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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Fresh meats
Foods from Spain History: Fresh Meat, from Prehistory to the Modern Times

Foods from Spain History: Fresh Meat, from Prehistory to the Modern Times

Fresh meat is the meat that has not undergone any preserving process other than chilling, freezing or quick-freezing, included meat that is vacuum-wrapped or wrapped in a controlled atmosphere.

Meat in prehistory

Meat in prehistory

The more we discover about early man, the closer to civilization is the evidence we find of his eating carrion and human flesh, not in a ritualistic way but as just another foodstuff. In other words, no food of any kind was disdained until at least 3500 BC.

The animal species that he hunted, as depicted in the cave paintings of the Iberian Peninsula, were principally mammoth, deer, reindeer, elk, horse and buffalo. Dogs were one of the first species to be domesticated, probably to provide help in hunting down other species. From the 6th millennium BC on, as domestication and settlement in the Iberian Peninsula progressed, hunting gradually waned, surviving only as a luxury or subsistence activity. Both dog and horse (the latter became domesticated around 3500BC) ceased to be eaten regularly once they had been domesticated since they served man far more efficiently in other ways. The same was true of asses and oxen, which served as draught animals, and other bovine species, which gave good milk. Slaughtering a head of livestock was something that was done only in exceptional circumstances since the live animal was a fount of wool (in the case of sheep), milk and young that could be eaten.

Meat in the Ancient World

The Greeks’ attitude towards meat-eating was representative of that of the Ancient World. Horse, ass and dog meat were not habitually eaten, these animals perhaps being protected by taboo to serve nobler functions. The meat of hunted species was considered too dry to make good eating, and of the four basic species used for food - sheep, goat, cow and pig - only this last was used primarily for 1.human consumption.

The common game species that were eaten in the Ancient World continued to be a food resource for many centuries: pigeon, duck, swan, rabbit, hare, wild boar, deer, fallow deer, wild ass, mountain goat, pheasant, partridge, quail, guinea fowl, turtledove, peacock, crane, stork, flamingo, songbirds, seagull, pelican, fox, stone marten, mole, dormouse, cat…

Foie for the patricians

When the Roman Empire was at its most glorious, Roman nobles, the so called patricians, ate all sorts of animal species - including the most exotic, and regardless of taste - purely for ostentatious effect. In the case of some common species, such as pigs, they produced variations by rearing them in a particular way: some were fed exclusively on dried figs, wine and honey so that their meat took on a special flavor and their livers became enlarged (later to be eaten as a sort of delicious foie gras). The same technique was applied to goose liver, which would then be soaked in honeyed milk to create an expensive pâté. To ensure that specimens of some of the most desirable game species were always available, farms were created where they were raised more or less free-range. The Romans could also be said to have hybridized species in their quest for gastronomic satisfaction.

However, the meat generally to be found in the marketplace was still made up of certain game species, lamb, beef and pork (this last being the most highly regarded). Within the Empire a strict set of rules governed the sale of meat, requiring abattoirs to be located in the poor quarters of town centers, and displayed cuts of meat to be sold within 24 hours of slaughter (2.48 hours in winter). Much of the meat was imported from the Iberian Peninsula.

The Iberians’ diet seems to have consisted basically of bread, and wheat or barley flour 3.porridge; when they did eat meat, young goat, was the meat of choice. Strabo (64BC-24AD) comments that in Turdetania "there is an abundance of livestock of many kinds and of game", and Titus Livy (59BC-17AD) reports that "in Lusitania and Celtiberia, livestock constitutes the basis of", the Peninsula’s towns being predominantly stockbreeding rather than agricultural. In other words, as well as being a major exporter of preserved fish, cereals, honey, wine and oil, Hispania was one of the Roman Empire's principal sources of meat.

Cultural attitudes to meat in the Middle Ages

From the 8th century on, three distinct religion-led cultures coexisted in the Iberian Peninsula: the Christian (amalgamating inherited Roman and Visigothic elements), the Jewish and the Muslim. The Gothic diet had its origins in a meat orientated culture; roast meat - both game and domestic livestock- was the principal food of the wealthy. The Muslims, meanwhile, ate a more varied diet and their gastronomy was altogether more sophisticated. Furthermore, they achieved greater advances in stockbreeding and farming techniques. Although they concentrated primarily on horses, for use in war, and on draught animals, they also capitalized on species that were a source of food. For religious reasons, as pork eating was forbidden to Muslims, the pig herd in the territories of Al-Ándalus diminished drastically, while the number of head of sheep increased. In Christian territories, too, there were more sheep than cows and pigs; the demand for their wool made sheep a mainstay of the Castilian economy and turned Castile into a power of world-wide relevance by the late Middle Ages. Pigs were plentiful in the dehesas (wooded scrubland) and hillsides of the southern submeseta, as were cows and along the Cantabrian coast (along the Northern part of the Iberian Peninsula).

Meat consumption patterns and religion

No type of meat was disdained by the Christians; pork-eating was forbidden to Muslims; Jews were forbidden to eat camel, rabbit, hare, pig, wild boar, mollusks, crustaceans and fish without fins or scales. Furthermore they must not ingest a single drop of blood and (for religious reasons) must guard against eating any grubs that might lurk in fruit, vegetables and pulses.

Although Christianity featured no food-related taboos as such, it did impose a culture of fasting that prohibited meat-eating during Lent and on many other days such as Fridays and festivals throughout the year. On a total of 181 days a year, Christians were required to abstain from meat-eating, which also stood metaphorically for sexual activity.

Specialist butchers’ shops and butchers existed in the Middle Ages so that the faithful could eat meat that complied with the strictures of their particular religion. Close control was exercised over butchers, especially after the 1490 laws, because meat tended to be heavily taxed. The regulations by which it was governed were urban in origin and served a double purpose: taxation control and food hygiene, with particular attention to keeping meats of different species and different qualities separate. In the Modern Era (from 1453 on), after all the Al-Ándalus territories had been reconquered by the Christians, butchers’ shops were forbidden to practise the methods of slaughter required by the Koran in a bid to force Muslim conversions to Christianity.

Meat consumption in the Middle Ages in Spain

Meat consumption in the Middle Ages in Spain

In the 11th century, the Kingdom of Castile entered a period of economic growth particularly intense from the 14th century on. Castile's reconquest of new territories in the south of the Peninsula depopulated the North as people emigrated southwards, though the south nevertheless remained inadequately populated. The vast uninhabited areas thus created fostered the practice of transhumance and the predominance of stockbreeding over 5.agriculture.

Figures obtained for just seven Andalusian municipalities dating from the late 15th and early 16th centuries clearly illustrate just how much livestock there was in Spain at that time: sheep, 79,284; cows, 24,040; goats, 16,088; pigs, 6.11,552. The significance of these figures is highlighted by comparing them with livestock numbers for the province of Jaén as a whole for the year 2000: sheep, 311,064; cows, 32,257; goats, 52,705; pigs, 7.104,757. A rough calculation allows us to compare these partial historical figures with present-day totals. Supposing that the seven principal municipalities represented 75% of the total livestock in the kingdom of Jaén, it would be reasonable to conclude that the number of head of sheep and goats in that area 500 years ago was about one third of the present-day figure, the number of head of cattle about the same, while there were nearly eight times fewer pigs, Jaén being traditionally Muslim and pork a prohibited food. Bearing in mind that around 1500 the population of the former Kingdom of Jaén would have been around 80,500 (about eight times fewer than in 2000, when the census for Jaén province returned a total of 8.645,711 inhabitants), it becomes obvious that there were many more head of livestock per capita than there are today.

Not just meat

In general terms, far more meat was eaten during the Middle Ages than might be imagined, and certainly much more than during the Modern Era, though little of it would have been eaten fresh because of poor hygiene. Rather, it would have been dried, salted, pickled, or minced up and spiced and made into some kind of sausage. Even so, livestock was used more for its milk, its wool and its hide than for meat.

Municipalities, especially towns and cities, were required to provide a guaranteed food supply for their inhabitants. To that end, a system was established in the Middle Ages that lasted until well into the 19th century, of depots, run by supply administrators, for consumer products categorized as essentials (such as meat). Meanwhile, the municipalities leased out points of sale, provided ready access to pastureland for livestock, set prices and provided abattoirs for the slaughter of 9.livestock.

Meat in the Modern Era in Spain

Meat in the Modern Era in Spain

In the Modern Era, meat-eating continued to reflect social stratification, but also reflected the breakdown of the class system as wealth began to challenge nobility as a signifier of status: top civil servants, municipal oligarchs and members of the bourgeoisie (some of convert stock) acquired the same gastronomic privileges as the nobility and 10.clergy. While the well-off classes ate fresh meat, the lower orders could barely afford entrails and scraps such as lights (offal), feet, head… However, it was not only buying power that influenced meat-eating patterns: differences in the farming and livestock structure of each district, the effects of demographic change, and the quantity of livestock within each region also made their mark. The Middle Ages seem to have been the period when most meat was eaten, fostered by the extensive application of the sylvopastoral system. In the Modern Era, the population increased and meat-eating became less accessible to the lower strata - not only in Spain but in Europe as a whole - between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Choicest meat in Spain

Castrated merino ram was considered the choicest 12.meat, and was the most expensive. Next in order of preference came castrated goat, heifer calf and pig. Salaried workers could occasionally treat themselves to cheap meat such as lamb and mutton, and meat obtained from non-castrated male animals and old cows, in addition to offal. Pork was eaten less often fresh than salted or in the form of charcuterie: the first known recipe using fresh pork does not appear until 13.1599.

In order of quality, domestic meat was preferred to wild, young specimens to old, males to females, castrated to uncastrated; outer meat was preferred to inner, fore-quarter meat to hind-quarter, and meat from the right side was preferred to that from the 14.left.

Poultry-meat was also much enjoyed though there is little relevant data available. The pattern of consumption is difficult to establish since there was no requirement for poultry to be registered. Chicken and a delicious new creature from America - the turkey - were the favorites. Turkey soon caught on and was widely eaten. The first Old World naturalist to set eyes on a turkey and record the experience was 15.Fernández de Oviedo (1478-1557), in its Sumario de la Natural Historia de las Indias (Compound of Natural History of the Indies) published in 1526, shortly after the conquest of the Indies to which he had traveled via New Spain (Mexico). The Spanish encountered wild turkeys in abundance in all the territories that today make up the United States, Mexico and Central America as far as Panama. Peacocks from Asia had been eaten as a luxury in Spain, but this American relation was tenderer and better flavored. The American turkey reached Spain early in the 16th century and its reputation and consumption grew as that century wore on. The Jesuits introduced it into France and the rest of Europe in the late 16.17th century.

Spanish livestock travels to America

Spanish livestock was soon taken to the Americas. Goats adapted well to the colder climate but the same could not be said of sheep; rabbits, cockerels and hens were also exported. Pork was eaten in quantity, and pigs even survived having escaped into the wild. But the species that adapted most readily were horses (the most numerous) and cattle (the most hardy). Cattle were so abundant in certain regions that they ranged free and ownerless, serving as a source not only of food but also of raw material for all kinds of leather items (ropes, beds, 17.chairs...)

The 19th century: from transhumance crisis to industrial stockbreeding

The 19th century: from transhumance crisis to industrial stockbreeding

From 1880 on, the importance of transhumant livestock (for centuries an essential prop of the Castilian economy) having been undermined by the collapse of wool exports, the industrialization of livestock-derived products began. This would have been impossible had it not been for an increase in the demand for meat and the adoption of certain key technical advances. Particularly in the northern half of Spain, salaries rose by a proportion well above the increase in the price of bread so that people could afford to consume more meat and milk. The pattern of animal husbandry was also influenced by the fact that, of necessity, agriculture became more intensified and therefore required more draught animals (especially horses and mules). In Barcelona, for example, meat consumption increased by 62% between 1898 and 1935, rising from 46 lb of meat per person per year in 1898 to 75 lb of meat per person per year in 1935 (in other words, the average daily meat ration per person went up from 0,12 lb to 18.0,20 lb): this was about 50% less than the meat consumption of a North American or Frenchman during the same period, but on a par with that of inhabitants of other Mediterranean 19.countries.

A century of technical changes

For these changes to occur, it took advances in farming methods (irrigated intensive crops, larger areas dedicated to fodder plants, the use of fertilizers and mechanized farming) and technical advances in biology as applied to livestock: experimental crossbreeding with other European breeds, with a particular focus on milk production in the case of cows and meat production in the case of pigs. The need for meat to be preserved, and increased consumer demand, encouraged some charcuterie manufacturers to mechanize their production processes. To give just one example, the adoption of steam-driven machinery for cutting, mincing and stuffing increased production of lean pork by 2,000% in 60 years (1850 to 20.1910).

In the course of the 19th century, concern for food hygiene also came to the fore and new preserving techniques appeared that changed food production and consumption patterns. New food hygiene measures were developed (e.g. the 1869 laws regulating pig 21.slaughtering; the pig abattoir built at Madrid’s Puerta de Toledo). In cooking, the emergent middle classes combined traditional peasant foodways with urban ones, creating what later became known as ‘home cooking’: traditional stews consisting of pulses or potatoes cooked with various types of meat, and other more elaborate dishes descended from a more 22.elitist cuisine.

The 20th century: from traditional stockbreeding crisis to ecological approach

The 20th century: from traditional stockbreeding crisis to ecological approach

The industrialization of production did not really get underway in Spain until the 1930s, and even then it was nipped in the bud by the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent recession in the livestock sector during the 1940s. From 1950 on, Spanish breeds were frequently crossed with foreign ones and significant technical and biological advances were achieved. This combination produced animals whose energetic output was greater (and whose maintenance also required greater energetic input). Energetic productivity grew at an average rate of 4% a year from 1950 to 23.1984. After 1980, however, a change of approach curbed the excesses of industrial stockbreeding (blamed for the situation labeled ‘the traditional stockbreeding crisis’), and moved in the direction of reinstating animal husbandry of a more rational, extensive, natural and traditional style. Since the 1990s, the legal framework has been in place for the practice of ecological stockbreeding: this concept excludes intensive production methods, artificially induced oestrus, genetic engineering, synthetic medical treatments and the use of hormones.


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).

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

Meat in prehistory
View of a doe in the New Cave at Altamira. Pedro Saura ©Museo Nacional y Centro de Investigación de Altamira, Ministerio de Educación,Cultura y Deporte, Spain

Meat in the Ancient World
Boar sacrifice on a 4th BC terracotta vase attributed to the Tarpoley painter. Museo Arqueológico, Madrid, Spain. Licensed under Creative Commons by Jastrow.

Meat consumption in the Middle Ages in Spain
Butcher shop. Tacuinum Sanitatis, ca.1400, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, France. Licensed under PD Creative Commons by Sailko.

Meat in the modern Era
Bodegón con chuletón, condimentos y recipientes. Still life with Tbone steak, condiments and recipients. Luis Meléndez (1716-1780), Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

The 19th C. from transhumance crisis to industrial stockbreeding/A century of technical changes
New abattoir in Madrid, 1929, José Gaspar i Serra. Licensed under Creative Commons by

The 20th C. from traditional stockbreeding crisis to ecologica approach
Cattle fair in Salgueriños, Santiago de Compostela, Spain, 1970. IGP Ternera Gallega.