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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Charcuterie
Foods From Spain History: Charcuterie Through The Ages

Foods From Spain History: Charcuterie Through The Ages

Charcuterie dates back to man’s earliest discovered methods of preserving and seasoning meat to prevent it from rotting, making use of every scrap of the slaughtered animal and obtaining a long-lasting source of fats and proteins.

Brief etymology

In the course of the last century, the word charcutería (borrowed from the French charcuterie) completely ousted the traditional Spanish terms chacinería and salchichería. Chacinería is in fact a broader category that embraces salted meats, such as dried beef and cured ham, as well as 1.sausages.

The history of salted pork products is dealt with extensively in the Serrano ham and Ibérico ham sections, so this chapter is concerned exclusively with traditional sausage-making.

To make sausages, three essential elements are needed: meat (including blood, entrails, fat and lard), gastrointestinal tracts (the small intestine, the large intestine and the caecum, which give each sausage its girth and shape) and flavorings (which include spices, vegetables, nuts, truffles, potato, rice, various types of flour, bread, milk, eggs, cream, fruit, honey, blood albumen, milk casein and 2.gelatins).

The most widely-used, most suitable meat for sausage making is pork, though they are also made from meat derived from other animals (wild boar, venison, beef…) or from a mixture of pork and other types of meat.

Ancient Greece: origins of sausage-making

Sausage making may well have originated in various parts of Neolithic Europe at around the same time, but the only reliable available evidence relates to the already sophisticated traditional sausages of Ancient Greece (1100-146BC). These included sausages made by stuffing a casing with chopped up pork, and blood sausages of the black pudding type. Lower down the quality scale were sausages made with other meats such as ass and Curiously, a black-pudding maker plays an important role in Aristophanes’ (448-388BC) 4.The Knights.

There is no evidence to prove that sausages were manufactured in the Iberian Peninsula before the Roman conquest (17BC), but it is almost certain that they would have been made by the Celtic and Iberian tribes. Not only were they big pork-eaters and experts at salting techniques but they would also have learned sausage-making skills through their contact with the Phoenicians late in the 2nd millennium BC and the Greeks in the 8th century BC.


The expansion of Roman trade

The ritual matanza (pig slaughter) and the making of sausages and other meat products are portrayed in Roman sculpture: the Iberian Peninsula was renowned throughout the Empire for producing fine pigs and charcuterie. A charcuterie-maker was known in Latin as a suarius (a blanket term that signified both pig-breeder and supplier of belly pork and, one imagines, all other pork products), or lardarius 5. (seller of lardos, or sheets of salted belly pork).

Sausages in general were known as botulus (from which ‘botulism’ – the name of the illness caused by inadequately preserved foodstuffs – was later taken), or its diminutive botellus. Blood sausages of the black-pudding type were known as botuli, and one of the Iberian Peninsula’s most characteristic sausages, the botillo, typical of the El Bierzo region (León, Castile –León), clearly derives its name from the same source. Non-blood sausages were known as farcimina and what they contained and how they were made and cooked is explained in recipes in Apicius famous cookery It describes how pig intestines were stuffed with chopped meat, fat, egg, spices, offal, and so on, and how they were smoked and cured; readers are also informed that they could be eaten boiled, roasted or cooked over the fire. From this we can infer that the manufacturing method has stayed the same for at least 2,500 years, and that the ingredients, too, have changed very little, even now varying from region to region and one type of charcuterie to another.


The Middle Ages: the luxury of eating pork

The Middle Ages: the luxury of eating pork

In the Middle Ages, scarcity and unhygienic conditions meant that meat was rarely eaten fresh. Despite the fact that meat was beyond the reach of most of the population except to mark the occasional feast day, the meat they did eat would have been preserved in the traditional manner, namely salted or in the form of sausages. The occupants of convents and monasteries were among the more frequent eaters of preserved meat of this kind: they had enough space in which to keep and feed pigs, and capitalized on them to keep the larder stocked with meat throughout the year. There were also communal herds in some places which were generally allowed to graze on municipal land.

By this period, the matanza (annual pig slaughter) had become something of an institution in many rural towns and villages. As well as being an occasion for a communal get-together and an expression of solidarity, the matanza was a sacrificial 7.rite whose history stretched back to the earliest times when pork was first eaten, pigs being regarded as totemic animals associated with the origins of the gods. The matanza had evolved as a pagan ceremony, later maneuvered by the Catholic Church so that it took place on a date of suitable significance in the ecclesiastical calendar – Saint Martin’s Day on 11th November. The slaughter man stands for the figure of the high priest and his assistants – all men - are the acolytes, who hold down and cut up the pig. The women’s tasks are to keep things clean and do the cooking, seasoning, marinating, salting and sausage-making. An example of this division of labor is provided by a 16th century book by an unknown author entitled Manual de mugeres en el qual se contienen muchas y diversas reçetas muy buenas 8. (Manual for women in which are contained many very good and varied recipes). The sausages they made and the other cuts of meat would be kept for high days and holidays. The pig also symbolized the sinful carnality of the Carnival, another religious festival charged with pagan reminiscences as opposed to the penitence displayed during Lent.

16th –- 19th centuries: Spanish sausages go red

16th – 19th centuries: Spanish sausages go red

The most important difference between pre- and post-16th century Spanish sausages is that many of the later ones contain a new ingredient destined to become a basic in much of Spain’s cuisine: the type of paprika known as pimentón. This marvelous condiment enhanced the keeping properties of cheeses and charcuterie, added flavor and color, and furthermore could be used to disguise certain signs that meat was going off. The tradition of adding pimentón (in its two most extreme types: sweet or hot) to many Spanish sausages is still very much alive today, and can be thanked for originating what is now perhaps Spain’s most characteristic sausage - the chorizo - which was taken up all over the country, particularly in the 18th century. Today, only one region of Spain does not use pimentón in any of its traditional sausages – Catalonia’s classics are seasoned with just salt and pepper.

This period, too, saw the invention in Andalusia of lamb meat sausages, which are still made today. These were thought up by Jewish converts to avoid being denounced for not eating sausages while remaining within the strictures of the faith to which they still secretly adhered.

Like all meat products, sausages remained a food that only the privileged few could enjoy. Banquets held by the successive courts of modern Spain made much of the nation’s varieties of sausage, though inevitably they were outshone by hams and game. Charles IV (1748-1819) was a prolific eater of chorizos, a fact celebrated by the inclusion of the figure of his supplier in a famous tapestry by Francisco Bayeu (1734-1795).


The industrialization process

The industrialization process

Until the closing decades of the 19th century, nearly all pork-derived products were made from the meat of the native, Ibérico, breed of pig. Pork products began to become more generally accessible in the towns and cities after specialized municipal abattoirs were opened. In the first thirty or so years of the 20th century, certain pork products and sausages started to become available to the masses. Village matanzas continued to take place in Spain right up to the end of the 20th century, surviving alongside a meat industry that grew consistently from the 1950s on, after white pigs had been introduced and become widespread. Interestingly, cookery books produced after 1950 no longer contain sausage-making advice and One of the fundamental differences in certain industrially produced sausages is the fact that synthetic cases replace the traditional natural ones.

Nearly every place in Spain, however small, has its own traditional sausages. The main sausages made and eaten in Spain are morcillas (blood sausages or black puddings, made with blood, fat and, depending on location, spices, onion, potato, rice, fruit, nuts, vegetables, and so on); chorizos and morcones (made with chopped lean meat, belly pork and pimentón); salchichas (uncooked sausages made with lean meat, belly pork, salt and pepper); salchichones and longanizas (cured sausages made with lean meat, belly pork, salt and pepper); and sobrasadas (sausages for spreading, made with a roasted paste of meat, belly pork and pimentón).


Enrique García Ballesteros, (BA in Early Modern and Modern History and MA in Communication and Journalism) is a Spanish historian, writer and journalist. He has published over a hundred scientific and general interest articles on history and the media in prestigious magazines such as Historia National Geographic and La Aventura de la Historia. He has also authored biographies, interviews and book reviews for major institutions and the Spanish press. He is a regular contributor to the Spanish national daily newspapers El Mundo and Público (now online version only).

Research coordination: María del Carmen Simón Palmer, has a phD in history and is a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council, CSIC. She is a member of the governing body of the Real Academia de Gastronomía. Her published works include: La cocina de Palacio (1591-1932), (Castalia, 1997) and Bibliografía de la Gastronomía y Alimentación en España, (Trea, 2003).

Translation: Hawys Pritchard, M.A. (University of London) is a freelance translator currently based in Wales and Mallorca. Her work has appeared in various books and magazines (including Spain Gourmetour) that reflect her interest in food, wine, travel, art and architecture.

Photo credits

The Middle Ages
The Sala family gathering in 1908 for the pig slaughter in Castellfollit de la Roca, Girona, Spain, which since the Middle Ages until mid 20th C. was a family affair. Museu de'l Embotit, Girona, Spain.

16th- 19th Century: Spanish sausages go red
Bodegón con chorizos, jamón y recipientes. Still life with chorizo sausages, ham and pots. Luis Meléndez (1716-1780), Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

The industrialization process
1906 advertising poster for Salchichón de Vic. ©Casa Riera Ordeix, Vic, Spain.