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Friday, July 12, 2024

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Plating four centuries | César Niño’s cookbook 1607 brings back an older chapter of Spanish cuisine


Olla podrida or the Rotten Pot
| Photo Credit: Luis F. Lorenzo

My time in Salamanca, a UNESCO heritage world city in Madrid, is a veritable time travel across centuries. But it is my last dinner in the golden city — named after its yellow-tinted local stone — that encompasses this the most.

At El Alquimista, chef César Niño’s five-course menu celebrates local produce, Spanish cuisine, and his Catalonian roots. We sample Ajo Blanco, a velvety Spanish almond soup that we chase down with pull-apart bread and swipes of hummus. Umami-rich vegetarian farinato sausages follow, and lightly sautéed trumpet mushrooms served in a wild nettle sauce. With every dish, Niño narrates a story rooted both in the past and the present.

(L-R) Chef César Niño, photographer Luis Lorenzo, and gastronomic writer Santiago Huete

(L-R) Chef César Niño, photographer Luis Lorenzo, and gastronomic writer Santiago Huete

The conversation organically moves to food history and I learn that Niño has recently released a crowd-funded book, 1607 – The Stoves of the Colegio Mayor (published last December), with photographer Luis Lorenzo and gastronomic writer-journalist Santiago Huete. It is a re-imagination of a recipe book written in 1607 by Domingo Hernández de Maceras, a cook in an old Students Residence belonging to the University of Salamanca, called Libro del Arte de Cozina.

The original, he shares, is the only book published between the 15th and 17th centuries that documents the food of the masses — from torrijas (French toast) and bollo maimón (sweet from Salamanca) to rare recipes such as stuffed carrot and frog legs blancmange. “The soup you had is an evolution of what our forefathers consumed,” Niño says.

El Alquimista and (inset) Libro del Arte de Cozina

El Alquimista and (inset) Libro del Arte de Cozina

The research was part of Huete’s doctoral thesis, on the life of Maceras. “This period is very important in the history of gastronomy in Spain because it is the last form of Spanish cooking before the products from America, such as potatoes, peppers, corn or cocoa entered it,” says Huete, adding that though the book was “written 100 years after the Discovery of America, the cuisine it shows is pre-Columbian”.

Through a baroque lens

In the book, Lorenzo has represented each dish as baroque still life photographs that reflect the architecture of the times. “César raised the plating, similar to a still life — something more in keeping with the 17th century. On the other hand, since the recipes and the plates were going to be contemporary, part of the background would also be contemporary,” he says. “I have been working on this type of lighting and background treatment for some years to take portraits, but I had never considered it for food photography. So we decided to put all those ideas together.”

Revisiting the past

Niño has recreated and reimagined 30 recipes to suit today’s palate. “I may fine cook a stew or reduce a sauce as a paste,” he explains. “I studied how people lived in the 17th century and adapted it to our century. Neither physical activity, temperatures, economic capacity, nor the cult of gastronomy are the same today. In 1607, the evolution to more delicate flavours and textures is very clear,” he says.

Lamb in batter 

Lamb in batter 
| Photo Credit:
Luis F. Lorenzo

While the dishes from the book are not on the menu (Niño hosted a ‘reward dinner’ earlier this year for select customers), many of its nuances can be tasted in the restaurant’s offerings. Be sure to check with the chef for a chat on Spanish gastronomy, and if you are keen to try any dishes from 1607, Niño may host more special dinners in the future. Keep an eye out on elalquimistarestaurante.es.

Dine like Don Quixote

The recipes in Libro del Arte de Cozina resemble the foods mentioned in one of Spain’s most popular novels, Don Quixote. Huete explains that the books were published months apart — the novel in June 1604 and the recipe book in October the same year — as both received permission to be printed from Juan de Amézqueta, secretary of the King of Spain, in Valladolid where the court was located.

One dish worth mentioning is migas, a simple preparation of breadcrumbs cooked with eggs, chorizo, bacon and ham. Today, it is available in its many evolved variations, including a chocolate and cinnamon offering. Originally though, it was a meal for shepherds and countrymen, made in an open pot with ingredients sourced from the Castilian-Manchego region. The same landscape where the fictional knight and his squire, Sancho Panza, ate migas that they washed down with local wine.

Today, if you head to Alcala de Henares, the birthplace of author Miguel de Cervantes, the UNESCO heritage city pays tribute to him every October with Cervantes Week. The highlight is Cervantes Gastronomic Event, where one can try menus inspired by the food mentioned in Don Quixote.

The independent food writer and journalist is based in Mumbai.

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