Cookery for Body and Soul

Learn about the origins of monastic cookery and how, in the calm of monastic life, the first recipe books were written.

A large part of traditional Spanish cookery has its origins in monastic cuisine, as it was monks who created and wrote the first recipe books. Their simple, nutritious recipes were mainly geared toward their own sustenance, and feeding the less fortunate. They were largely the result of the clergy's travels to different territories conquered by the Spanish.

Cooking gazpachoReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Foundations of Monastic Cookery

Renaissance cloister of the Monastery of Yuste by Alonso de MendozaReal Academia de Gastronomía

The convents and monasteries inhabited by Christian religious communities were established in Europe in the Early Middle Ages. They were places for prayer and work, funded by kings and noblemen, who on occasion also offered privileges and goods.

Almendrados by Miriam GarcíaReal Academia de Gastronomía

The cookery that evolved in these monasteries from the outset was mainly based on the prescriptions of each monastic order, adapted to the food produced in the region, and grown in their own orchards. They mainly used simple but nutritious produce, such as vegetables, lamb and beef meat, and legumes. They also used ingredients they received as gifts, in order to make their jellies and confectionery.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

From the very beginnings of Christianity, monastic cookery has developed with common features, alongside certain differences specific to each order. The elements in common are those imposed by Christian precepts, such as the consumption of meat at certain times of year or on certain days of the week, fasting, and abstinence.

Salt-Baked Sea BreamReal Academia de Gastronomía

All the religious orders originally prescribed frugality when it came to food, considering that the sins of the flesh (principally gluttony and sex) could be avoided with a strict diet. The vow of poverty made by some orders prevents them from eating meat products, which they replace with fish.

Gazpacho ingredientsReal Academia de Gastronomía

Originally, the monastic diet was made up of legumes, cereals, vegetables, bread, wine, oil, vinegar, and salt. This rigid diet would only be adjusted for certain festivals and special occasions.

Stew with vegetablesReal Academia de Gastronomía

Monastic cookery is recognized as healthy, natural, and simple cookery. Monasteries such as those at Yuste, Guadalupe, and Alcántara, that were once centers for food and culinary opulence thanks to the favors of noblemen and kings, were the exceptions.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

All convents had an orchard, albeit some larger than others, and some animals. The main purpose of these was to provide food for the community, with all kinds of crops, and to manufacture wine and salted meat, following the policy of self-sufficiency of the period.

Castilian Bread (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

The earliest religious communities soon started to practice charity, serving the needs of the poor with alms, distributing leftovers, or even preparing food specifically with the leftovers from their community meals. The needy would line up outside the convents to receive a ration of bread and stew, known as sopa boba.

Bread soupReal Academia de Gastronomía

Sopa boba, also called pilgrim's soup, was made with water and the leftovers of the community's food (mainly vegetables), to be distributed to the poor. This pious custom gave rise to the Spanish expression "to eat sopa boba," meaning to live an idle life at the expense of others, according to the Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy. Boba in Spanish means dumb, and the soup was so called because of its simple ingredients.

In large pilgrimage centers, such as the monastery of Guadalupe in Cáceres, they prepared 1500 rations of food every day to serve those who approached their walls.

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Over the centuries, the convents' and monasteries' charitable role of looking after the poor has been rescinded. The progressive decline of the clerical state in society, and the development of the modern state of wellbeing, have led to the idea that helping the less fortunate should be the responsibility of the state, not left to the fate of charity.

Portrait of an Olivetan Monk (1501/1536) by Baldassare Tommaso PeruzziThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The familiar image of chubby, red-faced monks and nuns was not the result of eating good food. In fact, it was quite the opposite: a few meals based around bread or oatmeal, with very limited proteins. These nutritional deficiencies led to issues such as joint pain.

Panel with 6 multi-colored Catalan ceramic tiles (1700-1799) by Escuela/Taller CatalanaOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

Monks and the Passage of American Ingredients to Europe

PotatoesReal Academia de Gastronomía

Following the arrival of the Europeans in the Americas, monks traveled to the new world with the intention of evangelizing the people there. Once there, they had to cook, as the food was so meager. They used local produce, learning to combine that with the huge varieties of fauna and flora with which they traveled to the American continent.

Chocolate (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

On this round trip, it was the religious members of the expedition who were most interested in transporting and introducing American ingredients into Spanish cuisine, which would later reach the rest of Europe. Some of these ingredients and products, such as chocolate, are essential parts of our gastronomical spectrum today, and without them our cookery would be almost unrecognizable.

Cocoa seeds by Sandra Jiménez OsorioReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Voyage of Cacao to Europe

Cacao was mentioned for the first time by a European source in a letter from Hernán Cortés from the year 1520, in which he described it as a fruit with almonds. According to Carmen Simón-Palmer, Hernan Cortés first gave the emperor chocolate to taste in Toledo. The emperor ordered it to be kept in the jewelry box and from there it is sent as a gift to other European Courts and to Rome.

Cocoa seeds by Sandra Jiménez OsorioReal Academia de Gastronomía

It was there, in Nuévalos, that chocolate was made for the first time on European soil. The first book about chocolate was actually written by a group of Jesuit monks in Mexico. It was published in 1609 with the title Book about Chocolate (Libro en el Cual se Trata del Chocolate).

Tomato Plant (1772/1793) by Giorgio BonelliReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Tomato Arrives in Europe

The first written record by a European author describing tomatoes and their uses was penned by the Franciscan Friar Bernardino de Sahagún, from León. In his book, General History of the Things from New Spain (Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España), he lists the different varieties of this fruit offered by the locals in the markets.

Tomato varieties (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

"The one who deals in tomatoes normally sells the ones that are large and also the small ones and all of the many and diverse types that are dealt with in the text, like the yellow tomatoes and the reddish ones and the ones that are very ripe. The one who is a bad dealer sells the ones that are rotten and squashed, and the ones that are still yellow. He also sells the ones that are not yet ripe but still green, and when you eat them, your stomach churns, you get no taste, but they cause rheumatism."

Tomato varieties (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

The tomato was a widely used foodstuff in Mesoamerica when the Spaniards arrived. They brought the tomato from Mexico to the Peninsula in the 16th century. It was soon grown in Europe, though at first just as an ornamental plant due to its attractive shape and color. There is evidence that it was being used as food in Spain by the 17th century. The earliest Italian recipes using tomatoes are known as Spanish style, just as in classic French cuisine.

The New Art of Cooking (1795) by Juan de AltamirasReal Academia de Gastronomía

The first monastic recipe book which included recipes using tomatoes was the New Art of Spanish Cookery (Nuevo Arte de la Cocina Española) by Juan de Altamiras. Despite being written in the 18th century, the monk's modern style of cookery using tomato would not seem out of place today.

Portrait of Friar Bartolomé de las Casas (16th Century)Original Source: Archivo General de Indias

Monasteries as Repositories of Taste

Tomatoes in the gardenOriginal Source: Alambique Tienda y Escuela de Cocina

Religious orders have had the ability and opportunity to preserve vegetable species in the orchards of convents and monasteries throughout the centuries. They have conducted research in agriculture and wine production, and have shared and exchanged the best seeds.

La Mejorada Winery (15 Century)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Monks had privileged access to the knowledge of the period, and the ability to share it, unlike the illiterate population living outside the monasteries. They were the ones who preserved the cultivation of vines and wine technologies, alongside other knowhow.

Carthusian monks making Chartreuse (c. 1960) by Josep Martí PuigoriolOriginal Source: CIMIR / Col·lecció Arxiu Històric de l'Agrupació Fotogràfica de Reus

While convents specialize more in confectionery, monasteries have been making acclaimed herbal liquors since at least the 18th century, in keeping with the wine and liquor culture.

Portrait of an Olivetan Monk (1501/1536) by Baldassare Tommaso PeruzziThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Although little documentation has come out of the convents, at least six cookery books have been produced by religious men from different eras. The Religious Cook (El Cocinero Religioso) by Antonio Salsete, from the early 17th century. A little later came the Book of Cooking (Libro de la Cocinación), in 1740.

The Library of the Basque Gastronomic Brotherhood (2020)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Other titles include The Cookery of the Jesuits: Common Stews, Observed in the Houses of the Members of the Society of Jesus (La Cocina de Los Jesuitas: Común Modo de Guisar, Que Observaban en Las Casas de Los Regulares de La Compañía de Jesús), and the Book of Alcántara (Libro de Alcántara). The most successful was the New Art of Spanish Cookery (Nuevo Arte de la Cocina Española) by Juan Altamiras, the first edition of which was published in 1745. The most recent is Notes on Cookery (Apuntes de Cocina) by Friar Gabino de la Virgen del Carmen (1929).

The Poor Clares of Belorado (2020-03-04)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Although we may no longer need the monasteries and convents to preserve our gastronomic heritage, the mere mention of the origin or preservation of a recipe in a monastery brings to mind dishes made using natural ingredients, and with a lot of care. Convent gastronomy is deeply interwoven in the culinary tradition of Spain, in a way that makes it impossible to talk about Spanish cookery without including it.

Credits: Story

Text: Miriam García
Image: David de Luis, Miriam García, Sandra Jiménez Osorio

Enormous thanks to the historian and gastronome, Almudena Villegas, for all her advice.

This exhibition is part of the Spanish gastronomy project, España: Cocina Abierta (Spain: Open Kitchen), coordinated by Google Arts & Culture and Spain's Royal Academy of Gastronomy (Real Academia de la Gastronomía). The section on culinary legacy was coordinated by María Llamas, director of the Alambique cookery store and school.


Lourdes Plana Bellido, president of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Elena Rodríguez, director of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy and Carmen Simón, academic of the Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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