The History of Spanish Cuisine!

  • November 8, 2017
  • by Tim Mullins

The Iberian Peninsula has been the melting-pot for a great diversity of cultures, each of which had some role in influencing the ultimate formation of the cultural mosaic that is Spain.  Geography has also been an important factor in the development of Spain’s culinary diversity.  Climate and topography is extremely varied, ranging from some of the highest mountains in Europe to tropical islands.  The continental climate is suitable for cereal crops and sheep-rearing, while fruit and vegetables are grown in warmer irrigate areas, and the extensive coastlines produce a great wealth of fish.

The earliest known settlers were the Iberians in the south, and the Celts in the north. In the center these groups mixed, forming the Celt Iberians. Trade between the Iberian Peninsula and the eastern Mediterranean started in the fifth millennium BC. This led to the establishment of Phoenician settlements around 1000 BC, on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Greeks settled there, too, around the eighth Century BC.

Carthage, situated near present day Tunisia in North Africa, was itself originally a Phoenician settlement, established by the third century an empire stretching from Egypt to the western Mediterranean, including the Iberian Peninsula. The Romans captured the area corresponding to what is now Andalusia from Carthage at the beginning of the second century BC, but did not control the peninsula until about 130 BC; the control lasted for almost 500 years. It ended by the invasions of Germanic tribes, such as the Vandals and the Visigoths, at the beginning of the fifth century AD

This period ended (AD 711), when Roderic, the last Visigothic king in Spain, was defeated by the Muslim invaders from North Africa. They quickly gained control of the greater part of Spain, leaving only a few small Christian states in the north. By the early eleventh century the Christian advance southward started. By 1248 only Granada remained under Muslim control, and it finally fell in 1492, year in which Columbus landed in the new found Indies.

The events of 1492 made it a key year for Spanish history, the reunification of Spain, and the “discovery” of America were the final factors that determine the appearance of the national cuisine.

Following the discovery of America various new foods were brought back to the peninsula, at first some were regarded as fanciful eccentricities, even dangerous. The aggressive red of tomatoes and red bell peppers as well as the bitterness of the black cocoa were thought of as dangerously sensual to the very religious populace. Corn and potatoes were regarded with suspicion because they gave people so much energy (in fact, the introduction of these into the mainstream literally spurred a population explosion, that’s what folks did with all that excess energy!).  These foods which are now staples in most of our daily meals were all considered threatening in their unfamiliarity back then.

Tomatoes were added to the Arab Gazpachos providing sweetness and color. Bell peppers were an ideal receptacle for stuffing, the sweet vanilla from the Caribbean became widely useful for desserts, the powder from the dried peppers was used to produce pimenton which is used in countless dishes, and to cure pork meats such as chorizos.

Chocolate, now widespread throughout the Western world, also came to Europe through Spain. Spanish nuns in Mexico were the first ones to add sugar to cocoa, in the sixteenth century. Cocoa beans were considered so valuable that for a long time was forbidden to export them from Spain to other countries, however, they were included in the dowries of royal marriages. Thus Marie Therese, daughter of Philip IV of Spain, took chocolate with her to Paris when she married Louis XIV of France in 1660 and she is sometimes credited with its introduction to Europe.

By the seventeenth century the basic flavors and components on Spanish cuisine were well established.