Food / Spain / Travel

Something’s Cookin’ in this Old Spanish Kitchen!

The old adage says that the kitchen is the heart of the home, and I guess that’s true. But what if it’s also an extraordinary work of ceramic art and a valuable source of information on fashion, diet, and the lifestyles of wealthy families of Spain in the late-1700s. Now that’s a heart and a kitchen!

This tile-work masterpiece is one of the crown jewels of the collection at the National Museum of Decorative Arts in Madrid. It was originally part of an 18th Century palace in Valencia which was torn down after Spain’s Civil War. Luckily, the 1,604 tiles were acquired by the State and transported, piece by piece, to the Decorative Arts Museum where they’re installed in a room specifically designed like the original kitchen.

We’ve never seen anything to equal this charming kitchen, and the Museum’s fabulous virtual tour will transport you back in time.

According to Cerámica y Cultura:

“The decoration of the 18th century Spanish kitchen revealed as much about daily life as the vessels and utensils within it. During this era Felipe V, the first Spanish Bourbon king, and his court embraced the fashion and social customs of the French court at Versailles. One characteristic of this period was an emphasis on decoration and filling rooms and walls with light and air. In many areas of Spain, tilework replaced earlier, heavy leather hangings (guadamaciles). Once again tile began to invade all parts of a building—as it had in Islamic Spain—only now the decoration was not geometric and floral, but figurative. Entire walls of palaces and grand homes were covered in pictorial tilework, illustrating scenes of domestic and courtly life and the most popular were those of the kitchen.”

Artists love the work for its aesthetic value, and historians appreciate it as a snapshot of what might have been happening on a typical day in a well-to-do kitchen in 18th-Century Valencia.

Obviously, the main character in the scene is the dueña, or lady of the house, who’s having a serious look at the trays of food prepared by the household staff.

The all-Spanish information placard had details of the menu, and thanks to my iPad, an OCR app, as well as Google Translate, I determined that the snacks are snow sorbets presented in cups as well as sweets and chocolate in saucers. In those days, the rich and famous didn’t have to worry about diversity in their diets. They feasted on rabbit, chicken, fish, lamb, sausage, and all varieties of veggies. Now we’re cookin’.

If you look closely, it’s clear that the creative artist was a practical type with a sense of humor. One of the servants has spilled a cup of chocolate, and just look at the number of cats. Rodents had to be a major problem for every household, so rat-catcher cats were a necessary evil. But in this kitchen, cats are making a real nuisance of themselves; nipping and scratching at any and all food they can reach. One of the cooks is taking matters in hand and is about to clobber one of the marauding kitties with the kitchen cat-cudgel.

Today, some might consider this as folk art, but if it is, it’s folk art of the highest order. In addition to being visually appealing, it’s an interesting look at a day-in-the-life 225 years ago.

The Madrid Museum of Decorative Arts has four additional floors of exceptional artifacts, but this Valencian kitchen alone makes it worth a visit, so don’t miss it.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri


41 thoughts on “Something’s Cookin’ in this Old Spanish Kitchen!

  1. What a treasure and I love the glimpses into life in 18th Century Spain. So fun to look at the little dramas portrayed on the tiles and see the semi-controlled chaos of preparing a meal. The behind-the-scenes stories remind me a little of a Spanish version of Downton Abbey and the upstairs-downstairs vibe. You can bet the mistress of the kitchen wasn’t doing any cooking with that towering hair style! Madrid and Leon are at the top of our list when next we visit Spain and you can be sure we’ll be spending some time in the Madrid Museum of Decorative Arts. Thanks for the tip, James and Terri. There’s no need to ask if you’re enjoying your travels! 🙂 Anita

    • Thanks Anita. The Downton Abbey analogy is perfect. There’s so many tidbits of everyday life in this mosaic. One of the great things about the exhibit is the ability to get close and study the details. (You can also do this by zooming in on the virtual tour.) And I love all the details: the cat swatting at the eels in the basket, a cat stealing a fish, all the cooking tools, etc. The size of the project brought up all sorts of questions about how the artist pulled it off. Very cool. And BTW, this entire museum is very cool you should visit if you get a chance. ~James

    • This Decorative Arts Museum is a bit off the path, and there are so many other museums (e.g. Prado, etc) that you won’t see it on the list of top attractions. But, it’s a wonderful museum, and definitely worth a stop. It’s also very close to Retiro Park, which is a great place to people watch and see Madrileños at leisure. ~James

  2. The tiles are wonderful! But I’m jealous – it must be a new installation. I visited that museum in 2015 and I certainly didn’t see them. BTW are you going to the costume museum?

    • Kathy, I’m not sure how long the exhibit has been there, but it’s on the top floor (5) and if visitors didn’t know, or ran out of steam, they might miss it – which would be a shame. I’ve never seen anything like it. ~James

    • Thanks Laura. We only took a few days for Madrid, so we had to do a bit of prioritizing. But, when I read about this kitchen, I knew that we had to visit. And we definitely weren’t disappointed. ~James

    • You’re right Susan. What you can’t see in the photos or video is that they even carried on the colors and themes in the grout! Now that is covering every square inch. ~James

  3. This is amazing! I must go and see it next time I´m in Madrid. The Museum of Ceramics in Valencia is also worth a visit. It has similar tiles but not quite as detailed.

    • Darlene, I’ve always loved Spanish tiles. We’ve always talked about doing a small courtyard with a tiled fountain, but so far, we haven’t worked it in. We really wanted to go to Valencia on this trip, but the Las Fallas festival was going on, so we didn’t want all the crowds. It will be the next trip though. How do you like Valencia? ~James

      • We spent a weekend there last fall and I loved it. It does get pretty crazy I believe during the Las Fallas Fiesta. There is a Fallas museum I would love to visit though. I do hope you get to visit it someday. The mix of old and modern architecture is fascinating.

    • Thanks Curt. When I read about someone spending $50,000 on a kitchen renovation I’m always amazed. I wonder if you could do a kitchen like this for 50K? Umm … 1600 tiles, $50,000 … that’s $31 per tile. It just might work. ~James

      • I have to confess, James, I’ve never been tempted, even remotely so, to do a $50,000 kitchen renovation. Having that much extra cash hanging around would definitely be a sign that I haven’t been traveling enough! 🙂 –Curt

  4. What a gem of a museum – unfamiliar to me but now lodged on my to-do list for the next Madrid trip! The Spaniards certainly had (have) a way with tile.

    • Thanks Alison. I’m glad to see that you’re as impressed with this kitchen as we were. The size of the project is amazing, and the details make it fun. If you visit, don’t miss it. ~James

  5. My heart skipped a beat! Oh how simply wonderfully over the top. The detail! Right down to the mischievous cats. Everyone would become marvelous cooks in a kitchen adorned in this manner. One would be inspired!

    • Virginia, given your artistic bent, I’m not surprised that this tile work appeals to you. I’m sure that it cost a fortune to construct, but one of the things that I like most is that it’s not overly fussy and it has a wonderful sense of fun. The cook about to whack the fish-stealing cat just cracks me up. ~James

    • Well said Marilyn. These Spaniards know how to make beautiful ceramics, as do their Mexican peers. I love the artistry of this kitchen, and as you say, the detail holds a wonder lesson in history: the foods, clothing, cooking gear, etc. It really is an amazing work of art. ~James

    • Shelley, I saw Julia Child’s kitchen in the Smithsonian, and I just loved that she had sharpie outlines of all here pots and pans on pegboard so she would know exactly where to put them. The Valencian kitchen has all kinds of cooking gear in the tiled walls. Maybe that’s where Julia go the idea. 🙂 ~James

    • I agree Peta. I’ve always loved tile work, and this one is excellent. It’s interesting that these folks could obviously afford whatever they wanted, and they chose a scene with day-to-day life and a bit of humor. Very nice. ~James

  6. Have I mentioned recently how much I love the way you two find the unusual stories in travel? I have to sheepishly admit I would likely walk by the display and say something like ” now that’s a kitchen!” So fascinating about the cats. I understand the importance of them in keeping the mice and their cousins at bay but hopefully there weren’t quite as many as the tiles suggests. Take a look at those teeth! I wonder how big the rodents were!

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