Today is Ash Wednesday, so it is also the start of Lent, an important date on the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. Even as recently as 70 years ago, this was a time of serious abstinence when British Catholics denied themselves some pleasure for the duration of the 40 week-days of Lent.
Some people gave up smoking for Lent, others cut out chocolate, some stopped having a daily tipple. The idea was to drop something that was considered to be a daily pleasure.
The denial of daily delights in Mallorca and other parts of Spain was even stricter and many people referred to this period the ‘rigours of Lent’ — this was the time of year when one had to make sacrifices, especially at the dining room table.
As a non-Catholic, but an interested observer, I think the ‘rigours of Lent’ is a misnomer. When you take a close look at what can be eaten during this period, you cannot help but see that this event often looks more like a feast than a fast.
If you go back far enough, you discover that Lent was originally like Ramadan, when Moslems eat only one meal per day, observing a fast from sunrise to sundown.
The Church’s Lenten traditions, especially the culinary ones, started 1,696 years ago at the Council of Nicea. The 40 days of Lent were days abstinence when meat in any guise could not be eaten. There were also days when one was expected to fast — to have only one meal.
But rules were relaxed over the centuries and there was a constant evolution of what the Church expects from its faithful. Today, only the first and last days of Lent (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) are days of fasting and abstinence: one meal only and no meat. All Fridays during Lent are meatless days.
Foods that were permissible during Lent have caused considerable controversy in Church circles over the centuries. In the 17th century, when the faithful ate only one meal per day during Lent, there was a debate as to whether chocolate could be eaten between meals.
After much thought was given to the matter, it was decided that chocolate in its solid form was food, so it broke one’s fast. But it was permissible if melted in hot water and taken as a drink.
This ruling was popular with Spaniards and today Spain is one of the countries where a good deal of hot chocolate is still consumed. The centre of Palma has half a dozen cafes that specialise in cups of thick hot chocolate, often served with an ensaimada.
Another controversy concerned snails and frogs, both of which were an important source of protein for the rural poor. But were they meat and should they be banned during Lent?
St Thomas of Aquinas argued in the 13th century that meat came from ‘animals that are born and breathe on earth’. This meant that during Lent one could eat fish, shellfish, snails and frogs.
The ban on eating meat was a problem in the Middle Ages for those living far from the sea or rivers but they got by thanks to air-dried fish known as stockfish. This was originally called stickfish because the gutted and butterflied fish was impaled on a stick that was plunged into the ground at a windy spot where the air dried and preserved it.
Inland dwellers were given a fishy boost to their diet in the 16th century when the Portuguese introduced salt cod, called bacalao in Spanish. Salt cod soon became king of the Lenten table, one of the reasons Spanish regional cooking has so many wonderful ways of cooking it.
The other great Lenten savoury dishes were potajes, thick soups made with vegetables beans, lentils or chickpeas. Three classics were chickpeas with spinach, white beans with Swiss chard and lentils with rice.
Pies filled with fish or vegetables were also eaten during Lent. Mallorca’s veggie-stuffed turnover called cocarrois was once a Lenten favourite. But it became so popular that Mallorcans began to eat it all year round. Every pastry shop nowadays sells them.
Some of the old Lenten recipes were of such sophistication and gastronomic quality that they could easily be mistaken for the work of a contemporary creative cook.
Look at this one: small lettuce braised al dente with pinenut sauce flavoured with saffron and served with sautéed potatoes the size of hazelnuts. That sounds like a good self-indulgent way to start off any meal — it certainly doesn’t make me think of the rigours of Lent.
But it was at the end of Lenten meals of yester-century that people really pampered themselves because they were more than a little fond of sweat dishes. Desserts were often made with lashings of syrup, honey and sugar. These were used in the making of the dish and were also added as a finishing touch when the food was on the plate.
A favourite Lenten dessert was arroz con leche (rice pudding). It was eaten at the start of a meal in the Middle Ages, but when sweet starters went out of fashion, arroz con leche was sent to the end of the meal and eaten as dessert. The same thing happened in England.
Natillas (custard) was also popular and was served on its own, with pastries and as a filling for tarts and pies. These custards were usually very sweet — and even today they are still like that.
Fritters in all their variations, called buñuelos in Spanish, were a great Lenten stand-by. Savoury ones were served at the start of a meal and the sweet ones were a popular dessert. The fritter paste was sometimes as runny as a batter, in which case it was used to coat fresh and dried fruits before deep-frying them.
Some buñuelos were made with firm dough and looked very much like our doughnut. Sometimes the ingredients were simple: flour, eggs and oil. But after being deep-fried they were drizzled with lots of honey or syrup.
Perhaps the favourite Lenten sweet is torrijas, slices of sweetened fried bread, the pain perdu of the French, which the British call French toast. Everyone who makes torrijas has a family recipe because it is way of using up stale bread.
The slices of bread can be smeared with honey or syrup or soaked with sweetened milk. Sometimes the bread is dipped in beaten egg, which gives a richer torrijas but it is less crisp.
The simplest torrijas of all are slices of stale baguette fried in olive oil until golden and crisp and then sprinkled with sugar. They are eaten straight from the frying pan, as hot as you can mange them.
In some homes today, this version of torrijas is served for breakfast and some 50 years ago it was the most popular snack for children coming home from school and looking for something to eat that was hot and sweet. Adults never say no to a plate of these sugar-sprinkled torrijas because they bring back happy childhood memories.
The need for dishes that filled bellies on religious festival days when meat was off the menu led to a culinary culture that was tailor made for those who nowadays would like to eat less red meat.
This style of cooking was known in Spain as cocina de vigilia, which literally means ‘cooking for meals on the eve of religious holidays’.
When you consider that in the Middle Ages there were some 173 days of the year that were meatless for Roman Catholics, there was a real necessity for dishes based on vegetables and pulses — as well as fish for those who lived near the sea or rivers.
I have a facsimile edition of an 1895 book called Comidas de Vigilia (Religious Festival Meals) that is packed with recipes based on pulses, vegetables and fish, as well as sophisticated soups and sauces designed for those who want a bit of dining room pampering.
It’s in books like this that you’ll come across bacalao recipes galore because, as I said above, salt cod became the most important and convenient ingredient in Lenten cooking.
Salt cod had a big advantage in those days of the Middle Ages and later: it was so cheap even the poorest of the poor could afford it. Even as recently as the early 1960s, salt cod was one of the cheapest items at the market.
But many people, than as well as today, bought salt cod because they liked to eat it once a week — and not especially on the eves of religious festivals. When well-to-do Mallorcan housewives were buying salt cod at one of the grocery stalls they always whispered their bacalao order — they didn’t want the other women in the queue to think they couldn’t afford the more costly foods on display.
Today it’s the exact opposite. Anyone asking for bacalao does so in a loud voice — because it is now one of the most expensive items at the market. Only the well-to-do can afford to eat it frequently.
You will soon be seeing piles of salt cod at your local supermarket, although it’s not the more expensive kind you see at the Mercat d’Olivar and some of the specialist shops.
Some Mallorcans, and especially people from the mainland who now live on the island, make a point of eating salt cod in the later stages of Lent because it is a family tradition they don’t want to lose.
But most connoisseurs of Spanish regional cooking adore bacalao and eat it at home at all times of the year, usually dishes based on Basque and Catalán recipes. We’ll take a look at some of those recipes in the coming weeks.