In 1611’s Arte de cozina, pastelería, bizcochería y conservería (The Art of Cooking, Pastry Making, Bakery and Preserving), Francisco Martínez Montiño, Philip III’s and Philip IV’s personal cook, provides a series of recipes for bizcochos or long sponge biscuits made of flour, sugar, and eggs, which were one of the favourites desserts in early modern Spain. In one of these recipes, Montiño instructs the reader how to whip the biscuit dough, warning “that you must not whip any biscuits with two hands, as the nuns do, but with one hand as when you beat eggs to make egg omelette.”[i]
Montiño was not the only commentator to criticize nuns’ culinary techniques. In Los quatro libros del arte de la confitería (Four Volumes on the Art of Confectionery), published in 1592, the confectioner Miguel de Baeza asserted that “sponge biscuits were of good quality in Toledo and produced in large quantities in monasteries; although these biscuits were not as good as those made in the confectionery shops”[ii] (I’ve briefly discussed Baeza’s book in an earlier post, in which I examined the circulation of manuscript confectionery books among guild confectioners, some of them based on Baeza’s print work).
As scholars of early modern culinary literature have noted, professional author-cooks added personal comments and recipe corrections to demonstrate their professional expertise via their cookbooks. Baeza and Montiño used their privileged position to claim their culinary authority, in this instance by comparing and diminishing nuns’ baking skills. Their remarks clearly reflect the gendered division of culinary labour in early modern Europe between “male-professional-skilled” and “female-domestic-unskilled.” What is striking about their criticism is that nuns were (and still are) well-known for their prowess in the preparation of sweets.
As part of a larger research project on the gendering of sweet foods in early modern Spain, I examine how cultural associations between women and sugar might have translated into gendered modes of cooking and eating sweet food.[iii] I have shown that women of various social backgrounds, including nuns, played a crucial role in shaping a growing taste for sugary food in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Spain. Indeed, cultural images of industrious nuns making delicious sweet treats in convent kitchens prevailed across the early modern Catholic world. To honour ecclesiastical officials and families, nuns prepared a wealth of fruit preserves, small cakes, and biscuits, including bizcochos.
Did Spanish nuns have their own technique for making bizcochos? In an attempt to answer this question, I faced a series of methodological problems, partly as a result of the scarcity of surviving manuscript recipes written by women in this period. One exception is a manuscript collection of short recipes scattered through the personal papers of Sister Clara María Suay, a professed nun in the Royal Monastery of La Puridad in Valencia. Although Clara María Suay annotated two different recipes for sponge biscuits, she included only brief notes about ingredients and instructions.
It is unclear whether nuns possessed their own unique techniques to prepare their well-known sponge biscuits. Can we consider it a culinary “secret” kept behind convent walls? In any case, Montiño and Baeza’s recipes offer a compelling example of the gendered dimensions of cooking, which were often distorted and biased, and some of the methodological issues that historians face when seeking to uncover women’s culinary practices in the context of early modern Spain.
This research has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement Nº 891543.
[i] Francisco Martínez Montiño, Arte de cozina, pastelería, bizcochería y conservería (Madrid: 1611), p. 274.
[ii] Miguel de Baeza, Los quatro libros del arte de la confitería (Alcalá de Henares: 1592), p. 76.
[iii] For a more extensive account on this research, see my forthcoming article “Sweet Femininities: Women and the Confectionery Trade in Eighteenth-Century Barcelona” in Gender & History.