Golden Age Cuisine. The Spanish cuisine during the Golden Age can be divided into different categories based on the different classes of society.
The 16th and 17th centuries are commonly known as the Golden Age. During these two centuries, there was great cultural advancement and strengthening of the imperial spirit and the Counter-Reformation. It was also during this time that the Spanish cuisine consolidates and modernizes. References to local Spanish gastronomy begin to appear in books by Cervantes or theatre productions by Lope de Vega about commoner’s food, meals in monasteries or the cuisine enjoyed by the monarchs.
The Spanish cuisine during the Golden Age can be divided into different categories based on the different classes of society that existed at the time. Three distinct classes existed: the nobility and people of the court, the clergy and the common people.
The Golden Age cuisine of the nobles and the court was very abundant and consisted of meat, fish, pastries, flour bread, wine, etc. It was also during the Golden Age that attention to the table setting and decoration began to emerge. Initially, silverware consisted of only three pieces (spoon, knife and fork) but the upper class began to incorporate different types of knives depending on the meal. Sauces also began to appear to complement certain dishes.
During the Golden Age, members of the clergy also had access to abundant food, much like members of the court, particularly those who lived in monasteries such as the Monastery of Yuste, Montserrate, Las Huelgas or Guadalupe.
In small towns and villages the people more commonly felt the pain of hunger. The diet of commoners was based on rye flour bread and, on rare occasions, flour-based bread. Additionally bacon, some types of meats and flour based soups were commonly served. The few opportunities to enjoy meat were usually reserved for special events and holidays.
It was during the Golden Age that the first recipe books of culinary customs appear thanks to advancements in printing presses. One important book was the Book of Honest Pleasure and Good Health by Batista de Platina which presented the guidelines to a healthy diet.
One of the first books to describe popular Spanish gastronomy during the Golden Age appeared in Salamanca in 1607: Libro del arte de cozina by Hernández Máceras. Máceras was a chef from the Oviedo Residence in Salamanca and his book deals with kitchen management and food for the university students living in the residence.
However, the best historical records we have of Spanish cuisine during the Golden Age are from the many novels written during the time. References to food are found especially in Cervantes’s novels. In Don Quixote of the Mancha, Cervantes tells us that Don Quixote was a gentleman who ate quite poorly: “An olla of rather more beef than mutton, a salad on most nights, scraps on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, and a pigeon or so extra on Sundays, made away with three-quarters of his income.” (Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote of La Mancha, Chapter I).
In theatrical productions by Lope de Vega or Calderón de la Barca we also see historical references about Golden Age culinary customs. Another important source of information are the picaresque novels of the time. Novels such as The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes, Life and Facts of Estebanillo González, both by unknown authors, and History of the life of the Swindler by Quevedo, paint a picture about the scarcity of food to the lower classes in Spanish society. In fact, Francisco de Quevedo came to call the novels of the Golden Age the “Literature of Hunger”.