To get to know Catalan cuisine, it’s best to start at the beginning: the year 1324 when the first cookbook was published in Europe. The book, called El Llibre de Sent Soví, was a book of Catalan recipes written by an unknown author in which the recipes highlighted the importance of scents and intricate flavors.
El Llibre de Sent Soví sheds light on the way Catalan people cooked and ate during the 14th and 15th centuries. Feudal Catalan lords liked to employ the best chefs of the age, and it was known throughout the Iberian peninsula that Catalunya was where food was best prepared.
The original Catalan manuscript, amazingly, contains the foundations of modern Catalan cuisine: sofregit (sofrito in Spanish) and picada. The recipes featured in El Llibre have various origins, including Arab-Andalusian dishes such as eggplant in earthenware pot.
Another early Catalan cookbook was written by Robert de Nola in 1490. His work, called El llibre de Coch (“The Cookbook”), included more than 200 recipes from the period. Not much is known about Robert de Nola, just that he was the head chef for King Ferdinand of Naples, and that he could have been Catalan or of Catalan parents, and that he lived in Naples. His repertoire included Catalan, French, Aragonese (from Aragon, a region close to Catalunya, and former kingdom) and Arab recipes.
An excerpt of one of his recipes for Tall de Cabrit (“Cut of Goat”) shows the ancient Catalan language written during the period, but the recipe is surprisingly modern.
La Cuynera catalana, ó sia, Reglas útils, fácils, seguras y económicas per cuynar bé (The Catalan Recipe Book and Useful, Safe and Economical Rules for Cooking Well”) is another important collection of recipes written during the second half of the 19th century. This work, written in Catalan, contains 500 recipes and is a guide that gives the “rules” to follow to learn how to cook just about everything: pasta, empanadas, turrón (nougat), liqueurs, and on and on.
In each of these early cookbooks, herbs play a big role in the recipes. Medieval Catalan cooking made heavy use of herbs such as cloves, ginger, cinnamon and cumin. In El llibre de coch, cinnamon, cloves and ginger are ingredients in the majority of recipes. La cuynera catalana used herbs like cilantro, rosemary, thyme and basil. Surprisingly, today most of these herbs and spices are decidedly absent from Catalan cooking.
Another important ingredient from the New World were potatoes, tomatoes and peppers. Eggplant arrived via Northern Africa, and by combining ingredients from these lands early cooks produced some of the most important dishes in Catalan cuisine: samfaina and .
Today, Catalan cuisine is a rich and varied mix of flavors which reflect the history of Catalunya, and the culture of the peoples who have inhabited the land. It continues to evolve via the influence of foreign cuisines, but seems to maintain its base in fresh, healthy ingredients and simple preparation methods.
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