going to end up. By studying this cuisine, you obtain new dishes, new techniques, every day. And now with the blessing of refrigeration, we have many more possibilities still."
Don Jose is a middle-aged, cheerful, energetic and only slightly rotund professional of the kitchen, and a keen student of Andalusian gastronomy. He had many things to tell: "The most important thing that the Arabs brought was sugar. Their sweets are extremely important. Around Malaga, where the cane grew best, is where you still find the best selection of traditional sweets. Seventy percent of Spanish sweets are of Arab origin. Sugar, honey, almonds, nuts, eggs, and candied fruit are still the classical ingredients."
Don Jose grows passionate when he speaks of Andalusian vinegar: "The Arabs achieved great excellence in their vinegar. The vinegar perfumed the food, as did their oil. And the olives, yes, they picked them and put them in layers of salt where they would keep. So when fresh, virgin olive oil was wanted, they used those olives and pressed them then and there.
"And you know, our use of carrots, beets, artichoke, the wild asparagus - Ziryab the musician from Baghdad [died 852] taught us about the wild asparagus - all these dishes are completely Arab," he adds with glee, there being more than a little competitive feeling between his beloved Andalusia and Catalonia much farther to the north. "The Catalonians think they invented the dish of rabbit with snails. Hah! We no longer eat the dish, true, but at an archeological excavation here they just found the remains of a dish of rabbit with snails from the time of the caliphs.
"The stuffed dishes," Don Jose continues, "and the use of sweet and salt in the ingredients of the actual stuffing, are all of Arab origin. This sort of cuisine later arrived in Catalonia and then spread to other parts of Europe."
The proof that Don Jose knows what he is talking about is in the menu of his restaurant, which includes such complete dinners as this, all of whose dishes are of Andalusian Arab inspiration, and all excellent. He offers his patrons artichokes a la montillana, done in a sauce containing, among other ingredients, lemons, pistils of the saffron flower, olive oil, garlic, mint, stock, fillet of veal, salt and some flour; hake done in a delectable white sauce made with aniseed; alboronia, a dish based on eggplant (aubergines); lamb with honey; and pastel Cordobes, a rich delicate pastry. Even after two helpings of the pastry, the fortunate diners do not feel in the least stuffed.
The original recipe for alboronia, in the 13th-century manuscript, read as follows:
The preparation of buraniya, attributed to Buran,... wife of the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun, of whom it is said that she was the first to invent this dish.
One takes a fat young sheep and puts it in the pot with salt, pepper, dried coriander, a little bit of cumin, saffron and oil. The pot is set on a moderately hot fire; a tablespoonful of soaked almori and two of vinegar are added. It is cooked till half done, then taken off and [boiled and] grilled eggplant is added. One adds a layer of meat, and another of grilled eggplant. Then prepared meatballs are added, and chopped almonds; all is done with a lot of saffron. Then it is thickened with whipped eggs, with lavender or cinnamon or saffron, and crowned with egg yolks. Then it is put in the oven and left till the sauce has dried and it is blended and the fat is left. It is then taken out and put on embers and left a while. Then it is served.
The modern recipes for some of these dishes show surprising differences but also some surprising parallels with the instructions written 700 years ago. Today's Spanish alboronia, for example, is a meatless dish, and much simplified.
Sahatein! - two healths. Enjoy the meal!
Tor Eigeland is a free-lance photographer, gastronome and writer who has lived in Barcelona for nearly 20 years.