Spanish Gastronomy through the Ages

By Real Academia de Gastronomía

Real Academia de Gastronomía

Spain's geographical location, the different civilizations that have inhabited its lands, and the various social changes that have taken place there have all had a strong influence in shaping and developing a Spanish culinary identity. Take a look at Spanish cuisine throughout the course of history.

Spain - general maps - 1623Original Source: Biblioteca Nacional de España

Crossing Cultures

Spain's location has made it a gateway for foods from Africa, and particularly Asia, thanks to its trade routes. Above all, it is also a key focal point for connections to the Americas.

Paisaje mediterraneoReal Academia de Gastronomía

Exceptional Climate

The mild temperature around the Mediterranean and its distinct seasons create conditions that are suitable for plant and animal produce.

Fishing boats in GaliciaReal Academia de Gastronomía

Riches of the Seas

Spain is surrounded by 3 seas, each different in its own way, with a variety of plankton and calm waters (especially in the estuaries), as well as waves that crash against cliffs. The result is an extraordinary range of high-quality fish and seafood from its coasts.

Tiles from the Alhambra (1350/1399)British Museum

Everyone Has Been There!

Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs… One after the other, different civilizations arrived in Spain, leaving their mark on the country's culinary culture.

Phoenician Route MapNational Museum of Archaeology, Malta

The Phoenicians inhabited the North African coast and southern Europe, and a lot of products were brought to Spain from these areas along trade routes.

Oil Jar with a Woman Carrying a Basket of Offerings (470 - 460 B.C.)The J. Paul Getty Museum

The Greeks later settled on the Mediterranean coasts of Hispania, bringing with them new species of plants and innovative methods of producing and preserving food.

Olive oilReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Legacy of the Roman Empire

The Romans, who settled across the entire Iberian Peninsula, discovered the advantages of using barns for storing cereal crops.

They also developed the use of olive presses, thanks to which the imperial capital was supplied with excellent olive oils, mostly from the province of Baetica.

A Roman Feast (late 19th century) by Roberto BompianiThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The mouth of the river Ebro provided large quantities of oysters, which were transported to Rome packed in snow from the Pyrenees.

It also produced a variety of interesting fish, and with it the main fish product of the time: garum, a fermented fish sauce that became popular in Roman times (although it had previously been made by the Greeks).

Mapa HispaniaReal Academia de Gastronomía

These delicious sauces were made in Gades (Cádiz), Abdera (Adra), Sexi (Almuñécar), and Carthago Nova (Cartagena), using the intestines and trimmings of fish such as tuna, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies.

Garum was sold pure ("liquamen") or mixed with wine ("enogarum"), vinegar ("oxigarum"), or oil ("oleogarum").

AzafranReal Academia de Gastronomía

Al-Andalus: The Triumph of Arab Culture

The Arabs developed important farming techniques, introduced vegetables and irrigation, and turned Spain into a potential leader in citrus production.

In terms of cuisine, they developed the beginnings of confectionary, refined customs around eating, and passed down recipes for tagine (the precursor to the Spanish "cocido" stew), "escabeche" (pickle), and meatballs. They also introduced many of the spices that are used in Spanish cuisine today.

By Dmitri KesselLIFE Photo Collection

From the Americas to Spanish Store Cupboards

America was discovered around the same time that the Arabs and Jews left Spain. Spurred on by hunger, the Spanish conquistadors overcame their initial rejection of the new produce they found there. Together with produce brought from Spain, it inspired an emerging cuisine that was adopted by the viceroyalties, especially in Mexico and Peru.

Custard applesReal Academia de Gastronomía

Spain's colonization of the Americas changed what people ate around the world. Wheat, corn, beans, chickpeas, potatoes, olive oil, avocados, papayas, apples, guavas, grapes, cherimoyas, plums, peanuts, almonds, tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, coffee, bananas, and chocolate are now available on both sides of the Atlantic.

Cherry tomatoesReal Academia de Gastronomía

Introducing these new foods into Europe took time, as well as agricultural and culinary experimentation.

Hunger pushed people to overcome their prejudices, and foods such as potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and corn became part of people's diets in Spain and across the globe.

PotatoesReal Academia de Gastronomía

Spain was a pioneer in introducing potatoes into the nation's diet. Patients at the Hospital de la Sangre in Seville were the first Europeans to eat them, and they were later served up to soldiers serving in the Army of Flanders.

Bit by bit, potatoes were incorporated into popular recipes and eventually became a staple ingredient in Spanish store cupboards.

Grains of wheatReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Cereals that Changed the World

Wheat from the Mediterranean and rice from Asia (now acclimatized to cultivation in Spain), as well as American corn, are the bedrock of diets across the world and the economies of several countries. These 3 cereal crops are a clear example of the importance of different foods reaching all parts of the globe.

An Old Woman Cooking Eggs (1618) by Diego VelazquezNational Galleries Scotland: National

Cuisine of Rich and Poor

After the conquest of the Americas, food was in short supply in Europe. There were stark differences between the food products found in the kitchens of rural people, monasteries, the nobility, and royalty.

Banquet Given by the King to the New Knights (1633) by Abraham BosseNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Specialty dishes grew out of all of these kitchens and were slowly passed from one social class to another. Dishes that originated in the poorest kitchens, including pig's trotters, gazpacho, and "migas" (a dish made with leftover bread), spread to those of the wealthiest.

Similarly, as a result of increased purchasing power, consumption of the finest cuts of meat and the best fish became more widespread.

Still Life with Game Fowl (1600/03) by Juan Sánchez Cotán (Spanish, 1560–1627)The Art Institute of Chicago

The Royal Store Cupboard

Until the Middle Ages, the royal diet was based on just a few foods.

The monarchs mainly ate meat—of all kinds—meaning obesity, gout caused by an excess of uric acid, and other metabolic illnesses were common.

The Archdukes Albert and Isabella Visiting a Collector's Cabinet (circa 1621-1623) by Hieronymus Francken IIThe Walters Art Museum

The Hapsburg dynasty brought with it widespread wealth and excess, although it took a long time for their customs to reach ordinary people.

Philip V King Of SpainLIFE Photo Collection

Philip V of Spain, grandson of the Sun King (Louis XIV), arrived in Spain accompanied by a French court, which led to the "Frenchification" of society as its customs were adopted by everyday people.

There were also Italian influences brought by kings and consorts, such as Elisabeth Farnese and Charles III of Spain, as well as influences from Dutch and Irish ministers. Nevertheless, French customs persisted until the late 19th and early 20th century.

Gazette of MadridOriginal Source: Biblioteca Nacional de España

This can be seen in the royal menus printed, in French, in "La Gaceta de Madrid," which was an earlier version of Spain's Official State Bulletin.

Spain-August 1938 (1938) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

Famine in the Streets and in Battle

The late 19th century to the mid-20th century was a period of great political and economic upheaval in Spain.

With the loss of its last colonies in the Americas and the Philippines, poverty spread and an inadequate diet affected the armed forces, becoming one of the causes of their successive defeats.

Spain, Distribution of food in the street, 17/04/1941.Yad Vashem

Hunger became widespread, while the political situation was in chaos, with frequent changes of government alternating between monarchy and republic, and dictatorship and democracy.

The benefits of the few years of stability were felt only by the highest social classes.

Horcher RestaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía

Restaurants with French and German Influences

In the early 20th century, a process of industrialization began, particularly in Catalonia.

The first modern restaurants started to appear, almost all of which were French, including Chez Martin and Maison Dorée in Barcelona, and Lhardy in Madrid.

There were also some German restaurants, such as Gambrinus and Horcher, which set the benchmark for Spanish haute cuisine of the time.

By Dmitri KesselLIFE Photo Collection

Even More Hunger in the Post-War Years

The years leading up to the Spanish Civil War were very hard. The conflict from 1936–39 aggravated the situation, and shortages in some areas forced people to resort to eating by-products, such as potato peelings, or food usually fed to animals, such as carob pods or vetch.

Navel orangesReal Academia de Gastronomía

There were shortages in all regions, although the extent of them varied from place to place.

Andalusia had an excess of oil but shortages of almost everything else; Valencia had an abundance of oranges, which were impossible to find in other areas that did not produce them; and La Mancha and Aragon only had wheat, as well as figs and grapes when in season.

One thing there was no shortage of was wine.

By Dmitri KesselLIFE Photo Collection

One month after the war ended, rationing was introduced throughout Spain. Ration books were produced containing coupons for obtaining certain foods.

The shortages fueled people's imaginations: they made "migas" with stale bread and fat, and resorted to the original recipe for gazpacho using little more than stale bread, oil, vinegar, water, and salt.

Still Life of Spanish Food and WineReal Academia de Gastronomía

Prosperity at Last

The food shortages came to an end in the 1970s, when a variety of different foods became widely available.

Spanish produce became plentiful, and exports increased.

Tractors in CataloniaReal Academia de Gastronomía

The cattle industry underwent a significant transformation. Poultry, pork, beef, and eggs—for many years luxury foods—became a staple on every dinner table.

Horticultural production developed in many areas of Spain, particularly on the coast of Almeria, in Huelva, and along the east coast.

Olive oil, a previously much-reviled fat, regained the prestige it deserved.

Anchoives and Peppers SandwichReal Academia de Gastronomía

Farewell to the Lunchbox

The first coffee shops opened, serving sandwiches and pancakes with cream.

Bottled soft drinks started to take over from traditional drinks such as iced lemon, tiger-nut milk, and barley water.

The use of lunchboxes began to die out with the opening of establishments specializing in set main courses and roast chickens.

Spain had become modernized.

Spanish Canned FoodReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Arrival of Modern Consumption

The Spanish Food Code marked the beginning of a new era and greater health legislation.

City cattle farms disappeared, while industrial slaughterhouses and centers for dairy and horticultural production were built, along with large chicken and egg-laying farms, and pig and rabbit farms.

Labeling became a widespread concern, and consumer associations began to emerge.

Iberian ham with artichokeReal Academia de Gastronomía

A Reimagined Heritage

Modern-day Spanish cuisine is the result of the widespread availability of raw ingredients, the influence of different cultures, and, of course, the creativity of Spanish chefs.

It is one that looks to the future, without forgetting its roots.

Credits: Story

Text: María García, in collaboration with Ismael Diaz Yubero, Spain’s representative at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food Advisor for the Spanish Embassy in Rome. Member of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Image: Foods & Wines from Spain / Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade / National Library of Spain / Horcher Restaurant / David de Luis.

Acknowledgements: Rafael Ansón, president of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Elena Rodríguez, director of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; María García and Caroline Verhille, contributors to the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy

This exhibition is part of the Spanish Gastronomy project jointly coordinated by Google Arts & Culture and the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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