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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Farmed fish
Foods From Spain History: Fish-Farming. An Ancient Process

Foods From Spain History: Fish-Farming. An Ancient Process

According to Martinez Llopis (1916-2000), the Romans carried out "painstaking fertilization and spawning procedures”. That said we do not really know whether early aquaculture consisted merely of fattening up specimens or also applied rudimentary knowledge of artificial insemination. Today, in broad terms, aquaculture is understood to mean the controlled breeding of aquatic species (fish, molluscs, crustaceans, algae and even amphibians).

The earliest evidence of aquaculture

The earliest evidence of aquaculture

Aquaculture seems to have originated and evolved in China and Egypt, in the third millennium BC. The Phoenicians and Etruscans also engaged in fish-breeding, and so did the Ancient Greeks, as surviving accounts of some of the practices involved reveal. However, it was the Romans that were primarily responsible for developing this activity in the West. Pliny the Elder (23BC-79BC) credits General Lucinius Murena with having invented the fish pond, mentioning that it earned him a lot of money.

Writing halfway through the first century BC, Varro (116-27BC) provides evidence of the existence of fish nurseries in his Rerum Rusticarum, though De re rustica, by Columella (AD 4-70), written in the first half of the 1st century, goes into greater detail.

Roman fish ponds

Fish nurseries became very popular towards the end of the Republic (in the last 75 years of the 1st century BC), becoming rather less so during Augustus’ reign (27BC - 14AD) until subsequent emperors had them built into their villas and the wealthiest noblemen, the so-called patricians, reinstated them as a badge of social distinction. These private ponds, which were sometimes built so as to extend a property as far as the coast, in lakes and rivers, necessitated a specific set of regulations in Justinian's Digest (body of Civil Laws, issued from 529 to 534 by order of Justinian I, Eastern Roman Emperor) to protect public bodies of water and differentiate them from water that could be considered part of a private property. This kind of private fish-farming sought to impress by acquiring some small measure of control over nature or by recreating nature in artificial constructions decorated with seaweed-covered rocks brought from the 2.sea-shore. Fish-ponds were either hollowed out of rock or built up with stone walls using the same special cement used for building aqueducts, a mixture of sand, lime and a special volcanic dust capable of hardening under water.

The ponds could contain sweet or salt water. Among the leading species farmed by the Romans were oyster, carp (which they had introduced into Hispania), trout, mullet, moray and eel. But they also farmed many other river and sea species of both fish and mollusc: sole, turbot, sea bream, red mullet, murex, purpura, scallop… the fish were fed on garum and rotting fish and, when there was nothing else available, other leftovers, 3.figs or bread.

Fish ponds in Hispania

Although Tartessos (the legendary pre- Roman civilization which flourished from around 800 to 500 BC around the present-day cities of Cádiz, Seville and Huelva in Southern Spain) had conducted a lively trade in fish with the Phoenicians, and although aquaculture had probably been practised as early as the second millennium BC, the first references to established fish nurseries within the territory of the Iberian Peninsula date from the Roman period. The Empire's considerable appetite for fish in the first centuries of the Christian era grew to extreme proportions: fish became an important element in Mediterranean trade and it became essential to increase production to meet demand.

The province of Hispania was the main supplier of fish, molluscs and garum (fermented fish sauce) in the Empire as a whole. Overfishing seems to have resulted in certain species becoming scarce and many others being stretched to the limit. In order to guarantee that the demand for certain fish could be met rather than just hoping for the best, the fish were kept, fattened and bred in captivity, using fishponds (piscinae) actually in the factories (cetaria) where they would subsequently be cleaned, cut up, salted, seasoned and packed.

In addition to private ponds, as described above, corrales (enclosures) were also constructed: these were ‘semi-natural’ traps consisting of walls (and, later, nets) installed across sea water inlets, which allowed fish through as the tide rose and then kept many of them trapped as it fell again. The fish could then either be kept alive in the water or the water could be let out. They could then be easily caught (some would even have been left high and dry) or kept for fattening up and breeding. This fishing method was used for centuries preferably along Hispania's Atlantic coastline, because the Mediterranean is virtually tideless.

Fish farms in Spain: a 1,400 year break

Fish farms in Spain: a 1,400 year break

Between the 5th and 19th centuries, Spain's fish farms waned significantly in importance, though Roman fishing - and fish preserving - methods continued in use unchanged but for minor technical refinements. The Romans’ tradition of fish-farming fell into oblivion, though fishponds remained a common feature of many Spanish and European monasteries until the 19th century: river fishermen would present a proportion of their catch to the monks to be kept alive in their 4.fishponds. In the 14th century, it was a monk from Réome monastery (France) that successfully incubated trout eggs gathered from the area of water where the fish were reproducing.

In the 18th century, Spanish royalty used to have freshwater white-clawed crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes), which were considered a great delicacy, sent from Valladolid to Madrid for eating on Fridays and other fast days such as Lent. Until they were actually required, they were kept in pools at Valdemorillo (near Madrid) ,looked after by a family: "They are paid a real which is not enough considering the difficulties under the water and that wild boar from the hills around El Escorial very often seek them out and go to eat them". In order to keep up the supply, it was decided to build a pool in the Casa de Campo (the royal country estate close to Madrid), measuring 82 feet “square, with a stone surround with hollows and holes where they can make their homes and for the bulrushes and other things for spreading on the floor as a 5.bed”.

Research into artificial fertilization

Research into artificial fertilization

The history of aquaculture in Spain features little by way of significant achievements until well into the 19th century. But in 1758, a German researcher named Stephan Ludwig Jacobi (1711-1784) published the first results of his work on artificially fertilizing trout and salmon eggs, and in 1763 an article encapsulating three decades-worth of research appeared in the Hannoversches Magazin. Though influential to some degree, these findings were not translated into practical progress until Show and Bousas’ application of artificial fertilisation in the rivers of Britain, Bousas obtaining 120,000 trout in the river Nith (6.Scotland). A fish factory was set up in Detmold (Germany) in 1837, but did not do well. In 1844, two French fishermen obtained a large quantity of fry for 7.restocking. This fact engaged the interest of a professor of embryology at the College de France, Jean Jacques Coste (1807-1873), who went on to establish a series of fish-farming facilities in Huningue (Alsace, France). In two years, they produced 600,000 trout and fish eggs were distributed throughout 8.Europe.

In the 1850s, the Spanish press took to extolling the benefits of aquaculture and published articles explaining in detail how to make and use devices for farming different species and create ideal reproduction conditions. This information was based on research and practical experiments carried out by 9.Jean Jacques Coste.

19th c. Spanish fish farming research

Naturalist Mariano de la Paz Graells (1809-1898), one of Spain’s most influential scientists, instilled his utilitarian view of science into the Royal Court in Madrid and other institutions in the capital. The publication in 1864 of his Manual práctico de piscicultura (Practical Fish-farming Manual) can be credited with introducing French aquacultural techniques into Spain, triggering the creation in 1866 of Spain's first fish factory (the Laboratorio Ictiogénico de La Granja at La Granja de San Ildefonso, the Royal Family's summer residence in Segovia), and with initiating marine oyster and 10.mussels farming. That same year 1866, first private fish-farm came into operation at the Monasterio de Piedra (Nuévalos, Zaragoza, Aragón), then owned by Juan Federico Muntadas Jornet (1826-1912) whose father had bought it in 1840 after the suppression of the religious orders (also called exclaustration) in 1835. In an outstandingly beautiful natural setting, the owner naturalised brown trout, rainbow trout and white-clawed 11.crayfish in the River Piedra, earning the praise and recognition of his contemporaries although his achievements remained unreported by European publications of the 12.period. In 1866, the owner leased the farm to the Spanish government. Nowadays it is administrated by the regional government of Aragon government in the form of the Centro de Interpretación de la Fauna Piscícola (Fish Species Interpretation Centre), and is dedicated to the production and reproduction of embryonic eggs, fry and fingerlings, and to breeding specimens of brown and rainbow trout to contribute to the repopulation of 13.Spain's rivers.

Solution and revolution in fish farming

Although the first mussel-breeding raft was anchored in the Ría de Arosa (Villagarcía de Arousa, Pontevedra, Galicia) in 1945, it was from the 1960s on that aquaculture, and the industrial fishing sector as a whole, really forged ahead in Spain and the rest of the world. In 1970, aquaculture accounted for 5.3% of the world's fish production; in 2000, it accounted for 32.2%, namely 9.2% annual growth and production worth 14.£104,737. In 2007 it accounted for nearly 50% of the world's fish products destined for use as


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 earliest evidence of fish aquaculture/Roman fish ponds
Roman fish mosaic in Saint Romain en Gal, France. Licensed under Creative Commons by Karl-Heinz Wellmann, Wikipedia

Fish farms in Spain: a 1400 years break
Bodegón con besugos, naranjas, ajo, condimentos y utensilios de cocina. Still life with bream, oranges, garlic, condiments and kitchen utensils. Luis Meléndez (1716-1780), Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Research into artificial fertilization/19th C. Spanish fish farming research.
Old fish nursery at the Royal Palace La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain. ©Félix Lorrio.