Growing legumes as a crop seems to have resulted from human beings capitalizing on Nature’s mistakes. As part of their reproductive system, wild leguminous plants explode their pods to expel the seeds they contain; the first men to cultivate these plants made use of the genetic errors that caused a few specimens to fail to explode so that the seeds remained within their pods and were easily gathered.
From the dietary point of view, legumes are among the ‘best value’ foods that Nature has to offer: in return for a few seeds and the effort expended in sowing and harvesting them, they yield energy and nutrients in abundance. This fact, taken in conjunction with archeological data, suggests that they might well have been cultivated even earlier than cereals were (namely, over 10,000 years ago), though the earliest evidence of domestication discovered so far dates from only 8,000 years ago. The seeds of legumes are rich in proteins, carbohydrates and mineral salts. In addition to their high calorific content, they can be stored for long periods, making them one of mankind’s most important foodstuffs. Cereals, that other great dietary prop throughout our history, do not themselves provide essential amino acids, but in combination with legumes constitute an excellent diet, needing only the vitamins provided by fresh fruit and vegetables to make it complete. For thousands of years, then, legumes have been the perfect substitute for meat – indeed they have sometimes been referred to as ‘poor man’s meat’.
Legumes can be consumed in many ways: though mainly eaten fresh, some along with their pod, they can also be macerated or salted in brine; dried, then boiled as a soup or stew, dried, then made into a flour used for purées, gachas (savory porridge) and bread; and they can also be roasted or fried.
As is the case with many other basic foods, legumes have been rejected in periods of prosperity and spurned by the better-off social groups. Since the dawn of civilization, more than any other foodstuff, eating legumes has been associated with poverty. They have also served as an indicator not only of socio-economic differences, but also of the differences between town and country (which is where they were eaten in greatest quantity).
Plants belonging to this family are known as “pulses” in English, “legumes” in the USA and legumbres in Spanish: these last two words are derived from the Latin verb lego (pick, gather, select), intrinsically suggestive of physical work. That the Romans looked on legumes as food for the poor, or laborers (faber), is demonstrated in puns on the Latin word for bean (1. faba).
At times when cereals were in short supply, pulse flour was used as a substitute. Bread such as the Romans’ lomentum was made from dried bean flour. The same name – lomentum - was also sometimes applied to unleavened wheat bread. Unleavened bread (namely bread made without yeast, of which pulse-flour bread is an example) is charged with meaning in the Judeo-Christian tradition in that it recalls the bread eaten by Moses and the Jews during their Diaspora, and it is also the basis for the Christian communion wafer. During periods of food shortage, all foods that could be turned into flour -among them cereals, legumes and certain nuts and dried fruits - were called into service to make 2.bread. In other words, any flour and water dough that was then baked in an oven was referred to a ‘bread’ and, by extrapolation, the word ‘bread’ was used for all the dietary basics. Besides bread, the other typical ‘poor man’s food’ was gachas: basically, this was a flour and water mush that could either be roasted with oil or enriched with milk (and might occasionally contain bits of pork fat, meat or charcuterie): gachas could also be savory or sweet.
There are other practical reasons for the widespread cultivation of legumes: the plants are very sturdy, fast-growing, adaptable and useful for restoring ‘tired’ soils. This latter point has always been particularly important. Legumes increase the proportion of nitrogen in the soils in which they are grown because they fix it in the soil. This makes the soil more fertile, thereby improving production of cereals subsequently grown in the same plot. This explains why alternating cereal and legume crops are so beneficial – this technique of crop rotation was used particularly in Europe in the Middle Ages.
The principal legumes are: grass peas (Lathyrus sativus L.) (whose many Spanish names - including almorta, aizkol, alverjón, arveja, arvejo, arvejote, bicha, cantudo, cayreta, cicércula, chícharo, chicharro, diente de muerto, fríjol de yerba, garbanzo de yerba, guija, guixa, guixe, guixera, muela, pedrarol, pedrol, pedruelo, pinsol, pito and tito reflect the scale of its consumption in Spain. One of the names by which it is known in France is lentille d’Espagne (Spanish 3.lentil); broad, or fava, beans (Vicia faba); peas (Pisum sativum L.); white lupin (Lupinus albus L.); lentils (Lens culinaris); chickpeas (Cicer arietinum L.); common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), whose many names include haricot, string and French beans; soya beans (Glycine max L.); peanuts, or groundnuts (Arachis hypogaea L.); carob (Ceratonia siliqua) and alfalfa (Medicago sativa).
Although generally classified as animal fodder, these last two, particularly carob, have quite commonly been eaten by the populace in times of food scarcity. Likewise, white lupin and grass pea, though preferably used for feeding animals, are still eaten by human beings, even today. To make white lupin edible, the seeds have to be soaked in water and then preserved in brine to remove their bitter flavor; they are eaten as a starter or as a desert. Grass peas have been used in much of the world as an addition to other cooked dishes (this tones down their strong flavor), and for making gachas. Nowadays, it is illegal to sell them for human consumption because if eaten frequently they can cause lathyrism, a form of poisoning caused by the accumulation of alkaloid neurotoxins in the nervous system which eventually causes paralysis of the lower body. Although references to the poisonous nature of grass peas occur from Antiquity onwards, people have continued to eat it during the direst food shortages.
It is quite likely that grass pea and carob were the first legumes to be domesticated: in their wild form, they were the most abundant both in the Mediterranean Basin and in Asia. In both cases, their primary use was as animal fodder but man has had recourse to both – particularly grass peas - when food was scarce, from prehistory right up to the 20th century.
Recent research has discovered that grass peas were being cultivated in the Balkan Peninsula as early as 4.6000 BC, and may have been used as food before the 8th millennium BC. Recent archaeo-botanical studies reveal that the grass pea was to be found in the Iberian Peninsula early in its history; this is corroborated by a find of seeds at mid-Neolithic levels (around 4000BC) of the Les Cendres cave site (Alicante, 5.Valencian Comunity) and at late Neolithic levels in the dig in the El Toro cave site (Malaga, 6.Andalusia). Although this type of pulse may have been used principally for feeding livestock, a certain proportion of it has always been associated with human consumption, despite the fact that its toxicity was recognized very early on.
Peas, second to broad beans
The fossilized remains of lentils and peas found alongside certain cereals in sites in the Near East dating back over 10,000 years appear already to have undergone some kind of modification, which would suggest that they had been preselected and cultivated as a crop.
Of the Mediterranean legumes, peas are second in importance to broad beans. The pea is a common species in the fields of the Mediterranean Basin, the mountains of Asia and the Nile Valley. It was one of the first plants to be selected. The oldest known remains already exhibit enough signs of having been improved to suggest that they are of a cultivated species. The wild seeds were generally eaten fresh, as a complement to the diet, and the cultivated ones were eaten dried. Although there is evidence of their having been eaten in the Near East since the 8th century BC, the Neolithic sites of the Iberian Peninsula only provide evidence of their presence from the end of the 5th millennium onwards. Evidence of their being grown as a crop is limited to seeds found at archaeological levels corresponding to the Chalcolithic period, from the beginning of the 3rd millennium 7.on.
Nine thousand years ago (nearly 2,000 years earlier than the date at which the domestication of plants in the Middle East is traditionally thought to have occurred), some of the inhabitants of north-western Thailand were already cultivating one variety of peas and two of 8.broad bean, while in Mexico broad beans started to be grown as a crop some 7,000 years ago.
Broad bean archeological finds
Broad beans are considered the most important pulse of prehistory because they are the type found in greatest abundance in archaeological sites dating from the Neolithic to the Roman period. Although there is a body of opinion that places the origins of the broad bean in the Near East, the issue is far from settled. We have documentary evidence of their being eaten in Israel from the 7th millennium on, and being grown in the Near East from the 5th millennium on. As a crop, they spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin during the Iron Age (800 – 218BC), although there is evidence of their presence in the Iberian Peninsula from early on in the Neolithic (5000BC). Even so, it is hard to know whether they were grown as animal fodder (especially for horses and pigs) or for human 9.consumption.
Broad bean, a symbolic shape
The human embryo shape of the broad bean has resulted in many cultures investing it with symbolic significance to do with the future and reincarnation. It used to be the custom in Spain to tuck a dried broad bean into the traditional roscón de Reyes, eaten at Epiphany, the feast of the Three Wise Kings. This crown (or ring) shaped loaf of sweet bread symbolizes royalty and, by extension, Christ (the King of Kings), and whoever found the dried bean in their slice used to be declared king of the fiesta. This was an extension of an originally French tradition, imported by the Kings of Navarre, whereby the king would choose a poor child to whom to present the bean and declare him ‘child king’ (representing the Infant Jesus) for the 10.day.
There is evidence dating back to the beginnings of the Iberian culture of the practice of alternating cereal and leguminous crops, especially those that gave good returns, like broad beans, common vetch (Vicia sativa L.), grass peas, alfalfa and peas. Already present during the Neolithic period, these crops were grown in greater quantities during the Iberian period. In other words, the foundations were already being laid of what was to become known as the 11.Mediterranean diet”: rich in carbohydrates derived from cereals and pulses (which also provide proteins), rich in vegetable-derived fats, and vitamins provided by fresh fruit and vegetables.
Lentils appear in fossil finds in the Near East dating from around the 7th millennium BC. The lentil spread through Europe during the Bronze Age, though not until Iron Age finds is there evidence of its having become widely distributed. The presence of lentils has been documented in Spain from the very early mid-Neolithic period (3500 BC); they appear consistently during the rest of the Neolithic, becoming more obvious from the 8th century BC on, with evidence of their being cultivated alternately with cereals in fallow periods.
Of all the legumes, lentils are the quintessential poor man’s food. This is the case in nearly all lentil-eating cultures, from Europe and the Middle East to India and central Asia. The humblest Egyptians and Greeks used to eat them in quantity. The biblical ‘mess of pottage’ in exchange for which Esau sells his birthright to his brother Jacob to assuage his hunger was, in fact, a dish of lentils. Symbolizing the temptation exerted by the material and immediate, the lentils are presented as valueless in comparison with the abstract weight of the law and concern for the future.
Lentils in the Ancient World
Lentils were first grown extensively in Egypt, not least with a view to large-scale exports to meet growing demand from the Roman Empire. In Antiquity lentils were most commonly eaten in the form of soup or stew.
In Ancient Greece (1100 -146BC), all legumes were considered everyday food, although they were just as important as cereals. They were a symbol of extreme poverty even then: comedians made constant references to broad bean or chick-pea 13.soup when lampooning rural life. Although broad beans were eaten very commonly (they are mentioned in The Iliad, and were preferably eaten young and fresh, though they were also dried, roasted, boiled, and made into bread), lentils (which were eaten in vinegar, in soup and as a purée) are the pulse most frequently mentioned in the written material that has come down to us. The other legumes that the Greeks ate were: chickpeas, also preferred young and fresh, and almost always eaten as a dessert; peas, particularly dried for making into purée or fresh and young; lupin seeds, very much thought of as ‘poor people’s food’, which even then were macerated to sweeten them for eating as a dessert; grass peas, spoken of disparagingly as animal fodder, and eaten by humans only when food was scarce; and haricot beans, which appear in texts as pháselos and dólichos (though it is not known for certain if these are two different varieties or the seeds and pods of the same one) and were possibly Chinese in 14.origin.
The Phoenicians also supplemented their cereal-based diet with legumes, which they ate either whole or in the form of flour. The lack of iron in the bodies of Phoenicians found by archaeologists reveals that they ate hardly any meat but obtained the necessary proteins from leguminous plants. This Mediterranean people consumed large quantities of legumes and there is evidence of the existence of well-tended plots where they were grown throughout the Syrio-Palestinian region. These facts, and their liking for lentils, are mentioned in descriptions of Punic gardens. The Phoenicians, who were particularly fond of lentils, are thought to have been responsible for spreading them as a crop around the Mediterranean. Although lentil plants were known in the Iberian Peninsula at that time, it is also possible their importance as a crop increased as a result of contact with the Phoenicians.
We learn from Pliny the Elder (23-79AD) that the Etruscans ate broad beans and chickpeas boiled in water or ground into flour, as in puls faba, or 15.bean soup. It would seem, then, that in Europe the preference for lentils over the other legumes began with the Romans. While the Egyptians initiated the cultivation of lentils on a large scale, and the Phoenicians spread the practice throughout the Mediterranean, the Romans established the pattern of lentil-eating in their imperial territories and the habit of making them into a stew: they used to dry lentils and keep them in the larder all year round so that they could cook them whenever they fancied. Lentils were one of the main foodstuffs of the Roman legions. Ever since Roman imperial times, Italians have retained the tradition of seeing out the old year with a meal of lentils, symbolic of good luck and financial prosperity in the year to come.
Lentils in Medieval Spain
In the early Middle Ages (476-1000) legumes were far from plentiful because of poor selection and the loss of many of the varieties known to the Romans, except for peas. In the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire, and up until the 11th century, the land given over to crop growing, and productive farming, diminished considerably.
The Middle Ages saw an increase in the cultivation of ‘inferior’ cereals, such as oats and rye, rather than wheat, and these were consumed along with moderate quantities of certain legumes such as broad beans, haricot beans, chickpeas and grass peas and, in the late Middle Ages, peas. They were also used in crop rotation.
The Spanish diet (especially that of the peasantry) continued to be based on cereals and legumes, along with rice, which had spread through western Europe in the late Middle Ages and was grown by Spain’s moriscos in extensive areas of the Levante and 16.Andalusia. Technical advances were reflected in increased production of cereals and legumes between the 11th and 13th centuries.
Meanwhile, the Iberian Peninsula’s Muslims not only continued the Roman and Eastern traditions of growing legumes but actually improved upon them. Technical advances in farming introduced by them from the 8th century on were equally applicable to growing legumes, which were an essential part of the everyday diet of the Muslims.
Along with cereals, vegetables and fruit, legumes made up the typical diet of the Mediterranean peoples and that most accessible to peasants. Spain’s moriscos, for example, had a long-established tradition of eating various kinds of pulse, especially broad beans, chickpeas and lentils in the form of a spiced purée. Nevertheless, for Spanish Christians, fatty pork represented nobility while all these foods produced by the land were base and associated with the kind of food eaten by Muslims, which might arouse the suspicions of by the Spanish Inquisition. Even so, lentils were habitually eaten as a substitute for meat - during Lent, for example. Cervantes portrays Don Quixote as an enthusiast of soups and stews, among which lentil soup is given a special mention: (“At a certain village of La Mancha, which I shall not name, there lived not long ago one of those old-fashioned gentlemen who are never without a lance upon a rack, an old target, a lean horse, and a greyhound. His diet consisted more of beef than mutton; and with minced meat on most nights, lentils on Fridays, eggs and bacon on Saturdays, and a pigeon extraordinary on Sundays, he consumed three quarters of his revenue”).
Before the discovery of America, only one species of bean was known in Europe: a white bean with black patches, known as dolichos. Certain Arab texts refer to up to twelve known varieties during the Middle Ages, but this type of bean did not belong to the genus Phaseolus (as all beans eaten nowadays do) but rather to the genus Dolichos.
All varieties of Phaseolus vulgaris, the beans we know today, originated in the Americas: evidence has been found in present-day Mexico of their having been grown there at least 7,000 years ago. Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) set sail with his ships well stocked with one species of bean, and returned from one of his latter voyages with plants of a different species whose seeds would oust that first species.
Initially, they were an expensive product in Europe, but soon gained wide popular acceptance because they grew very quickly and were a good filler of empty stomachs. The new American bean reached Spain around 1500, spreading from there through Europe, though not ousting the native bean until the 17th century. It was then that the common name for bean, Greco-Latin in origin, used throughout Europe for the traditional Dolichos type, started to be used for the new pulse species: in Italy, for example they were called fagioli, in honor of the traditional fava, and in Spanish, faba, which now survives only as the name of particular varieties of Asturian haricot beans.
In the 16th century, the population of Spain increased to around seven million inhabitants on the strength of the economic prosperity generated by its trade in American products. However, in the 17th century the nation underwent a period of crisis (the so called European crisis) whose effects were exacerbated by the increased population so that people died of the plague and starvation in greater numbers. During periods when food was scarce, legumes took on primary importance in the diet and the new beans spread as a crop. These haricot-type beans can be eaten either young and fresh, still in their pods (green beans, kidney beans), or dried.
In the Middle Ages, peas were one of the main sources of protein along with beans and lentils. The peasantry was accustomed to eating peas dried. The modern way of eating peas green and fresh in Spain and the rest of Europe dates from the 17th century and was the result of French influence. The Dutch seem to have initiated the renaissance of the pea early in the 17th century by starting to eat them fresh, but the habit did not take off as a fashion until King Louis XIV (1638-1715) received from one of his intimates, the Duke of Soissons, a gift of a box of pods from Genoa. They were christened petits pois and planted in the gardens at Versailles. Today, peas are the most widely eaten preserved pulse in the world. Nor should it be forgotten that Mendel (1822-1884) established his laws of genetics on the basis of a study of pea plants.
On the strength of this fashion for eating fresh peas, a Spanish variety was created known as tirabeque or guisante mollar (Pisum sativum L. cv. axiphium), whose pods are so tender that they can be eaten picked directly from the plant. Another novelty was a tiny, delicious variety that originated on the Guipúzcoa coast (Basque Country) known as guisantes lágrima (teardrop peas). Picked almost as soon as they germinate, they are a whitish green color, sweet flavored and so tender that they barely need cooking.
Chickpeas originated in western Asia. Evidence has been found in Western Europe of their having been gathered in the wild from the 5th millennium BC on. The Persians ate a lot of them, and the Egyptians also grew them as a crop. Chickpeas entered Europe from Asia Minor and their introduction as a crop into the western Mediterranean area occurred via two routes: through Ancient Greece (1100 -146BC) , where they were considered a less indigestible, more energy-giving pulse than beans; and through the Iberian Peninsula during trade with the Phoenicians and Carthaginians between the 11th and 8th centuries BC. Chickpeas have played an important role in the food- ways of all the peoples of the Mediterranean and India since ancient times. They were eaten fresh and dried or roasted.
Chickpeas for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike
The Arab peoples and the Muslims of Al-Ándalus used to eat, and still do, a great deal of chickpea which they make into a purée and then season with cumin and other spices.
The Jewish people use to eat the famous adefina, a stew made of chickpeas, meat and vegetables, cooked with olive oil, as a main dish for the celebration of the Jewish Sabbath and is behind many recipes that are popular today.
For centuries, during Lent (the period prior to the Christians Holy Week, when the consumption of meat was not allowed), it was traditional for Catholics to replace the meat in their chickpea stew with salt cod and to add spinach or chard.
Chickpeas for the Spanish hot-pot
The peasants of Castile preferred their chickpeas dried and then boiled as an ingredient of some of their potajes. Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) went so far as to declare that in Spain there was just the one dish – el puchero- and that everyone ate 17.it. The puchero, essentially a kind of hot-pot, is indeed highly typical of Spanish cooking, being present in one form or another in all parts of the country. In modern times, it became known as olla podrida from which various regional versions of the pulse-based stew evolved, such as escudilla, potage and cocido, each adapted to accommodate local ingredients. In all cases, chickpeas were, and still are, the main pulse ingredient. It might well be true to say that several generations of Spaniards owe their survival to chickpeas. Spain is both the biggest importer and biggest producer of chickpeas in the EU, albeit lagging far behind the world leaders, India and Pakistan which, together, grow over 90% of the world’s chickpeas.
Chickpeas have never suffered from the bad press that some other legumes have. Their dietary properties are all beneficial, and they have not been as closely associated with poverty as have lentils and grass peas. In fact, it is the only pulse to have featured on the Spanish Royal Family’s palace menus without interruption from the 16th to the 20th 18.century.
The almost medieval living conditions of the Spanish peasantry up until the 19th century, and the consequences of the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) and its aftermath, meant that hunger was an endemic problem, with the result that cereals and legumes provided the basis of the Spanish diet until mid-way through the 20th century. In the 1950s, it would still have been common in many villages in Castile-La Mancha for the diet of day-laborers and mule-drivers to consist of a breakfast of rye, or maize and acorn, bread, perhaps washed down with coffee substitute made from roasted barley and a little milk; a midday meal of haricot bean, lentil or grass pea stew, or garlic and bread soup, or perhaps migas (crumbled stale bread, fried) with herring or salt cod; and a supper of wheat-flour bread migas with grapes, grass-pea flour gachas (savory porridge) with potatoes and perhaps a small amount of a vegetable such as garlic shoots, green beans, swiss chard or spinach. Cocido (chick-pea stew) was considered food for the well-off, luxurious in its combination of vegetables, belly pork and sausages. Eggs were a great rarity and tended to be kept for invalids, as did milk. Meat had no place in the diet: at most, the poorer classes might keep a hen or two to provide them with eggs during the year and then be eaten at the celebratory dinner on Christmas Eve.
20th century chickpeas in Spain
Overall, the rate of consumption of legumes has always reflected the standard of living of the population, though dietary habits are also influential. In the late 19th century the average consumption of legumes per person per year in Europe was 39 lb, whereas today it is just 4 lb - this can be attributed to changes in living standards and to 19.prejudice. In the course of the 20th century, consumption of legumes decreased in Europe as a whole, but with big differences between one country and another. In France, for example, between 1875 and 1914 the maximum annual consumption was between 18.7 and 21.8 lb per person; by the period 1955 -1964, this had dropped to 10.5 lb. In Germany, however, where annual consumption was 44 lb per person in 1850, this dropped to 13 lb for the period 1880 - 1910, to 4 lb for the period 1920 - 1970, and to less than 2 lb by 20.1975.
Spain, however, is something of a special case, and legumes are an essential ingredient in many dishes of its traditional repertoire, with everyday food-ways that stick quite closely to the canons of the so-called ‘Mediterranean diet’: in 1950, Spaniards ate 28,6 lb of legumes per person per year; in 2000, this figure was still as high as 11lb, of which almost 4,4 lb was accounted for by chickpeas, closely followed by haricot beans and lentils.
The main legumes eaten in Spain are dried chickpeas, roasted chickpeas, numerous varieties of dried haricot-type beans, green beans, peas, fresh or canned/bottled/frozen, mange-touts, dried lentils, fresh broad beans, fried broad beans, grass pea flour, lupin seeds in brine, roasted peanuts, dried soya beans, soya shoots and soya milk.
Soybean is now the most widely used plant in the world. It originated in north-eastern China and Manchuria, and is mentioned in texts dating from the 3rd millennium BC. It was introduced into Europe in the 18th century, and was exported from there to the Americas. It tolerates widely varying climates, is easy to harvest by mechanical means, and most of the plant is usable. Its shoots are edible, as are the seeds – fresh, dried, roasted, fried and as flour - and milk and oil can be extracted from it. Soya is the legume of the future.
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.
The lentil period/Lentils in medieval Spain
Medieval andalusí earthen cooking pot (10th C). Conjunto Arqueológico Madinat al-Zahra, Córdoba, Spain. Licensed under Creative Commons by Milartino.
The haricot bean period
San Diego de Alcalá dando de comer a los pobres. San Diego de Alcalá feeding the poor, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, Spain.
The chickpea period/chickpeas for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike
Two men cooking in a cauldron. 6th capital in eastern corridor of Santa María la Real de Nieva (14th C), Segovia, Spain. Licensed under PDCreative Commons by Osado.