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Recalling the Golden Days of Spain

This is the first in a three-part series.

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Every American schoolchild has learned the rhyme, “In 1492/ Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” It’s too often forgotten that this was the very same year in which Columbus’s patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, issued an edict expelling all Jews from Spain. Before the year was out some 175,000 Spanish Jews had been cast into exile, bringing to an end a 1,500-year sojourn in Sepharad (the Hebrew word for Spain), during which time the Jews of Spain had created perhaps the most illustrious of all Jewish communities. Indeed, during the so-called Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, from the 10th through the 12th centuries, the country’s Jews came to think of Spain as a “second Jerusalem,” and so the expulsion meant for them a kind of double exile, a fate especially bitter.

At the height of their glory, in the 12th century, the Jews of Spain accounted for some 90% of the world’s entire Jewish population (these numbers are from Jane Gerber’s “The Jews of Spain,” published by the Free Press in 1992); by 1700, however, after several centuries of assimilation in the West and destitution in the declining societies of North Africa and the Balkans (at a time when the Jews of Eastern Europe were undergoing a population explosion), they constituted only 50%, and by the beginning of the 20th century the number had shrunk to less than 10%. Today, nearly all of the world’s Sephardic Jews — in the strict sense of the term, meaning Jews who can trace their ancestry back to Spain — live in Israel, France or the United States. Only about 20,000 Jews (not all of them Sephardic) live in Spain itself.

Though legend has it that the first Jews arrived in Spain after the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE, a more likely scenario has Jewish merchants accompanying Roman soldiers there around the beginning of the common era. In the fifth century, Spain was conquered by the German tribes who had brought down the Roman empire: the Suevi, Vandals, Alani and, most lastingly, the Visigoths. The years of Jewish life under Visigoth rule are obscure to us, though they were undoubtedly nasty and brutish, replete with famine, war and religious persecution. The Visigoths, however, like the Romans before them, were shortly replaced by another conquering force. These were the Moors — the Muslims of North Africa — who rode into Spain in the year 711, establishing an Arab presence that would last until (that historic year again) 1492, when their last stronghold of Granada finally fell to Christian armies.

Antisemitic stories in Spain have long been told of how the Jews of Toledo opened the gates of the city to the Muslim invaders. While this is likely an exaggeration, it is easy to understand how, after centuries of oppression, they might have been enthusiastic about the prospect of a change in regime. As it turns out, this enthusiasm was not unfounded, for the succeeding centuries brought about a flowering in Jewish life in Spain that would earlier have been scarcely imaginable. The Muslim caliphs of the first Umayyad dynasty, centered in Córdoba, created a society of unprecedented religious tolerance, resulting in a rich synthesis of Muslim, Christian and Jewish cultures. It was a civilization marked by marble palaces, bazaars abundant with spices and jewels, public libraries, baths and fountains, hillsides planted with fig and almond trees. In cities such as Córdoba, Seville, Toledo and Granada, Jews were at the center of Arab Spain’s economic and cultural life. The multilingualism of the Jews made them invaluable in international commerce, and Jewish merchants traveled the world to obtain silk, timber, musk, spices; others served the caliphs as diplomats and ambassadors.

After the harsh asceticism of the German tribes (who had, for instance, banned Roman baths as encouraging effeminacy), the sensuality and literacy of Arab culture must have been a tonic, and a new Jewish poetry began to be cultivated in the tiled courtyards and orange-shaded gardens of Spain: a rapturous, wine-drenched verse that celebrated the pleasures of religious scripture and romantic love alike. Jews were also key players in the age’s advances in the sciences, from astronomy and medicine to cartography, which was at the time almost exclusively a Jewish occupation. (As Jane Gerber has noted, the device used to determine a ship’s position at sea, the quadrant, was known in Spain as the quadrans Judaicus after its Jewish inventor.) Jews were also well-represented in the field of philosophy, most notably in the person of Moses ben Maimon, more commonly known as Maimonides, the author of “Guide for the Perplexed,” born in 1135 in Córdoba.

The Arabs introduced several important crops into Spain, as in the rest of their territories in southern Europe, including lemons, bitter oranges, eggplants, almonds, artichokes and rice, as well as spices such as saffron. The result was a revolution in the country’s cuisine. In “La Cuisine Andalouse: Un Art de Vivre” (Albin Michel, 1990), Lucie Bolens has translated into French 300 Andalusian recipes from the 11th through 13th centuries; the recipes reveal a pronounced North African influence, from the many different preparations for eggplant to the extensive use of couscous, semolina flour and almond paste. Bolens includes five specifically Jewish recipes in her book, each of them extremely elaborate, involving many separate steps and lots of ingredients. In one of them, called “Jewish Partridge,” a partridge is stuffed in its cavity and under the skin with a mixture of almonds, pine nuts, eggs, oil, garum (a sauce that dates back to Roman times, made from fermented fish), coriander, cinnamon, pepper and an aromatic herb called nard. The partridge is then placed in a heavy clay pot and stewed (over a copper pot filled with very red embers) in a sauce of oil, vinegar, mint, citron leaves, salt and the pungent paste known as murrí. The partridge is served with a garnish of hard-boiled egg yolks and finished with a sprinkling of pepper, cinnamon and sugar.

Along the same lines is the “Jewish Chicken Dish”: First, a sauce is prepared by chopping the chicken giblets and simmering them with coriander, onion juice, pine nuts, vinegar, oil, garum, citron leaves and fennel stalks; the resulting sauce is then thickened with eggs, bread crumbs, flour and the ground chicken liver. The chicken is cooked until brown and then left to marinate in a mixture of oil, vinegar, garum, onion juice, nard and rose water. The chicken and its accompanying sauce are served on separate platters.

A third dish, Bolens notes, was prepared on Friday and left to cook overnight for the Sabbath. This dish begins with meatballs seasoned with cumin, rose water, onion juice and other spices. The meatballs are placed in a clay pot between two layers of a sort of cinnamon-flavored omelet, and then covered with another omelet, which has been flavored with more cinnamon as well as pepper and rose water. After long cooking over a low fire, the sealed pot is cracked open and the dish is presented with a garnish of mint, pistachios and pine nuts.

Bolens calls this dish “Recette juive de farce cachée,” literally “Jewish Recipe of Hidden Stuffing”; the name inevitably calls to mind the Sephardic overnight Sabbath stew known as dafina or adafina, from the Arabic word meaning “hidden.” Generally the term is thought to refer to the pot’s cover hiding the contents from sight, or to the pot being hidden in the smoldering embers, but here it seems at least as likely that the name indicates the meatballs hidden between two layers of egg. In any case, this is a dish that is no longer made anywhere, and in its lushness, and its very strangeness, it evokes for us the flavor of that long-passed, glorious time.

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This recipe comes from Ana Bensadón of Madrid, who has collected dozens of old Sephardic recipes. This cold salad is today often found on the Sabbath tables of Spanish Jews. Preserved lemons are available in many Middle Eastern and specialty shops or by mail order from the New York spice emporium Kalustyan’s at 800-352-3451 or www.kalustyans.com.

Ensalada Guisada de Acelgas y Zanahorias (Cooked Beet and Carrot Salad)

5 carrots, peeled

2 pounds medium beets (without greens)

1/4 cup olive oil

3 garlic cloves, chopped

2 tsp. paprika

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

Juice of 1 lemon

Rind from 1/2 preserved lemon, rinsed and chopped

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the carrots and cook until just tender, about 7 minutes, then drain and let cool. When cool, dice or cut into rounds. Add the beets and cook until tender, about 30 minutes, then drain and let cool. When cool, peel and cut into 1/2-inch dice.

  2. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring often, until golden. Add the carrots, beets, paprika, cumin, lemon juice, preserved lemon rind and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasonings.

  3. Transfer to a serving bowl and let cool, then refrigerate until ready to serve.

Serves 6.

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