How did you become so deeply involved with Altamiras?
It was in the 1990s that I was given a copy of his book. His style of writing, informal, friendly and personal, but always serious about cooking and aimed at the practical cook in modest kitchens, was memorable. And the aromas of his recipes, overflowing with ingenuity, overwhelmed me.
In the book you suggest that monastic and friary cooking are different traditions.
Yes. We tend to think of monastic cooking as one approach to food, but each religious order - for example, the Jeronimos, Cistercians and Carthusians - had its own kitchen rules, which gave very different styles.
What characterised the Franciscan kitchen?
The friars’ vow of poverty set their cooking apart. They did not wish to become landowners, so unlike many religious orders they did not own farm estates. Instead they relied on gifted or begged food alms for many of their staples - grain, pulses, fish, game and livestock - and grew fruit and vegetables in their large kitchen gardens. Alongside that, they rarely hired professional help for tasks like pig-killing, which meant their cooks needed to know how to cope with all kinds of hands-on work, as well as preserving methods and rules of recycling food to make improvised soups for the poor. All this helps to explain why Altamiras wrote his recipe book, what he chose to include in it and why it became a popular classic.
What does the book reveal about the Mediterranean diet?
Few European cookbooks paint such a detailed picture of 18th century food outside court circles and wealthy homes. In the book’s second half, devoted to meatless recipes, you can see how the patterns of what we call the Mediterranean diet took shape.
Could you give some examples?
Olive oil, replacing fresh or cured lard, runs right through the meatless recipes and one begins to see why there are so many Spanish techniques for cooking with it. The salt cod chapter also suggests how Mediterranean classics came about when cooks played with humble, cheap ingredients on meat-free days. Onion, garlic and tomato come into their own then.
What were the greatest challenges in writing the book?
Locating and interpreting archives is never easy work, but I’d say finding a historically rigorous writing style that fitted alongside Altamiras’ blunt yet intimate prose was the greatest challenge. It would have been easy to write a colourful, literary backdrop without any historical rigour, but it would have changed the spirit of the original book.
What surprises you about the book now?
The flavours, which are often intense and aromatic, but never overpowering. Altamiras’ flavour palate is that of a great cook.