14th Century Royal Cookbook Reveals Spanish “Pre-Mediteranean” Diet Of Kings

A 14th-century royal cookbook has been given a 21st century facelift and which reveals how the then Spanish nobility feasted on delicious and very fattening dishes.

The book, one of the oldest of it´s kind  with a rich index of local and regional recipes, was written for the Spanish nobility in 1324 and it has now been given a facelift by the university housing it, in the form of a facsimile edition for its 520th birthday.

The book includes all sorts of recipes and highlights how much animal fat was used at the time, so it is no wonder kings and lords often developed gout back then, a painful inflammation of the joints caused by excess uric acid from a bad diet.

There are also recipes for different kinds of butters not only from cows, but also from goats, pigs, sheep and other animals.

There was already a taste for Mediterranean food as the book clearly shows, boasting the most important and luxurious recipes from a pre Columbus time when Europeans did not yet have access to potatoes or tomatoes that were introduced from the Americas two centuries later.

The first page of the book.
(Univ.Valencia-Biblioteca H/Real Press)

The book, called the “Llibre de Sent Sovi” (the Book of Sent Sovi) is an old mediaeval manuscript believed to have been published in 1324. It is thought to be Europe’s oldest cooking treatise with recipes for Spanish dishes and to celebrate its 520th anniversary, the University of Valencia has gathered the recipes in a new facsimile.

The recipes are part of a greater manuscript called “Miscelanea varia” (Various Miscellany), which is kept at the University of Valencia, in the eastern Spanish city and region of Valencia.

The recipes are located between pages 109 and 117 and the book reveals the most important and luxurious dishes of the medieval era. It is written in Valencian, a language which is very similar to modern-day Catalan. It was the official language of the Kingdom of Aragon at the time, and it is believed that it was written by a chef working for the aristocracy.

Victoria Garcia, director of the Library Service of the University of Valencia, told Metropolitan Press that the book contains “recipes from before the discovery of the Americas (1492) so some ingredients are missing, such as potatoes or tomatoes and its focus is primarily on the Mediterranean diet as it includes a lot of recipes with fish, vegetables and meat.”

However, the recipes were not the ones used on a daily basis by common mortals, rather these were reserved for the land’s upper echelons, the aristocrats, as the ingredients mentioned in the book, according to Garcia, “were not for the popular class and were instead the kind of elaboration that shows that they were professional chefs.”

The book includes recipes that call for meats from hunted game, fowl and fish, ingredients that were expensive at the time and therefore only accessible to the upper classes.

But all the ingredients are from that part of the country, and they have even inspired contemporary chefs to create new recipes based on these historical ones, but with some differences, as “the amount of fat used to cook them would not please us now.”

Most of the recipes are for soups and sautes, prepared in a somewhat crude, rustic manner. One recipe, for example, for a soup, requires that the head of a hen be properly mashed.

Bacon was used as the primary source of fat in the recipes, instead of olive oil, as well as various butters made from different types of animal, something that is not very common nowadays, with people relying primarily on cow milk.

The book not only contains recipes, it also boasts instructions regarding how to cut and cook the various meats, as well as information about animal fats and vegetable fats, and even how to cook for people struck by illness.

According to Garcia, the most common practices at the time involved either eating the food raw, or boiling it, or in some cases roasting it.

Garcia also explained that the University has organised a day when one of the recipes will be cooked. They have selected the sweet fritter, also known as bunuelos, which are made with pumpkins, and which are one of the most popular dishes in the region.

There are commonly made during the popular Fallas festivals at this time of year, but these have been cancelled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the book containing elements of a traditional Mediterranean diet, the director of the Library Service said that the recipes were not as healthy as people’s diets today and would surprise many local cooks.

She added the book was evidence as to why “Kings and aristocrats often tended to suffer from conditions such as gout due to the high amount of fat they liked to consume.”

The recipes were written using two different inks, blue and red, so that the reader can see when one recipe ends and a new one begins. The book contains 70 different recipes in total.

The bunuelos recipe consists for example of the following: “If you want to make bunuelos, prepare flour dough, yeast, eggs and grated cheese, knead it, it must be thick. Prepare it in the form of balls. Put them in a pan with fat. When they are golden brown, place them in a bowl with sugar on the top and on the bottom”.

The book ended up in the university after the Mendizabal expropriation, which took place in the 19th Century. It was one of many eras during which the government confiscated goods and properties from the Catholic Church.

The book was eventually sent to the university by a convent in Valencia in 1837.


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