In Spain, Inquisitors Tracked Conversos by Their Foodways

This is the second column in a three-part series on the Jews of Spain.

Like all golden ages, the Golden Age of Spain would not last long. In the 12th century, the tolerant caliphs of Córdoba were overthrown by the Almohades, a fanatical Muslim tribe from North Africa. Facing the prospect of forced conversions, many Jews fled to the Christian territories in the north of the country. At the same time, Christian armies were pushing ever farther south, reconquering land lost to the Muslims centuries earlier.

By the 14th century, a dangerous combination of religious intolerance and economic insecurity had begun to darken the future of the Jews in Spain. First came famine (the opening decade of the century was so strangely cold that it became known as the Little Ice Age) followed by flood and then, for good measure, pestilence. The bubonic plague arrived in the port city of Barcelona in 1348 and within the year had ravaged the country: More deaths were recorded between August and November 1348 than for the previous 20 years combined. In the face of what must have seemed like biblical-scale plagues, it was probably inevitable that scapegoats would be sought. Before long popular sentiment began to turn against the Jews, who in their role as tax collectors and moneylenders were widely identified with the increasingly unpopular central government.

Levels of antisemitism intensified as the century progressed, culminating in the pogroms of 1391, when the Jewish sections of several cities were attacked by mobs demanding that the Jews convert or die. They did so, it seems, in almost equal numbers: According to estimates quoted by Jane Gerber in “The Jews of Spain” (Free Press, 1992), after a year of rioting some 100,000 Jews had been killed, while another 100,000 converted to Christianity and 100,000 more managed to survive by hiding or fleeing to safety.

Conversion was especially widespread among the upper classes of Jews, who had the most to lose, and by the 15th century the Spanish court was heavily populated with conversos and their descendants; even King Ferdinand himself was the son of a converso mother — “a fact which lends considerable psychological interest to the king’s later sponsorship of the Inquisition,” notes Erna Paris in “The End of Days” (Prometheus, 1995), her history of the Jews of Spain.

The Spanish Inquisition — officially known as the Holy Inquisition Against Depraved Heresy — was established in 1481 in the city of Castile and subsequently spread throughout the Christian territories. The Inquisition was directed against conversos, former Jews, who were accused of religious heresy and political subversion through secret Jewish practice. To establish such practice, the Inquisition trials (under the direction of Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada, who, perhaps not surprisingly, was also of converso origin) took testimony about the accused’s alleged Jewish activities — many of them, as it happens, culinary in nature. One Inquisition list of Jewish food practices, quoted by David Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson in “A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews” (St. Martin’s, 1999), reads in part:

cooking on the said Fridays such food as is required for the Saturdays and on the latter eating the meat thus cooked on Fridays as is the manner of the Jews;… cleansing or causing meat to be cleansed, cutting away from it all fat or grease and cutting away the nerve or sinew from the leg;… not eating pork, hare, rabbit, strangled birds, conger-eel, cuttle-fish, nor eels or other scaleless fish, as laid down in the Jewish law; and upon the death of parents… eating… such things as boiled eggs, olives, and other viands…

Inquisition prosecutors also paid special attention to those who fried meat in olive oil rather than lard, as was the common practice in Spain at the time. (Ironically, as Gitlitz and Davidson note, these lists helped to instruct later generations of conversos, who would otherwise have had difficulty finding information about Jewish practice.)

In their book, Gitlitz and Davidson have brilliantly re-created recipes from Inquisition-trial testimonies, which, like Lucie Bolen’s earlier book about Arab Spain, provide a fascinating insight into the Sephardic cuisine of the period. It includes some dishes that we would recognize today — such as a Sabbath stew made with lamb, chickpeas and white beans or the long-boiled eggs still known among Sephardim as huevos haminados — but far more that to the contemporary palate seem powerfully strange. To take one example, for medieval Spanish eaters poultry meant not just chicken or turkey or duck, but also capon, pigeon, partridge, peacock, crane, thrush, swallow and turtledove. Among Jews, poultry was often used to break fasts; it was variously roasted, stewed, fried and sauced (especially the smaller birds) and baked into savory pies. These pies — called, as today, empanadas — were beloved by Jew and non-Jew alike; they contained vegetables, cheese, fish and a wide variety of meats, including at least one version made from long-stewed sheep’s heads, which was served by some conversos on the Sabbath. Eggs were a staple ingredient, prepared in numerous ways: roasted, long-simmered for Sabbath-day huevos haminados, cooked in casseroles with cheese and vegetables. (Originally these casseroles were made on top of the stove and so were fritadas, meaning “fried”; this is the name by which they are still known today — also called by their Italian name, frittata — although now they are far more commonly baked.) Among the most popular vegetables were eggplant, beets, carrots and chard, often combined in salads, which were eaten both raw and cooked. Chickpeas were dried so that they could be used all year, and were always part of the Sabbath dafina.

The Arabs introduced a new ingredient to Spain during the 13th century, one that would radically alter the country’s cuisine. Sugar was used to an astonishing degree, not just in desserts but also sprinkled atop savory dishes, often mixed with cinnamon. Desserts made by Jews were essentially the same as those of their non-Jewish neighbors; among the favorites were confections made with the sweetened almond paste called marzipan, as well as candied fruits including quince and citron, and even candied squash, lettuce hearts and rose petals. Some desserts, however, were unique, meant to be served on Jewish holidays; notable among these were the honey-soaked fritters called buñuelos (nowadays called bimuelos by most Sephardim), usually made with flour and yeast, but during Passover simply with matzo meal.

Instead of cornstarch or flour, dishes were generally thickened with breadcrumbs, almond milk or a paste made from wheat soaked in water for several days and then dried. For flavoring there was copious amounts of saffron and lots of herbs and spices, generally used in combination within dishes. Finally, there was the staple flavoring called almorí (murrí in Arabic), a pungent paste made from water and rotted barley flour. Perhaps no other single ingredient so exemplifies the culinary distance traveled between then and now — and the impossibility of ever re-establishing the traditional cuisine of the Spanish Jews. Because after the Inquisition, of course, would come the Expulsion, leading to an absence of almost half a millennium. It is a great hole in time, a chasm too wide ever to be bridged, and so the Jewish cuisine of Spain will remain forever medieval.

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Letuario de Membrillo (Quinces in Jelly)

The jellied fruit known as letuario originated in medieval Spain, and after the expulsion became a favored delicacy of the Sephardic Jews of northern Morocco. It was made from a wide variety of fruits, including oranges, peaches, apricots, and even eggplants. This lovely variety is made with quinces. Try it with a good soft white cheese or mascarpone on the side.

2 1/2 pounds quinces

1 cup sugar

8 cloves

3 cinnamon sticks

1. Wash the quinces and peel them. Cut the quinces into slices about 3/4-inch thick. (Leave the seeds on the slices.)
2. Place the quince slices, sugar, cloves and cinnamon sticks in a large saucepan and add water just to cover. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, uncovered, until the quinces are soft and the liquid has reduced and become thick, about 1 hour. (If the quinces become soft before this time, remove them and continue simmering until the liquid reduces and thickens.)
3. Remove the quince slices with a slotted spoon and place on a cutting board. Let cool slightly, then cut away the seeds. Arrange the slices on a serving platter.
4. Strain the cooking liquid into a bowl, and then pour it over the quince slices. Let cool to room temperature (the liquid will continue to thicken as it cools), then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Serves 6.

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In Spain, Inquisitors Tracked Conversos by Their Foodways

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