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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Preserved fish
Foods From Spain History: Preserved Fish. Phoenician Know-How

Foods From Spain History: Preserved Fish. Phoenician Know-How

Food preserving techniques evolved out of the need to capitalize on surpluses and to prolong the edible life of perishable foods so that they could be eaten later or carried long distances. Fish belong in the second category.

The origin of preserving techniques

In Ancient world, modes of transport were such that the only way that fish could be got to the inhabitants of inland regions and still be edible was if it were preserved in some way. This became even more important after contact with the Phoenicians led to two-way trade of significant dimensions. The southern part of the Iberian Peninsula, from Portugal to the coast of present-day Alicante, specialized in fishing and preserving the many species attracted by the confluence of waters in the Straits of Gibraltar.

The traditional methods used by all cultures for preserving fish and other foods were drying, smoking, immersing in brine, oils or fats, marinading or pickling, frying (in oil, or tallow) or cooking in honey, and even some processes that harnessed the fermentation generated during putrefaction.

The most important methods in Spanish history were marinading or pickling, immersion in brine, and controlled fermentation.

Salting: Phoenician technique, Roman development

Salting: Phoenician technique, Roman development

It is thought highly likely that the important fish salting industry in the south of the Iberian Peninsula dates back originally to early in the first millennium BC. The earliest archaeological evidence of it, however, refers to Phoenician-Punic trade in the Mediterranean from the 8th century BC on. The evidence consists mainly of remains of species indicative of some degree of selectivity, namely of specialized fishing of the almadraba type (using trap nets to catch tuna) at Phoenician-Punic sites such as 1.Castillo de Doña Blanca in Puerto de Santa María (Cádiz), and Phoenician, Greek and Iberian amphorae and other ceramic vessels used for transporting salted fish aboard ship. Considered an indication of the shift from fishing for self-sufficiency to fishing on a commercial scale, these have been found all along the Mediterranean coastal perimeter, dating from the 6th century BC on. Texts written by Antiphanes (408-334BC), Aristophanes (448-388BC), Aristotle (384-322BC), Athenaeus and Eupolis (446-411BC) seem to corroborate recent archaeological 2.findings.

The Phocaean Greeks’ intensive trading in Iberian silver was interrupted by the victory of the Etruscan-Carthaginian coalition (allies of the Phoenicians) at the Battle of Alalia (537BC). The Phocaeans were relegated to the eastern Mediterranean and Tartessan cities, such as Gadir (Cádiz, Andalusia) and Onoba (Huelva, Andalusia), that had lived by silver mining were obliged to diversify and adapt what they produced to the new circumstances. They thus became major suppliers of certain typically Punic products such as fish sauces and salt

Iberian salting industry

An important salting industry seems to have developed in the south-east and south of the Iberian Peninsula, both in Tartessos and in major Iberian trade hubs, particularly from the 5th century BC on. Associated as it was with fishing and the coastal salt-beds, this industry continued after the Roman invasion and enjoyed another commercial boom from the 1st century AD on. How important the salting industry was, from pre-Roman times on, is reflected in evidence of the emergence of other, allied, industries such as salt-beds and pottery. At various levels of industrialization and specialization, there must have been hundreds of production nuclei of this type throughout the south of the Peninsula (there is evidence of about 40, dating from between the 2nd century BC and the 3rd century AD, in the Bay of Cádiz 4.alone).

During the Roman period, the process of preserving fish began out at sea. Some fishing boats were equipped with tanks so that fish could be transported live to the factories (cetariae), where they could be transferred to other tanks for breeding, or processed. The most common manufacturing process consisted of cleaning and cutting up the fish (in fresh water, from the fish-factory’s own cisterns) salting (in troughs containing alternate layers of salt and fish, which remained there for 20 days), seasoning, packing (in amphorae manufactured locally specifically for the purpose) and then selling. Another possible alternative was to transport live fish to the inland regions in wood and lead barrels full of 5.sea water. Fresh fish fetched enormously high prices in inland destinations, but there were customers prepared to pay for certain luxuries, however high the cost.

The tuna period in Spain

Hispania – both pre-Roman and Roman - was famous for various of its products. Outstanding among them were garum sociorum (the fishy condiment made in Carthago Nova/Cartagena by controlled fermentation of sardines and mackerel, covered extensively in the chapter on sauces), salted mussels from Sexi (Almuñécar), red mullet from the Bay of Cadiz and, especially, tuna and bonito.

All the fish of the Scombridae family were considered excellent material for salting because they were fleshy and succulent. Best of all were the tuna and bonito (Orcynus thynnus, Scomber thynnus, Thunnus albacares, Thunnus alalunga, Thunnus thynnus, Thynnus vulgaris and Sarda sarda) that were caught with rod and hook, ‘corral’ drive nets, or fixed nets and maze-like nets. Strabo (63BC-23AD) referred to the bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) as ‘the pig of the sea’ because none of it is wasted.

The decline of the Roman Empire took its toll on trade, and from the 3rd century on there was a decline in the commercial demand for Hispanic fish products. As a result, the big fish factories were converted into little cetariae (fish ponds): this is discernible in the way that tanks become smaller, as do the amphorae in which fish were packed, particularly from the 6th century on, when these industries decreased drastically in number and size and their concentration in centers of population was much reduced. They did not disappear completely, however, because Christianization, with its fasting days and Lent period (which could amount to between 90 and 180 non-meat eating days a year), generated an increase in fish consumption.

Medieval almadraba

During the Middle Age period, the surviving factories continued to produce salt fish. The biggest of them, those in the south and east, fell within the territory of Al- Ándalus after the Muslim conquest in the 8th century. Traditional fishing methods, such as almadraba nets for catching tuna, also continued in use. These preserved fish were a product of some importance, even though the Arabs preferred their fish fresh and fried in olive oil.

The economic importance of fish and of the almadrabas and salting factories is revealed by the significance with which they were invested after the Christian Reconquest. In 1295, King Sancho IV of Castile (1258-1295) granted the privilege of tuna fishing rights from the Guadiana to Gibraltar to Alonso Pérez de Guzmán (1256-1309) (otherwise known as Guzmán el Bueno - founder of the house of Medina-Sidonia, one of the most powerful aristocratic dynasties in 6.Spain), and the almadrabas within his territory contributed hugely to the wealth of this aristocratic family throughout the Middle Ages and the Modern Era. Like the almadrabas (traditional fishing methods video) , salt beds were also prized: Philip II (1527-1598) claimed monopoly over them for the Monarchy, and many of them, allied to the old factories, stayed active for many centuries. The salt beds in Tarifa (Andalusia) remained productive as late as the 19th 7.century.

The cod period in Spain

The cod period in Spain

In 1497, an event occurred that was to change the pattern of fish consumption in Spain from the 16th century on: the discovery of Newfoundland, Labrador and the Gulf of St. Lawrence with its wealth of marine life. Commercial cod fishing was dominated by the British, French, Portuguese and Basques, and the fish very soon found enthusiastic acceptance in Spain.

Cod went down so well with the people of Spain, was so cheap and easily preserved in salt that it put paid to trade in many other types of fish and relegated tuna to second place. Cod has retained its position as Spain’s favorite salt fish from the 16th century to this day, and many popular recipes from both coastal and inland regions feature salt-cod as their main ingredient. There are written references to salt-cod dating from the mid-16th century, when it was known by various names: abadejo, bacalao, bacallar, curadillo and truchuela. It even gets a mention in Don Quixote:

“... (the girls) asked if he would eat anything. — Fain would I break my fast -- replied Don Quixote, - for I think that a little food would be of great service to me.

That day happened to be a Friday, and there was nothing in the inn but some pieces of a fish that in Castile they call abadejo, in Andalusia bacallao, in other places curadillo and elsewhere truchuela.”

A period of economic crisis in the 17th century reinforced consumption of fish, particularly cod, which was half the price of tuna. It was very widely eaten even in Madrid, the part of Spain most distant from the sea. In 1789, three quarters of the fish salted in Spain was cod, and it was sold ready-soaked since people’s houses had no running water. In some parts of the country - Barcelona’s Boquería market, for instance – one can still buy ready-desalted cod today. At times when food was short, even in the 20th century, salt cod was a much relied upon resource. From 1920 to 1939, Spain was the leading importer of cod, and sold 25.4% of world 8.production.

Cod and the Treaty of Utrecht

After the Treaty of Utrecht (1712-1716), Spain was obliged to give up its rights to fish for Newfoundland cod in favor of the British and the Dutch. Spain continued to import cod in large quantities, but as a consequence of the economic difficulties of the first half of the 20th century, relaunched its own national cod industry from 1926 9.on by setting up various companies such as the Unión de Pesquerías y Secaderos de Bacalao de España, S.A. (PYSBE); Industrias Ibéricas del Bacalao; and, after the Civil War, Pesquerías Españolas de Bacalao, S.A. (PEBSA) and Compañía de Pesca e Industrias del Bacalao, S.A. (COPIBA). Spanish salt cod was exported to Brazil, Portugal and the 10.Congo.

Industrial and domestic salting were carried on in parallel. The men caught the cod and the women did the salting: the fish would be lightly salted and left to dry slowly over seven days then washed and left on wooden beams to dry for several weeks. This kind of salt-cod did not even need soaking and could be eaten raw, boiled or fried.

By the same token, from the 19th century on, and especially during Spain’s post-war food shortages in the mid-20th century, consumption of other fish species, considered gastronomically inferior to cod, increased considerably: one example was herring (Clupea spp.), native to the warmer, shallower waters of the North Atlantic and Baltic, which in Spain are eaten salted and pressed.

A brief history of hermetic preserving

A brief history of hermetic preserving

The first significant advances occurred in the 18th century when it was observed that heat and cold curbed the activity of enzymes and infection by pathogenic agents.

From the 1780s on, a preserving method came into use that consisted of boiling a container of food in a bain-marie. In 1810, Nicolas Appert (1749-1841) published L’Art de conserver pendant plusieurs années toutes les substances animales et végétales (Pub. Patris, Paris, 1810).

On the basis of Appert’s researches aimed at solving the difficulties entailed in provisioning Napoleon’s troops, technical advances in preserving foods, and the industry allied to those advances, progressed by leaps and bounds. Potentially, the new preserving methods seemed to offer the perfect solution to keeping towns and cities supplied with all kinds of national, continental and intercontinental products.

Studies conducted throughout the 19th century into improving methods of preserving foodstuffs hermetically relied on three fundamental props: the steam engine and Denis Papin’s (1647-1714) experiments between 1690 and 1707 with heating and achieving a hermetic seal by creating a vacuum; the Appert method of placing food in a glass container with a cork stopper and boiling it; and chemist Louis Joseph Gay-Lussac’s (1778-1850) erroneous counter theories that the presence of pathogens and the presence of oxygen were inter-related. The great revolution was to occur in the 1860s with Louis Pasteur’s (1822-1895) discoveries about germs and sterilizing food. Pasteurization – a vindication of Appert’s theories - had arrived.

Joseph Colin (1784-1848) developed Appert’s preserving methods at his factory in Nantes. In 1822, it produced the first example of canned fish: a tin of sardines. By 1836, it was producing 10,000 hand-soldered cans (each can was much more expensive than what it contained) and canning 80% of all the sardines fished all over the But it was in Spain and Germany that Appert’s preserving methods spread earliest and caught on most firmly; in France, not until 1900 were small industries set up to distribute fresh vegetables from the south to Paris and the north of the country.

In 1818, Spain’s first artisan preserving industry was founded, in 12.Villafranca Del Bierzo (it started producing candied fruit a year before William Underwood (1864-1929) began trading in preserved fruit, cucumbers and sauces in Boston). In 1830, Baron Wilhelm Eberhard Anton von Campen, having heard about Appert’s discovery during a diplomatic mission, successfully used the Appert method to preserve game meat on his return to Brunswick. Such was his success that many of Lower Saxony’s tinsmiths began to try their hand, setting up a canning factory in 1840 that was to expand 13.rapidly. However, the first Spanish factory for preserving fish in airtight cans had already been operating in Galicia since 1836.

In 1848, the Hahn family founded a canning factory in Lübeck for processing deep sea fish. From 1860 on, numerous canning and bottling companies were set up, primarily to supply the troops during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Furthermore, from the 1870s on, the United States capitalized on the agricultural crisis in Europe to export its surpluses, enhancing both trade and the canning and bottling industry in the process. In the latter decades of the 19th century, canning and bottling factories spread throughout Germany (there were 224 by 1906), as they did in the north and south of Spain where they appeared early and developed rapidly, so that by 1910 there were nearly 200 devoted to fish 14.alone.

The sardine period in Spain

The sardine period in Spain

As a result of the loss of fishing rights in Newfoundland imposed by the Treaty of Utrecht, some Catalan fish-salting family businesses turned their attention to the sardine and set up several factories on the Galician coast.

After 1758 when, after protracted negotiations with Spain’s central government, the middle classes of Barcelona succeeded in recovering some of the commercial institutions that had been affected by the War of Spanish Succession (1702-1714), trade in Catalonia flourished once more. Although there is a long tradition of fishing and canning in the region, this commercial renaissance triggered a revolution in Catalonia’s fishing methods and its fish-salting industry that decreased its dependence upon fish from northern 15.Europe.

From the 1750s on, this new sardine salting industry would also lay the economic, nautical, labor, legislative and manufacturing foundations of Galicia’s present-day fishing and canning

In Spain’s Cantabrian coastal provinces (Asturias, Santander, Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa), there was a long tradition of fish-preserving at family firm level, particularly of sardines and marinated sea bream and bonito. In 1885, there were 143 points of manufacture producing these preserves all along the 16.Cantabrian coast. The arrival of Catalan and Italian fish salters in the early 1880s is credited with the fact that an industry known since the 16th century but little-exploited, emerged and developed from that period on: this was anchovy salting, which was to help create the canned and bottled fish industry that became so important in Cantabria and the Basque Country.

Spain’s earliest canned fish - big tins holding 6,61 lb (100 sardines) -bore the legend ‘in the Nantes style.’ Colin believed that safe canning depended on the temperature of the oil in which the sardines were fried. After being fried almost to frazzling point, they were covered in olive oil and the cans were sealed. Early in the 20th century, tongue and key tin-opening systems were invented in the US and Scandinavia and remained in predominant use until easy-open tins were invented in 1959 by an engineer in Dayton, 17.Ohio (USA).

Sardine boom in Galicia


Galicia’s contribution to the canning and bottling sector has been considerable. Early in the 20th century, the region’s Massó Group replaced frying with steaming - a much cleaner and cheaper process. In 1942, it incorporated a gutting line into the manufacturing process; this represented progress on both sanitary and economic fronts, and would later be installed for direct use on fishing boats.

In 1907, there were 780 fishing companies in Spain employing 18,000 people, of whom 16,000 worked in 18.Galicia. Tinned sardines have been the sector’s chief resource for over two hundred years. Until the Spanish Civil War, they were packed in olive oil, but post-war shortages led to this being replaced by ‘vegetable oil’. Over ten years ago, with export enhancement clearly in mind, virgin olive oil was readopted, and fish are also canned and/or bottled al natural (in salt water), in vegetable oil, in marinade (souse), in a variety of sauces and as prepared salads. Meanwhile, there has been remarkable diversification within the sector, which now cans and/or bottles mackerel, tuna, mussels, clams, razor clams, scallops, cockles, octopus, squid and anchovies as well as sardines.


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

Salting: Phoenician technique, Roman development
Garum factory in the Roman town of Baelo Claudia, north of Tarifa, Spain. Licensed under GNU & Creative Commons by Annual.

The cod period
Covers of the Spanish edition (1713), English and Latin edition (1714) of the Treaty of Utrecht. Licensed under PDCreative Commons by RedCoat 10 and Angel Paez.

A brief history of hermetic preserving
King Alfonso XIII visit to fish canning factory Antonio Alonso at the beginning of the 20th C. @Palacio de Oriente.

The sardine period in Spain
Bodegón con arenques, cebolletas, pan y utensilios de cocina. Still life with herrings, spring onions, bread and kitchen utensils. Luis Meléndez (1716-1780), Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain