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Monday, August 22, 2011


Jesus in Martha and Maria’s House
Luke 10:38-42
Painted by: Diego Velázquez

Hisp Ar al-mihräs, almihráz, Cast mortalio, Ar mihrās, MEng mortrews, Eng wooden, stone or metal mortar for mashing and grinding ingredients. The Dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy defines almirez is a small portable mortar while the size of a mortero is normal. In Middle English, the word means to finely ground and strained but the latter action is not always necessary as in Nola’s recipe: Potaje dicho morteruelo (Mortrews Pottage). Gourmet cooks in the Middle Ages used specific types of mortars such as bronze, copper, tin, stone, agate, ivory, glass, wood etc for specific ingredients. In the Maragato region of León, for example, a walnut mortar with a handle has been used to mash garlic for centuries. The earliest known mortar is from the African Neolithic site in the Sahara Desert in Mali, Northwest Africa between 8,500 and 6,500 years ago. Witches did not invent them to make their brews! Mortars are used for crushing coffee beans, peppercorns, other spices, herbs, fresh and dry plants, medicines, mineral stones, animal parts etc. When looking for an appropriate mortar one should consider the material whether it is porous, absorbs odors, stains easily, brittle or breaks with pounding and crushing. The size of the hand is important when choosing the pestle (dornillo). The circumference and weight should be comfortable. The weight is important. The heavier the mortar and pestle the faster the work will get done but the harder it is on the arm and wrist. Cleaning and storing can be important. Some materials are machine washable while others should never be washed with soap. Some are handsome for their colors and shapes and can be part of the decoration in the kitchen or elsewhere in the home. Others are big meaning they need more storage space. 

Metal and stone mortars should have rubber bottoms to prevent sliding and scratching the surface of the work area. Metal was the most common. Besides being used for grinding and mashing they were used also as musical instruments in the kitchen. Perhaps one should consider reviving this art! Iron is excellent for harder ingredients. It should be kept lightly oiled.  

Bronze and brass mortars began to appear in the 14th C. when bell founders began producing them and cannons. They should be kept lightly oiled. They are ideal for grinding spices. They have a way of coaxing out fresh tasting flavors. 

Wooden mortars are convenient for occasional use and they are decorative thanks to the beautiful grains and shapes available but are too light for the serious cook. They absorb odors and stain easily. They are good for grinding salt and pepper at the dinner table. They should not be used for items containing moisture such as garlic (except for those in the Maragato)! They are best for grinding soft materials such as herbs and, today, tomatoes. They are also good for mixing sauces and pastes. It takes longer to crush nutmeg and peppers in wooden mortars than in heavier mortars. The lighter wooden pestles, however, put less strain on the cook. It is recommended to only grind foods of the same flavor in them. Grinding rice in them until the rice is completely white cleans them. They should be kept lightly oiled with tasteless and odorless oil. Stoneware (ceramic) is brittle, stains and absorbs flavor in the unglazed interior. They need to be washed thoroughly and scrubbed with a nylon bristle brush to reduce this and then dried thoroughly. They are good for pounding substances into fine powders.  Porcelain is the least likely to stain. It is durable, easy to clean and dishwasher safe. It can be put under the broiler or in the freezer. It should not be glazed inside the hollow or at the end of the pestle. They are good for grinding food containing moisture such as garlic. They are also good for speedy grinding of seeds, spices, herbs, nuts and pills.  

Glass mortars are stain resistant but they are fragile. They should only be used for liquids, not for grinding. 

Granite has been used from time immemorial in Southeast Asia, Pakistan and India to make turmeric. As it is not brittle, it does not break with heavy crushing and grinding. As it is quite hard, it is good for harder and larger ingredients. Granite will absorb to some degree depending on the density of the stone. Too it may trap food in the pores. It is the second most popular mortar being almost nonporous, functional and durable.  It is good for making curry paste as the rough surface helps to grab substances to grind into a paste. It should not be cleaned with soap but with lemon juice. 

Marble is the favorite mortar for it’s all around use. Depending on the density of the stone, the resistance to absorption of moisture and odors is medium. Because the pestle is much heavier than wood it provides for effortless grinding or crushing thus getting the job done more quickly. See dornillo and morteruelo.

[Anón/Huici. 1966:55:42:267: 155:32:173: etc; Ares. “Las Comidas.” 1994:82; ES: Carroll-Mann. Guisados 2-art. Jun 6, 01:ftn 26; Ibn Razīn/Granja.1960:24; Nola:1989:xvii-5; and Sánchez-Albornoz. 2000:139:198]


Ceremonial mortar and pestle (Peruvian)
Photo by: saska01

baguette sliced and left uncovered for a week
½ c olive oil
1 c cured ewe’s cheese
1 sm leg of lamb or 1 lb lamb meat
6 rashers of streaky bacon
4 eggs
2 c ewes’ milk (substitute: almond milk)
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp ginger
¼ c sugar
2 tbsp fresh cilantro
2 tbsp parsley

*a marble mortar is recommended but as seen above there are exceptions to every rule


Grate bread. Toast it in a frying pan. Shred the cheese and mix it with the bread. Cook the lamb in a pot with bacon. When cooked cut the bacon and the lamb into small pieces. Grind them in a *mortar. Mix the meat with the cheese and breadcrumbs and grind all in the mortar. Add one egg for each eater in the mortar.

Thin it with goat’s milk, Put all in a pot and bring to a boil. Remove it from the heat and let rest 10 minutes covered. Serve in individual bowls and garnish with cilantro an parsley.

Note: in previous recipes a food processor is called when the original recipe calls for a mortar. If one wants to be authentic a mortar should be used. Sometimes, however, it is more efficacious to go modern and use electric. 


  1. My grandma had a morter in brass just like that of Velázquez; she also kept as decorations copper utensils people still used in the beggining of the XXth. century, but the mortar I remember she and my mother used. The most common type now is in ceramic, with the wooden handle; in Italy you see more often marble.
    One question: is there any particular reason why they used to crunch, grind and mash so much in the Middle Ages, specially meats? One should have never imagined, looking all those films with people eating Obelix-like (but they were barbarian, not refinate al-andalusies after all...)

  2. Many thanks for your interesting comments!
    Its seems extraordinary but William Clarke of Woodbridge, Ct holds the first patent for a "meat tenderizer" from the mid 19th C. It consists of a device that looks somewhat like an iron with spikes.
    Pounding or beating meat in during the Middle Ages was a big must as slaughters in the barnyard did not take place until the animal was no longer fertile or could not work. So there was a good amount of meat that was as tough as nails.
    Wild fowl and larger game have little or no fat. They are all muscle. So that had to be tenderized by pounding and boiling.
    I think the ceramic mortar the most practical if one cannot get a marble one which is beautiful. I find the bronze mortars good for hard ingredients, decorative and a pain and a half to keep shiny.

  3. Thank you, Susan, that is a good answer. Now I think a little about it, people had bad teeth, too: by 30, women had lost many teeth as the result of decalcification during pregnancies. And the only way to mend your teeth was to pull them out! This didn't exclude aristocrats or kings. As late as 1800, María Luisa, wife of Carlos IV of Spain, had one of the first artificial dentures made for her at Paris. This accounts also for so much ponding, I think! The hardness of meat can also explain why they cooked the meals so long (as the famous olla podrida).