Or at least as true as I can make it.
A hundred years ago, Barcelona was booming, textiles factories were spinning, the well-to-do had a social round of balls, country excursions, racing. Women shopped for new furniture, fancy clothes, fine china. Everyone socialized in restaurants and cafes that served French dinners and te anglaise, owned by migrants from the north of the Italian peninsula–the Swiss Ticino, the part belonging to Sardinia (historic ties to Catalonia), Genoa.
For a really fancy meal, they went to the Maison Dorée in Plaza de Cataluña owned by the brothers Pompidor. And for the absolute latest dish, too time-consuming and complicated to make at home, you called ahead and ordered canelons. The restaurant set to making the pasta, stuffing it, and coating it with bechamel. Bechamel said that you understood food just like olive oil does today.
And here the story branches. The first branch has to do with ladies learning to cook canelons.
Ladies who wanted to cook this kind of food (or more likely teach their cook to make it) attended the near-professional classes offered from 1924 to 1931 in the feminist Institut i Biblioteca Popular de Cultura de la Dona. We may not think of cooking classes and feminism as a natural pair, but to the founder of the Institut, Francesca Bonnemaison, they were, like libraries, part and parcel of improving women’s culture and competence.
The classes were taught by a professional chef, Joseph Rondissoni, an Italian Swiss, who during his career was executive for various hotels, opened a gourmet shop, and edited the journal Menage, very influential in Spain, designed to improve household management, particularly cooking. Rondissoni was a disciple of Escoffier who prided himself on sending out well trained chefs around the world. In Ma Cuisine (1934) Escoffier offers a recipe for canneloni stuffed with chicken, foie gras, game, or other meat (though he coats them with a demi-glace sauce with tomato).
And when Rondissoni published his Culinaria after the Spanish Civil War in 1945, recipes for “canalones” and other pasta are in one of the first sections. This book is still in print. The 6th edition was prefaced by Manuel Vasquez Montalban, one of the best writers on gastronomy not just in Spanish but in any language (though look him up–he was much, much more).
(A recipe for canelones Rossini had been published earlier by Ignasi Doménech, one of the founders of modern Catalan cuisine,. Following the custom of associating the Italian singer and gourmet with truffles, these were to be stuffed with a mixture of chicken livers, bacon, pork loin, brains, grated cheese, tomato sauce, truffles, breadcrumbs, sherry, and egg yolks. (EDIT. Nestor Lujan, see below, credits Domenech with the popularity of canelons, an attribution that fits nicely with recent Catalan nationalism. I tend to credit Rondissoni, just because he did so much to shape Catalan and Spanish cooking in this period. But it would need more research to resolve the issue. )
The second branch of the story concerns the pasta. At the beginning of the twentieth century, part of the great explosion of factory-made dried pasta, canelons were imported from a French firm called La Poule (the chicken), 16 to a box. It tells you something about how prestigious (and presumably expensive they were) that they were separated by pink tissue paper.
Ramon Flo, who made industrial pasta in Barcelona from 1911 on, saw an opportunity. After various efforts, he found ways to make these cylinders, now flattened out now round, selling them under the brand name El Pavo (the turkey) from 1914.
By the 1920s, canelons had become a modish dish for well-to-do Barcelona families to serve on December 26th, St Stephen’s Day, replacing the earlier rice dish made from leftovers from the Christmas soup. The distinguished historian of Spanish cuisine, Néstor Luján, remembered that his family used El Pavo.
Sometime in the 1950s or 60s, as Spain began to recover from the Civil War, canelons became the common Catalan dish for St Stephen’s Day. And now they are omnipresent from the highest flights of fancy in famous destination restaurants of the region to humble take out places, besides being obligatory for St Stephen’s Day, made from El Pavo pasta, on sale in any little grocery in Catalonia.
Soon. A recipe.
For now, let me just conclude by saying that this is not just a shaggy dog story about a particular region of Spain. So many elements of the story—the spread of French high cuisine by non-French cooks, the tangled relationship between feminism and women in the kitchen, the industrialization of pasta, the recent invention of national dishes, the difference that just one person can make—crop up time and again.
And finally, thanks to Jeff Koehler who xeroxed for me the introduction to 100 Recetas de Canelons (1990) by the famous Catalan gastronome and historian Néstor Luján from which part but by no means all of this story is taken.