Christmas Recipes in Early Modern Barcelona

Marta Manzanares Mileo

In 1786, Rafael d’Amat i de Cortada, a member of Catalan nobility known as Baron of Maldà, described the Christmas holiday in his memoirs, noting that: “All sorts of torrons are sold in confectionery shops at Christmas, and eaten as dessert at the table of gentlemen as well as many artisans and other people”[1]. 


Tomás Hiepes, Sweetmeats and Dried Fruit on a Table, ca.1600–1635, Prado Museum. Image Bank ©Museo Nacional del Prado.

During Christmas time, professional confectioners fully engaged in the making of the quintessential Christmas dessert: the torró or turrón. The traditional Torró is a confection made of honey and/or sugar syrup, beaten egg whites, roasted nuts — mainly almonds or hazelnuts — covered with wafer paper and cut into rectangular bars. This combination of ingredients brought together Arab confectionery methods with Iberian ingredients, which shows the intercultural culinary traditions in early modern Spain.

 

One of the earliest recipes of torró written in Catalan is the recipe for Torrons d’avelanes, or a hazelnut nougat, which is located in the 14th century manuscript recipe book titled Llibre de totes maneres de confits (Book of the methods of making confections) in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at University of Barcelona. According to the preface of this book, all these recipes were provided by many “notable especiers”, the medieval sellers of spices and sugary food. [2]

Recipes for turrón can be also found in the book Los quarto libros del arte de la confitería (Four Volumes on the Art of Confectionery) by the Toledan confectioner Miguel de Baeza (Alcalá de Henares, 1592), the earliest print confectioner book in early modern Spain. Baeza offers two different recipes for turrón: turrón fino (Fine Nougat), a ground roasted almond nougat, and the recipe for turrón entrefino (Common Nougat) made of roasted pine nuts.

Unlike other food recipes, confectionery formulas clearly specify the amount of ingredients as well as the ‘degree’ or temperature of sugar or honey syrup, as being fundamental criteria to obtain good results. Confectioners recognized the correct degree for each confection by the visual and tactile signs given by the boiling honey or sugar syrups. In the recipe Del turrón fino (Of Fine Nougat), Baeza instructed to test the degree of honey syrup as follows:

Take a bowl or a casserole pot and a bit of cool, clear water, and you will dip your finger into the water; and then you will dip your finger into the honey, and look it crumbles and then it is good.

The numerous references to the confectioner’s workshop and journeymen suggest that the Arte de confitería would have been intended for professional confectioners. Only two original copies are known to date, located in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and in the library of the monastery of El Escorial (Madrid). Strikingly, a third handwritten copy of Baeza’s work can be found as part of the manuscript notebook of Melcior Palau, a Catalan confectioner who lived and worked in Barcelona during the early seventeenth century.

Front page of the manuscript copy of Los cuatro libros de arte de confitería by Miguel de Baeza. Biblioteca de la Universitat de Barcelona (BUB), ms. 62, f. 53r. Biblioteca Patrimonial Digital de la Universitat de Barcelona.

 

From 1562, the members of the College of Druggists and Confectioners of Barcelona (Col·legi de droguers i confiters de Barcelona) were the main suppliers of torrons in the city. They were entitled to exercise as druggists, dispensing drugs, spices and other colonial commodities, as well as confectioners, making and selling sweets. The rich archives of Catalonia have revealed an unusually high number of confectionery books belonged to professional confectioners, in which they collected and recorded a wide range of sweets recipes. 

As regards Melcior Palau’s handbook, it contains an additional recipe for torró titled Per fer torons de amella (To make almond nougat). The annotations following this last recipe make clear that it was added by another reader, specifically Gaspar Arnau, the apprentice of the confectioner Melcior Palau. Here, the apprentice Arnau limited himself to indicate the quantities of honey and nuts.

BUB, ms. 62, f. 43v. Biblioteca Patrimonial Digital de la Universitat de Barcelona.

Palau’s confectionery book suggests handwritten copies of the print Arte de confitería could have encouraged a larger spread among professional confectioners during the seventeenth century. Furthermore, the multiple handwritings and annotations contained in this handbook show a wide circulation across generations of guild members. The exceptionality of Catalan confectioner books raises some questions about the extent to which similar manuscript recipe collections might be used in the acquisition and transmission of craft knowledge in other European urban contexts, alternative to oral transmission and print culture.

Bon Nadal! Merry Christmas!

Footnotes:

[1] AMAT i de CORTADA, Rafel d´, Baró de Maldà, Calaix de Sastre (Barcelona: Curial, 1987), vol. I.

[2] FARAUDO de Saint-Germain, Luís, “Libre de totes maneres de confits. Un tratado cuatrocentista de arte de dulcería”, Boletín de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona, XIX (1946), p.106.

A Recipe for Teaching Atlantic World History: Food and the Columbian Exchange

By Zara Anishanslin 

Polly Platt, Map sampler (1809), Made in Dutchess County, Pleasant Valley, New York, United States, Purchase, Frank P. Stetz Bequest, in loving memory of David Stewart Hull, 2012, 2012.64, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Polly Platt, Map sampler (1809), Made in Dutchess County, Pleasant Valley, New York, United States, Purchase, Frank P. Stetz Bequest, in loving memory of David Stewart Hull, 2012, 2012.64, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Teaching (and learning) Atlantic World history can be a depressing business. It requires thinking about the causes, course, and effects of some of the more horrific events in early modern history, such as the enforced migration of millions of enslaved Africans to Europe’s Atlantic colonies. Yet Atlantic World history has its more uplifting aspects, too. After all, it is a story of creation as well as destruction. Native American, European, and African people came together in cooperation as well as conflict. Exchanges among Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans fundamentally transformed cultures, politics, economies, and—of most interest in this forum—food and recipes on both sides of the Atlantic. Chances are, whatever recipes you regularly eat, at least a few owe their existence to transatlantic exchange between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Sebastiano del Piombo, Portrait, said to be Christopher Columbus (born about 1466, died 1509), 1519. Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 00.18.2, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Sebastiano del Piombo, Portrait, said to be Christopher Columbus (born about 1466, died 1509), 1519. Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 00.18.2, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Beginning with Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the Caribbean in 1492, plants, animals, and diseases new to Native Americans arrived in the Americas and Caribbean, while plants, animals, and diseases new to Europe and Africa, similarly, made a transatlantic journey in the opposite direction. In addition to well-known commodities like sugar, tobacco, coffee, and cocoa that traversed the Atlantic, more prosaic crops, animals, and germs crossed the Atlantic, at times accidentally. Things like pigs, cattle, horses, wheat, dandelions, rice, and smallpox travelled west; things like sweet potatoes, potatoes, corn, turkeys, guinea pigs, tomatoes, and (perhaps) syphilis travelled east.  Such exchange formed the roots of the “Columbian Exchange,” as historian Alfred Crosby termed the phenomenon in his seminal 1972 book of the same name.

When the ship of French explorer Samuel de Champlain ran aground in what he called Port Saint Louis in 1605, he described seeing gardens and fields filled with beans and corn, inhabited by Native Americans who met the Frenchmen in canoes filled with freshly-caught cod.  Native American food and crops captivated the imagination of  Europeans like Champlain.  This is evident from his map of Port Saint Louis, which  took care to illustrate lushly tall fields of corn as well as items of navigational interest.

What Champlain called Port Saint Louis became better known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. Fifteen years later, English colonists who arrived there described a very different place; a depopulated community so devastated by smallpox that Native Americans “were in the end not able to help one another, no not to make a fire nor fetch a little water to drink, nor any to bury the dead.”[1] Such were the disastrous effects of the Columbian Exchange.

MaizeDeityUnknown Aztec artist, Maize Deity (Chicomecoatl),15th–early 16th century, Mexico, Mesoamerica, basalt statue, Museum Purchase, 1900, 00.5.51, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
MaizeDeityUnknown Aztec artist, Maize Deity (Chicomecoatl),15th–early 16th century, Mexico, Mesoamerica, basalt statue, Museum Purchase, 1900, 00.5.51, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

But in its focus on corn, Champlain’s map also carries (if you’ll excuse the pun) seeds for teaching other, at times much less devastating, aspects of the Columbian Exchange—in particular, its impact on global consumption patterns, cuisine, and recipes. Corn was a fundamental food staple of indigenous peoples in the Americas, important enough to embody religious meaning to cultures like the Aztecs, who worshipped both maize god, Centeotl, and goddess, Chicomecoatl, seen in the statue below holding two maize ears.

Corn held very different symbolic meaning across the Atlantic. There, along with tobacco, palm trees, parrots, and representations of Native American bodies, corn became an iconographic symbol of  exoticism, often used in maps, paintings, sculpture, and ceramics.

SK-A-4254-2
Jacob van Campen, Still Life with a Bowl of Corn, Artichokes, Grapes and a Parrot 1645-1650), SK-A-4254-2, Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, The Netherlands

But “Indian corn,” like many other plants and animals that traversed the Atlantic after contact, ended up on tables in Europe, Africa, and Asia as well as in paintings and maps. What does teaching and learning about the Columbian Exchange look like if, to take but this single example,  we thought more deeply about corn? What were the long-term effects of food like corn crossing the Atlantic? What does following a plant like corn back and forth across the Atlantic tell us about changing tastes in Europe and Asia, about the ability of Native Americans and Africans to retain cultural heritage through culinary techniques and ingredient choices, and about the hybrid food practices of new, creole cultures established in the Americas and Caribbean?

Students read anthropologist Sidney Mintz’s fascinating book, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (Viking, 1985) in my class. So they are well aware of the often devastating but always transformative effects of people’s desire to consume and produce an edible commodity like sugar. But the histories of life and labor on an eighteenth-century Jamaican sugar plantation can seem, like the  histories of Native Americans, French, and English in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, very far away. What would letting students look at Atlantic World history through a more personally meaningful lens do to their understanding of these faraway histories of contact and exchange? What would choosing recipes they love that are based on food that migrated transatlantically tell students not only about the past, but also about their own families and tastes? How would it illuminate the theoretical concept of creolization?

What would happen, in short, if students researched “Recipes of the Columbian Exchange”?

Recipe for the Assignment:

Choose a recipe. Although not necessary, you might want to choose one that has personal meaning to you or your tastebuds.

The only criteria to be met are that:

1) the recipe MUST be one that would not exist were it not for the Columbian Exchange and

2) it must be a recipe, with more than one ingredient

First, describe the recipe. List its ingredients, identify its name, and provide information on how it’s cooked.

Second, go into more analytical and historical detail about it. What are the environmental origins of its ingredients? Which ones are those we can trace to the Columbian Exchange? Who first made it? And where? Why is the recipe important to you? What does it tell us about the contact between peoples and the exchanges of things that characterized Atlantic World history?

Tune in tomorrow to hear students chime in on what they learned by using recipes to think about Atlantic World history.

[1] Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, ed. Samuel E. Morison (new York: Knopf, 1952), 271.