Category Archives: Spanish Culture

Spanish Food History: The Early Days.

Spanish Food: The Early Days.
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.

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 (about 10,000 to 5,000 years BC) and are painted on shallow open-air spaces or natural cavities.

Gathering honey.

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 (6 miles) 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 her/his 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-ca 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 may be stored away for a long time.” They also drank beer and used butter instead of olive oil (III, 3, 7).***

***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.

Besides olives, Strabo also identifies grapes, figs, and similar plants (he doesn’t specify), that enriched the Iberian coast (III, 4, 16) 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 AD) and Carthaginians (6th century BC). 

However, it was the arrival of the Romans that marked the first significant stage in Spanish food history. Roman presence in the Iberian Peninsula (i. e. modern Spain and Portugal) extended over 600 years; it was inevitable, then, that Roman culture would have a wide and profound influence, including food.

Adamson, Melitta Weiss  Food in Medieval Times Westport, Connecticut, London 2004
Collins, Roger Spain: An Oxford Archeological Guide Oxford, New York 1998.
Roden, Claudia The Food of Spain New York 2011.
Trutter, Marion ed. Culinaria Spain Cologne 1999.
Image of honey gatherers: fr:Utilisateur:Achillea converted to svg by User:Amada44, GPL


Amadis of Gaul. The Art of Storytelling.

In chapter 6 of Part I of Don Quixote (1605), the priest and barber of Don Quixote’s village examine the books in his library with the aim of burning those responsible for his madness.

The first book mentioned is Amadís de Gaula, and both priest and barber agree that it should not be destroyed, because as the barber concludes, “I’ve heard it said that it is the best of all the books of this kind ever written, and so … it should be pardoned.”  We don’t know why they think that, but general consensus bears out their opinion that Amadís is indeed the best romance of chivalry written in Spanish.

[There are many who argue that another romance Tirant lo Blanch –written in Catalan– is equal or even superior to it. Tirant was published in 1490 and translated into Spanish anonymously in 1511.  In the same chapter 6 of Don Quixote, the priest waxes eloquent over Tirant, calling it a “treasure” and “for its style, the best book in the world.”]

What is Amadís about? It’s a fast moving action story with a strong love interest. Its cast of characters is large: kings and queens, knights, squires, damsels, giants, dwarves, wise men –but no common people! It has mystery, magic and fantasy: sorcerers, enchantresses, wild animals, monsters…

There are individual combats, pitch battles, tournaments, sex, and exotic locales ranging across Europe from England to Constantinople. But Spain is not on the itinerary! Amadís reflects the ethos of Medieval court society, depicting an aristocratic, youthful world of adventure with no concerns for the realities of every day life.

Amadís’s adventures and his courtly relationship with Oriana form the main thread of the book. As a knight Amadís embodies the chivalric virtues of loyalty, magnanimity, humility, justice. As a lover he is the epitome of steadfastness. But only so much can be written about his heroic exploits and amorous feelings before they become repetitive and boring, so various ways are sought to sustain our interest.

For instance, each of the four books focuses generally on different facets periods of Amadís’s life. Quickly passing through his birth, childhood, and first meeting with Oriana (Chapter 4), Book I demonstrates how Amadís is the greatest knight. Without omitting his knightly activities, Book II shows Amadís as superior as steadfast lover. Together Books I and II confirm that Amadís has fulfilled the two most important requirements of a knight-errant: warrior and lover. 

What more can be said about him? The emphasis has to shift, and it does at the end of Book II.  First, Amadís is exiled from the court of King Lisuarte (Oriana’s father) because of the treachery of some courtiers, and secondly Oriana (whom he left behind) finds that she is pregnant.

In Book III Amadís finds out in a letter from Oriana that he has a son, Esplandián, but she fails to mention that Esplandián has been lost! Any potential confrontation between Amadís and Lisuarte is avoided with Amadís’s adventures in other parts of Europe.  

His major triumph is the defeat of the monstrous Endriago on the Isla del Diablo (Island of the Devil). Towards the end of Book III, Amadís receives news that Oriana is be married to the Emperor of Rome.  

In the final book, Book IV, Amadís kidnaps Oriana, thereby infuriating Lisuarte.  Tension now reaches a climax with the battle between Amadís’s and Lisuarte’s forces. Peace is restored only after Lisuarte is informed that he has a grandson by Amadís and Oriana. Amadís and Oriana are confirmed as heirs to Lisuarte`s kingdom and rulers in their own right of La Insola Firme.  At the end of Book IV, Lisuarte is enchanted and kidnapped… but this open-ended finish is to prepare us for the sequel, Las Sergas de Esplandián.

Amadís is a work where action governs reflection and verbs dominate adjectives (the preterite tense is particularly effective in advancing the action). Abundant dialogue adds drama and is used effectively in creating tension especially in confrontational situations, but it lends little psychological depth, and the characters tend to be unidimensional. They are good or evil, beautiful or ugly etc, and like most figures in Medieval painting they have a sameness about them.

What gives Amadís its impact is the creation of suspense through the interplay of contrast and changes of focus, together with strong doses of secrecy, prophecy and mystery.  Contrast is in fact the general principle behind the basic structure of the book.

The many subplots, numerous characters, magic and enchantment, moralizing asides, may suggest a lack of coherence, but the story is really built on easily recognizable, opposing or contrasting dualities: good/evil, virtue/vice, justice/injustice, peace/war, order/disorder, beauty/ugliness, large/small, power/weakness, separation/ unification.

These are universal archetypes, and are the same structural principles that underlie much of imaginative literature, from Homer through Shakespeare, to cowboy novels, James Bond, Star Wars, and a host of Hollywood action movies (think Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis etc.).

Each of the endless confrontations is a case of restoring order and justice, a defence of the weak against the abuse of the strong, an instance of good triumphing over evil.

Amadís’s first significant combat (Book I, 6) is typical of what will follow: A weeping damsel is seen by Amadís coming out of a castle.  She has been raped and Amadís offers to avenge her dishonour.  Before confronting her rapist, Galpano, Amadís kills several of his soldiers.  Galpano, full of arrogance, vows to cut off Amadís’s head.  However, he turns out not only to be a rapist but also a coward, who having lost his weapons and shield ends up hopping around trying to avoid Amadís’s sword. Amadís finally delivers a blow that chops off Galpano’s head.

Opposing dualities gain even greater impact, however, if the outcome to the conflict is suspended, so that the reader wants to know when –and how–, for example, will order be restored, justice replace injustice, or separated lovers be reunited.  Amadís’s exile from the court of Lisuarte and news of Oriana’s pregnancy at the end of Book II, for example, open up new possibilities: What will happen now that Amadís has been treated so unjustly?  Where will he go? Will he remain loyal to Lisuarte? Will there be reconciliation? If so, how and when? How will Oriana explain her pregnancy? How will she and Amadís be reunited? What will become of their child?

The strongest and most consistent contrast is that between the superior qualities of Amadís and the vices embodied in his enemies. And there is no shortage of enemies, each seemingly stronger and more terrifying. 

The Endriago (Book III, 10) is the most hideous that Amadís confronts, but the most dangerous is the enchanter Arcalaus (the Darth Vader of the Amadís tale). From his very first encounter with Amadís (Book I, 18), Arcalaus is identified as a diabolical force, who reappears periodically.  However, with a good sense of suspense, Montalvo doesn’t dispose of him at the end, but leaves him escape to fight another day!

But enemies are not the only foils to Amadís. Friends and companions constantly highlight his superiority through their shortcomings. E.g. the inability of all –including his two brothers, Galaor and Florestán, to enter the protected room of true lovers on the Insola Firme, Book II, 44). Indeed it is his younger brother, Galaor, who is frequently contrasted with Amadis, not as warrior but as lover. 

If Amadís is the perfect example of the courtly code, Galaor and the compliant damsels he meets enjoy casual lovemaking with unrestrained pleasure. The description of the sexual initiation of both captures the difference between them: In Book I, 12, Galaor is led into a castle room where he sees a young damsel combing her hair. They are introduced to each other as royalty and with no more ado make love: “Galaor enjoyed himself with the maiden that night at his leisure, and without saying anymore about it…

Compared to Galaor’s casual encounters, Amadís and Oriana’s first make love only after Oriana’s allusion to a secret marriage in the eyes of God. Everything is favourable for the moment: Amadís has just rescued Oriana from Arcalaus, and recovered his sword at the same time. In an idyllic glade, Oriana lies down on a cloak alongside a stream.  Amadís looks at her “and since she was so beautiful … and had indicated her willingness, he was so stirred by pleasure and bashfulness that he didn’t even dare look at her. And so you might well say that on that green grass more through the kindness and generosity of Oriana than through the forwardness and boldness of Amadís did the most beautiful damsel in the world become a duenna, i.e. was no longer a virgin” (Book I, 35).

[Subsequent encounters confirm that Galaor is anything but bashful and the damsels he encounters give no thought to marriage vows. A simple example is the grateful Brandueta (Book I, 25) whose father’s murder has just been avenged by Galaor: She and Galaor are waiting to eat, but “as she was very beautiful and he was longing for this tasty dish, before the food could be brought or the table laid, they both tumbled on a bed that was in the palace where they were, and she who was a damsel was left a duenna, with both having satisfied their desires.”]

[Interestingly, in a work where there are several moral digressions, these encounters elicit no condemnation in the text (although they often did among readers)! In Don Quixote II, 2, Don Quixote seems to have got Galaor’s character right when he says “It’s rumoured that Galaor, brother of Amadís de Gaula, was more than a little randy.”]

Like all good storytellers, the author constantly changes the focus of the tale, and action moves rapidly back and fore between the characters.  These sudden changes often occur in mid chapter and are signaled by formulaic expressions. For instance, Book I, 15, begins in the court of King Lisuarte where Amadís identifies himself to the King and Queen as the son of King Perión. Then suddenly we read: “Here the author leaves off talking about this and returns to Galaor…” and we are whisked back to the adventures of Galaor, interrupted at the end of Chapter 12 (which ended with “Here the author stops telling about this (about Galaor) and turns back to Amadís, and Galaor’s story will be told in its place.”)

Such formulaic expressions abound in the book and are typically used by minstrels or storytellers in oral transmission to create suspense.  They are used to remind listeners or readers of some past event or create expectation about future events. 

In addition, in an age when silent reading was still a relatively rare activity and most people couldn’t read, storytellers brought their audiences “closer” to the text by addressing them directly.

They personalize the text making the story an experience shared exclusively between storyteller and audience: Como ya se vos dixo (“As you were told”),  ya oístes (you’ve already heard”), como se os ha en el comienço deste libro contado (as you were told at the beginning of this book”), quiero que sepáis (“I want you to know”), Lo que del (i.e. Galaor) avino adelante se contará (“what happened to him (Galaor) will be told later on”), sabed que (“know that”), pero dexemos agora esto y tornemos al Rey (but let’s leave this now and return to the King”).

In the end Amadís and Oriana are reunited, and Amadís and Lisuarte are reconciled. But we should be cautious about saying that all’s well that ends well.  As each battle shows, injustice, evil etc are constants, and simply do not disappear. So the evil Arcalaus escapes and, as we see in the sequel to Amadis, Las Sergas de Esplandián, battles fought by one generation pass on to the next in a never ending cycle.

Movement is the essence of romances of chivalry. Abundant dialogue adds drama, action governs reflection, and verbs dominate adjectives.   Hyperbole is the norm in descriptions: damsels are all beautiful, with Oriana sin par (“unequalled”) or la más hermosa donzella del mundo (“the most beautiful damsel in the world”), knights are invariably brave, handsome, with Amadis, of course, being the best.  Likewise, enemies are bad, cruel, evil, with the most deformed being the Endriago, a product of incest.

Blecua, Juan Manuel Cacho  Amadís de Gaula 2 vols.  Madrid Cátedra 1987

Brownlee, K and Brownlee M S  Romance: Generic Transformation from Chretien de Troyes to Cervantes  Hanover and London 1985
Eisenberg, D   Romances of Chivalry in the Spanish Golden Age  Newark Delaware 1982
Gies, David   The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature, Cambridge 2009 (first published 2004) An excellent blog by Sue Burke. She has completed a translation of Amadís, available on Kindle as of December, 2018. The blog and book have a lot of informative comments on the Medieval world, chivalry and Don Quixote. Well worth looking at.

Ziryab (789-857) and Spanish Food, Fashion and Etiquette.

Spanish Food. Ziryab (789-857).
A unique feature of Spanish food is its historic relationship with Arab-Moorish cuisine. This is especially so in Andalusia and up the eastern half of the country to the Ebro River and along its fertile valley to Aragón, i.e. areas where Moorish presence was most rooted.

The Moors**  contributed enormously to the gastronomy of al-Andalus over the roughly 800 years they lived in the Iberian Peninsula. (**Moors was the general name given to Muslim forces who invaded Spain in 711, irrespective of ethnic origin. The land they occupied they called al-Andalus.)

Much of al-Andalus’s culinary inspiration originated in the Middle East, especially Baghdad, which under the Abbasid Caliphate, was the arbiter of style and decorum from the 8th to the 11th centuries. The court at Baghdad was a cultural mecca, where good taste in music, poetry, perfumes and clothes were measures of social distinction and a refined life-style. And fine dining was considered a prestigious and necessary complement to this gracious life-style.

Ali ibn Nafi, better known as Ziryab. 
One notable arbiter of good taste was the scholar Ali ibn Nafi (789-857AD), who made his mark in the court in Baghdad as astronomer, geographer and above all as musician. Better known as Ziryab, from the Arabic term meaning “blackbird” –a possible allusion to his dark complexion as well as to his beautiful singing voice— Ibn Nafi is said to have incurred the enmity of his former teacher and royal court musician, Ishaq al-Mawsili. Jealous of Ziryab’s popularity, Ishaq allegedly made Ziryab an “offer”: accept a sum of money and leave the court or remain under threat of death. Whatever the exact circumstances, Ziryab left, first for Egypt and then to Kairouan, in present-day Tunisia.

By this time, news had reached him of the Umayyad** court of Córdoba, in al-Andalus, and its attraction as a growing cultural centre to rival Baghdad. The tone was set by the sociable and pleasure-loving Emir of Córdoba, al-Hakam I (r. 796-822), himself a poet.  Ziryab wrote to al-Hakam, offering his services, and receiving a favourable reply headed with his family to al-Andalus.

**The Umayyad family, originally from Damascus, had been massacred by their rivals, the Abbasids in 750. The only member to escape, Abd al-Rahman, made his way to Córdoba and established an emirate there, which although theoretically subservient to the caliphate of Baghdad was in fact self governing. Al-Hakam was the grandson of Abd al-Rahman (I).

Ziryab arrived in Córdoba in 822 only to find that al-Hakam had recently died. Fortunately, al-Hakam’s successor, Abd al-Rahman II (r. 822-852), was a patron of learning, had refined tastes and led an elegant life-style. An amateur astronomer and scientist, as well as an accomplished poet, Abd al-Rahman II was immediately impressed by Ziryab’s talents and showered him with gifts and privileges: e.g. a generous salary, villas in the country, special bonuses.

It is said that when Abd al-Rahman first heard Ziryab sing, he was so captivated by his voice and his style of playing that he no longer listened to any other singer. Roughly of the same age, ruler and courtier frequently dined together, and discussed a wide variety of topics, including music, poetry, science and history. Ziryab also established a school of music in Córdoba and is credited with adding a fifth string to the lute.

But Ziryab was much more than a musician. A polished conversationalist, he was a trendsetter in fashion (style of clothes and their colours changed according to the season), an advocate of personal hygiene (he introduced toothpaste, deodorants, hair shampoo and perfumes), and also a connoisseur of fine food.

At a time when eating in Europe was a matter of crude consumption with little or no attention to refinement, Ziryab looked on eating an aesthetic, harmonious experience: a source of pleasure to all the senses, and attended by rules of etiquette and table manners.

Ziryab brought with him recipes from Baghdad and created innovative dishes of his own. One of these dishes, consisting of meatballs and small triangular pieces of dough fried in coriander oil, came to be known as taqliyat Ziryab, or Ziryab’s fried dish (Flight of the Blackbird web page). He is also credited with introducing asparagus, until then looked upon as a weed, to the table.

To Ziryab, the presentation of food was an essential part of the aesthetic experience. Fine food was served on tables covered with exquisitely worked leather, and heavy gold or silver goblets for drink were replaced by delicate glassware which glinted and exposed the colour of its content. To ensure this, Ziryab saw to it that a glass factory was built in Córdoba, the fame of which soon spread far and wide.

But perhaps Ziryab’s most revolutionary contribution to gastronomy was his rejection of food piled on one plate in favour of separate dishes, beginning with soup, followed by fish or meat and ending with fruit, sweet desserts and different nuts. It was an innovation unknown even in sophisticated Baghdad. It eventually spread to the rest of Europe, and is the forerunner of our modern multi-course meals.

Ziryab’s contribution to Western culture is still not widely recognised, but increasing contact with the Islamic world is gradually changing that. There are now hotels, cafés, restaurants and tapas bars bearing his name in Spain and elsewhere. There is a Lycée Ziryab in Casablanca, and a Ziryab’s deodorant and soap store in New Mexico. There are Youtube videos of music inspired by Ziryab, and even a Ziryab blog by a chess enthusiast. For lots more, simply Google Ziryab.

Adamson, Melitta Weiss Food in Medieval Times London, Westport, Conn. 2004
Llopis, Manuel M. Martinez Historia de la gastronomía española Madrid 1989
Lane-Poole, Stanley The Story of the Moors in Spain Baltimore 1990 (first published 1886)
Nadeau, Carolyn Food Matters: Alonso Quijano’s Diet and the Discourse of Food in Early Modern Spain Toronto 2016
Roden, Claudia The Food of Spain New York 2011
Web Page:

Spanish Food. History. Introduction. 2016.

Spanish Food.
What do you know about Spanish food? Many people will have tried Spanish omelette (tortilla de patatas), 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. 

Another Catalan, Carme Ruscalleda, has three restaurants (two in Catalonia and one in Tokyo) which have accumulated a total of seven Michelin stars. There are several other culinary stars, especially in the Basque Provinces (or Euskadi), 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.

Spain’s food had a poor reputation in the second half of the 20th century (prior to its resurrection). There are two main reasons:

1. The poverty of the country following the disastrous Civil War of 1936 to 1939 and the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (1939-75). 

2. Cheap Tourism. 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 –among the largest contingent in those days— often stuck to fish and chips!).

Nevertheless, adventurous tourists could find authentic Spanish food in the old quarters (cascos antiguos) 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.

Importance of 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 PhoeniciansGreeks and Carthaginians— who remained largely on the coasts, trading with the indigenous population.

Influence of the Romans, Muslims and Jews.
Of all of these arrivals, the Romans and the Moors (the general term used for the several separate groups of Muslims who arrived 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)**.

**The Moors called the land they occupied al-Andalus.
Their control of al-Andalus decreased as Christian kingdoms
progressed southwards especially between the 11th and
13th centuries.

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 as described in cookbooks written in al-Andalus (Moorish Spain). 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.

Roman aqueduct in Segovia.
Water mill on the Guadalquivir, Córdoba

And dotted around the landscape of southern Spain, you can still see Moorish water-wheels (norias) and water mills (aceñas) which could raise water via buckets or paddles 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 appearance of the locavore (individual who tries to eat food produced locally, usually within 100 miles of home) 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.

2019. Identity is at the heart, too, of determining what is the traditional method or the correct ingredients used in popular Spanish dishes. Not long ago (2016), the British chef, Jamie Oliver added chorizo to paella, and caused an outcry. Now there are arguments over whether the famous Spanish omelette (tortilla de patatas) should contain onions (cebollas) or whether a gazpacho includes cucumber or not. Enter these controversies at your own risk! (I happen to like the flavour of garlic –fried with the onions– in my tortilla de patatas. That’s probably enough to hang me, but I think garlic is made to go with potatoes, onions and egg!! My tortilla, my choice!!).

For the chorizo/paella dispute, see
For the tortilla de patatas discussion, see
For the gazpacho/cucumber debate, see

2021. The cultivation of vines and olives is undergoing a “rethink” with a return to more traditional methods of care and preparation. For an excellent introduction, see The Guardian newspaper:

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. Outstanding book, with excellent introduction about historical influences and regional cooking, followed by an anthology of recipes.
Trutter, Marion ed. Culinaria Spain Cologne 1999.

Spain’s Jamón Ibérico. The World’s Greatest Ham.

Spanish Food. Jamón ibérico. The World’s Greatest Ham.
“The pork of Spain has always been, and is, unequalled in flavour; the bacon is fat and flavoured, the sausages delicious, and the hams transcendentally superlative” (Richard Ford. Gatherings 139).

This opinion, written in 1846 by the famous English traveller Richard Ford, still holds true especially  for ham. Now, you can buy ordinary boiled ham called jamón York (or dulce), or the better known cured ham, jamón serrano (like Italian prosciutto).

But the ham that really stands out is jamón ibérico. It’s more expensive than serrano ham, but don’t let the price put you off. It is truly a superior ham. Just ask for a couple of paper thin slices, and you are in for an exceptional mouth-watering taste experience.

The Pig.
The pig that produces this ham is the cerdo (pig) ibérico, a native brown-black breed that once roamed the entire peninsula. With a pedigree going back thousands of years, it was domesticated over time. As early as the 16th century, the cerdo ibérico was a prized product with tens of thousands changing hands on the day of San Andrés (St. Andrew: November 30), during the period the pigs have their final fattening.

The cerdo ibérico is a solid pig with slender legs tapering into distinctive black hooves, hence the name pata negra by which it is commonly known. (The black hooves are a useful way to identify jamón ibérico from the more common serrano ham hanging in stores).

Cerdos ibéricos.

The cerdo ibérico can be seen grazing on wild grass, snuffling roots and foraging for acorns (bellotas), herbs and the occasional olive in the dehesas of Western Spain, a combination of pasture and light forests of mainly holm oak and cork trees.

The Dehesas.
The dehesas cover large tracts of western Spain –Extremadura, Western Andalusia, Western Castile-Leon– and eastern Portugal. The dry climate places a natural limit on the number of trees the dehesas can comfortably support, usually no more than 15 per acre (35 per hectare). The trees serve many purposes, providing firewood, cork, shade for livestock against the searing heat of summer, and shelter and food for animals and migratory birds. During the spring and summer, cattle and sheep share the pasture.

The dehesas have been threatened by intensive farming and even development.  However, Spanish conservation groups have become very active in working to protect this unique ecosystem. January 2023: Now, serious drought conditions can be added to the list of threats. See the Guardian newspaper:

Equally, if not more important, jamón ibérico has become much sought-after, so that rearing the cerdo ibérico is now a profitable business. In addition, the development of farming collectives has improved marketing, and the creation of 4 denominaciones de origen (designation of origin -DO-, similar to the designations for Spanish wines) is a guarantee of quality.

These DO regions are centred around the towns of Guijüelo in the province of Salamanca (Castile-León), Jerez de los Caballeros, Fregenal de la Sierra, Oliva de la Frontera, Higuera la Real and Montánchez in Extremadura,  Jabugo in Western Andalusia and the Valle de los Pedroches in the province of Córdoba (Andalusia). All are in mountainous areas guaranteeing plenty of fresh air which is vital for the drying and curing process. Each region claims to produce the best hams, with Jabugo and Guijüelo perhaps the front runners.

A Pig’s Life!
The pigs lead an active life roaming free-range under the trees.

Cerdos ibéricos in the dehesas.

The summer heat and arid conditions can be hard and they are sometimes fed grain. The real fattening period comes in the fall and choices are made.  The “lucky” pigs will remain in the dehesa and feed on the acorns dropping from the oaks (sometimes men with long poles “encourage” the acorns to fall!).

These pigs produce the highest quality Iberian ham, the highly coveted jamón ibérico de bellota, a luxury ham demanding luxury prices. For 3 to 4 months, during a period known as the montanera, the pigs can devour up to 10 kilos per day (22 pounds), and double their weight. To help reach the regulatory DO weight of 160 kilos (353 pounds) and earn the title of jamón ibérico de bellota, the number of pigs per hectare is limited to no more than two.  By this time, they are between 14 and 18 months old.

Preparing the Ham.
Strict standards are maintained for the slaughter (matanza or sacrificio) and preparation of the ham. The prized legs are chilled and allowed to firm overnight before curing with a layer of sea salt for roughly 14 days, depending on the weight. They are then washed and hung to dry out in special secaderos (drying sheds) with adjustable flaps to allow air circulation.

As the weather warms in spring, the fatty hams start to sweat and lose up to a third of their weight. Next they are transferred to dark cellars for the final stage of maturing for up to 14 months. At this time, they also develop a somewhat unappealing-looking, fine coating of fungus, technically known as penicillium roquefortis.

Jamón de bellota

The total time for curing and maturation is at least 1 year for lower grade hams and up to 4 for the bellota hams. A final check/inspection on the quality is done by a calador (tester) before the ham is released.

The calador inserts a fine, pointed beef-bone probe in the ham, sniffs it very carefully, covers it with a little fat and determines whether its quality is satisfactory. By this time, the hams weigh between approximately 6 to 8 kilos (13 and 18 pounds).

For the bellota hams, the result of this long and costly process is a deep red meat marbled with fine golden veins of fat. The fat is rich in oleic acid from the acorns, which gives the meat a sweet, nutty flavour and a creamy consistency.  Oleic acid is the same mono-unsaturated acid found in olives, making the bellota ham a healthier alternative to regular hams. Locals sometimes refer to their pigs as “olives with legs.”

Cutting the ham.
There is an art to slicing all ibérico hams. To balance the awkward shaped leg, a special support made of wood and metal, called a jamonera, is used.

The ham is clamped at roughly 45 degrees, with the black hoof uppermost. First the rind is removed, leaving a good amount of fat on the outside to prevent the meat drying up.  The carver then takes a long, narrow and flexible knife and cuts paper-thin slices of the marbled ham following the grain of the meat. Some more fat may be trimmed off the slices and used for cooking


A few slices of the ham go a long way, and if you feel you have to have something to accompany it, a piece of bread is enough. To appreciate its complex flavor, you should eat the ham at room temperature and on a warm plate. The fat dissolves in your mouth releasing its sweet nuttiness.  The taste is unique.

The rest of the cerdo ibérico is also highly valued especially the pork loins and sausages (chorizossalchichones (salami type sausages, made of finely chopped pork, bacon fat and white peppercorns, morcillas (blood sausages) and morcones (a speciality from Extremadura, made of lean pork marinated with paprika and garlic.

Aug. 24, 2023: A very interesting twist and challenge to a long-standing tradition:
Carving legs of Iberian ham in bars, restaurants and at events has traditionally been a man’s job. Now a new generation of women is taking their place at the slicing table. BBC web page, December 14, 2022. For more on the impact of women at the slicing table, read the fascinating article in

Classification of Hams.
New regulations introduced in January 2014 have tightened what had become a confusing and suspiciously fraudulent practice of misrepresentation and mislabeling. Not all hams marketed as pure ibérico (i.e. de bellota) were certified as such so that customers could not be guaranteed the quality of the ham they were buying. For example, there was more ham labelled de bellota than the number of acorn-fed pigs being reared. Many producers were also cross-breeding Iberian pigs with other varieties (Duroc especially) because pure bred Iberian pigs have small litters and produce less meat per head.  Also, labels on hams showing pigs contentedly snuffling acorns did not necessarily mean that that particular ham was from an acorn-fed pig.

As of January 2014, there are four general colour-coded classifications:
1. Black labelJamón ibérico puro de bellota: from pure-bred, free-range ibérico pigs who have grazed only on acorns during the montanera period, October through February.
2. Red label: Jamón de bellota: from pigs that are cross-bred and allowed to graze on acorns. The pigs in this classification must be 75% pure.
3. Green label: Jamón ibérico de cebo de campo: from pigs that are 50% pure and have grazed in the dehesas but not on acorns. They are also fed fodder/grain.
4. White label: from 50% pure ibérico pigs kept in pens and fed grain only.

Although the classification comes into effect immediately, it applies only to newly produced hams. Hams already in the market follow the old labeling system.  It could take up to three years for the new system to be completely implemented because of the length of time it takes for the best hams to cure. The use of labels with pictures of pigs grazing on acorns will only be allowed on hams produced by pigs that actually did eat acorns.  Furthermore, the term pata negra may only refer to pure bred, acorn-fed ibérico pigs.

As an aside, Ford has a wonderful and somewhat comical description of the pigs as they head out from their villages on their daily trip to the  dehesas: When the acorns are ripe and fall from the trees, the greedy animals are turned out in legions from the villages, which more correctly may be termed coalition of pigsties. They return from the woods at night of their own accord … On entering the hamlet, all set off at full gallop, like a legion possessed with devils, in a handicap for home, into which each pig turns, never making a mistake. We have more than once been caught in one of these pig-deluges, and nearly carried away horse and all… In his own home, each truant is welcomed like a prodigal son or a domestic father. These pigs are pets of the peasants; they are brought up with their children, and partake …  in the domestic discomfort of their cabins; they are universally respected  … [and] lead the happy life of former Toledan dignitaries, with the additional advantage of becoming more valuable when dead. Ford, 140-41.

Ford, Richard Gatherings from Spain London 1970 (first published in 1847).
Roden, Claudia The Food of Spain New York 2011.
Torres, Marimar  The Spanish Table: The Cuisines and Wines of Spain New York 1986.
Trutter, Marion ed.  Culinaria Spain Cologne 1999.
Internet Sources:
Image of jamonera by Manolo Fernández:
First image: cerdos ibéricos close up by Grez : 
Image of jamón de bellota by Pravdaverita:ón_Bellota_2007_BEHER_Bernardo_Hernandez_Guijuelo_Salamanca..JPG  
Excellent article and super photos by Max Falkowitzón-ibérico.html?ref=sidebar If you land on home page, enter jamón iberico under “Try Searching.”
August 19, 2018. There’s an interesting article in The Guardian related to pig population in Spain (it has now surpassed human population: approx.50 million to 46.5 million). The article also addresses fraudulent practices and the situation currently in Spain. See:
March 26, 2019. For a fascinating commentary, photos and two short videos on a very rare breed of pig, Manchado de Jabugo –spotted Jabugo– that produces the world’s most expensive ham ($4,614US!!! a leg), go to

Spanish Food History: The Romans.

Spanish Food. 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. 

Roman aqueduct in Segovia.

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 (e. g. 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. The Greek geographer and historian, Strabo (ca 64 BC- ca 23 AD), 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 and soap, as a lubricant and medicine

Hispania also exported to Rome a large amount of pickled and salted fish and a particularly prized product called garum.

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

Garum 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, so that 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. Italica, Merida) or rewarded with land for their services.

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 probably cultivated in Hispania that were familiar to the Roman palate 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, pomegranates, peaches, 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 Hispano-Roman diet, and honey was extensively used as a sweetener.

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.

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.

Others included saffron, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cumin, caraway, coriander, ginger, turmeric entered 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 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.

Briefly, the Visigoths.
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 the 8th century AD), they are remembered more for their mythical role as models/ representing of untainted Christian Hispano-Roman values which were invoked regularly following the conquest of Hispania by the Moors in 711. 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.

And a Word about the Moors.
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: AgricultureZiryabal-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
Photo of garum factory in Bolonia (Baelo Claudio), between Cádiz and Algeciras, by Anual – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Arab and Moorish Influence on Spanish Food.

Al-Andalus: Cookbooks.
In 822, an exile from the Abbasid court of Baghdad arrived in Córdoba, the capital of the Islamic emirate of al-Andalus (the name given by the Moors to the land they occupied in the Iberian Peninsula). The exile’s name was Ali ibn Nafi, better known as Ziryab. A scholar and outstanding musician, he also made his name as a trendsetter in fashion, arbiter of good taste and connoisseur of fine food.

Ziryab’s impact was significant and his cultural innovations, intended for the court and nobility, established the template for a refined life style in al-Andalus.  This careful nurturing of elegance and magnificence was the hallmark of the courts of all subsequent rulers of al-Andalus, even as their land contracted under the southward advances of Spain’s Christian kingdoms. In courtly, noble or urban elite circles food mattered, with sumptuous meals a vital part in impressing visiting dignitaries.

Not surprisingly, this important function of food led to the creation of cooking manuals, either as records of meals served or guides (much like cookbooks nowadays).

But recipes are notoriously unstable since we often modify them for a variety of reasons, e.g. availability of ingredients, consideration of our guests’ tastes, personal preferences and dislikes. Only when compiled and written down as manuals do recipes from the past acquire historic context. The ingredients used at the time of compiling or writing ancient cookbooks allow us to compare recipes between manuals and permit us to measure subsequent changes.

In al-Andalus, the two earliest known cookbooks are both from the 13th century. One is entitled The Delights of the Table Dealing with the Pleasures of Food and Different Dishes by Ibn Razin al-Tugabi (1227-1293). Born in Murcia, the scholarly Ibn Razin moved to Ceuta across the Straits of Gibraltar in 1248, shortly after the fall of his native town to Christian forces (1243).

The second cookbook is a Treatise on cooking in the Maghreb and al-Andalus during the period of the Almohads by an anonymous author, aka An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the 13th century.

Ibn Razin opens The Delights by outlining the order in which food should be served and why, and urges cleanliness in the kitchen. Not only hygiene, but the nutritional value and medicinal quality of foods were important, and recipes often referred to how certain foods helped the digestive system and pointed out which dishes helped in overcoming certain ailments. Much like the health pages in magazines and newspapers nowadays!

The book contains 428 recipes carefully organised into 12 sections, dealing with bread, pasta and soups, meat, fowl, offal, fish and eggs, dairy products, vegetables, legumes (e.g. fava beans, chickpeas), desserts, pickled food and vinegars, and lobsters/crayfish and shrimps. The final (12th section) discusses the preparation of soaps.

Although Ibn Razin follows the general trend of Middle Eastern cookbooks, he pays tribute to his homeland declaring that he is “partial to Andalusian food” and claims that Andalusians “are progressive people, full of zeal in spite of the fact that they discovered late the invention of gastronomy“(Nadeau, 7).

Unlike Ibn Razin’s book, the Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook is a haphazard compilation containing over 500 recipes. It has a clearly international flavour with dishes acknowledged to be from a variety of sources, e.g. Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Algeria, Sicily, Tunisia.

Closer to home, there is a recipe for cheese pie identified as being from “the west of al-Andalus, as in Córdoba and Seville and Jerez, and elsewhere in the land of the West.” Another cheese pie recipe originates in Toledo. Individuals too are sometimes referenced. A whole section comes from “The cookbook of Ibrahim b. al-Mahdi,” and a recipe for Mujabbana (cheese pie) with eggs is “the invention of Musa b. al-Hajj Ya’ish.” There is one dish bearing Ziryab’s name, with instructions on how to prepare lamb using salt, onion, coriander seed, pepper, caraway, two spoons of oil, almonds and bread.

Interestingly there are also several Jewish dishes which, since there are no known Medieval Jewish cooking manuals, make these recipes fascinating witnesses to cultural cross fertilization in al-Andalus.

Ziryab’s influence can also be detected in the author’s recommendation that courses be served separately:  “Many of the great figures and their companions order that the separate dishes be placed on each table before the diners, one after another; and by my life, this is more beautiful than putting an uneaten mound all on the table.”

Much the same as Ibn Razin, the unknown author is proud of the sophistication of Andalusians and points out that “separating dishes is more elegant, better-bred, and modern; this has been the practice of the people of al-Andalus and the West, of their rulers, great figures, and men of merit…

Like Ibn Razin, the author of the Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook advocates “care to avoid dirt and decay, and to clean the utensils used for cooking, in cleaning the kitchen.” Food should never be left in copper pots, cooking in a single pot is to be avoided and used pots should be cleaned every night with “hot water and bran.”

For the author, cooking is an “art” which depends on an intimate knowledge of “the variety of foods and their flavors.” He especially values spices and urges cooks to “know that familiarity with the use of spices is the first basis in cooked dishes, for it is the foundation of cooking, and on it cookery is built.

Lamb is the favourite meat, but there are plenty of dishes using chicken, partridge, pigeons, small birds, hare, rabbit, fish, starlings, veal, squab, sparrow hawk, goose, turtle doves. Meat balls figure prominently, fish less so. The abundance of beef and egg recipes in the Anonymous Cookbook (and Ibn Razin’s book) is an interesting feature since they distinguish this book from the manuals of the East.

Of the vegetables used, eggplants and chick peas are especially popular and there are a few featuring asparagus.  A section entitled “Kinds of Starch Dishes” contains possibly the first reference to couscous (kuskusû).

The book concludes with sections on desserts, syrups and pastes. Honey, rose water, sugar, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, spikenard, camphor, eggs, almonds, walnuts, hazel nuts, pine nuts, pistachios, semolina, butter, cheese, olive oil, feature repeatedly in the desserts.

Advice is offered on the most appropriate foods for guarding one’s health. The nutritious value of numerous dishes is noted as well as the illnesses particular foods are good for.  Heavy foods that are hard to digest should be eaten alone and not mixed with light foods so as to avoid inflaming the stomach.

There are dishes identified as better for winter, others for summer; recipes for colds including one that both fixes a cold and “strengthens coitus!” For that you need “walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts and pistachios ground finely. Then add bread crumbs, ground meat from the shoulder of a sheep, fifteen eggs and beat it all together. Add ginger, galingale (a member of the ginger family), pepper, cloves and Chinese cinnamon, one part of each, and mastic and saffron.  Put it all in a new pot and throw in fresh milk. Place it in a clay oven. Seal it and leave it until it is done and is ready. Take it out, scatter ground sugar on it and serve it!”

The recipes for syrups and pastes are quite short, and written by another hand. The syrups are valued for their medicinal qualities, with the benefits of each summarised at the end of each recipe.  You need a pick-me-up? “Take borage, mint, and citron leaves, cook them in water to cover until their strength comes out. Then  put in a bag a spoonful each of aloe stems, Chinese rhubarb, Chinese cinnamon, cinnamon and clove flowers; pound all these coarsely, place them in a cloth, tie it well, and place it in a kettle, macerate it again and again until its substance passes out, and cook until [the liquid] takes the consistency of syrups. Take with hot water. Benefits: It profits weak stomachs, fortifies the liver and cheers the heart, digests foods, and lightens the constitution gently.”   

A syrup of honey “is good for weak livers; it fortifies the stomach and benefits dropsy among other ailments; it dissolves phlegm from all parts of the body and heats it a great deal, gives gaiety, lightens the body, and it was used by the ancients like wine for weariness. Lemon syrup cuts the thirst and binds the bowels, while carrot syrup increases desire, and dissolves phlegm, heats the kidneys admirably, and likewise the other parts of the body, God willing.”

Pastes are also appreciated for their health benefits. For example, carrot paste “fortifies coitus and increases desire beautifully; it is admirable, while quince paste lightens the belly that suffers from bile, it suppresses bitterness in the mouth, and excites the appetite.”

Important features of both cooking manuals, and indicative of a Middle Eastern touch, are the combination of sweet and savoury, a love of highly seasoned and spiced meat, and a wide use of variety of seasonings in a single dish. Two recipes from the Anonymous Cookbook, one complicated, the other relatively simple, are typical of the use made of spices and herbs:

The Dish Mukhallal.
“Take the meat of a plump cow or sheep, cut it small, and put it in a new pot with salt, pepper, coriander, cumin, plenty of saffron, garlic peeled and diced, almonds peeled and split, and plenty of oil; cover it with strong, very pure vinegar, without the slightest bit of water; put it on a moderate charcoal fire and stir it, then boil it. When it cooks and the meat softens and it reduces, then put it on the hearthstone and coat it with much egg, cinnamon and lavender; color it with plenty of saffron, as desired, and put in it whole egg yolks and leave it on the hearthstone until it thickens and the broth evaporates and the fat appears. This dish lasts many days without changing or spoiling; it is called “wedding food” in the West [or the Algarve], and it is one of the seven dishes cited as used among us at banquets in Córdoba and Seville.”

Chicken Called Madhûna, Greased.
“Take a cleaned hen, still whole; slice the breast and pierce with wood [skewers] on all sides, grease with oil, murri** naqî’, pepper, saffron, cinnamon, cloves, lavender, and ginger; grease inside and out with this; then put it in a pot and pour on what remains of the oil and murri; cover the pot with a sealed lid and place it in the oven, leaving it there until the hen is done; take it out and use. It is extraordinarily good.”

**Murri: A salty condiment from fermented barley left
to rot. For more, see  

Appearing in the 13th century, both Ibn Razin’s manual and the Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook appear fairly late in al-Andalus’s history, 711-1492. However, they both bear witness to a well-established culinary tradition and contact with the Islamic world where cooking manuals from the Middle East go back at least to the 10th century.

The earliest known Christian manual in Europe is a collection in Catalan, the Libre de Sent Sovi, first half of the 14th century. Although much shorter (72 recipes) than Ibn Razin’s manual and the Anonymous Cookbook, the Libre de Sent Sevi does contain recipes with ingredients popular in al-Andalus dishes e.g. spices, nuts, citrus fruits.  It shows that al-Andalus’s culinary sophistication had expanded into Christian lands even though its political presence had been reduced by then to the small kingdom of Granada in the south.

The food of al-Andalus has left an enduring legacy despite being subjected to Inquisitorial scrutiny during the 16th and early 17th centuries when food was used as a tool to measure the orthodoxy of converted Muslims and Jews (Moriscos and Conversos respectively). 

Popular dishes such as albóndigas (meat balls), or eggplant-based recipes or stews prepared in a sauce called  escabeche (from the Arabic assukkabáǧ) are instances of Moorish inspired foods that are part of the cultural fabric of Spain. So too are many pastries, biscuits (especially those using almonds), and flour-based desserts which are fried and then sweetened with honey or syrups. We’ll look at Moorish based dishes more closely in another page.

Adamson, Melitta Weiss Food in Medieval Times London, Westport, Conn. 2004.
Gitlitz, David M. & Davidson, Linda Kay A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews New York 1999.
Llopis, Manuel M. Martínez Historia de la gastronomía española Madrid 1989.
Nadeau, Carolyn Food Matters: Alonso Quijano’s Diet and the Discourse of Food in Early Modern Spain Toronto 2016.
Roden, Claudia The Food of Spain New York 2011.
Quotations from the Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook are taken from Friedman, David ed: No pagination is available for the quotations above since there is none in Friedman’s text.

Arab Moorish Influence on Agriculture in Al-Andalus.

Spanish Food. Al-Andalus. Agriculture.

For about 600 years, the Iberian Peninsula was controlled by the Romans who valued the peninsula (or Hispania as they called it) as a source of food e.g. wheat, olive oil, wine. Given the close relationship between Hispania and Rome, it’s understandable that much of the food consumed by Hispano-Romans was similar to that of Rome.

When the Empire collapsed in the 5th century AD, Hispania was taken over by the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe already “Romanised” from long contact with Rome. Predictably, they ate many of the same foods already consumed by the Romans and Hispano-Romans.

** We mention this early distinction between butter
and olive oil because it weaves its way into Spanish
history. See The Tyranny of Food, where food in the
16th century becamea significant means of determining
the religiousaffiliation of Conversos and Moriscos 
(converted Jewsand Muslims) in a Christian country.

One notable difference** that reflected their nomadic background and their preference for livestock farming over arable farming was their practice of cooking with lard instead of olive oil.

The Moors Arrive.
The fate of the Iberian Peninsula took a radical turn in 711 when Muslim forces from North Africa crossed the straits of Gibraltar and quickly overcame Visigothic opposition. By 720, the Moors (the term generally applied to the invading newcomers regardless of ethnic background), controlled almost all the peninsula. But al-Andalus, as they called the land they occupied, was gradually reduced in the face of advancing Christian kingdoms until by the 13th century all that was left was an area roughly equivalent to modern Andalusia. In 1492 that too fell, and al-Andalus was no more.

However, the Moors left a lasting cultural legacy which includes agriculture and gastronomy. For centuries, the Moors developed the land with great skill and converted al-Andalus into one of the wealthiest countries of the Mediterranean.

Agriculture: Irrigation.
The prosperity of al-Andalus was the product of a healthy combination of commerce, industry and agriculture. Indeed, agriculture was fundamental to al-Andalus’s wealth.

Vital to the development of the land was irrigation, which fed gardens and converted arid areas into green oases. Most of the transformation occurred in what is now Andalusia, Southern Extremadura and Castile-La Mancha, and continued up the east coast via Catalonia to the Ebro valley and then inland to Aragón.

Contrary to popular belief, the Moors did not introduce irrigation to the peninsula, but what they did do was improve and expand significantly on what the Romans had started. Roman irrigation in Hispania had been primarily based on gravity which limited the amount of land that could be irrigated. The Moors, borrowing from Middle Eastern technology, were accomplished practitioners of the water mill (aceña), underground channels (qanats), and the water-wheel (noria) which could raise water from wells or rivers and so expand the terrain available for cultivation.

Dotted around the landscape of southern Spain, we can still see these Moorish water-wheels, their buckets extracting water from a lower level to deposit into channels along which it is then carried to the outer fields. But the best places to see the Moorish legacy still “in action” today are the highly irrigated and lush areas around Valencia and Murcia, each known simply as the La huerta (garden).

Interestingly, in Valencia, the system of water distribution is still regulated by a body of eight “peasant” judges called the Tribunal of the Waters.

Tribunal de las aguas.

Any farmer with a grievance can appeal to the Tribunal which meets every Thursday at noon under the Door of the Apostles of Valencia’s cathedral. The Tribunal has met since at least the 10th century, but no minutes are kept, and all decisions are rapidly made and final. The reason for the speed in reaching decisions is succinctly described by the English traveller, Richard Ford, who visited the area in the 1830s: There must be no laws delay, for water here gives daily bread and if the suit went into … Chancery, land and cultivators would be ruined; time accordingly is saved by prohibiting the use of pen, ink and paper… Handbook 431.

Linguistically, too, the Moors have left their mark on Spanish words related to irrigation: e.g. noria-waterwheel; acequia-irrigation channel; aceña-water mill; azud-irrigation dam; alberca-pool, cistern; albufera-lagoon; alcantarilla-culvert, drain; aljibe-cistern; arcaduz-bucket attached to the noria.

The Science of Agriculture.
Irrigation was just one aspect of the Moors’ attention to agriculture.  The inspiration for the importance of agriculture was Baghdad, capital of the Abbasid caliphate in the Middle East. Together with its neighbouring city Samarra, Baghdad enjoyed a cultural and commercial golden age from the 8th to the 11th centuries.

During this period, the court and nobility attached great importance to learning and adopted refined and elegant manners that embraced music, poetry, art and architecture etc.  Fine dining was considered a prestigious and necessary complement to this gracious life-style. Predictably, then, the cultivation of foodstuff received a lot of attention. As a result, books were written on agricultural practices as well as many cookbooks, and books on diets and medicine.

Influenced by what was taking place in the Middle East, the Andalusis (i.e. those living in al-Andalus) developed a highly efficient agricultural infrastructure based on observations of local conditions. They took a scientific approach and their observations were recorded as guides for farmers. For example, in the 11th -century, an agriculturist from Toledo, Ibn Bassal, wrote a treatise entitled Kitab al-Filahah (Book of Agriculture) in which he discussed the importance of irrigation, the art of cultivation, how to till the soil and how to control pests. In addition, he explained how to grow different kinds of food and how to preserve them.

The best known work is by the 12th-century agronomist and horticulturist from Seville, Abu Zacaria (or Abu Zakariya ibn al-Awwam al-Ishbili d.1185) who published an extensive, wide-ranging compilation of earlier works from classical, Middle Eastern and Andalusi writers. Also called Kitab al-Filahah (Book of Agriculture), the book included discussions on irrigation, different kinds of soils, the choice of seeds, the use of manures, the qualities of edible plants and vegetables, the art of plant grafting and pruning, and how to preserve fruits.

Attention was paid to the organisation of a garden and to which plants to grow in it. There were chapters, too, on livestock: how to raise cattle and poultry, the relationship of animals to the land, the diseases that affected animals, fowl, bees etc., and how to cure them.

The importance attached to agriculture as a science is what made al-Andalus the envy of the Mediterranean.  The results were clear; improved irrigation and fertilisation allowed for longer growing seasons, reduced dependence on the unpredictability of weather and increased potential for a wider array of crops.

Muslim agricultural practice also encouraged fields to be cultivated every year instead of every two years, as previously practiced. Predictably this led to the introduction of or expanded use of a wide variety of plants, fruits, vegetables and spices that enriched the life of all Andalusis and spread al-Andalus’s fame throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. The names of many in Spanish attest to the Arabic influence: arroz-rice, albariqoque-apricot, albérchigo-cling stone peach, limón-lemon, naranja-orange, toronja-grapefruit, sandía-watermelon, algarroba-carob, alcachofa-artichoke, alubia-kidney bean, berenjena-eggplant, espinaca-spinach, garbanzo-chickpea, zanahoria-carrot, azúcar-sugar, azafrán-saffron, alcaravea-caraway.

Other fruits and vegetables, already known to the Hispano-Romans, and widely used by the Moors, included almonds, figs, dates, pomegranates, grapes, quince and melons (all of which, incidentally, come from Latin words).

Soft wheat, the basic ingredient of bread and widely grown by the Romans, was now joined by hard (durum) wheat brought by the Moors. Durum wheat has a particular advantage in that grows well in arid regions and when dried lasts indefinitely. It has, as we say nowadays, a long shelf life, and is the main component of pasta.

Spices were widely used in Andalusi gastronomy, although the Latin origin of the Spanish names of many suggests that they were already known in Roman Spain (i.e. Hispania). However, the Visigoths, successors to the Romans in the peninsula, were less sophisticated than their predecessors and their cuisine was relatively rudimentary. According to one scholar (Llopis 77), they were partial to pepper, cinnamon, saffron and ginger, spices that also feature in Andalusi cooking but now used more imaginatively and intensely. Other spices very popular with the Andalusis were cumin, coriander/cilantro, cardamom, mustard, nutmeg, cloves, and aniseed.

The Impact of Improved Agriculture.
The impact of improved irrigation and a scientific approach to agriculture together with the introduction of wide variety of new products benefitted the diet, health and well-being of Andalusis.  As a result, cities grew and prospered, taxes were light and, as Ibn Hawkal, a 10th-century traveller from Arabia, observed “the means of acquiring wealth are common to all classes of the population” (Fletcher 18).

Prosperity and well-being in turn were conducive to study and to leisure activities (e.g. to play chess, introduced into al-Andalus in the 10th century, or to create beautiful, aromatic gardens as sources of aesthetic pleasure or meditation).

In the 10th century, Córdoba – with a population of approximately 100.000– was the largest city in Europe, the “ornament of the world” according to a Christian nun from Lower Saxony (Menocal 12). Culture flourished and learning was highly esteemed. The city was a sophisticated magnate attracting people from Europe and all corners of the Mediterranean. Its scholars were recognised as leaders in algebra (an Arabic word), astronomy, medicine, botany, geography, history etc., and their impact on European life in the Middle Ages was profound.

The prosperity of al-Andalus drew praise from visitors and residents alike and even inspired poets. Ibn Hawkal observed that “the land is well irrigated, either by rain … or by canals of which there is a superb network, extremely well looked after” (Fletcher 18).

The 10th-century Jewish physician and adviser to Abd al-Rahman III (ruled 910-961), Hasdai ibn Shaprut, wrote 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…. There are also found among us mountains … with veins of sulphur, porphyry, marble and crystal. Merchants congregate in it and traffickers from the ends of the earth … bringing spices, precious stones, splendid wares for kings and princes…. “(Gerber 31).

But let’s leave the last words to the poets who found inspiration for their imaginative world in fruits and vegetables that do not normally have poetic resonance: e.g. eggplants, artichokes, walnuts, radishes, cornfields, quinces, orange trees. 

Ibn Sara from Santarem (d. 1123) celebrated the humble eggplant as follows:  “A rounded product, delightful to taste, it is fed by gushing water in gardens everywhere. And, encircled by its sepals, it is like a lamb’s heart, caught in the claws of an eagle.” Translated from Poemas arabigoandaluces p. 90.

An artichoke is seen by Ibn al-Talla (Granada, 11th century) as “Daughter of water and earth enclosed in a castle of avarice, she yields her abundance to whomever awaits her. She seems, by her whiteness and by her inaccessible sanctuary, to be a Greek virgin hidden by a veil of spears.” Translated from Poemas arabigoandaluces p. 84. Amazing what food can inspire!


Barton, Simon A History of Spain Basingstoke, Hampshire 2nd ed, 2009
Fletcher, Richard The Quest for the Cid London 1989
Ford, Richard Handbook for Travellers in Spain London 1845
Garcia Gomez ed. and translator Poemas arabigoandaluces Buenos Aires 1946
Gerber, Jane S The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience New York 1992
Llopis, Manuel M Martínez  Historia de la gastronomía española Madrid 1989
Menocal, María Rosa  Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain Boston, New York, London 2002
Reilly, Bernard F. The Contest of Christian and Muslim Spain 1031-1157 Oxford, Cambridge Mass 1995
Roden, Claudia The Food of Spain  New York 2011
Exhibition of Middle Eastern and Islamic Cuisine February 1 – April 19, 2007: 
Image of noria: By No machine-readable author provided. Falconaumanni assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0,
Tribunal de las Aguas: By José Jordan –


Conversos and Moriscos: Tyranny of Food. 2016.

The Tyranny of Food.

Food says a lot about us. Are we conservative or adventurous? Do we try new dishes at home, on holiday or business, or do we stick with familiar foods? Mass migration has spread new tastes across the world. Our neighbours now might be from anywhere around the globe and they bring their cuisine with them. When they invite us to share a meal, it brings us together and helps to break down barriers.

But food can also have a darker, sinister side — this is what we mean by the tyranny of food. As an important cultural marker it can be used as a weapon to identify and isolate or denigrate groups by social class, ethnic background, religious dietary obligations or any other perceived “differences.”

In 16th-century Spain, what was bought in the market and cooked in the kitchen could lead to social ostracism, fines, house arrest, public whipping, loss of property, obligatory wearing of a sambenito (a penitential garment) or even being publicly burned at the stake in an auto de fe. Why such cruelty?

In the 16th century, Spain became a politically unified country following the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragón, (aka the Catholic Monarchs –Los Reyes Católicos). Underpinning the political union was religious conformity imposed on Muslim and Jewish communities, both of which had existed in the Iberian Peninsula for centuries, albeit under increasing Christian intolerance during the 15th century.

A large number of Jews had converted to Christianity during the 15th century, and those who didn’t were given an ultimatum in March, 1492 to convert or go into exile. Jews who chose conversion, thereby joining those who had done so during the 15th century, were known as Conversos or, disparagingly, marranos (swine).

The situation of the Muslims was more complicated and no way better. In 1492, after the conquest of the last Islamic state in the Iberian Peninsula (the kingdom of Granada), the terms of capitulation recognised the right of Muslims to follow their own laws and customs, and continue practicing their faith. However, by 1501 those terms were revoked and all Muslims, with the exception of those living in Navarre, Aragón and Valencia, faced conversion or exile.  By 1525, these too were confronted with the same choice: convert or leave. Muslim converts were called Moriscos.

Both converted Jews and Muslims were also referred to frequently as cristianos nuevos (New Christians) to distinguish them from cristianos viejos (Old Christians), i. e. Christians of impeccable Christian lineage with no “taint” from Jewish or Muslim blood.

This blood distinction between old Christians and new Christians in the 16th century is significant because the concept of limpieza de sangre or purity of blood –which first surfaced in the second half of the 15th century– became a cause of deep social division. As Christians, former Muslims and Jews could no longer be differentiated by religion since, in theory at least, they were all Christians! But the rancour that old Christians, especially the peasantry, had long felt for Jews and Muslims was now transferred to Conversos and Moriscos and to their descendants.  So blood or race, not religion, became the criterion distinguishing those living in Spain.

Despite restrictions, Conversos regularly occupied the same influential urban positions that Jews held earlier, e. g. as merchants, traders, shopkeepers, physicians, financiers, administrators, money lenders, tax collectors, lawyers, scribes etc. Many wealthy Converso families married into Christian nobility and some Conversos even became members of the church or religious orders (e. g. the Inquisitor General and confessor to Queen Isabella, Tomás de Torquemada, and Saint Teresa of Avila).

Moriscos, in general, were less assimilated by Christian society, and mixed marriages were very rare, despite official inducements. Their numbers were heavily concentrated in Andalusia, Aragón and Valencia.  In Andalusia, they were more numerous and they tended to live together in isolated mountain villages, or in barrios (districts) in larger towns. 

In the case of Aragón and Valencia they were valued as field workers and cheap labourers on the estates of the nobility. Where they lived in towns with Christians, they usually occupied trade jobs such as builders, carpenters, metalworkers, tailors, cobblers.  Everywhere they were recognised as excellent market gardeners and had a near monopoly as muleteers. A sprinkling of Morisco lawyers and doctors also attended to fellow Moriscos. 

There was also a Morisco minority in Castile living in villages scattered on the plains. Their numbers were later increased by the forcibly-displaced Moriscos from Granada following the failed Morisco uprising in the Alpujarras 1568-70.

Conversion to Christianity and its Consequences.
Converting to Christianity came with a major headache for both Conversos and Moriscos. The problem centred on whether the conversions were sincere or in fact a pretence. If, after conversion, converts secretly reverted to their original faith, they were guilty of heresy, and that made them vulnerable to investigations by the dreaded Inquisition. (Nowadays, those who clung secretly to their Jewish or Muslim faith are called respectively Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Muslims.)

The Inquisition, initially set up in 1478 to delve into alleged heresy of Conversos, later expanded its mandate to include Moriscos. Both groups were subject to constant scrutiny,  but especially the Conversos because of their greater integration into Christian society and their upward mobility and wealth through the jobs they occupied.

Many Conversos in fact hid their background, even resorting to creating forged family trees as proof of purity of blood or paying witnesses to vouch for them. (Saint Teresa of Avila, for example, carefully omitted any reference to her Jewish background in her autobiography.)  Conversos posed a threat to old Christians because they gained power from within, i. e. by weaving their way into positions of authority (e. g. the town of Segovia was said to be run by Conversos).

There were also widespread fears that
Moriscos “bred like rabbits” and
threatened to outnumber old Christians.

The danger posed by Moriscos came from outside, i. e. they were believed to be traitors, pseudo-Christians plotting with Muslim powers in Turkey or Morocco for the return of al-Andalus (the name given by the Moors to the land they occupied).

What was needed to set in motion an investigation by the Inquisition was a report–which was often made in secret– by an informant of any suspicious activity or casual comment that smacked of heresy.  Of the numerous offences that could betray an individual or family (e.g. lighting Sabbath candles, fasting on Yom Kippur, sitting on the ground Morisco-style instead of on seats, taking regular ablutions or bathing), food was one of the most common.

Christian holidays were particularly testing times for Conversos and Moriscos. During Lent, the forty days before Easter, meat was forbidden and replaced by fish. A similar injunction against meat prevailed on Fridays, in remembrance of Christ’s crucifixion. Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, was a day of abstinence.

To be seen breaking these church observances invited condemnation. On the other hand, Conversos and Moriscos were also on dangerous ground if caught observing their respective holy days: e.g. for Jews, celebrating Passover, or eating on the Sabbath (Saturday) adafina, a stew prepared on Friday and left to cook on ashes in a pot overnight; for Muslims, fasting or not lighting fires during the day during Ramadan, or celebrating Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan with dances and celebrations.

The purchase of certain ingredients (e.g. eggplants, chick peas) or certain spices (e.g. coriander, saffron), or the aroma of a dish cooked with olive oil were enough to alert neighbours to possible heresy. Conversos and Moriscos regularly cooked with olive oil rather than lard (pork fat), preferred by Christians. Moriscos, like Christians, also used clarified butter in cooking; Conversos did not since Jewish dietary laws forbid mixing meat and dairy products.

There is a telling episode in chapters 7 and 8 of the early 16th-century dramatized novel, La Lozana Andaluza, where the Andalusian-born Lozana –recently arrived in Rome— meets some Converso women, originally from Spain. These are reluctant to say much about themselves because they don’t know Lozana. So they decide to ask her to help them prepare some sweet fritters or couscous (alcuzcuzu). The test is whether she will use water or olive oil in the preparation. If she uses olive oil, then she will be accepted as “one of us.” Lozana passes with flying colours. Getting ready to prepare the fritters, she asks: “And do you have coriander? Let someone (i.e. me) have a bit of good flour and lots of oil, if it’s good, and I’ll make you a basinful that you’ll never forget even when you are dead” (Chapter 9, 53).

Faced with constant surveillance, Conversos and Moriscos developed coded means to identify fellow believers, as in Lozano’s case above. Where they lived among old Christians, they adopted subterfuge to avoid discovery, even sometimes going so far as to fry bacon or eat pork in public, hang ham outside, or cook on the Sabbath, in order to confirm their Christian orthodoxy.

Both committed converts and pseudo converts could adopt the same measures, the former to prove their conversion, the latter to pass as converts. But any ill-timed comment or inadvertent action could set up an investigation. Gitlitz and Adamson (54) record an Inquisitorial case of a woman pinching her nose whenever she smelled pork, or lamenting her conversion, sighing “alas Old Testament … Cursed be the one who prohibited the Old Testament.” For a Morisco, declining an invitation to dine during the day in the month of Ramadan, refusing wine or sitting on the ground to eat were enough to be accused of heresy.

The Inquisition was scrupulous about detailing the alleged offences and drew up lengthy lists of Jewish customs that could help identify heretical practices: Christians should look out for “Those who keep the Sabbath by cooking on … Fridays such food as is required for the Saturdays and on the latter eating the meat thus cooked on Fridays as is the manner of the Jew; … cleansing or causing meat to be cleansed, cutting away from it all fat or grease and cutting away the nerve or sinew from the leg; not eating pork, hare, rabbit, strangled birds, conger-eel, cuttle-fish, nor eels or other scaleless fish, as laid down in the Jewish law; and upon the death of parents … eating … such things as boiled eggs, olives and other viands … who have porged (sic) or deveined the meat they are preparing to eat, soaking it in water to remove the blood, or who have removed the sciatica vein from the leg of mutton or from any other animal… Or who have eaten meat during Lent or other days during forbidden by the Holy Mother Church without needing to do so … Or who celebrate the Festival of unleavened bread, beginning by eating lettuce, celery or other bitter herbs on this days” (Gitlitz and Davidson 3-4).

Although the above applies to Conversos, Christians were expected to keep the same kind of watchful eye on Morisco practices, many of which were similar to those of Conversos. Like Conversos, Moriscos slaughtered their animals ritually, avoided pork and scaleless fish, refrained from eating or drinking animal blood, ate similar vegetables and fruits, fried many desserts, mixed sweet and savoury, and cooked with olive oil.

The following list of dishes that the Conversa, Lozana, had learnt from her grandmother could equally well apply to foods eaten by Moriscos: “I learnt to prepare noodles, small pies, couscous with chick peas, rice …, little meat balls with fresh coriander that anyone could recognise were mine. … And pickled meat? … everyone wanted to try it, especially if it was made of mutton. And we had wonderful honey from Adamuz and saffron from Peñafiel and the best stuff from Andalusia ended up in my grandmother’s house. I knew how to make pancakes, fruit fritters drenched with honey, doughnuts made with puff pastry, croutons from hemp seed and sesame, nougat, thick fried and honey-sweetened dough, puff pastry, pastries covered with grated bread, ground almonds, honey and olive oil, soft dough with almond milk, porridge and turnips not with bacon but with cumin, … [I could cook] Murcian cabbage with caraway. As for stews of eggplant and mixed vegetables, all spiced, fabulous! And casseroles of sweetened eggplants to perfection! And casseroles with a taste of garlic, a pinch of cumin and a touch of vinegar … Stuffings, cuajarejos? of kid, chicken stews and kid spiced with lemon from Ceuta. And dried fish casseroles with arugula, and fantastic Morisco casseroles … Jam for the house and honey-syrup to offer [others], and syrup from quince, lavender, grapes, eggplants, nuts, and walnut flower in times of pestilence; [and] drinks from oregano and mint for those without appetite (Chapter 2, 38-9).

Jaime Bleda, Dominican priest in a Morisco parish near Valencia, and ferocious apologist for the expulsion of the Moriscos at the beginning of the 17th century, pours part of his scorn for them on the food they ate:  “They ate vile things: legumes, lentils, fava beans, millet, bread from millet. With this bread, those who could mixed raisins, figs, syrup, honey, milk and garden produce. They stuffed themselves with cucumbers, egg plants and melons. Their meat was usually goat or mutton/lamb. They were great lovers of cheap fish, cod, sardines, and of green salads.” (transl. from Rincón 202).

Another priest, Pedro Aznar Cardona, denounced Moriscos in similar language as “The vilest of people … In their meals they were coarse. They always ate on the ground with no table or any other piece of furniture that might smell of other people… What they ate were vile things … vegetables, grains, fruits, honey, and milk; they do not drink wine nor eat meat unless it is slaughtered by them … they are peddlers of oil, fish, honey, sugar, eggs, and other produce…” (Carr 189).

“Conversion” and exile effectively silenced the voices of Jews and Muslims in Spanish society as distinct religious and linguistic entities. But their cultural legacy persists in different forms and indeed is now celebrated (e. g. there are routes commemorating both Jews and Moors: Routes of Sefarad, Route of the Caliphate).

Foods and dishes that once identified and condemned Conversos and Moriscos are now commonly eaten in many parts of Spain. Dishes which include ingredients such as egg plants or chick peas, or are meat-based seasoned with fruit, or are generously spiced, or are prepared with rice are likely to have been inspired by recipes that go back to Converso and Morisco cuisine, and beyond that to Jewish and Muslim kitchens of the Middle Ages.

The same holds true for desserts especially those prepared with e. g. eggs and flour containing almonds, honey, raisins, pine nuts etc. Of course, many will have been modified over the centuries, especially with foods introduced into Europe by Spaniards in the 16th and 17th centuries (potatoes, tomatoes, vanilla, chocolate spring immediately to mind). But that is another story.

PS. Anecdotally I heard a lecture by a Jewish scholar investigating medieval music in Extremadura (in the village of Hervas) late in the second half of the 20th century. On being offered a pork tapa or bacon in a bar, she refused. A few questions by the owner determined that she was Jewish, whereupon he then withdrew the tapa with the words: “Ah, you are one of us.” 500 years after the expulsion of the Jews, there were still pockets of Jews in Spain who had secretly followed the faith of their predecessors while overtly living as Christians!

Street of the Synagogue, Hervás. Extremadura
Looking at Jewish quarter, Hervás. Extremadura
Carr, Matthew  Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain New York, London 2009
Delicado, Francisco La lozana andaluza ed. Bruno Damiani Madrid 1969
Gitlitz, David M & Davidson, Linda Kay  A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews  New York 1999 (Very interesting book.)
Kamen, Henry  The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision London 1997
Roden, Claudia The Food of Spain  New York 2011
Salazar Rincón, Javier El Mundo Social del Quijote Madrid 1986
For a very interesting article on the significance of food in16th-century Spain, see 


Bullfighting in Spain. Cultural Heritage or Cruel Sport?

Bullfighting in Spain.
Few topics about Spanish culture generate more heated discussion than bullfighting, the famous corrida de toros. Advocates call it an art, opponents condemn it as cruel. There seems to be no room for compromise.

Bullfighting is universally associated with Spain, but it is also practiced in other countries, e.g. the south of France, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador**, Guatemala, Panama.

** In May, 2011, Ecuadorians voted to abolish bullfighting, allowing only fights where the bull is not killed. The vote was seen as a victory for the poor over the wealthy elite, most of whom are of Spanish or European descent.

Portugal has its own variation in which the bull is fought from horseback and not killed in the ring. Even within Spain, there may be regional variations. For example, the recortes of the Basque Country and Navarra, which involve young men doing acrobatic stunts around and over the bull (which is not killed or even physically harmed. If you have seen Goya’s famous etching of the 19th-century fighter Juanito Apiñani vaulting over a bull, you get the idea.)

Goya’s etching.

Bullfighting has attracted painters and writers such as Goya, Manet, Picasso, Tolstoy, Lorca and Hemingway to name a few. Its claim to be an integral part of Spanish artistic culture is reflected in its place in Spanish newspapers, where reports on bullfights regularly appear in the section entitled Cultura; it is not a sport goes the argument.

Anthropologists and psychologists have also weighed in, attempting to decode the meaning of the corrida de toros, and politicians have used it for their own purposes.  For example, General Franco, dictator from 1939 to 1975, promoted it strongly as the fiesta nacional.  Following his death, separatist sentiment, especially in Catalonia (Catalunya), has associated the corrida with centralism and repression.  Barcelona once had three bullrings, but only one –the Plaza de Toros Monumental—remains active and there is some doubt about its future. See below. (The oldest bullring has been torn down; the other is being transformed into a shopping and leisure complex.)

Only aficionados still insist that bullfighting is the fiesta nacional. Its popularity is greatest in Andalucía and around Madrid, but as a national passion, it ranks far behind soccer.

It was banned in the Canary Islands in 1991, and there is a strong anti-bullfighting sentiment in Galicia and Catalonia (in Barcelona the city council officially condemned it in 2004).

In Catalonia, children under 14 have been prohibited from attending bullfights since 1999. A poll taken in 2006 showed that only about 25% of Spaniards had any interest in the spectacle, and those were made up mostly of older people. Although there is a core of aficionados, opposition to the bullfighting continues to grow.  Protests are held regularly outside many of the larger rings, and animal rights activists and others have put pressure on the European Union (EU) to condemn it.  In 2007 the EU went as far as to urge Spain to end bullfighting, not nearly far enough for animal rights activists.  Aficionados have countered calling on UNESCO to grant bullfighting a World Heritage status.

In 2007, the socialist government took the historic step of discontinuing live broadcasts of corridas  on Spain’s public television (TVE).  Live bullfighting had been a staple of late afternoon family viewing from 1951, but the government argued that it was expensive to put on, and clashed with the time slot for children’s programming. Some regional outlets, however, still continue live transmissions.

Passionate arguments are put forth by both sides in support of their views.  Anti-bullfighting campaigners decry the cruelty of a practice in which the bull is publicly taunted, maimed, and made to bleed, before being callously killed. It breeds insensitivity to the brutal abuse of animals, they argue, and causes unnecessary suffering simply for the pleasure of the spectators.

Aficionados counter with a variety of arguments. e. g.:
1.  bullfighting is part of the Spanish identity;
2.  the bull leads a pampered life until it enters the ring (where it will die within 20 minutes) and therefore receives better treatment than the millions of animals, with restricted movement and fattened for mass consumption;
3.  the bull is so driven by adrenaline that it doesn’t really suffer;
4.  bullfighting supports a $2 billion industry employing over 100,000 people;
5.  the breeding of the bulls benefits the environment because it protects land that might otherwise fall to urban development or golf courses. Going green is a clever pitch! (For the morality of eating meat from bulls killed in the ring, see The numerous comments make interesting reading too.)

The survival of bullfighting is debatable. There will always be supporters, and if the corrida is not banned by law (as happened in the case of fox hunting by hounds in Britain in November 2004), it will probably remain an attraction for a minority.

Despite the ban on fox hunting, aficionados in
Britain have found various way of circumventing
the law.  See article in
December 28/ 2008. Type in Foxhunting in Search.

Sometimes there are attempts to introduce bullfighting or a variation into countries where there is a tradition of animal sports e.g. into parts of western USA and Canada, where rodeos are still popular.

Periodic revival of popularity of bullfighting is possible owing to the charisma of certain matadors.  In the late 50s and 60s the rivalry between Antonio Ordóñez and his flamboyant brother-in-law Luis Dominguín had spectators on the edge of their seats. In the 1960s, the “corrida” was dominated by Manuel Benítez (El Cordobés), the first bullfighting star of the TV age and pop idol of his generation.

From the mid 70s Francisco Rivera (Paquirri) was the star. He was also a celebrity for marrying first Carmen Ordóñez, the daughter of the legendary Antonio Ordóñez, and later pop star Isabel Pantoja. He himself became a legend, however, when he died shortly after being gored in the in the ring in 1984.  Television captured the bloody moment as Paqurri was tossed around like a doll.  Shortly after, a cameraman from the public network (TVE) filmed Paquirri, calmly informing the attending doctor of where and how far the horn had penetrated his thigh. It was a film that was shown repeatedly on TV for months.

Ordóñez was the favourite “torero” of both Ernest Hemingway and the actor Orson Welles.  Welles had his ashes buried in the Ordóñez ‘s family garden in Ronda, the spiritual home of modern bullfighting.

In the 1990s it was the turn of the charismatic Jesús Janeiro (Jesulín de Ubrique), a matador who also made his mark by attracting a large following of young women. In 1994 he filled Madrid`s main bullring for a “ladies only” night and was rewarded with a shower of lingerie for his showmanship.

The latest star is José Tomás who returned to the ring in June of 2007 after an absence of 5 years.  The effect was electrifying as half empty arenas were filled and newspapers devoted entire pages to his exploits (even El País, Spain’s left leaning and perhaps most prestigious newspaper, which had virtually eliminated bullfighting from its pages). His return started in Barcelona and was attended by aficionados and celebrities from all over Spain. Inside the plaza there was a capacity 19,000 crowd, outside about 5,000 protesters.

José Tomás has always been something of an enigma.  Unlike previous matadors, he is said not to pray before a fight and doesn’t surround himself with images of saints or the Virgin Mary.  Reluctant to give interviews, he is solemn and reflective, a far cry from the flamboyance and showmanship that has become part of the bullfighting world.  His upright style in the ring enthrals the purists who compare him to the legendary Manolete, by general consensus the greatest of all matadors.

Sept 19, 2012. For an interesting article on José Tomás’s latest bullfight, and readers’ reactions, see

Bullfighting has popularly been viewed as a male pursuit, but in fact women bullfighters have appeared periodically in some form since the birth of modern bullfighting in the 18th century.

Opposition was always strong and the arguments against matadoras similar through the centuries: they degraded the bullfight; they threatened social stability; they were an affront to public decency and lowered moral standards; they should be at home and so on.

The opposition came from moralists, purist aficionados and bullfighters themselves, many of whom threatened not to appear in the ring with a matadora. Fans in general, on the other hand, were more accepting if the sale of tickets to corridas including matadoras was anything to go by. 

Still, there were periodic bans, and a long hiatus during the Franco dictatorship (1939-75). Following a successful appeal against the ban in 1974,  matadoras or señoritas toreras (as they were called) again made an appearance.  The best known is Cristina Sánchez who took her alternativa (formal investiture in the presence of a veteran matador) in 1996 in Nimes, southern France.  She retired 3 years later, however, asserting that she couldn’t get top billing and that some bullfighters would not fight if she was on the programme.

In December 2009, the Catalan Parliament is to debate whether to introduce a law to ban bullfights in Catalonia.  This follows a petition presented by over 180,000 to have the corrida banned.  Nevertheless, the petition has provoked heated debated with some opponents accusing supporters of being anti-Spanish and hypocritical (other activities involving bulls –e.g. chasing bulls through the streets, sometimes with flaming torches on their horns– are not affected).  Supporters argue that the bulls should be protected under the laws that prohibit cruelty to animals; in addition, the corrida is cruel, and does not accord with the sensibilities of the 21st century.

July 2010.  By a vote of 68 to 55, the Catalan parliament banned bullfighting in the region; the ban will take effect in January 2012. It happens that the ban was enacted shortly after the Spain’s constitutional court had struck down parts of Catalonia’s autonomy charter, including the right to call itself a “nation.”

As a result, many aficionados have viewed the decision by the Catalan deputies as “revenge” for their constitutional setback, especially since the local Catalan tradition of correbous –a form of bull-baiting still popular in village fiestas of southern Catalonia– was not prohibited. 

There is likely to be a large grain of truth in this, but at the same time animal rights activists –while deploring the mixing of nationalist politics and animal welfare– argue that this is but a growing trend in Spanish society.  Interestingly, the neighbouring regional government of Valencia (where Valenciano –a Catalan variant — is co-official with Castilian) has protected bullfighting as part of its “cultural heritage.”

July 31, 2011.  Spain’s socialist government has officially recognised bullfighting as an “artistic discipline and cultural product,” a move that has infuriated animal rights activists while delighting aficionados.

September 17, 2011.  The last bullfight in Barcelona is scheduled for September 25th. Included in the list of toreros is José Tomás.

September 2012.  Following a decision by the ruling conservative party, Partido Popular (PP), bullfighting has now returned to the state run public television (TVE).  A live bullfight was transmitted from Valladolid on Wednesday, September 5, the first transmission in six years, after it was banned by the socialist government of the day, the PSOE.  Bullfighting was, afirmed the Prime Minister, Manuel Rajoy, a part of Spain’s tradition.  The decision was greeted with enthusiasm by bullfighting aficionados; not so by critics who see it as both cruel and an anachronism.

December 2015. There are moves afoot by the conservative government to introduce a two-year bullfighting course into state run schools. The move has provoked considerable opposition, and many consider it “an effort by the Spanish government to rally around … a dying tradition.” See

August 21, 2022. A very interesting article in The Guardian newspaper on the closure of several bullrings and the growing apathy among Spaniards points to a bleak or uncertain future for the fiesta nacional. See: 

Three excellent book in English on bullfighting:

Mitchell, Timothy      Blood Sport: A Social History of Spanish Bullfighting  1991.
Kennedy  A. L     On Bullfighting   1999
Shubert, Adrian     Death and Money in the Afternoon: A History of the Spanish Bullfight  1999
For a fine summary of the status of bullfighting and opposition to it as of June 2010, see
For another illuminating (and long) article, see
For the Socialist government’s decision in 2011 to protect bullfighting, see
For a return of bullfighting to state TV, see
The latest in the status of bullfighting in Spain:
Views and opinions in 2015, see an interesting article and comments in 
March 2022. European subsidies keep bullfighting alive? See