Moorish Spain, 711-1492. Christians, Jews and Muslims living together.

Moorish Spain, 711-1492. Christians, Jews and Muslims living together.


(The flag of the Nasrid Dynasty, the last to rule in Moorish Spain)

In 711, not 90 years after the birth of Islam, black clad Berber tribesman and their Arab allies crossed what are now called the Straits of Gibraltar from North Africa to the Iberian peninsula with their wiry horses, and galloped north, conquering all before them, destroying the decadent Visigothic rulers and laid the foundations for modern day Spain.

They called it Al Andalus, and it began as it was to continue for the over 300 years of the first Umayyad dynasty, with tolerance for the other ‘people of the book’ as they called the Christians and Jews they found there.

But the hero of this story, a hero who deserves his own epic film, is the adventurer and statesman, Abd al-Rahman, the Falcon of Al Andalus.

Abd al-Rahman’s family, the ruling Umayyads, were slaughtered by their rivals, the Abassids in Damascus in 750.


He and his brother Yahiya, his son Suleyman and his Greek servant, Bedr, escaped and found refuge in a village on the banks of the Euphrates on the edge of a deep forest.

But the Abassid troops found them and they dived into the Euphrates. Al-Rahman, a strong swimmer, held onto his son. Together with Bedr, these three made it to the opposite bank. But not so Yahiya. Here, in al-Rahman’s own words, is what happened:

“No sooner had I set my feet on the shore, than I began anxiously to look about for my brother, whom I saw in the hands of the soldiers, and whom I expected every moment to see put to death. I was not mistaken ……having dragged him to a spot not far from the river, they beheaded him and marched triumphantly away with his head. My brother was then thirteen years old.”

After five years of adventure, intrigue and wandering from refuge to refuge, and the prophesy of a Jewish seer that he ‘shall in time become a great conqueror’ and that ‘he shall found in Andalus an empire for him and his posterity’ he crossed, with his son and servant into Andalus.

There, employing a combination of guile and diplomacy, he eventually became Abd al-Rahman I, the Emir of Cordóba, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty which, over the next 300 years, would transform the Caliphate of Cordóba into a world centre of scientific, philosophical and agricultural innovation and attainment, a beacon for musicians, poets and writers in the Muslim and Jewish worlds.


(The Great Mosque of Cordóba, begun  by Abd ar-Rahman I

Cordóba was, at that time, the shaft of light cutting through what in the West were called the Dark Ages. All this was possible because these desert Arabs, the Umayyads, in conquering the peoples of the Iberian peninsula, had been confronted with a universe of languages, cultures and peoples.

Their response was to define their version of Islam as one that rejoiced in dialogues with other traditions, other cultures, and other religions. This was an Islam that translated the long forgotten Greek philosophers into Arabic, and appointed Jews as advisers.

The Jews, especially, flourished at this time, the two languages, Hebrew and Arabic the dominant ones in the land. Latin was abandoned by ambitious young Christians who flocked to learn the far more sinuous and poetic Arabic, much to the dismay of their Bishops.


(The Santa Maria La Blanca Syngogue, also built in the Moorish (or Mudéjar) style)

The arrival of these new settlers also brought about a green revolution in Spain, a revolution which ran on water: these desert dwellers were geniuses at irrigating crops and filling their fragrant gardens with the sound of running water.

They brought with them oranges, lemons, limes, apricots, and bananas, rice from Asia, sugarcane from India – some say they invented caramel, in Arabic kurst al milh.

New vegetable crops planted were artichokes, aubergines, celery, spinach, and carrots. Most important of all, hard durum wheat. Did the Arabs invent dried pasta, which can only be made with this hard wheat? One of the first mentions of dried pasta dates from the twelfth century and the Arab geographer Al-Idrisi, who wrote that it was being manufactured in Sicily – by Arabs.

The usual diet for rulers and commoners alike in Christian Spain was based on the trilogy of meat, wheat, and wine. Arabs were accustomed to a more sensuous mix of fruit, vegetables, and legumes, a cuisine low in animal protein. But at banquets roast lamb was often served, stuffed with chopped meats fried in sesame oil, with crushed pistachios, pepper, ginger, cloves, mastic, coriander, cardamom and other spices, sprinkled with musk-infused rose water. It was not only their language that was more appealing. Life, generally and food specifically was more luxurious, more pleasurable.

And Al-Andalus soon filled with luxuriant flower gardens, planted with ornamentals imported from the Orient: tulips from Turkey, narcissi, lilacs, yellow and white jasmine and roses from China arranged along walkways under canopies of orange trees and sweet-scented almonds and everywhere, the cooling sound and sight of running water.

Cordóba became the urban garden centre of all Spain, if not the world, with an estimated fifty thousand private gardens gracing the villas of that city at the time it was recaptured by Christians in 1236.

Living in Mallorca in the early 1970s, I met a man who claimed to have travelled through time and offered to teach me the technique. Not your usual nutter, Ben Wright was a poet who also lectured on the Nordic Saga Beowulf. He claimed that another resident of our village, the English poet Robert Graves, had also time travelled to write the I Claudius series of books. I declined his invitation because back then, there was then no other time I wanted to visit. If offered that chance again today, I would happily travel back to that golden period of Moorish Spain.

But this year you can come with me and explore the material and culinary remnants of this remarkable period. I will be conducting a tour of Andalucia in October: Moorish Spain: Architecture, Culture and Cuisine.

It will follow the route of the caliphates and will visit out of the way villages (including the only Jewish city in Moorish Spain) and explore the Islamic, Jewish and Christian legacy of that time in such world heritage buildings as the church of San Simón in Toledo, the Alhambra in Granada, the Mesquita and the Madinat al-Zahra in Córdoba.

The food chosen for this tour will explore Moorish, Sephardic Jewish and Spanish culinary traditions. There will also be a tasting of the wines of the little known (outside Spain) region of Montilla-Moriles where winemaking practices date back to the 8th Century.

To find out more about this tour, go to:

San Roman

(The Church of San Román, built as a Christian church but in the Mudéjar style partly Gothic partly Moorish)



A short festival on Spain



This was written for an occasional series in The Sydney Morning Herald called ‘A short festival on…’ and I chose Spain. I’m posting it because we’re going to Spain in a couple of weeks, my first trip in some years. 

The Spanish would rather a fiesta than a festival any day, it’s a party and a lot more fun. We will hold ours on St Anthony’s Day, January 17th, a day on which a bonfire is lit (St Anthony’s fire?) in every village square, and neighbours gather to eat and drink.

What better to eat than a paella, ours prepared by Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, whose detective character, Pepe Carvalho, eats far more than he detects, and is pedantic about paella, asserting (in South Seas): “I made myself quite clear. Half a kilo of rice, half a chicken, a quarter-kilo of pork shoulder, a quarter kilo of peas, two peppers, two tomatoes, parsley, saffron, salt and – nothing else. Anything else is superfluous.” The wine, the legendary Vega Sicilia Unico, will flow like water.

Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) is also a novel by last century’s most prominent Hispanophile, Ernest Hemingway, a tale which introduces the intertwining themes of our fiesta, the bullfight, the matador, and sex: eros and thanatos. In Fiesta, the matador, Pedro Romero, makes love to the bold and beautiful Lady Brett Ashley because the narrator, Jake Barnes, can’t: a war wound left him impotent. Hemingway does Lorca.

Because we can, we have invited Hemingway, and you can see him, glass of wine in one hand, cigar in the other, talking to his friend the matador Antonio Ordoñez, who will be demonstrating the art of killing bulls, showing classic passes, the pase natural, and his own derechazo de rodillas among them.

Our fiesta is being held in a bull ring, the roaring bonfire throwing glints and sparkles off Ordoñez’s suit of lights. Just the place to ponder the nature of a culture whose heroes are killers – matador from matar, to kill – and whose national sport, also an art, sacrifices animals and men in public. There is a darkness in the Spanish soul.

That darkness has a name: duende, the elusive spirit that poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca called “the hidden heart of disconsolate Spain.” It is to be found in Spanish art, literature and music. “All that has black sounds has duende” murmured Gypsy canto jonde (deep song) singer Manuel Torre upon hearing composer Manuel de Falla’s Nocturno del Generalife.

It certainly informs the paintings on show here. There are three in the art tent, the first and greatest, once defined as “the theology of painting”, in front of which the French romantic poet Théophile Gautier stood and cried “where is the picture?” It is Diego Velásquez’ profound, enigmatic and beautiful Las meninas, the maids of honour, a painting which transforms its every viewer into the King and Queen of Spain. All Spanish art stands on the shoulders of this man who, artist Anton Raphael Mengs said “paints the truth not as it is but as it appears to be.”


Our second painting is by one whose duende drips from his brushes, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. We have chosen the baffling El perro semihundido, the half buried dog, from the series known as the black paintings. An abstract field of light with a curved horizon, bare but for the tiny head of a terrified spaniel. It has mystified viewers and critics for almost 200 years, moving many to tears. This is only detail from the larger painting which is way more mysterious – and  moving.


Finally, one work from the creator/destroyer, the protean Picasso, the painting that ushered in the 20th Century, of the most famous whores in history, Les demoiselles d’Avignon, equal parts eros and thanatos, with its cryptic reference to the promiscuous Picasso’s fear of syphilis.


But where are the killer heroes? Elsewhere in Goya and Picasso of course, on television all day during summer, and in the cinema regularly. In Carlos Saura’s 1983 adaptation of Carmen, his most successful collaboration with choreographer Antonio Gades. And most sardonically in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1986 Matador, in which the sumptuous Assumpta Serna murders her victims in coitus, and, ‘al momento de verdad’ (at the moment of truth), using a long hair pin in much the same way as her ultimate victim, ex-matador Nacho Martinez, despatched bulls with his sword.

The matador (or matadora) returns in Almodóvar’s 2002 film Talk to Her, a film already heralded as the first classic of the 21st Century, in which Rosario Flores plays a famed female bullfighter, gored, left in a coma, and cared for tenderly by her lover, Adrio Grandinetti.

We leave the films being projected onto a suspended muleta (bullfighter’s cape), and stroll to the fire for a plate of Montalban’s precise paella and to take a glass with Javier Marias, whose 1997 novel, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, opens with a man whose first night with a lover is interrupted by her death, in his arms. We note with pleasure we have been given a small scraping of socorrat, the burnt crust of rice from the bottom of the pan. And then the arena falls silent, but for the crackling of the fire.

We look up. The gate has burst open. A magnificent fighting bull runs onto the arena and skids to a halt in the sand, black hide glistening. He looks wildly to right and left, snorting steam. We are frozen with fear, but for Ordoñez, who reaches for his sword. The bull lowers his huge head, and charges the bonfire, crashing into it, scattering embers, ashes and flaming branches. The burning bull stands in the centre of the conflagration, bellowing.





O illustrious paella! Another gift from the Arabs.


How can a bowl of rice gives us an insight into the past – and offer hope for the future? Let’s have a look at the history of paella, the rice dish that, for most people, says Spanish food. And in ways that many hadn’t even thought of, they’re right.

Paella is a dish named after the pan in which it is cooked, the paellera. In its purest form, it consists of rice and vegetables. Without the rice, it is very like another more ancient dish which did not contain rice, a dish called adafina. But let Spanish food historian Clara Maria de Amezua tell us about it.

“Adafina is an ancient Sephardic (Spanish Jewish) dish: the origin of the name is Arabic and applied to both the food itself and the receptacle in which it is made, much like the modern day paella.”

The Jews were in Spain as far back as the early Roman Empire. Some Judaic traditions have them there even earlier, from the destruction of the Kingdom of Judea in 587 B.C. and the fleeing of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah to Sefarad, the Jewish name for Spain.

But adafina was a meat and vegetable dish, and contained no rice, because there was no rice in Spain when the Jews arrived. The Arabs bought the rice.

The Arabs arrived in 711 A.D, and proceeded to place Moorish Spain at the centre of the civilised and cultured world. They travelled, explored, invented, and brought back from distant lands new plants and methods of cooking. From Ethiopia, for example, they brought back Triticum durum, hard wheat, and, according to a theory (hard to prove or disprove) of food historian Clifford Wright, invented pasta as we know it today, because only the pasta made with Triticum durum can be dried, to form what Italians call pasta asciutta. From India and the far east, they imported rice, and planted it in the deltas along the Levante, that region of Mediterranean coastal Spain which runs roughly from Castellon to Alicante, whose centre is Valencia. And it is from Valencia that we get Paella. And it also made its way to Italy, so we can also thank them for risotto.

But before we go to Valencia, let’s spend a little time in Moorish Spain. Especially between 711 and 1000 under the Umayyad Dynasty, Jew and Muslim lived side by side in, if not harmony, at least relative peace, a period called the Convivencia. Indeed the Jews contributed enormously to the magnificence of Moorish Spain, both intellectually, artistically and in government. So the question we must ask, especially of current Middle Eastern leaders is this: if it happened then, could it happen again? So you see that we can find both history and hope in a simple bowl of rice.

The complete name for the paella of Valencia is paella valenciana de la huerta (or in Catalan a version of which is spoken in Valencia de’l horta) – meaning from the vegetable garden. Paella (the dish) was a product of rice and vegetable cultivation, and, for meat, included whatever was on hand – but not seafood, which came from the coast, was not easily transportable and was, for inland dwelling peasants, expensive.

Instead, it might include snails, chicken, rabbit, or eel. There are rice and seafood dishes (Spanish cuisine includes hundreds of rice dishes) but they are not paellas. For the very strictest interpretation of paella by a gastronomic pedant, listen to the Spanish novelist Manuel Vasquez Montalban’s creation, the gourmand detective Pepe Carvalho:

“I made myself quite clear. Half a kilo of rice, half a chicken, a quarter-kilo of pork shoulder, a quarter kilo of peas, two peppers, two tomatoes, parsley, saffron, salt and nothing else. Anything else is superfluous.”

In the same book as the above, Montalban also quotes José María Pemán’s marvellous ‘Ode to Paella’, which illustrates both the Spanish passion for food and contempt for rules: Carvalho’s own precepts for paella are countermanded in this poem:

O noble symphony of colours!

O illustrious paella!

O polychromatic dish

eaten by the eyes before touching the tongue!

Array of glories where all is blended.

Divine compromise between chicken and clam.

O contradictory dish

both individual and collective

O exquisite dish

where all is fair

where all tastes are as distinct

as the colours of the rainbow!

O liberal dish where a grain is a grain

as a citizen to the suffrage!)

And Señor Carvalho himself left out a most important ingredient: the beans – but he got the spirit right. I tasted my first such paella at a little restaurant called the Gallo d’Oro near the central markets of Valencia and it was only then that I understood what all the fuss was about. Although many will tell you paella should be cooked outside, using orange tree branches, over a wood fire – and only by men.

An interesting development in the history of this dish is that now, officially, only ten ingredients are allowed: olive oil, rice, chicken, rabbit, ferraura and garrofó beans (specific to Valencia), tomato, water, salt, saffron and rice. Dispensation is given for the addition of duck, snails and artichokes as regional variations. This was as a result of a recipe submitted in 2012 to the Conselleria of Agriculture in Valencia by the restaurateur Rafael Vidal. His recipe was granted the status of paella valenciana tradicional con Denominación de Origen Arroz de Valencia – a Denomination of Origin. Dispensation was given for the addition of duck, snails and artichokes as regional variations

But people will eat  what they like, as they should, and as should you. If you want to put Balmain bugs or witchetty grubs into your paella, the food police will not arrest you. My neighbours in the little Spanish village in which I lived for some time prepare paella every Sunday – with seafood. And I guess, being Spanish, they know more than do I.

But for those of you who relish the authentic (Barbara Kafka’s “spectrum around an idea that changes even while we’re trying to appreciate it”) here is the most authentic recipe I could find, adjusted for local (Australian) conditions. Once you understand the spirit of the dish, your own additions will only improve it.


PAELLA VALENCIANA DE LA HUERTA.                                                                                           







Serves 4


1 polished carbon steel or enamelled paellera (the two best, most important)

100g lima beans (fresh and newly shelled best)

100g cannelini or flageolet (ditto)

100 ml olive oil


400g organic chicken cut into pieces

350g rabbit, cut into pieces

125g green beans, cut into pieces

100g tomatoes, skinned, de-seeded and finely chopped

16 cleaned snails in their shells or a sprig of rosemary

2 strands saffron

1tblspn pimentón (the best, the DOC, is la vera)

1.75 litres chicken stock

350g la bomba rice (the finest Spanish rice, calaspara if you can’t get it)


Unless you are using fresh beans, soak the lima beans and butter beans overnight in cold water, then drain and rinse.

Heat the oil in a 40 cm paellera with a little salt. When it is hot, add the chicken and rabbit and fry over a low heat until golden brown.

Add the green beans and fry for 5 minutes, then add the tomatoes and fry for 3 minutes.

Meanwhile boil the snails in a separate pan for 5 minutes, then drain.

Crush the saffron then dissolve it in a little boiling water.

Add the pimentón to the paella, quickly add the stock and bring to boil. The quantity of stock is difficult to specify and may need a little practice. Add the rest of the beans. When boiling, add the snails rosemary and saffron and a pinch of salt and simmer for 30 minutes

Sprinkle in the rice and boil over a high heat for 5 minutes, then gradually turn down the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes until the rice is cooked and the liquid has evaporated.

Do not stir. If you have cooked the paella properly, you will end up with a brown, toasty caramelised circle of rice at the bottom of the paellera in the middle. This is called the socarrat, and is given to the most honoured guest.