Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
August 8, 2022
Bookmark and Share

Mangia Bene

    Andalusian food, as with Spanish food in general, is salty. Perhaps the Spaniards have taken too seriously the epigram of their seventh-century encyclopedist Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636): Nihil enim utilius sale et sole (Nothing is more useful than salt and sun).

    A great deal of what we know about the historical roots of Andalusian cuisine is found in the works of the historian Professor É. Levi-Provencal who used Arabic hisba literature to study the early Hispano-Muslim cuisine of the ninth to twelfth centuries. Arabic poetry of the time also gives us some information. In the Kitab fadalat al-khiwan fi tayyibat al-taâm waâl-alwan, a late eleventh-century cookery work by Ibn Razin al-Tujibi there are recipes for oven-baked bread, migas de cabeza de ternero (pieces of calves head), sopas de leveadura (yeast soup), rosquillas rellenas de miel (honey-stuffed sweet fritters), bocaditos del cadi (the qadi's [magistrate] tidbits); alcorzas rellas (stuffed sugar icing), mantecadas (a kind of cake), almojabanas (cake made of cheese and flour, a kind of cruller), alcuzcuz (couscous), fideos (a pasta), guiso de carne de animales salvajes (a dish of wild game), gallina asada (roast chicken), tortillas de berenjenas (eggplant omelette), and guiso de lentejas (dish of lentils).

    Another commentator on Spanish gastronomy, Professor Solé Sabarís, has divided Andalusia into four culinary zones. The zone of meat and game is the Sierra Morena, the tip of the Iberica chain. The zone of wine and olives is in the Subbéticas chain. The zone of cereals, sugar, and oranges is in the Bética depression of the Guadalquivir valley. The zone of fish is between the third and fourth depression of the Guadalquivir valley.

    Although Andalusia is an arid land, the people are gay, enjoying life with a devil-may-care attitude, whereas the northerners are sedate and business like. Andalusian cuisine is not a cerebral and complex food as it often is in the Basque country or in Catalonia; rather food is prepared in Andalusia with the same abandon and simplicity with which people live their lives.

    The three most important native ingredients in Andalusia are olive oil, garlic, and wine. The most widely used herbs are thyme, rosemary, fennel, oregano, bay leaf, plenty of parsley, and, in areas where there was a significant Muslim presence, mint. Politically, Andalusia comprises eight administrative provinces, each with its own distinctive character, fitting into the four culinary zones. The culinary identity of each is dictated by geography, of course, but mostly by the degree to which Muslim cooks were in charge of the historic kitchen. Folklorists say that many Andalusian dishes traveled north to France when Eugenie married Napoleon III in the nineteenth century.

    The Andalusian kitchen owes a lot not only to the Arabs and geography, but also to the weather and the lack of firewood. Homes did not have indoor ovens because it was too hot and most cooking was stove-top. Kitchens usually had a poyo, a stone counter surfaced with tiles, running along one wall with inset hornillas or burners and an ash box underneath, there being no chimney to take smoke away. Very little firewood existed so fuel sources often consisted of olive pits, dried grape twigs, or picón, a pencil-sized charcoal made by smoldering bush branches which burns relatively free of smoke. Andalusian preparations simmered on these dying fires for long periods of time.