Cachopo - Asturian cordon bleu

Cachopo History – A (Somewhat) Definitive Account

This is a companion history piece to my recipe for Asturian cachopo. If you are looking for the recipe and variations, go there. If you want to learn the history of the dish from the first appearance of breaded and fried meat to the modern day, read on.

It is hard to go anywhere in Asturias without running into cachopo. But what exactly is it? In Asturias cachopo is a veal cutlet with ham and cheese inside, breaded and shallow fried. Sound familiar? It should. It’s a schnitzel cordon bleu, one of the more recent additions to world cuisine. This stuffed cutlet took Europe, and then the world, by storm in the 1940’s.

Some Fake Cachopo History

There is a tendency in Spain to claim that everything eaten in Spain was invented in Spain. Unfortunately, cachopo is no exception. It doesn’t take much looking around online before the story of how Schweizer schnitzel was actually invented in Asturias will appear. The general outline is usually that Gaspar Casal (who we have already met when talking about pellagra) described the exact process of making cachopo in his Historia [zotpressInText item=”{2459245:QYS5BTQD}”].

This attitude of “must be invented here” is unfortunate, in that it obscures the real wealth of a region. This supposedly 18th century invention of Asturian farmers is, of course, not actually mentioned anywhere in the book. The world would sadly have to wait almost 200 years before sinking their teeth into this particular delicacy. The real story however, is fascinating. Read on for the full story.

And The Real Story

Cachopo is, essentially, two schnitzels wrapped around a filling. Traditionally the filling is pork and cheese. The exact form of pork, and the cheese, have been matters of local preference for as long as the dish has existed, which isn’t all that long. But schnitzel itself is ancient. Breading a cutlet, baking or frying it, and putting a thick sauce on top is the form it took early, and still maintains. To know how cachopo came to be, we first have to know how schnitzel came to be. And so we start at the beginning of many things in European food history – Constantinople.

All stories lead to Constantinople

The Byzantine Empire formed out of the Roman Empire in 306 CE. It outlived the Eastern Roman Empire by a thousand years. During those thousand years, northern Italy passed in and out if its control several times.

At the height of the Byzantine Empire, during the reign of Basil I (867-886 CE), a new fashion arose among the wealthy of Constantinople. Cutlets of all types were covered with gold foil before being cooked. This is certainly as one of the most ostentatious displays of conspicuous consumption in history. [zotpressInText item=”{2459245:ZX5VRUAC,99}”]

This fashion for gold coated food was ruinously expensive, but enormously popular. The fashion continued almost to the end of the empire. As we will see later, it also influenced at least one neighbor.

In fact, during the middle ages, gold leaf on food was a widespread practice in Europe. Many patés and roast birds were covered in gold leaf right across Europe. [zotpressInText item=”{2459245:V4MDZRUZ,507}”] The practice survives to this day in things like chocolates decorated with gold leaf and in the liquor Danziger Goldwasser.

An Italian Detour

In the 15th century, the Byzantine craze for gold plated food swept through Europe. In Venice, the council banned the use of gold in food first in 1473, and again in 1514. [zotpressInText item=”{2459245:G4WL4ZLN,207}”] Unwilling to give up their golden colored foods, Venetian aristocrats developed an imposter – a ‘yellow gold’. This was toasted breadcrumbs. And thus the Ur-schnitzel was born. [zotpressInText item=”{2459245:4N4KZBVV,123}”] Almost certainly, the not so wealthy has been doing this all along. Cookbooks, especially medieval ones, reflect only the cooking of the aristocracy, and later the bourgeoisie, so we have no way to say so definitively.

What we do know is that the earliest attestation to breaded and fried cutlets served in Europe is at a banquet on September 17, 1134. Organized by the monks of Basilica romana minore collegiata abbaziale prepositurale di Sant’Ambrogio, the banquet was in honor of Saint Ambrose. On that occasion, they served Lombolos Cum Panitio, the forerunner of Cotoletta alla Milanese. [zotpressInText item=”{2459245:4ACLFX6P,165}”]

Now, Cotoletta is always bone in. Absolutely. But, there is another version, identical except for the bone, that has been popular in Milan for just as long: Orecchia di Elefante (Elephant ear). In that version, the cook debones and butterflies the chop. They then flatten it with a mallet, bread it, and fry it. Starting to sound more familiar yeah? You could call this the real start to cachopo history.

Once Orecchia de Elefante made its way to Bologna, another step in the evolution took place. In that city, there is a popular riff on the dish; Cotoletta alla Bolognese. In that version, like the Orecchia, the cook pounds the veal steak thin. However, they then top it with cheese and ham, ladle a bolognese sauce over it, and broil it. [zotpressInText item=”{2459245:HYUYFMXF}”] Now we have almost all of the ingredients for a cachopo together, for the first time in history.

The Swiss Connection

Meanwhile, north of Milan, some enterprising Swiss chefs were about to be doing some experimenting of their own.

A long period of schnitzel bliss settled in, particularly in Vienna. There the Jewish bourgeoisie turned it from a luxury dish to a symbol of political and social solidarity. Indeed, as Claudia Roden put it “On Sundays, when gentiles had roast pork, Jews had Wiener schnitzel”. [zotpressInText item=”{2459245:E7IWEM38,142}”]

Then, in the 1940’s, the food world underwent an enormous change, as the second world war convulsed Europe. Freezers became common in American homes. Dozens of pre-made meals and foods came out of the soldiers meal kits and into homes around the world. Commercial canning became big business. European foods moved into America in a big way, and into Palestine (later Israel).

From One to Two Schnitzels – The Cordon Bleu Connection

And this is when things get hazy, instead of more clear. While it should be that the newer something is, the easier it is to verify, it is not always the case. And unfortunately, this is one of those cases. Recipes are not invented, they evolve. And sometimes, for no good reason, they suddenly explode in popularity, all at once, everywhere. Such was the case for veal cordon bleu, and all of it’s local names. Spain alone has two or three names for it.

As close as anyone can accurately say, somewhere in Austria in the mid to late 1940s, veal schnitzel cordon bleu was born. Someone took Cotoletta alla Bolognese and slapped another schnitzel on top of it, trapping the cheese, ham, and sauce inside. The earliest print attestation is in a well regarded “gourmet book for clever women and clever men” in 1949. [zotpressInText item=”{2459245:IA9VRIVF,77}”] So that is of no use. It was claimed that in Asturias the first cachopo is served around this time in Bar Pelayo in Oviedo. [zotpressInText item=”{2459245:C7L2QYKP,117}”] However, that seems unlikely. Indeed, Méndez Riestra himself corrects that date, and the story, to the 1950s in a 2017 interview.

According to the story he tells in the interview, the chef at Bar Pelayo was one of the few Asturians who cared about international cuisine and cookbooks, and was aware of this central European craze that was sweeping the world, and decided to get in on it. That launched the initial Asturian interest in cachopo. While it may have waned a bit in the “nicer” places, it has remained a chigre staple since, and is enjoying a renewed respectability, much to the chagrin of the staunch nativists and traditionalists like Riestra. [zotpressInText item=”{2459245:QUJLRK7W}”]

The same entry states that cachopo was popular throughout Asturias by the 1960’s. This matches the Food Timeline first mention in America of veal cordon bleu dated to 1958. [zotpressInText item=”{2459245:UDR6ALBN,207}”] In her memoir published 2021, Lola Sanchez gives a recipe for the cachopo she served at her restaurant El Miramar in Sama de Langreo in the 1960s. [zotpressInText item=”{2459245:L5PDSH4R,327-328}”]

By the 1970s, cachopo was a must-eat item when visiting Asturias. Dozens of guide books were recommending where to get cachopo by then.

Works Cited:

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For more note on my sources, Dive Deeper

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