Well, this isn’t going well I think as I approach the gates of Castillo de La Mota, a medieval fortress in Medina del Campo, a town known for its fairs and markets during the 15th and 16th centuries as well as being the home of Queen Isabella of Spain.
Someone behind my sighs, saying another day, another castle but then stops as he sees what is in front of us. A long straight line of women archers dressed in layers of magenta covering a long skirt, an insignia of a yellow bird with spiky feathers on their chest. But what is most daunting about the scene is that their bows are raised, arrows notched, and the strings pulled back. If they let go, we’ll be hit with a barrage of arrows.
“Password,” shouts the archer who looks like she’s in charge.
“Isabelle,” I shout back without even thinking.
“Isabella,” she responds.
But it’s good enough. The archers unnotched the arrows and lower their bows.
We are not only in Isabella’s castle, we’re also in her time. Men, women, and children are dressed in the everyday garb of 15th century Spain, soldiers are dressed in bright red doublet cut with yellow inserts, red pantaloons that stopped before the knee, white stockings and, in the case of the ones we met at La Mota, leather shoes that ranged in color but including blue and beige.
I’m not good at 15th century weaponry beyond bow and arrows and swords, which were common but many of the soldiers also had long wooden spears with metal points on the ends.
La Mota isn’t a fairy tale castle, it was a large strong fortress that the townspeople as well as the King and Queen could go for refuge. She and her husband Ferdinand II lived in a royal palace in the town’s major plaza though Isabella wrote her will and took Last Rites at age 53 at La Mota. Dating back to the 11th century, it grew through the centuries becoming the largest castle in Castile. It housed a dungeon which we were taken to—and believe me dungeons are not fun places. Amazingly Caesar Borgia was able to escape imprisonment here by scaling down a 40-foot rope. Called La Mota because it is on a small hill rising above the town, it has turrets (2), towers (4), thick walls and a courtyard.
The historic guided tour we took is one of several costumed tours offered at the castle which is a fascinating way to experience the history of the place.
In her day, Isabella, one of the few women rulers at the time, would have dined on rabbit, deer, bear, lamb, and bread. She would have enjoyed leeks but little else in the way of vegetables. Juan Alejandro Forrest de Sloper whose blog Book of Days combines his passions for world cuisine and as an anthropologist with a focus on rituals and celebrations. De Sloper was a professor of anthropology at Purchase College, S.U.N.Y for 32 years but he also spent time living throughout the world and learning to cook in all sorts of kitchens.
In his post on Isabella he shares a dish from Libre Del Coch, a Catalan cookbook—the first written cookbook–written by Robert de Nola who went by the pseudonym Mestre Robert who was the chef to King Ferdinand I of Naples. The Catalan version was published in 1520 in Barcelona and translated to Castilian Spanish five years later. Parts of the cookbook are based on a famous medieval cookbook titled Llibre de Sent Soví.
The cookbook includes classic dishes that were popular with the wealthy (and Isabella was surely that) during the 1400s. Casola de Carn or Meat Casserole is like many recipes or receipts as they were called then, there’s no list of ingredients or amounts. It’s all a little murky for 21st century cooks, and phrases like “all the fine flavorings” are a little—no make that a lot baffling. There are also ingredients such as aggrestal (spelled in the recipe as agressta) means wild plant which can sure cover a lot of ground.
Casola de Carn
Cut the meat into pieces the size of a nut and fry it in pork fat. When it is well fried put in some good broth and set it to cook in a casserole. Add all the fine flavorings and saffron and a little orange juice or agresta and cook well until the meat begins to fall apart and only a small amount of broth remains. Add three or four eggs beaten with orange juice or agresta. When your master is ready at table, turn the meat four or five times to let the sauce thicken. When it is thick, take it from the fire and serve it in bowls, sprinkled with a little cinnamon on each.
There are some people who do not add eggs, or spices except cinnamon and cloves. The meat is cooked as stated above.
They add vinegar, for the flavor. It appears that many people do it in the following manner: the meat is left whole stuffed with cinnamon and cloves, and with the other spices in the broth. The meat must be turned from time to time so that it doesn’t cook more in one part than in any other. You can leave out the cloves and cinnamon if you follow the other directions correctly.
As wonderful as Isabella’s meal might have been, our luncheon at El Motero probably was equally good. Because Medina del Campo is a stop of the wonderful Rueda Wine Route, we indulged in the local wines and dined on fish, baby lamb, and a variety of whimsical dishes such as canelón de mango relleno de frutos de mar y gelatina de gazpacho (Mango cannellon stuffed with sea fruit and gazpacho jelly), tartar de tomate, aguacate,salmón marinado ,wakame sobre pan de Cerdeña (Tomato Tartar, Avocado, Marinated Salmon, Wakame on Sardinian bread)and Mini san Jacobo de lomo asado y salsa de piña (Mini San Jacobo roasted loin and pineapple sauce).
We did indeed dine like a queen.