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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Preserved vegs & fruits
Foods From Spain History: Preserved Fruit & Vegetables. Then As Now.

Foods From Spain History: Preserved Fruit & Vegetables. Then As Now.

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.

The origin of preserving techniques

The history of preserved foods may well date back to early Man and his use of available natural resources - sun, wind, ice, smoke, salt, honey, oil… - to prevent food from rotting and keep it in an edible condition for as long as possible.

Many traditional methods for preserving fruits and vegetables were already in use in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Most of them have survived (albeit not in industrial form) to the present day: coating or wrapping, drying, fermentation, toasting, salting, immersion in alcohol (wine, distilled liquor), immersion in vinegar, oil or honey, frying in oil, cooking in honey or sugar…

Different preserving approaches are used for fruit and vegetables depending on whether they are intended to be kept for the short, medium or long term. The aim may be simply to protect them physically and delay the natural ripening or rotting process (coating), or alternatively to treat them in such a way that they will still be edible long after harvesting (e.g. canning or bottling).

Nowadays, short-term preservation is achieved by the finely-judged application of industrial cold and the use of wax or paraffin-based chemicals. In Antiquity and the Middle Ages, certain fruits (such as apples and pomegranates) would have been coated in beeswax or resin, or buried one to two meters deep in clay containers carefully sealed to keep air out and thereby prevent them from rotting (a method used for grapes and other fruits).

For longer-term preservation, the most frequently used pre-20th century methods were drying (particularly grapes, plums, figs and peaches...), immersion in vinegar (apples, citrus fruits, peaches, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes...), immersion in oil (olives, peppers…), immersion in distilled liquor (grapes, oranges, lemons, sloes...), cooking in sugar or honey (pulp, jams, jellies, syrups, mermeladas, candied and crystallized fruits of all types, onions, tomatoes, chestnuts, walnuts, flowers, etc.).

Raisins and figs


Raisins and dried figs are two examples of fruit that have traditionally been preserved in the Iberian Peninsula for the past thousand years. Both fruits were common fare during the Roman Empire, and both played an important role in the cuisine of Al-Ándalus; they also served as a calorific reserve for the less well-off until well into the 20th century. Raisins were eaten on their own or as an ingredient in flatbread, sweets and other desserts. Dried figs are still used in many parts of Spain, as they have been for over 13 centuries, to make flat cakes composed of dried figs, honey and walnuts – not only a powerful reserve of calories at times of food shortage, but also very cheap and easy to keep in good condition throughout the year.

A brief history of sugar

A brief history of sugar

Evidence dating from before 10,000 BC has been found of sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum L.) being cultivated in north eastern India. Sugar was known and used in ancient times in India, China and the Far East. Reports of its existence first reached the West in the wake of the expansionist military conquests of 1.Alexander the Great, but it was to be a luxury product that very few could afford. The sugar of that period was not as we know it today, but rather a dark, granular sort of syrup. During the agricultural revolution in the Muslim world (8th – 13th centuries), the Arabs and Berbers imported sugar cane from India for planting as a crop and were the first to establish plantations with their own sugar factories and refineries. Thus cane sugar began to appear in the Iberian Peninsula from the 8th century on, and began to arrive regularly in Europe, via Spain, after the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century. Beyond the confines of al-Ándalus, however, trade in this commodity was desultory even though, from the 11th century on, supplies were augmented by consignments brought back by crusaders returning from the 2.Holy Land.

From the 14th century on, sugarcane plantations in Andalusia, southern Portugal, Cyprus, Crete, Malta and Rhodes acquired economic importance, and after 1420 the Canary Islands, the Azores and Madeira also took it up as a crop. There is doubt as to whether Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) himself first took sugarcane to Hispaniola in 1493 or 1498, or whether it was Pedro de Arranca in 1506. But either way it was introduced so successfully that Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566) mentions the first trapiche (cane sugar mill) for obtaining molasses from cane as early as 1506, and by 1518 there were 20 sugar factories on the island.

Sugar from beet

In 1747, German chemist Andreas Sigismund Marggraf (1709-1782) discovered that sugar was present in other plants such as grapes, chestnuts, potatoes and, especially, 3.beet. His disciple Franz Karl Achard (1753-1821) confirmed this discovery and in 1802, in Lower Silesia, set up the first factory for extracting sugar from beet. In the early 19th century, sugarcane became scarce as a result of blockades imposed by the British engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, and its price rose accordingly. France turned its attention to obtaining sugar from beet on an industrial scale (it being considered almost a necessity by this time).French chemists developed the original Prussian scheme, opening the first French factory in 1811.

Inexplicably, consumption of sugar did not really catch on generally in Europe until the 18th century. In the 19th century, however, demand increased consistently, reaching amazing levels in certain countries by the end of the century: whereas in Spain, sugar consumption was 12.125 lb per person per year around 1900, the figure for France was 33.0693 lb and for the United Kingdom 4.88.1848 lb.

Sugar is an essential ingredient in modern-day sweets, desserts and preserved fruit products such as juices, syrups, candies and jams. It became a partial or total substitute for honey in many sweets in Spain from the 16th century on.

Pre-industrial preserves

Urban growth after the late Middle Ages and into the Modern Era exacerbated the problem of providing adequate food supplies for all inhabitants of towns and cities. Urban life became more difficult than its rural equivalent. Some technical advances were achieved in response to the requirement to guarantee, initially, basic essential foods and, later, abundance and variety in the foodstuffs brought into the towns. Production needed to be made cheaper and more efficient: improved and better-distributed preserved foods represented a possible solution.

There are two major contemporary preserving methods that were developed in parallel: hermetic preserving and artificial cold.

Artificial cold

Chilling is the most ancient method of preserving food. It has been used at every period, nature permitting. Some parts of Spain turned mountain ice and snow into their most prized natural resource: for example, in the 17th century the inhabitants of the little town of Ibi (Alicante, now in the Autonomous Community of Valencia) traded in it as a method of preserving food, becoming famous for their ice creams in the process. Selling snow even became a recognized occupation: neveros (snow-sellers) continued to operate until the end of the 19th century. Natural ice was used in an almost industrial way in some fish factories during the Roman period. The first refrigerators were pits in the ground, protected from the sun, in which ice could be kept during the summer months. Up until the 19th century, the Scandinavian countries used to export ice by sea, keeping it in sawdust and special containers.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, simultaneously with advances in hermetic preserving, experiments were conducted into how to create low temperatures and manufacture ice by varying the temperature and volume of gases.

The fridge era

Mere ‘chilling’ became ‘refrigeration’ in 1834 when Jacob Perkins (1766-1849), a North American inventor, patented an ice-making machine that used ether. However, it turned out to be cheaper to import ice than to make it with the machine. In 1844 John Gorrie (1803-1856) patented a compressed air machine whose surface became cold when the air expanded; this led to his patenting the first refrigerator to use a steam engine to compress and expand air (in the United States in 1851). In 1868, French engineer Charles Tellier (1828-1913) started studying refrigeration using compressed air motors and from 1874 on was able to put his findings into practice in his Auteuil factory manufacturing refrigerating machines to be installed on board 5.ship. This new technique was to make it possible to import all kinds of fresh products into Europe. The first domestic refrigerator was sold by Larsen in the United States in 1913, though “fridges” did not become popular there until Kelvinator produced the first model with automatic controls in 1918. This did not become available in Europe until 1931, when it was sold under the Electrolux brand.

Artificial cold made it possible to conduct international trade in fish, meat, fresh fruit and vegetables throughout the 20th century. Furthermore, since refrigeration is the only preserving method that does not change the essential properties or flavor of foodstuffs, it brought about changes in dietary and eating habits.

Hermetic preserving

Until 1789, the term ‘preserve’ was used only for fruit and flowers candied in sugar. The definition of preserve that appears in the first, 1729, Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (Spanish Royal Academy Dictionary) is as follows: “The composition that is made from certain fruit with sugar or honey, preparing it in such a way that it is preserved". From the 1791 edition on, the definition is extended to include vegetables immersed in vinegar, or pickled.

The present-day meaning - foods prepared and hermetically sealed in containers - does not appear the dictionary until the 1869 edition. The first important advances in this field were achieved during the 18th century when it was observed how heat and cold curbed the activity of enzymes and infection by pathogenic agents.

From the 1780s on, a preserving technique was used that consisted of boiling a tub containing food in a bain –marie.

Throughout the 19th century studies conducted into improving methods of preserving foodstuffs hermetically relied on three fundamental props: the steam engine and Denis Papin’s (1647-1712) 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 the discoveries by Louis Pasteur’s (1822-1895) of the existence of micro-organisms and the effectiveness of sterilizing food. Pasteurization – a vindication of Appert’s theories - had arrived.

Appert’s method

In 1810, Nicolas Appert (1749-1841) published L’Art de conserver pendant plusieurs années toutes les substances animals e végétales (Pub. Patris, Paris, 1810). On the basis of Appert's research, which solved the problems of supplying Napoleon's army, technical advances in food preserving and the industry associated with it developed rapidly. In 1812, Frenchman Peter Durand patented a preserving method for foodstuffs based on the system invented and disseminated (but not patented) by Nicolas Francois Appert in 1795. The possibilities opened up by the new preserving methods were the perfect solution for keeping towns and cities supplied with all types of national, continental and international products.

But Appert's invention was put to best use by Joseph Colin (1784-1848) who, in 1822, produced the first hermetically sealed can of preserved food –a tin of sardines - at his Nantes factory, in France. By 1836, it was already producing 100,000 hand-soldered cans (the container was much more expensive than the 6.contents).

Spain and Germany were the first countries to be influenced by Appert’s preserving methods. In France, it was not until around 1900 that small-scale industries were set up to supply Paris and the north of the country with vegetables from the Routh.

Early 19th C. preserving industry in Spain

In 1818, Spain’s first artisan preserving industry was founded in 7.Villafranca del Bierzo (León, now in the Autonomus Community of Castile León). It began producing candied fruit a year before William Underwood (1864-1929) began dealing commercially in preserved fruit, cucumbers and sauces in Boston).

Around 1850, Spain’s first fruit and vegetable preserving industry was established in Logroño (now in the Autonomus Community of La Rioja), producing canned peaches au natural for sending to 8.Cuba. In Logroño, in 1860, the Trevijano canning and bottling factory was inaugurated: this was one of the most important in the country, supplying the Royal Household and being visited by King Alfonso XIII (1886-1941) in 1903. The newspapers for 1909 report that company also had four other factories in Spain, a total of 1,400 employees, modern machinery, enormous caves for mushroom growing and extensive fruit plantations; furthermore, its products were of a quality that, by that date, had won 57 international 9.prizes. From 1860 on, canning and bottling companies were set up in large numbers in the United States to supply the troops engaged in the American Civil War (1861-1865). Furthermore, from the 1870s on, the United States capitalized on Europe’s agricultural crisis to export its surpluses, thereby triggering a boom in trade and canning/preserving. Italy also developed a thriving canning and bottling industry in the second half of the 19th century, structured around two main products: charcuterie from Bologna and canned tomatoes from Naples and Parma.

By the final decade of the 19th century, two regions of Spain stood out from the rest for their preserved fruit and vegetable industries: La Rioja (with 38 factories and a particular concentration on preserved moron red peppers) and the Balearic Islands.

In the last decades of the 19th century, canning and bottling industries spread through the north and south of Spain where they soon became established and developed rapidly. The growth of this industry necessarily called for equivalent development and mechanization in agriculture.

20th C. Canning

However, in the first decades of the 20th century, the industry’s prime mover would turn out to be Murcia (a quintessential fruit and vegetable growing region) and its response to increased demand from foreign markets.

Hermetic preserving made it possible to supply the population with meat, fish, dairy products, fruit and vegetables in periods of crisis, such as during the two World Wars, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the problematic post-war periods.

At times of economic boom, cooked and precooked preserved products have ceased to be essential foodstuffs and become complementary ones, many of them true delicacies, artisan-made and packed, and aimed at a growing gourmet market.

Modern canned and bottled fruit and vegetables in Spain

The original purpose of these preserves was to make the most of surplus produce by transforming seasonal foodstuffs in such a way as to make them available throughout the year. They were also a good way of making use of undersized, irregularly shaped or flawed produce which could be made into concentrated 10.juices. That said, this industry has developed so hugely that some fruit and vegetables are now grown specifically for canning or bottling, selection for color, shape, size, texture, acidity levels and so on having been made possible by the advances in genetics achieved since the 11.1970s.

Preserving methods can be physical (cold, heat) or chemical (salt, alcohol). The most common ones are coating/wrapping, industrial cold, desiccation or dehydration, boiling/cooking and antiseptics. Coating/wrapping aims to provide protection from external influences such as light, air, moisture… and can consist simply of a protective layer that prevents or attenuates the effects of handling and slows down ripening, or preservation in oil, fat, honey, jelly… Industrial cold is used for refrigerating produce immediately after harvesting, thereby slowing down the decaying process and making long-distance trade possible, and also for creating and dealing in deep-frozen products. Desiccation eliminates 80 - 90 % of the weight of a fruit or vegetable by evaporating the water it contains. Heating at pasteurization temperature (158-176 ºF) changes the product’s original properties but is one of the most effective preserving methods. Finally, various antiseptics and substances that function as bactericides or preservatives in certain situations are also commonly used for preserving fruits and vegetables; these include salt (salting or brine), alcohol, vinegar (pickling), sugar, boric acid, salicylic acid, sulphur dioxide, sorbic acid, and so on. Sugar is used for making syrups, pulps, candied fruits, glace fruits, fruit pastes, jellies, confituras and mermeladas (out of fruits, roots, tubers, vegetables and flowers).

The important juice and soft drinks industry, and the allied industries that process what is left after concentrates (pectins, cellulose, essences, etc) have been extracted, cannot really be categorized within the canning and bottling industry and are better described as industries that overlap with it.

Specialization in Spain

Spain’s modern canning and bottling industry began to take shape in the 1970s, alongside scientific progress in the field of genetics, a rise in the nation’s standard of living, and changing consumer habits. The Spanish industry’s main products at that time were, in descending order of importance: tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, artichokes, peas and runner beans. In 1976, these six products provided the raw material for 90% of Spain’s canning and bottling industry’s output.

As a consequence of the major advances achieved during the 1970s established a tendency in Spain's canning and bottling industry towards specialization. However, the availability of Spain’s copious fruit and vegetable production has also allowed it to demonstrate its huge capacity for adapting to shifts in demand. As a result of big changes in the sector over the last two decades, the current overall picture is, broadly speaking, as follows: in terms of volume, olives account for a quarter of Spain's production of canned and bottled vegetables and fruit (making it the world leader in exports of this product); almost another quarter is accounted for by various canned and bottled tomato products; another quarter by other vegetables (with asparagus prominent among them); and the final quarter by canned and bottled 12.fruit. Seventy per cent of the canned and bottled and processed fruit and vegetables produced in Spain go for export. Around 39% of the value of the sector as a whole is represented by canned and bottled vegetables, with fruit accounting for 32% and the remaining 29% representing canned and bottled tomatoes. Among frozen fruit and vegetable products, the leading product is runner beans (17.3% of the total), followed by peppers (13.4%), peas (11%), broccoli (10.4%), spinach (7.8%) and sweet corn 13. (5.2%). Spain is the leading producer of canned and bottled and processed fruit and vegetables in the EU (with just over a third of the total).


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

A brief history of sugar
Wooden sugar mill from Bolivia, 1700. © SDTB / Foto: C. Kirchner.

Pre-industrial preserves/Hermetic preserving
Bodegón con cajitas de dulces y fruta en vidrio. Still life with sweets cases and cherry preserve. Juan Van der Hamen y León (1596-1631). Permanent collection of the Museo de Bellas Artes de Granada, Spain.

Pre-industrial preserves/Appert's method
Portrait of Nicolas Appert in Les Artisans Illustrés de Foucaud, anonymous woodcut, circa 1841. Licensed under PD Creative Commons by Jean Paul Barbier.

Early 19th c. preserving industry in Spain
End of 19th c. workers preparing the asparagus "bain marie" at Muerza preserve factory, San Adrian, Spain.