What do you know about Spanish food? Many people will have tried gazpacho or paella, or sampled tapas, serrano ham, jamón ibérico or Spanish olive oil. These have made their way well beyond Spain’s border.
But there’s a lot more to Spanish food. Perhaps no European country can claim to have such a rich and varied cuisine as Spain, and yet until recently it ranked low on any list of gourmet food destinations.
Nowadays Spanish cuisine has an international audience, and Spanish chefs have become culinary stars, as innovative as those of any country. The Catalan, Ferrán Adrià, one of the founders of the so-called “molecular gastronomy” has a cult following. He was head chef and owner of a three-star Michelin restaurant, El Bulli, (located just outside Roses, about 155 kilometres/ 96 miles north of Barcelona) which was voted the best restaurant in the world five times by international food critics and chefs in the British magazine Restaurant. There are several other culinary stars, especially in the Basque Provinces (or Euskera), and many were inspired by the traditional cooking of their parents and grandparents. These traditional dishes have been deconstructed and combined with foreign ingredients to create exotic new dishes.
Much of the blame for Spain’s poor reputation for food in the second half of the 20th century (prior to its resurrection) can be attributed to the poverty of the country following the disastrous Civil War of 1936 to 1939 and the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (1939-75). Then from the late 1950s, cheap charter flights to the Mediterranean coast –organised for northern Europeans—brought thousands of tourists in search of sun, sea and sand. The tourist invasion helped the economy by providing jobs (construction, hotel service etc.), but it also encouraged the mass production of cheap food. Paellas and gazpachos etc. were often prepared with ingredients of dubious quality; tortillas were greasy, olive oil often inferior or adulterated, and food colouring or cheaper spice (e.g. turmeric) might replace expensive saffron, the spice considered essential for authentic paella. And then there was the question of taste. For numerous northerners, unaccustomed to the flavour of even good olive oil, or garlic or chick peas, Spanish food was as unwelcome as the sunburned skin many suffered as a result of over exposure to the sun. Predictably, a “tourist” cuisine sprouted along the coast, with restaurants catering to northern tastes so that it became possible to avoid Spanish fare (the British –the largest contingent in those days— often stuck to fish and chips!).
Nevertheless, adventurous tourists could find authentic Spanish food in the old quarters of the rapidly expanding villages or towns or by taking a trip inland. The further they moved from tourist centres, the more likely they were to experience food that was local and traditional. It might not be high dining, but it would be “honest”/ robust such as that described by Penelope Chetwode travelling on horseback in Andalusia in 1961: “The staple diet of rural Andalusia consists of vegetable soups and stews. These are made with a basis of dried chickpeas and different sorts of beans, all very high in protein, stewed together with potatoes, onions, pimientos, garlic and any available green vegetables.” The bread she describes as “superlative and is a pleasure to eat dry” (Chetwode 10)
However, since the vast majority of tourists congregated along the Mediterranean coast or on the Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza), their experience of Spanish food was limited. Indeed, the term “Spanish food” is an oversimplification because Spain is in fact made up of several regions, each with its own cuisine or traditional food developed over time and forming part of its identity. This return to local tradition is especially marked since the death of General Franco (1975) and the decentralisation of Spain into seventeen autonomous communities.
Geography has been instrumental in creating Spain’s regional diversity, which in turn has allowed for the development of local cuisines. Spain is a country fractured by numerous mountain ranges, rivers, valleys and a large central plateau (meseta), all of which made communication especially difficult in the past. This helps us understand the historic penchant of Spaniards to identify themselves first with their village (pueblo) and then with their region, the patria chica (small homeland). Spain, as a unified nation, has always been a tough sell, and the battle between centralization and regionalism has been a constant in Spanish history.
Spain’s climate too varies significantly, which means that a wide diversity of agricultural goods is produced in different parts of the country. On the mainland, the climate ranges from near desert conditions in parts of the south, blistering summers and freezing winters on the meseta and wet temperate weather in the north. In the south, for example, you’ll find dates, almonds, olives and figs; in the north, there are apples and chestnuts and lots of root crops. The Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands in the Atlantic offer further diversity.
Nevertheless, although geography and climate play a vital role in determining the products of any region, it is the historical movement of people that shapes the final ingredients that make up the cuisines of the regions. Some settlers—e.g. the Celts and Visigoths– entered via the Pyrenees to the north, others crossed the Mediterranean from the east –e.g. the Romans– and still others –e.g. Muslim (or Moorish) armies– negotiated the straits of Gibraltar from Africa. And there were yet others, even earlier –e.g. the Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians— who remained largely on the coasts, trading with the indigenous population.
Of all of these arrivals, the Romans and the Moors (the general term used for the several separate groups of Muslims who arrrived in 711) had the greatest impact, scarcely surprising since the former controlled the peninsula for roughly 600 years (ca 219 BC to 411 AD) and the latter for almost 800 years (711 to 1492)**.
Their control of al-Andalus decreased as Christian kingdoms
progressed southwards especially between the 11th and
A third group that should not be overlooked were the Jews who played a significant role in Medieval Spain in several capacities, as traders, emissaries, physicians, translators, financial administrators etc.
All of these Mediterranean cultures brought their customs and values with them, including their religion, their language, foodstuffs they enjoyed and their own style of cooking. They enriched the land with an array of hitherto unknown fruits, vegetables, cereals etc. which served as the basis of Spanish medieval cuisine for centuries. A 10th-century Jewish observer remarked enthusiastically: “The land is rich, abounding in rivers, springs, aqueducts; a land of corn, oil and wine, of fruits and all manner of delicacies; it has pleasure gardens and orchards, fruitful trees of every kind, including the leaves of the trees upon which the silkworm feeds….” (Gerber 31).
The Romans and Moors also constructed an elaborate system of irrigation channels that fed towns and converted the dry areas of the south and south east into fertile, productive land. You can still admire the wonderful Roman aqueducts in e.g. Segovia, Tarragona or Mérida, and the remarkable, elaborate irrigation system built by the Moors just south of Valencia is still used today.
And dotted around the landscape of southern Spain, you can still see Moorish water-wheels (norias) and water mills (aceñas) which could raise water and so expand the terrain available for cultivation.
But the northern Celts or the Visigoths should not be overlooked. True, they did not contribute as greatly to the diversity of foods, but what they ate had profound social consequences for Jews and Muslims from the late 15th century to the 17th, a period better known in Spain as the Golden Age. With the expulsion or conversion of Jews and Muslims in 1492, Spain became religiously unified under the Catholic banner. The 15th and 16th- century Christian descendants of the Celts and Visigoths enjoyed pork, which was taboo to both Jews and Muslims. As a result, the consumption of pork became one of several means by which the conversion of Jews and Muslims was closely measured. Those Jewish and Muslim converts or their descendants (Conversos and Moriscos respectively) who avoided pork were suspected of not having truly embraced Christianity and of practising their original faith in secret. Consequently, they often ended up in the arms of the dreaded Inquisition. We’ve addressed this very important social role of food in The Tyranny of Food.
Besides the diverse foods introduced by those who traded with or settled in Spain, there remains one further source that vastly enriched the country’s produce. Spain’s Golden Age witnessed the “discovery” and exploration of America, or Las Indias as it was commonly known in Spain. The exploration of this new and exciting land revolutionised the foods of Europe with the importation by returning explorers and colonists of “exotic” goods such as potatoes, tomatoes, pineapples, avocados, cocoa, vanilla, to name a few.
Some of these products were viewed suspiciously because of their unfamiliarity, and were not eaten when first introduced. For example, for a long time tomatoes and chilli peppers were used as ornamental plants and potatoes were mainly cultivated in botanical gardens. Still, learning that natives in Las Indias ate these unusual foods, some individuals did venture to try them. As early as March 1526, the Venetian ambassador to Spain, Andrea Navagero, had sampled “batatas”: “I ate the roots of what they call ‘batatas’ which tasted like chestnuts. I … also ate … a delicious fruit … which had the flavour of something between melon and peach” (Viaje 40. The name of the fruit is missing, but it was possibly a pineapple). Of course, over time these fruits and vegetables and other products (e.g. turkey) were adopted and become staples, to such a degree that their American origin has been lost.
Spain, then, during the Middle Ages and the 16th and 17th centuries, was Europe’s gateway for so many foods that are now taken for granted. Nowadays, of course, food production and preparation are global, following a massive movement of people accelerated by an explosion of air travel after the Second World War (1939-45), and large scale shipping and air cargo infrastructures. But in the face of internationalisation and the fast food phenomenon, the growth of the locavore and slow food movements in the West demonstrate a desire to return to “roots”. The rebirth of Spain’s regional cuisine belongs to the same general movement: it is local, it returns to its roots, and it forms part of that region’s identity.
Chetwode, Penelope Two Middle-aged Ladies in Andalusia London 1963.
Gerber, Jane S The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience New York 1992.
Mitchell, David Here in Spain Fuengirola (Málaga) 1988
Munzer, Jerónimo Viaje por España y Portugal (1494-1495) Madrid 1991 (Transl. Ramon Alba).
Navagero, Andres Viaje por España (1524-1526) Madrid 1983 (Transl. Antonio Maria Fabie).
Roden, Claudia The Food of Spain New York 2011.
Trutter, Marion ed. Culinaria Spain Cologne 1999.