The Romans set the Spanish cooking base of wheat, olives and grapes. The Muslims added almonds, oranges, rice and saffron. The New World tossed in chocolate, corn, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes.
Food in general is not spicy, though the use of garlic throughout Spain is common. The peppers used are generally sweet rather than hot, and consequently anything a Spaniard considers hot wouldn’t impress anyone from Mexico.
The Spanish don’t eat a lot of pasta or noodles. Instead, they eat rice, potatoes and bread. They are the heaviest rice eaters in Europe. Short-grain rice for paella is grown in Valencia; long-grain rice, for export largely, is grown in Andalusia. Long-grain rice is only just starting to make its way into Spanish cooking.
There are three main types of rice dishes main in Spain. Dry ones such as paella, liquidy ones such as cazuela or perol, and soups such as caldero.
Vegetables tend to be sautéed in olive oil rather than boiled. Fresh salads aren’t a Spanish forte.
Common throughout Spain is the making of potato and egg omelettes called “tortillas” (not the same as the Mexican bread.)
Sauces tend to be very simple, usually from finely chopped or puréed vegetables. They are not thickened with butter or cream as French sauces are, but rather when thickened, they are thickened in a more Medieval fashion with bread crumbs or ground nuts. Many sauces have a splash of wine added to them.
Rosemary and thyme are not used much.
All large international food chains are present in Spain.
Both wine and beer are drunk. For beer, light-blonde lagers are preferred, served cold.
Sherry may be drunk with meals.
Dairy & Eggs
Though not as well known for its cheese as France, Italy or even the Netherlands, Spain nevertheless produces some excellent ones including blue cheeses.
Most cheeses in Spain are made from sheep or goat milk.
Dairy products are used more in the north — it is the only area which really has land suitable for grazing cows. Consequently, some cheeses made in the north are made from cow’s milk.
The Spanish rarely boil eggs; eggs are usually served as fried eggs or tortillas.
Meal patterns only really became harmonized across the country towards the end of the 1900s. Now, full-fledged main meals can have an appetizer, then a starter, then a main course, then dessert, then coffee after dessert.
Breakfast is usually just coffee with a biscuit, though it is not uncommon for it to be a more “substantial” French breakfast, including pastries or rolls and butter and sometimes a jam, or a bread roll, cut in half, brushed with olive oil and spread with crushed tomato.
Tapas might be eaten sometime before lunch.
The largest meal of the day is lunch. Work stops at about 1 pm, and lunch eaten around 2 pm. Work recommences around 4pm.
A “merienda” is a snack sometime between lunch and dinner. Chocolate is often drunk along with the merienda.
Dinner is eaten sometime after 9 pm; it is a much lighter meal than lunch.
The main meats in Spain are lamb and pork.
Beef is still somewhat of a luxury; thin beef steaks are fried up in oil.
Meat often tends to be grilled, perhaps an influence from Roman cooking.
“Ham” in a Spanish mind is prosciutto-type ham; the kind of thick ham we usually think of in English is called “York Ham” (jamón de York.)
The Spanish are not squeamish about offal and eat a good deal of it.
Fish is often pan-fried.
Spanish cooking is one of the most olive-oil dependent cuisines in Europe. It’s fortunate, then, that Spain is also the largest olive oil producer in the world. In fact, much olive oil sold implicitly branded as Italian is actually Spanish.
The Spanish themselves prefer a heavier, less-refined olive oil. Most olive oil exported is more refined to suit the tastes of people outside the country for a lighter oil.
Roughly, the northern third of the country is cool and rainy; the bottom two-thirds are hot and dry.
The regional identities extant today were roughly set by the Middle Ages. There are still many different regional languages spoken in Spain, such as Gallego, Basque and Catalan.
Spain is divided into regions, which are then sub-divided into provinces.
The regions are:
- Andalusia (aka Andalucía)
- Aragon (aka Aragón)
- Asturias (aka Asturies)
- Balearic Islands (aka Islas Baleares)
- Basque Country (aka País Vasco, , aka Euskadi)
- Canary Islands (aka Islas Canarias)
- Catalonia (aka Cataluña)
- Castile-La Mancha (aka Castilla-La Mancha )
- Castile-Leon (aka Castilla-León)
- Ceuta y Melilla
- La Rioja
- Navarre (aka Navarra)
- Valencia (aka Comunidad Valenciana)
Andalusia has a hot climate, as is to be expected from its position on the south coast of Spain.
Olive oil is particularly a dominant ingredient here.
It is the home of gazpacho and ibérico hams.
The food tends to be a bit spicier than in other regions of Spain.
There is still an Arabian influence in desserts and in meat: owing to Muslim tradition, the consumption of pork is somewhat less in this area than in other parts of Spain.
Most fish is deep-fried in batter.
The Aragón region, which borders on France, is known for its somewhat heartier dishes.
Asturias is a region in the north of Spain, known for its stews and cheeses.
In food mythology, the Balearic Islands are the home of mayonnaise.
Typical foods are clear soups and seafood.
This region partly borders on France. People eat both coastal and inland foods. The coastal influence is seen in seafood; the inland influence, in stews.
There are men-only food clubs called “Sociedad Gastronomica.”
These islands exhibit both African and Latin American influences in their food.
Cantabria is a coastal region where, naturally, seafood is an important ingredient.
Catalonia borders on France.
The food tends to be a bit spicier than in other areas of Spain, save Andalusia.
The area specializes in stews, casseroles and fish dishes.
The region’s cooking has four sauces: Sofrito, samfaina (tomato, pepper, eggplant), picada (garlic, parsley, toasted almonds, pine seeds) and ali-oli (similar to the French aioli, made from garlic and olive oil.)
Castile-La Mancha is a land-locked region in the centre of Spain with cold dry winters and hot, dry summers.
They breed cattle and raise sheep and goats, and hunt game.
Grain is grown here.
There are many Arabian influences in the food.
Castile-Leon is a region of mountain foothills, giving them cold winters.
Food traditionally centres on fresh-water fish dishes and legume dishes (beans, chickpeas, lentils.)
Ceuta y Melilla
This is a region of Spain just across the waters from Gibraltar that is actually African territory, still occupied by the Spanish and claimed by Morocco. The food is a blend of Spanish and Moroccan cooking.
Extremadura is a relatively new political region, formed in 1983 through the union of Badajoz and Caceres. It forms part of the western border with Portugal.
The capital, Mérida, was an important city when Spain was a Roman province — there are many Roman ruins still standing there today, and the bridge they built there, now called “Puente Romano”, is still in use.
Ham and sausages are a speciality throughout the region.
In Badajoz, which has a hotter climate, many cold foods are made. In Caceres, which has a more temperate climate, people make a lot of stews.
Galicia is the northwest, square-shaped portion of Spain that sits on top of Portugal. Both its north and west sides are on the Atlantic.
The coasts provide seafood. Inland, corn (maize) is grown.
The region’s cooks are known for their empanadas.
La Rioja was formerly a part of Navarre.
Its economy is still largely agricultural-based, particularly wine making.
It is known for its stews and wines.
Madrid has no particular cuisine in a way, because it has become a melting pot for the rest of Spanish cooking.
Murcía is on the south coast of Spain.
It is know for its fish chowders and heavy emphasis on fruits and vegetables.
Navarra (aka Navarre) is known for its hearty dishes.
It grows the most tomatoes in Spain.
Valencia is on the south coast of Spain. It is known for its rice and shellfish dishes.
Spain is very mountainous. Thousands of years ago, Spain is believed to have been heavily forested, but extensive land-clearing lead to surface erosion. Today, much of it is meagre, hardscrabble land that is dry and nearly treeless. Up to 15% of the land is completely unproductive.
Figs have been cultivated in Spain since at least 2000 BC.
Olives were brought to Spain by the Phoenicians around 800 BC.
Before the Romans arrived, the inhabitants had cows, goats, sheep and wild pigs. Domesticated pigs appear to have been introduced by the Romans.
Roman farms in Spain were large plantations, growing huge quantities of cereal grains and olives. The plantations were largely owned by absentee owners back in Rome and worked by slaves. Spain and Egypt were the wheat-producing centres of the Roman Empire. By the end of the 100s AD, though, Spain was facing tough competition for its olive oil from the Roman province of North Africa.
The herbs being grown in Roman times included anise, basil, coriander and parsley.
The Roman agricultural writer, Columella (4 to 70 AD, author of “De Re Rustica”), was born in the town of Gades (now Cadiz, southern Spain). The Roman Emperors Trajan and Hadrian were born in Spain, as well as the two famous Roman writers, Lucan and Martial.
The name of the Spanish region “Andalusia” comes from the Arabic, “Al Andalus”, meaning “the land of the Vandals” (as in the East Germanic tribe that occupied the area from 409-428 AD. Andalusia possibly is a shortened form of “Vandalusia”).
Spain was conquered by the Arabs from 711–718 AD. Only Aragon, Asturias, and Navarre remained outside the conquered lands. In fact, the Arabs went as far north as Tours, France, before they were turned back. Spain would remain under Muslim occupation for the next 800 years.
Like the Romans before them, the Arabs were not so much creators of new knowledge as they were amalgamators, guardians and promoters of existing knowledge. The Arabs repaired and expanded the irrigation systems in Spain that had fallen into disuse since the fall of Rome. Irrigation was necessary, as the Arabs put an emphasis on fruit and vegetable gardens.
Among the crops reputedly brought by the Muslims were almonds, apricots, artichokes, aubergines (aka eggplant), bananas, carrots, cotton, cumin, henna, lemons, madder, melons, oranges, palms, peaches, pomegranates, rice, saffron, spinach, sugar-cane and woad. Some say the Arabs brought other items such as grapes as well, but these were already being cultivated in Spain well before the Romans even arrived — and it’s absurd to think that the Romans would have lived there without grapes.
In the late 700s, the Arabs introduced rice. Rice, however, remained a luxury item, not becoming commonly affordable really until the 1700s. In the 900s, the Arabs introduced durum wheat (Triticum turgidum var. durum.)
The Muslims also restored sanitation in cities which had been let slide since the collapse of Roman order. They made Córdoba the capital city.
The religion practised in Spain by the Muslims was a very enlightened form of Islam, not a repressive one — the form that Muslim culture took in Spain was too sophisticated to be rigid and fanatical. Muslims in Spain even made and drank alcohol from grapes, figs, dates and even rice. Some repression, however, did begin around 1090 AD. Stricter Muslim groups such as the Almoravids and the Almohads came to power, invited by Islamic teachers who issued a fatwah against the “lax” Muslim princes previously in place.
In the Middle Ages in Spain, cabbage was as important for daily sustenance for ordinary people in Spain as it was elsewhere in Europe.
The last of Muslim rule ended on 1 January 1492 when the Muslims at Granada surrendered.
With the return of Christian control, there was an increased emphasis on raising livestock, particularly sheep, which meant grazing lands that didn’t need as much irrigation. Sheep also had the benefit of producing wool that could be exported — i.e. goods that could be closely monitored and taxed, producing money for the state.
In the 1500s, 75% of the population were agricultural peasants who worked land belong to rich landowners. Like the rest of Europe, most daily meals would have been sparse affairs — some bread, perhaps some meat or cheese, and watered-down wine. The peasants ate rye bread — some days in fact they ate nothing but bread.
Broccoli and cauliflower arrived in Spain sometime in the 1500s.
Literature & Lore
“Polybius the Megalopolitan, speaking of the great happiness which exists in Lusitania (and that is a district of Iberia, which the Romans now call Spania), O most excellent Timocrates, in the thirty-fourth book of his Histories, says that in that country on account of the excellent temperature of the air, both animals and men are exceedingly prolific; and the fruits, too, in that country never degenerate. “For there are roses there, and white violets, and asparagus, and other flowers and fruits like them, which last nine months in the year; and as for sea-fish, both in abundance, and in excellence, and in beauty, it is very superiort to that produced in our seas. And a siclus (this is equal to a medimnus) of barley costs only a drachma; and one of wheat costs nine Alexandrian obols; and a measure of wine costs a drachma; and a moderate-sized kid costs an obol, and so does a hare. And of lambs, the price is three or four obols; and a fat pig, weighing a hundred minae, costs five drachmae; and a sheep costs two. And a talent weight of figs costs three obols; and a calf costs five drachmae, and a draught-ox ten. And the meat of wild animals is scarcely ever valued at any price at all; but people throw that in to purchasers into the bargain, or as a present.” But to us, whenever we sup with our excellent friend Laurentius, he makes Rome another Lusitania — filling us with every sort of good thing every day, receiving us in a most princely manner with the greatest liberality, while we bring nothing from home as our contribution, except our arguments.”
— Athenaeus of Naucratis. Yonge, C.D., Editor. The deipnosophists, or, Banquet of the learned of Athenæus. Volume II, Book VIII. London: Henry G. Bohn. 1854. Page 523.