When I think of the cuisine of Spain, I can not picture one global cuisine that encompasses Spanish cooking. More truly, I’m thinking of the many cuisines of my country, the regional cuisines. This has an explanation, or two, rather. One is rooted in geography; the other, in history, and both explain the evolution and history of Spanish cuisine.
OF GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
If you’ve travelled to Spain, and if you’ve been lucky enough to visit many of its provinces, or even some of its geographical regions, you will be astonished at the diverse geography. The third largest country in Europe —yet very small when compared to the size of the United States, about the size of the state of Texas— Spain is also the third most mountainous, after Switzerland and Austria. These mountains act as natural barriers that, for much of its existence, isolated one Spanish region from another. From the mountainous peaks of Sierra Nevada in the south, only steps away from the sea, to the Pyrenees in the north, home to some of the highest peaks in Europe, and a border and natural barrier with the rest of Europe, in Spain you can find a huge geographical diversity.
There are the green pastures of Cantabria and Galicia, where cows graze; the flat meseta, the plateau, in Central Spain, with its fields of wheat and flocks of sheep; the marshlands of the Delta del Ebro in Northeast Spain, and La Albufera in Valencia, where rice fields and citrus groves thrive; the thousands of miles of coastline, softer in the Mediterranean, more rugged in the Atlantic; the desert in Almeria, where many Hollywood westerns were filmed, and where the fields of olive trees stretch for miles to produce the world’s finest olive oils; and the two archipelagos, the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean and the tropical Canary Islands in the Atlantic. And all over its geography, the wine producing vineyards, everywhere.
In this quilt of distinct geographical regions one can find just as many climates, which have been key in the growth and development of the riches of the land in each area. The products that have flourished have been preserved and developed according to their own distinctiveness, rooted in history.
OF HISTORY AND HERITAGE
The Iberian Peninsula has been the melting pot for a great diversity of peoples and cultures, each of which had some role in influencing the ultimate formation of the cultural mosaic that is Spain today, despite globalization. However, the degree of influence was different in every case, for geographical or historical reasons. For instance, earlier Roman cultural influences became further modified as a result of the Germanic invasions. Then, in the Middle Ages, while the rest of Europe was undergoing a slow process of evolutionary change, the Arab invasion of Spain brought with it yet new influences. The reconquest of Spain back to christianity coincided with Spain’s discovery of America, thus becoming the gateway for all that was brought back from the new world into Europe.
The marriage, five hundred years ago, of Queen Isabel of Castile and King Fernando of Aragón, united the two main political and geographical kingdoms of Spain into the country that we know today, ending centuries of a peninsula formed by a myriad of smaller kingdoms, each with their own customs, language and celebrations. History, then, has been another key factor in the development of the regional cuisines.
The earliest known settlers were the Celts in the north and the Iberians in the south, which in the center of the peninsula became the Celtiberians. Trade existed between the Iberian peninsula and the eastern Mediterranean as far as the 4th or 5th millennium b.C. This trade eventually led to the establishment of the Phoenicians in the peninsula around 1000 b.C., and the Greeks in the VIII century b.C. Around the II century b.C., the Romans invaded the peninsula, starting in the south, what is now Andalusia, and eventually conquering the peninsula in 130 b.C. and changing its name to Hispania.
The Roman Empire controlled Hispania for about 500 years, until the Germanic invasions of the Vandals and the Visigoths at the beginning of the V century AD, when the peninsula changed its name again to Iberia. This domination lasted until the year 711, when the last Visigoth king, Rodrigo, was defeated by the Muslim invaders from North Africa, mostly berbers, 7000 soldiers that crossed the Strait of Gibraltar under the command of Tariq ibn Ziyad. The muslims eventually conquered most of Iberia, leaving only a few Christian states in the north, the mountainous regions of Cantabria and the Pyrenees which, due in equal parts to their geography and to the dauntless defense by their people, couldn’t conquer. The new invaders renamed the peninsula yet again, which from Iberia became Al-Andalus.
By the early XI century AD, the Christian reconquest of muslim territories had begun, and in 1248 only Granada, in the south, remained under Muslim domination. This califate ended in the year 1492, when the now married Queen Isabel of Castille and King Fernando of Aragón claimed it for Christianity, unifying the Iberian peninsula in what is present day Spain. Even before the discovery of America on that same year 1492, the country comprised other territories outside of the peninsula, like the Kingdoms of Napoli since 1442 and Sicily since 1282, with short periods of French and Austrian rule, until their independence from Spain in 1734.
Understandably, each invader and settler, as well as the colonies, left their mark in every aspect of Spain’s culture, including its cuisine.
Hence the “cuisines of Spain” rather than the cuisine of Spain. Each region of Spain, because of its geography, climate, and history, has developed unique dishes that represent it, and even though you can nowadays find most dishes cooked in every region and province, paella will always be of Valencia, fabada will be of Asturias and gazpacho of Andalusia. That’s the way it is.
THE INVADERS AND THEIR INFLUENCE ON FOOD
Before the Romans, the Mediterranean provided fish in large numbers, and a technique of curing and salting fish —that is still practiced today— developed. The Romans, good agriculturalists, realized that Hispania’s soil was ideal for the cultivation of wheat, olives and vines, and under their rule, cereals and bread baking became a basic element of the Spanish diet. Hispania became the largest supplier of olive oil in the empire and vineyards were planted and wine produced.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths developed livestock farming, and the Iberian pig was established as one of the main Spanish stocks. Leaner than their northern countries counterpart, due in part to the fact that it was fed solely on acorns, the Iberian pig continues to be the star of the Spanish gastronomy. Apart from livestock, the Visigoths also introduced spinach, radishes and certain legumes into the Spanish fields, and therefore the diet.
But one of the major influencers in Spanish diet and products came from the Arabs, due mostly to the length of their “stay”, almost 800 years. Arabs understood the importance of water on food production and, assisted by the favorable climate, transformed arid areas of Spanish soil into oases. To them we owe the introduction of citrus and almond trees, eggplant, sugar cane and herbs and spices like cumin, saffron, coriander, cinnamon and mint, that have been a part of the Spanish diet for centuries.
The reunification of Spain —which was achieved by the conquest of Granada, the last muslim bastion— and the discovery of America, marked a new culinary period in Spain’s history, with the marriage of cultures and cuisines and the introduction of new ingredients unknown in the peninsula (or in the western world) until then.
The search for spices, which had been the reason for the voyage of discovery into the west, proved unfruitful in that regard. But instead, it brought with it other riches to the Spanish cuisine, which was in fact, and thanks to this, starting to develop into a “national” cuisine. Spices, brought west from the Middle East by the crusaders, were in great demand in Europe, but the trade land routes were controlled by Italian merchants, and the sea routes, by the Portuguese. Spain, trying to find a sea route traveling west, accidentally discovered America. Christopher Columbus didn’t find the precious spices, but introduced into the Iberian peninsula products that were previously unknown. In fact, in the early times, these products were considered eccentric or even dangerous: the aggressive red of the tomatoes and peppers, the bitterness of the cocoa bean, the ear corn, or the subterranean potato, were all unfamiliar and therefore threatening.
Since only the products were imported, and not whole cuisines, creativity flourished: tomato was incorporated into gazpachos, peppers were stuffed, potatoes cooked with eggs into omelet, vanilla introduced into desserts. When planted in Spanish soil, some of the products brought from America developed their own characteristics, like the pepper, which in the north produced a milder and sweeter variety that, when dried and ground into powder, became pimentón, or paprika, a purely Spanish creation.
These were golden times for Spain. It was the center of Europe, serving as the gateway to the newly conquered lands in the Americas. Carlos I, grandson of the Catholic King and Queen of Spain, and head of the house of Habsburg, became king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. With the seat of the Habsburg now in Spain, food traditions traveled throughout Europe, affecting the eating habits of the whole continent. Chocolate, bitter when in bean form, was sweetened by the addition of sugar (credit for this goes to Spanish nuns that had settled in Mexico in the sixteenth century). Cocoa beans were so valuable that, for a time, chocolate export to other European countries was forbidden. Eventually they were included in the royal dowries, and Maria Teresa, daughter of king Phillip IV of Spain, is credited with introducing it to France, and therefore to the rest of Europe, through her marriage to Louis XIV in 1660.
By the seventeenth century, the basic flavors and components of the Spanish cuisine were well established, and the first Spanish cookbooks were printed.
In the eighteenth century, in 1700, the Habsburg dynasty gave way to the French Bourbons, who ascended to the Spanish throne with Phillip V, Duc d’Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV of France. The Bourbons brought with them French style, habits and customs. The Spanish cuisine gradually adopted a more international flavor, but the traditional regional Spanish cuisine never disappeared and was in fact introduced in the restaurants menus. The French influence continued, as was reflected in cookbooks published in the late nineteenth century. But the French-Spanish exchange went both ways, and it is said that the biggest culinary loot was the collection of recipes taken by the French from the monks at Alcántara.
The Bourbons still reign in Spain, in the person of Felipe VI, the current monarch.
THE 20TH CENTURY
Spain’s rich and diverse heritage was threatened by the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Postwar Spain was plagued by an economic depression that lasted into the 1950’s. Even well-off families were deprived of legal access to everyday goods such as coffee and sugar, and the black markets flourished. People living near the borders crossed it to acquire goods, to Tangiers and Ceuta in the South, to France in the North. In this period of scarcity, Spanish cooking became more austere. Dishes based on bread and beans, popular still today, were often the sole means of sustenance.
When General Franco died in 1975, after forty years of dictatorship, Spain moved toward democracy and began its race to catch up with the more developed countries on the continent. The different Spanish regions and communities started to reaffirm their cultural and regional distinctions and traditions, sparking a cultural renaissance that continues today. During the 1960’s and 1970’s in France, a group of chefs led by Paul Bocuse, started the nouvelle cuisine movement. Their innovations inspired new Spanish chefs emerging from the period of austerity. The Basque Nueva Cocina was born, in the 1970’s, with Luis Irízar, and was followed by chefs like Juan Mari Arzak and Martín Berasategui. It extended to the rest of Spain, with Ferrán Adriá and Santi Santamaría in Cataluña, who have been joined by many talented chefs from every corner of the country. The rest is history: Spain can claim today that its restaurants and chefs are among the best in the world, usually topping the lists, and its cuisine, highly in demand and admired.
At the same time, some aspects of the Spanish cuisine transcend the regions. One of them is the quality of the ingredients. Because we’ve been blessed with such richness, we expect the best ingredients, and most of our cooking techniques reflect this quality: simple and pure, not to spoil the ingredient (grilled shrimp sprinkled with a pinch of sea salt, rather than smothered or disguised in sauce; or angulas, baby eels, a very pricey Spanish delicacy, simply sautéed in olive oil with sizzling garlic and guindillas, chili peppers, are two examples).
Another common aspect of the regional cuisines is its seasonality: we cook like our grandmothers did, who, with no refrigerators to preserve foods, cooked with the products of the season, that were abundant. Yet, nothing went to waste, and still does not today, for those pig ears and beef bones will flavor stocks, just like fish scraps and seafood shells will make a rich suquet, fish broth, and the pig’s blood will be put into sausages. It’s the cocina de aprovechamiento.
At the same time, and maybe because we’re obsessed about not wasting precious ingredients when they’re abundant, Spain has developed a huge curing and preserving industry. We cure meats, like the jamón ibérico, the Iberian cured ham, from the famous Iberian pigs that roam the pastures of Extremadura, or the jabugo and serrano hams. We also cure different kinds of fish, like tuna loins into mojama, and tuna eggs into hueva. And we preserve the best of every harvest, to be consumed at a later date, when not in season. Whether it’d be mussels in olive oil or in escabeche, vinegar brine, or sardines and baby eels, or partridges after a hunting trip, to the best produce of the land: asparagus, piquillo peppers and faba beans, every produce of the land can be the subject of preserving.
But don’t be misled: preserved food in Spain is a delicacy, and many of the best bars proudly serve preserved foods as their tapas, for even if the Michelin-star restaurants receive the best of every harvest, the producer will have saved the very best for preserving.
You can call the preserves, las conservas, the fast food of Spain: a meal can be made out of opening a jar of asparagus and a can of sardines or mejillones en escabeche, mussels marinated in vinegar or some other acidic medium.
That would be the extent of Spanish fast food, almost a contradiction in terms, for the importance that Spaniards place in their food is reflected in the way they choose it, the way they cook it, the way the present it and the way they eat it. We’ve been spoiled by mothers who will buy the products in season, fresh, almost daily, and will make no concessions. The’ll prepare the meals from scratch —in fact, I learned the expression “from scratch” in America, for Spaniards don’t have such a concept: what other way is there to cook but from scratch?— and the meal will not be some mere pit stop to refuel, but a social gathering. Lunch in particular, the main meal of the day, will consist of a first course, a second course or entrée, and sometimes a light dessert, most often fruit on work days, with a concession for sweets on occasion.
Ir de tapas, Spain’s social gathering “par excellance”, is a case in point. And this habit transcends the regions.
The Cuisines of Spain, Exploring Regional Cooking, by Teresa Barrenechea
The Heritage of Spanish Cooking, by Alicia Ríos and Lourdes March
La Vida Cotidiana en la España del Siglo de Oro, by Fernando Díaz Plaja