Contemporary Catalonia has set the pace for cutting-edge "molecular gastronomy," the transformation of food substances into surprising textures, shapes, and flavor combinations. The world's most famous restaurant at the moment is Ferran Adriá's "El Bulli" on the Costa Brava and his atelier produces culinary inventions and flourishes such as foamed sauces, foie gras candy raviolis or paella Rice-Krispies. No direct line can be traced from the fourteenth-century Llibre de Sent Soví to the current Iberian vanguard, but within the standard repertoire of recipe offered by medieval cookbooks (of which about 150 survive), the Llibre de Sent Soví is remarkably individual and innovative.
As an artifact the first English translation of the Llibre is beautiful and simple. Robin Vogelzang's careful and thoughtful English rendering was made from the edition of 2006 by Joan Santanach and the Catalan text faces the translated pages. Santanach provides an introduction explaining the significance of the recipe collection and its textual history. With this addition there is now available an excellent selection of medieval cookbooks in English that includes the Viandier attributed to the French royal chef Taillevent, the cookbook of Master Chiquart, the Neapolitan cookbook (all of these the work of Terence Scully) and several Middle English collections edited and in some cases translated by the equally indefatigable Constance Hieatt.
The Llibre de Sent Soví (the meaning and origin of the name are still unexplained) is preserved in a unique fifteenth-century manuscript held by the library of the University of Valencia. In a brief prologue the author claims to have been cook for the king of England and to have written his treatise in 1024. It supposedly benefited from the advice offered by a royal squire named Pere Felip and was highly approved by all the squires and cooks of the land. All of this, needless to say, is to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt, but is interesting evidence for the assertion of international claims to fame.
Medieval cookbooks were always works in progress, being added to, subtracted from and exploited by other authors. The textual instability of the work makes it impossible to reconstruct something that can be considered an original version. The Llibre de Sent Soví opens with a contradiction between its introductory chapter Index (an incomplete list of 91 recipes), and the actual text that follows (comprising 72 recipes in a different order). It doesn't help that the prologue says there are 87 dishes. 30 recipes listed in the Index do not figure in the book and, conversely, there are 14 recipes at the end of the Llibre that do not appear in the Index. As Santanach shows in his introductory orientation, it is tempting but false to assume that the Index represents a guide to an ur-text.
The Llibre was put together from now-lost recipe gatherings and in turn it was used extensively by later authors in Catalonia, as well as in other parts of the Iberian peninsula and in Italy, especially in the work of the southern Italian author of Cuoco Napolitano. It is a mark of the political and cultural complexity of the Mediterranean that the Catalan Llibre del coc, which drew on the Llibre de Sent Soví, was written in the court of the Catalan ruler of Naples and was itself exploited by the author of the Neapolitan cookbook.
In certain respects the Llibre exemplifies general medieval culinary practices. There are many highly-spiced sauces made to accompany meat and to temper its cold and moist humoral qualities. Great attention is paid to color and appearance. Several dishes are given names that have nothing to do with their ingredients but rather what they look like. Thus "cheese cream"(formatjades) is in fact a thick seafood soup; "bird turnovers" panadas d'aucells have no pastry but rather are onions stuffed with poultry. While fowl is usually served fairly simply, spit roasted and cut up, meat is often chopped or boiled with broth and then further treated with spices, breading, shaping. There is a fondness for organ meats of all sorts, including pluck (Catalan: freixures, a combination of liver, lungs and heart), tripe, and resoles which may or may not be intestines but are some form of innards (the translator sets out but does not definitively resolve the problem). Several recipes for those suffering from illness or infirmity are offered, usually involving sugar and chicken broth. All of these attributes can be found in most of the grander sort of medieval cookbooks.
The Llibre is more specifically Mediterranean in the omnipresence of saffron and almond milk, the use of eggplant, and employing pomegranates, oranges and lemons to make vinegary substances such as verjuice. As the translator points out, two specifically Catalan techniques, often used to this day, appear in many of these recipes: picada and sofregit. The first involves ground up meat, herbs, bread, eggs or nuts used to thicken sauces or stews towards the end of their preparation. Sofregit is slowly sauted onions with other ingredients (in modern Catalonia with tomatoes and peppers). The Llibre provides a separate recipe for sofregit (in medieval Catalan sosenga), here a complicated meat sauce, but using slow-cooked onions as the key ingredient.
No mention is made of olive oil: the cooking fat of choice, as in most of medieval Europe, is salt-pork. One might expect fish recipes from a Mediterranean cookbook, and indeed medieval cooks, wherever they were, had to prepare fish during the numerous days of fasting (or at least abstinence from meat), yet there are only four recipes, one for fish in vinegar sauce (escabetx), a sauce made with fish, lamprey turnovers, and sauce made with eels. There are quite a few Lenten dishes, but these are mostly cereals, for example sweet creams of oats and barley made with almond milk (also intended for invalids). The presence of humble dishes on the order of porridges is characteristic of this collection which also features vegetables (lettuce pure, carrot pure, asparagus, and squash soup) and cheese dishes (two kinds of cheese sauces and two kinds of cheese fritters). Grains other than wheat, along with vegetables and cheese were often associated with rusticity and usually not considered sufficiently prestigious to be included in anything more than a passing way in most court cookbooks.
Santanach points out that the many highly flavored sauces included in the Llibre were made separately from the meat or fish they were meant to adorn, very different from what would become classic French techniques in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in which the meat or seafood juices were concentrated and used as the basis for sauces. Here the sauces were often envisioned as being served separately because there is a distinction between what is presented on a plate (meat in large pieces or cut-up fowl) and more fluid productions, such as stews and sauces, to be served in bowls. Yet despite the general medieval separation of meat from sauces, the Llibre has recipes in which at least the fat produced by cooking the meat is incorporated into the sauce.
Despite the items of continuity such as sofregit, the dishes in the Llibre de Sent Soví seem to be alien from what has come to be regarded as traditional Catalan cuisine and from modern European approaches to food. Sweet and sour effects, the use of a variety of spices, and a fancy for innards are all on exemplary display in an elaborate recipe for "grainy" sauce (salsa granada) made with ground chicken livers and cooked chicken bowels placed in a combination of chicken broth and almond milk to which cloves, cinnamon, ginger, cubeb, long pepper, saffron and starch are added. Sugar, orange or lemon juice and egg yolks are whipped into the boiling sauce and ground toasted salt pork or toasted bread can be used to finish. Not perhaps tempting to the North American weekend cook, but one of many fascinating windows into another gastronomic world offered by this welcome translation.