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
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Mangia Bene

At one time the Mediterranean looked like it might become a Muslim lake. Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, and its name was changed to Istanbul; by 1522 Egypt, Syria, and Rhodes were under Turkish domination--later, even Vienna was threatened. Muslim supremacy in the southern Mediterranean led to the rise of ports such as Oran, Bougie (Bejaïa), and Algiers. Bone (Annaba) in Algeria, a populous town manufacturing earthenware, consumed a lot of beef and exported wool, butter, and honey. Agricultural produce from the nearby plains flowed into the great market of Algiers and then on to Bougie. Boats from Oued el Harach, off Cape Matifou, transported wool, wheat, and poultry to Marseilles, Valencia, and Barcelona.

    Only Melilla and Ceuta, Spanish territory in North Africa and once important presidios, today remind us of the economic and military threat to Spain from this activity in North Africa. To counter the threat as well as to provide defense against pirates (like ‘Uluj ‘Ali, the Bey of Algiers, who drove the Spanish out of Tunis in 1569), the Spanish king Ferdinand V built a line of presidios along the North African coast between 1509 and 1511. To supplement the presidios, the Spanish also built major defense works throughout southern Italy and by 1567 more than three hundred watchtowers existed throughout the kingdom. The presidios represent a great missed military opportunity for the Spanish because they never moved inland to capture the whole of the Maghrib, the area of western North Africa that includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and sometimes Libya. The Turkish fleet was stymied and rarely crossed the Naples-Sicily line, where Christian bases at Malta and La Goletta in Tunisia, controlled by the Spanish until 1574, could threaten them. The Spanish also had a base in Messina in Sicily, which held a commanding position in a narrow channel. It had easy access to Sicilian wheat for provisions and was near enough to Naples to receive in short order men, sails, biscuits, hogsheads of wine, vinegar, fine powder, iron cannon balls, oars, and match and rods for arquebuses, the very heavy matchlock guns invented in the fifteenth century.

    The presidios grew into little cities, like islands, supported more from the sea than the surrounding lands. Mers-al-Kebir, Ceuta, Melilla, and La Goletta were all presidios that had windmills, powder magazines, cisterns, and cavaliers fixed with powerful bronze artillery, the raison d'être of the presidios. The Spanish supply ships plying the sealanes of the southern Mediterranean brought the fresh water, fish, and chickpeas needed to feed the presidios. Convoys left the principal port of Málaga to supply the presidios, dodging the corsairs from Algiers or Tetouan who would sometimes capture these ships, reselling their cargo. But at the same time Spanish ships were dodging corsairs, other small boats from Valencia and Andalusia called balancelle, carrying rice, perfume, and even contraband to Algiers.

   When the corsairs interdicted food shipments to the presidios, famine followed. But when food did arrive at these isolated presidios, dinner was often predictable. The diet of the garrisons along the Barbary coast in January 1569 consisted of flour, wine, salted meat, lard, chickpeas, tuna, and olive oil. Simple soups and stews were eaten by both the adventurers who garrisoned these isolated presidios and the corsairs who attacked them, and they always contained chickpeas. I don't imagine that the corsairs ever had such delicious preparations as the chickpea soup, but they may have.