Posted by: puebloman | January 15, 2009

Andalucian food – a quick history

The Phoenicians around 1100 B.C created the first Andalucian city of Cadiz, planted the first grapevines near Jerez and introduced the olive tree to Spain. The Carthaginians developed olive production throughout the region in the 7th century B.C., and Andalucia later became the primary source of olive oil for the Roman Empire.

The Arabs invaded via Gibraltar in the eighth century and began to restore the region from the post Roman devastation and decay it was suffering under the Christian Goths. Eight further centuries under Islam would see Andalucia rise to a pinnacle of civilization and tolerance that would shine a beacon of light into medieval Europe, benighted as it was by Christian superstition and ignorance. The Moors designed and built the irrigation systems – the ‘huertas’ of Andalucia, creating great irrigated farms and cash crop systems that are still evident today. They introduced an array of foodstuffs and spices, making a huge impact on the Spanish diet. For example they successfully introduced and cultivated rice and durum wheat – the basis of pasta – later exported to Italy. Oranges, lemons, aubergine, almonds, dates, peaches, apricots, quinces and, of huge significance, coffee, were all introduced by the Moors. Their impact on the culinary traditions of the region can also be seen in the number of Spanish dishes flavoured with exotic spices like cumin and saffron.

The Moors were expelled after the fall of Granada in 1492, the Dark Age of Christianity finally enveloped Europe, and the Spanish ‘Golden Age’ began as Columbus set sail. The Spanish Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, made one great contribution to Spanish cuisine and that was the promotion of pig as the meat of first choice for the faithful. This was done to ensure that the now persecuted Moslems and Jews could never return to the region and eat meat. Although pork has been reared in Andalucia for at least 2000years, pig eating now became a sign of adherence to the true faith. Anyone who could eat pork without retching was deemed to be a real Christian. Olive cultivation suffered at this time since it was seen as Islamic, and therefore denigrated. The medicinal and health virtues of olive oil over pig fat were suppressed in Spain until well into nineteenth century for the same reason. Today the ritual matanza or slaughter of pigs still takes place on the eleventh day of the eleventh month (November), and the skill and inventiveness of the cooks and butchers is said to use every part of the pig, leaving ‘nothing but the squeak’.

It is said that Columbus’s ships, as they began the voyage that would discover America, passed the ships containing Jews and Moslems on their way to exile. Columbus’s botanic discoveries had a great impact on the Spanish diet. The expulsion of the Moors had broken long standing cultural links with the spice trade and it was part of Columbus’s task to re establish that connection in the hands of a Christian. He failed to find the route to the old spice trade but established a new one that offered substitutes. Chilli became a substitute for pepper for example. Both chilli and black pepper are called ‘pimiento’ in Spanish. The conquest of the south Americas after 1492 also brought many staple vegetables to the Spanish kitchen including hot and sweet peppers, yams, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes and avocados. The haricot bean began to replace the traditional broad bean at this time. Tobacco was also discovered. The fortunes of the cocoa bean, thought to be a useless currency token, were transformed when Cortes brought back Aztec machinery in 1528 that could turn it into chocolate.

These are the great influences on Andalucian cuisine that have created its richness and diversity. However, the Andalucian kitchen owes a lot not only to the Arabs and geography, but also to the weather and the lack of firewood. Andalucian homes did not have indoor ovens because it was too hot, and most cooking was stove-top. Kitchens usually had a poyo, a stone counter surfaced with tiles, running along one wall with inset hornillas or burners and an ash box underneath, there being no chimney to take smoke away. Very little firewood existed so fuel sources often consisted of olive pits, dried grape twigs, or picón, a pencil-sized charcoal made by smouldering bush branches which burns relatively free of smoke. Andalucian preparations simmered on these dying fires for long periods of time.

The poverty of the great majority of the people is also a significant element of Andalucian cuisine. The rich soups, stews and paellas found all over Spain today began as the staple diet of peasant communities, surviving on home grown vegetables and meat bones stewed for hours to eke out very ounce of flavour.

Today the Axarquia is the fruit basket of Andalucia, and the coast its frying pan. The distinctiveness of its cuisine is the result of a combination of the superb quality of its raw materials and great economy, resourcefulness and inventiveness in their use. Spanish cuisine owes much to the past poverty of its population, most recently the decades of extreme deprivation suffered by millions under Franco’s repressive regime.

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