You probably use Spanish olive oil every day, have sampled a platter of tasty tapas and you may even have gone as far as making your own paella, but how much do you really know about Spanish cuisine? All of these foods have made their way well beyond Spain’s borders, but have you ever wondered what has brought about such a rich and varied offering?
Two things that have had an enormous influence on the history of Spanish cuisine are its climate and its geographical location. Surrounded almost entirely by water on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain’s diverse terrain encompasses endless coastlines (hello, seafood), fertile farmlands (perfect for cultivating vegetables), soaring mountain ranges (which are ideal grazing grounds for sheep and cattle), and near-desert conditions (where you’ll find olives, figs and almonds).
A short distance from Morocco on its southern tip and connected to France in the northeast, it’s no wonder that Spain has been influenced by the many cultures that have sailed the surrounding Mediterranean and the Atlantic waters. However, although geography and climate have played a vital role in determining the country’s gastronomic influences, it’s the historical movement of people that has probably shaped Spain’s cuisine more than anything.
As a gateway between Africa and Europe, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, Spain has been intensely fought over throughout history. Before the Roman Empire, Spain was divided into three territories – the Celts fished and farmed in the north, the Iberians kept cattle in the central east, and the Tertessos in the south did a lot of trading with Africa and Greece.
The Roman Empire
By the second century BC, Spain was under Roman domination and they continued to control the Peninsula for roughly 600 years. They introduced the custom of gathering and eating of mushrooms (which is still preserved today, particularly in the North), introduced the art of viticulture (the growing of grapes), and together with the Greeks and Phoenicians, introduced the extensive cultivation of olive oil. Today, Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world! All of this movement of population was thought to have formed the basis of what we now know as traditional Spanish food.
The Moors and the Jews
Probably one of the greatest impacts on Spanish food history was instigated by the Moors, who were Arabs from northern Africa who cross Gibraltar and entered Spain in around 711AD. The Moors called the land they occupied Al-Andalus, and their invasion brought to the country such exotic ingredients as honey, rice, eggplant and citrus fruits, as well as introducing the combination of eating nuts and fruit with fish and meats.
A genuine staple of Spanish food, rice, was introduced by the Moors, which directly contributed to the abundance of rice dishes still prevalent in this country (paella in particular). They also introduced spices like saffron, cinnamon and nutmeg, and if you’ve ever enjoyed ‘gazpacho’ (a cold soup made from raw blended vegetables), you also have the Moorish culture to thank.
It was during this period that the Jewish influence on Spanish cuisine was also introduced. Modern-day ‘ollas’ (stews prepared overnight in clay pots) have been inherited from the practising of the Jewish Sabbath, the unleavened bread eaten with ‘gazpachos manchegos’ is also a direct legacy, and the Jews also introduced the art of pickling things. If you order an authentic Spanish tapas today, no doubt you’ll find a pickled item somewhere on the menu!
Moorish control of al-Andalus decreased as Christian kingdoms progressed southwards between the 11th and 13th centuries, and with the expulsion of Jews and Muslims around 1492, Spain became religiously unified under a Catholic banner, which considerably changed the way the country viewed the enjoyment of meat. The 15th and 16th-century descendants the Celts now enjoyed pork, which had been taboo to both Muslims and Jews.
Spain was one of the first nations in Europe to discover the gastronomic treasures of the New World, and The Golden Age witnessed the discovery and exploration of America (or Las Indias as it was commonly known). Beginning in the late 1400’s and in particular with Christopher Columbus’ famous 1492 voyage, the addition of many important elements in the history of Spanish food was instigated. Explorers returned from across the Atlantic Ocean with exotic new foods like pineapples, avocados, corn, beans, capsicums, chillies and vanilla, which were all native to the America’s.
Potatoes are often thought of as an Irish staple, however, they arrived in Spain first, and traditional dishes like the ‘tortilla de patata’ would not be possible without the arrival of the humble spud. Tomatoes were also an important introduction, and these were integrated into dishes we still enjoy today like gazpacho and pan tumaca (a Spanish-style toast with tomato). Some of these foods were initially viewed as suspicious, particularly because things like tomatoes and even chillies were only used as ornamental plants and potatoes were mainly cultivated in botanical gardens!
One of the most life-changing imports (well, life-changing for those who adore it!) in the history of Spanish cuisine and one that caused a considerable furore in Spanish society was the introduction of cocoa, which was then mixed with sugar to make chocolate. It is due to the Spanish sweet tooth that it became so popular across the world, and those who have ever enjoyed one of Madrid’s ‘chocolate con churros’ are sure to agree. Thank you, thankyou Spain!
Got a hankering for some authentic Spanish food? Book a table at Moda Restaurant today!