As I mentioned in my previous post, a few weeks ago, I visited the town of Ávila with a group from the Reform Jewish community of Madrid. We were invited by the Spanish government to take a tour of the old judería, or Jewish quarter, of the city, and to Ávila’s original copy of The Alhambra Decree, which expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492. So, up we drove an hour and a half to the northeast of Madrid to discover what we could of Ávila’s Jewish community.
Seeing the Edict of Expulsion was – to say the least – extremely moving. Ávila is one of the few Spanish municipalities that still possesses its copy of the original document, withstanding the tests of time that have taken the other copies out of existence, such as fires, light fingers, and simple neglect. Indeed, the fact that Ávila still has its copy underscores the unique relationship the city has always had with its Jewish community, both past and present. It is this relationship that is embodied in the well-known figures of Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz), both of whom came from converso (Jews converted to Christianity) families, not to mention the famously infamous Tomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition. It is a relationship that is also reflected, interestingly enough, in the very urban structure of the city.
Of Ávila’s many delightful features, the most obvious, and frankly impressive, one is the wall that encloses the entire antiguo casco, or old quarter, of the city. According to the site dedicated to the wall (http://muralladeavila.com/es/) it was founded in the 11th century to protect the territory from invading Moors. Ávila is the only Spanish city that boasts its entire original wall, which, along with the entire old quarter of the city and the Romanesque churches that were built just outside its walls, can be found on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
In medieval Spain, Christian rulers tended to delineate a Jewish quarter outside of the walls of the main city. As Fernando Aznar explains, though this intentional separation was a way of controlling the Jewish community, it was also mostly a practical move for taxation purposes: every Jewish household was required to pay a head tax to the ruler and church in exchange for free practice of a minority faith. Traditionally, these juderías would become focal points of commerce outside of the city wall. Yet, unlike so many other cities, in Ávila, the judería was located inside the city wall: “they were installed in the center of the city for maximum efficacy for their business. Their neighborhood par excellence before the obligated separation (when the ghetto was established in 1412) was located between the Juradero, in San Vicente, the Central Market, and the Little Market. [se instalaron en el centro de la ciudad para mayor eficacia de sus negocios. Su barrio por excelencia, con anterioridad al obligado apartamiento, era entre el Juradero, en San Vicente, el Mercado Grande y el Mercado Chico.]” (from http://www.avilaturismo.com/es/que-hacer/avila-judia). This excerpt shows that it wasn’t until later that the Jewish community was forced to live in a reduced area outside the city walls – in fact, it wasn’t until the 15th century, with the growing resentment toward the Jewish community that that century brought, that the Jews had to live outside the city wall.
The Sephardic community has a long-standing presence in Ávila: although the first real documented mention of the Jewish community appears in 1144, many historians speculate that the Jewish presence in the city goes back even further. During this early medieval period, the city “was considered a no-man’s land, a border between the Muslim and Christian kingdoms [fue considerada tierra de nadie, frontera entre los reinos cristianos y musulmanes]”; in other words, Ávila was an interstitial space in the ever-shifting religious map of Spain, one in which Christian and Muslim influence vied for superiority, a territory in which the Jewish community was always treated reasonably well. And the location of the Jewish community within the city wall physically underscores their symbolic position in the society of Ávila.
It is just this symbolism that inspired this week’s dish: Pimintones Reynados. Though in origin they come from the Sephardic communities in diaspora, I thought they reflected the theme of this week’s post well, especially since the peppers themselves create a “wall” around the filling they encase. Coincidentally, in Ávila I lunched on a dish of stuffed peppers, which though they very similar in appearance to these pimintones, they were totally different in taste – an appropriate metaphor, in my opinion, for the differences between the medieval Christian and Jewish communities. Try them and let me know what you think!
Adapted partially from Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World by Gil Marks
This recipe is pretty easy - just make the filling, briefly boil the peppers, stuff them and into the oven they go! You can find recipes for stuffed peppers in almost every culture, including Spanish, Turkish, Mexican, and more, but these can be defined as specifically Sephardic as a result of the generous amount of parsley and healthy squeeze of lemon juice in the filling that gives these peppers their unique, slightly tart taste.
4 medium red bell peppers
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, halved and sliced crosswise
2 large cloves garlic
1 ½ cups basmati or long-grain rice
3 cups of water
2-3 medium tomatoes, or enough to be about 1 ½ cups chopped
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 slivered or chopped almonds, toasted
Juice of half a lemon
Fresh lemon wedges to season to taste
Chopped parsley for garnish
Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C.
Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a 4-qt saucepan. Add the onions and sauté for 2-3 minutes until softened. Add garlic and cook 5-6 minutes more, until onions are slightly caramelized and the garlic is fragrant. Add chopped tomatoes and cook for another 3-4 minutes until the tomatoes release their juice and it concentrates. Stir in parsley and cook 2 minutes more.
Next, add rice, sugar, lemon zest, salt and pepper. Stir and let the grains cook for a minute before adding the water. Bring mixture to a boil and then turn down to a simmer and cover. Let cook for about 15 minutes, or until all the water is absorbed into the rice.
Meanwhile, cut the tops off the peppers and de-rib them. Put a large salted pot of water to boil. Once the water boils, submerge the peppers for 3 minutes. Strain and set aside in a ovenproof baking dish.
Once all the water is absorbed, fluff the rice with a fork. Stir in raisins, almonds, and lemon juice. Generously stuff the peppers with the rice mixture and replace tops. Drizzle the peppers with remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Place in oven and bake for 20 minutes, until rice mixture is heated through. Then, switch to the broiler function of the oven and broil the peppers for 10 minutes, or until their skin starts to blister and char and the filling browns slightly.
Serve sprinkled with extra parsley and lemon wedges for garnish.