Food. From Early Days to the Romans

If we want to push the limits on Spanish food, we can go back to the Upper Palaeolithic Period (ca 40,000 to 10,000 years BC) and deduce from early cave art some of the food probably eaten by the earliest inhabitants of the peninsula. Animal paintings of bison, boars, deer, horses, for example on the ceiling of the Cave of Altamira (roughly 34.000 years BC) and in other caves in the north of Spain suggest that hunting meat –probably by spears– was a major food source. It is also likely that these early inhabitants foraged for fruit, nuts, wild berries, leafy vegetables, seeds or grains from wild grass, and snails and insects. Those living on the coast undoubtedly added fish and shellfish to their diet.

Gathering honey.

Another series of paintings known as Rock art brings us closer in time and provides a remarkable narrative of social interaction. Located along the Mediterranean coast of Spain, these works are thought to be from the Mesolithic Age (ca 10,000 to 5,000 years BC) and are painted on shallow open-air spaces or natural cavities. They depict a wide variety of human, communal activities: e.g. groups hunting with bows and arrows, fighting, religious rituals, funeral rites, dancing, and harvesting. One of the most striking scenes is to be found in the Cave of the Spider (Cueva de la Araña) situated about 10 kilometres from the municipality of Bicorp, south west of Valencia.

It depicts a human figure gathering honey. The figure clings to some vines seemingly with her/his knees while reaching into a bees’ nest with one hand.  With the other hand, (s)he grasps a bag; close by some bees hover, as if disturbed by the intruder. The communal activities of these people suggest settled, organised groups who gathered and stored foods similar to those of the Altamira dwellers: meat, grains, berries, nuts, fruit, leafy vegetables etc.  And, of course, honey! By the end of this period, ale –made from barley, probably the oldest cultivated cereal in the world— may well have made an appearance.

Between the Neolithic (ca 5,000-2500 years BC), Copper (ca 2500-1700 years BC) and Bronze (ca 1700-700 years BC) Ages, village life took shape and early forms of organised farming were developed.

From about 1000 BC to 300 BC migrating groups of Celtic tribes entered the peninsula via the Pyrenees and established themselves along the north coast and down the west, probably subjugating those already living there. They gradually progressed inland eventually meeting with the Iberians whose origins are still unresolved (possibly descendants of the Rock art peoples or later migrators who had crossed from North Africa). What happened along common borders is conjecture. Some believe that the Celtic and Iberian tribes mingled and formed a separate culture.  Others argue that tribal identity was so strong that they would have remained apart.  The Romans simply identified them as Celtiberians, and the name has since been used as a convenient way to describe the confusing medley of tribal groups that inhabited the area.

Since the Celts and Iberians left little or no written evidence of their presence, much of what we know about them we owe to Greek and Roman geographers or historians. Insofar as food is concerned, the Greek geographer and historian Strabo (ca 64 BC- ca 23 AD), informs us that the Celtic tribes of the northern mountains ate goat’s meat and ham, and acorns which they first dried and crushed, and then ground up and made into a bread that could be stored for a long time.

**This early distinction between butter and olive oil
is interesting because it weaves its way into Spanish
history, becoming in the late 15th and 16th centuries
a significant way of determining the religious
affiliation of Conversos and Moriscos (converted Jews
and Moors) in a politically unified Christian country.

They also drank beer and used butter instead of olive oil**.

Besides olives, Strabo also identifies grapes, figs, and similar plants (he doesn’t specify), that enriched the Iberian coast and its hinterland. These and other foodstuffs (e.g. olives, almonds, chickpeas, cereals) were introduced primarily by the Phoenicians (8th century BC) and Greeks (7th century BC) and Carthagininas (6th century BC).

The Romans.
A significant stage in Spanish food history was marked by the arrival of the Romans. They remained in Hispania (as they called the peninsula) for about 600 years. One of the main reasons they stayed was to cultivate foodstuffs for their expanding empire. They realised early on that Hispania (especially the east and south) was ideal for growing a variety of foods. But in order to control the peninsula, the Romans had first to subjugate the numerous tribes inhabiting the land, a task that took them almost 200 years (only Euskadi/ the Basque lands remained uncontrolled)! During this period, the Roman armies were constantly called into action, and as Frederick the Great (1740-86) or Napoleon (1769-1821) are reported to have said, an army marches on its stomach.

Aqueduct of Segovia brought water from the Río Frío river about 17 kilometres away.

For the Romans, bread, cheese, wine (often vinegar diluted with water) and olive oil were staple goods for marching soldiers. So, in order to feed their armies and also provide food for Roman settlers attracted to southern and eastern Hispania, extensive irrigation projects –canals and aqueducts– were carried out and a large network of roads and bridges ensured rapid movement of both soldiers and goods.

A particular advantage the Romans found in central, eastern and southern Hispania was its relatively light soil, which allowed for easier ploughing than the heavier, more compact, and rain-laden soil of the north.  As a result, the wide valley of the Guadalquivir River, and the basin of the Guadiana River around Mérida (founded in 23 BC for retired Roman soldiers), became large grain producing regions. At the same time, vineyards and olive plantations were greatly expanded in the south and up the eastern half of the peninsula.

By the end of the second century AD, Hispania was producing so much wheat, barley, millet, wine and olive oil that it became a major exporter to Rome. Strabo makes the point that large quantities of the best quality grain, wine, and olive oil, were being exported from Turdetania (aka Baetica, i.e. roughly modern Andalusia) to the capital.

Both olive oil and wine travelled in terracotta amphorae to Rome to feed its large and growing cosmopolitan population (estimated to be between 600,000 and 1,000,000 in the first century AD). Evidence of the extent and importance of this commercial activity can be gauged from the excavations (1872, 1980s) of a huge mound off the east bank of the Tiber River near the centre of Rome.  Known as Monte Testaccio, it is made up of an accumulation of an estimated 53 million discarded, broken olive oil amphorae, most dating from 140 to 250 AD, and most from Baetica. Olives were also used for purposes other than food: e.g. fuel for oil lamps, an ingredient in soap, and as a lubricant and medicine.

Hispania also exported to Rome a large amount of pickled and salted fish and a particularly prized product called garumGarum was a pungent delicacy prepared in stone vats usually located some distance away from populated areas, and with reason. It was a seasoning sauce concocted from the entrails, heads, roe and blood of fish (tuna, mackerel, anchovies) and left to ferment for weeks in salt until it had decomposed.  The stench was appalling, but the Romans were passionate about it and willing to pay exorbitant prices. It was also believed to have medicinal qualities.

Hispania’s exports to Rome often figure prominently as part of Roman history, because Hispania was in many ways an extension of Rome. Indeed, from about 73 AD the peninsula was granted a large degree of Roman civil rights. And Roman soldiers on duty in Hispania often retired there, in some instances in towns created for them (e.g. Itálica, Mérida) or rewarded with land for their services.

Mérida’s famous Roman theatre.

Predictably, then, Hispano-Romans ate much the same as the Romans. Of course, a lot depended on geography and on the wealth of individuals: the rich enjoyed a wider variety and the poor and those living in more isolated areas had less choice.

Foods that were familiar to Roman and Hispano-Roman palates included: fava beans, lentils, peas, chick peas, as well as lettuce, chicory, leeks, onions, chard, cabbage, cucumbers, pumpkins.  Radish was served before meals as an antidote against possible poisoning. Fruits such as apples, dates, peaches, pomegranates, quinces, melons, apricots, plums, pears, cherries were popular; many were dried to preserve over winter. Lemons were prized for their cleansing quality and figs were believed to reduce wrinkles on the face. Almonds, hazelnuts, chestnuts, acorns and walnuts were also part of the Roman diet, and honey was extensively used as sweetener.

Both in Rome and Hispania, meat was not eaten as widely as nowadays and was rare for the poor, and usually restricted to special events or festivals. Pork was the most popular meat. Pigs were relatively easy to domesticate and being omnivores they were useful animals in cleaning up household waste. A compilation of Roman recipes attributed to an unidentified Apicius (late 4th or early 5th century AD) has a large number of recipes dedicated to pork. Goat, mutton, lamb, game (e.g. rabbit, hare, venison, pheasant, partridge, pigeon, thrushes, and poultry (mainly chicken, but also goose and duck) were also available but beef was scarce (it takes a lot more land to feed and water cattle, and they are far less easy to transport or move around, an important consideration in times of war). And there were always snails and frogs, to which the poor had easy access.

Bolonia, north west of Gibraltar, famous for its garum.

Fish, both saltwater and freshwater, were staple foods. When not eaten fresh, they were preserved in salt or dried or pickled. Eels were common, and sardines, mackerel and shellfish were widely available in coastal areas (e.g. shrimps, prawns, although cockles, mussels, and scallops were products of Northern Hispania). In the south, tuna fishing in the Straits of Gibraltar was already long established (tuna entrails were often one of the ingredients used to make garum). Freshwater fish included pike, carp, catfish, barbel (related to carp).

Salt, herbs and spices were important as preservatives and seasonings. Most spices originated in Asia and having travelled far were prized possessions.  The most common was pepper, found in many recipes from Apicius’s cookbook. Other spices used by the Romans included saffron, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cumin, caraway, coriander, ginger, turmeric all entering through the eastern borders of the Empire. How many of these spices were used in Hispania is difficult to determine, although the Latin origin for the Spanish name for some suggests that these were probably known at least amongst the wealthy in the peninsula: cinnamon–canelo <Lat cuminum, coriander-culantro <Lat coriandrum, cardamom-cardamono <Lat cardamomum, mustard-mostaza <Lat mustaceus, nutmeg-nuez moscada <Lat nux-nucis, and ginger-jengibre <Lat zingiber. Most herbs, on the other hand, were common to the Mediterranean: e.g. parsley, sage, mint, thyme.

The Roman Empire gradually disintegrated during the 5th century AD, and Roman power was replaced by groups of migratory Germanic or Gothic tribes, the main one being –for Spanish history— the Visigoths.Wedged between the great legacies of the Romans and the Moors (i.e. the Muslim conquerors of Hispania early in the 8th century AD), they are remembered more for their mythical role as models representing  untainted Christian Hispano-Roman (i. e. pre-Islamic) values which were invoked regularly following the conquest of Hispania. Outnumbered by their Hispano-Roman subjects and culturally much less sophisticated, the Visigoths soon adopted the ways of those they had conquered, e.g. Roman clothes, Roman Catholicism, the language of Rome: Latin. Predictably, then, they ate the kinds of foods already cultivated by the Hispano-Romans and listed above.

Nevertheless, being from north of the Pyrenees by origin and nomadic by nature, they were culturally much more inclined to pastoral, livestock farming than to arable farming and, like their predecessors, the Celts, they cooked with lard and not olive oil. Although they appreciated wine, they were enthusiastic drinkers of beer (they introduced hops into Hispania), apple cider and mead.

Until the early 8th century AD, Spain’s gastronomy was similar to that adopted in much of the Roman Empire. In 711, however, the history of the Iberian Peninsula took a radical turn. Muslim forces crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and by 720 had conquered the entire peninsula except for a strip along the north coast (roughly modern Asturias and Cantabria). Almost overnight Hispania became al-Andalus, the name adopted by the Moors for the land they occupied. In addition to their customs and values, their religion, their language, they brought with them new agricultural techniques, new foodstuffs and their own style of cooking.  We have three pages about their contributions: AgricultureZiryab, al-Andalus and cookbooks. See also our Tyranny of Food (a look at how food was used to determine whether Jews and Muslims had truly converted to Christianity in the 16th century.


Adamson, Melitta Weiss  Food in Medieval Times Westport, Connecticut, London 2004
Collins, Roger Spain: An Oxford Archeological Guide Oxford, New York 1998.
Fletcher, Richard  Moorish Spain  London 1994
Fletcher, Richard The Quest for El Cid  London 1989
Martinez Llopis, Manuel M Historia de la gastronomia espanola Madrid 1989
Roden, Claudia The Food of Spain New York 2011
Trutter, Marion ed. Culinaria Spain Cologne 1999
Figure gathering honey by fr:Utilisateur:Achillea converted to svg by User:Amada44
Photo of garum factory in Bolonia (Baelo Claudio), between Cádiz and Algeciras, by Anual – Own work, CC BY 3.0,
Photo of Roman theatre, Mérida: CC BY-SA 3.0,