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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Nuts & dried fruits
Foods From Spain History: Nuts, Enduring Staple Of Human Diet

Foods From Spain History: Nuts, Enduring Staple Of Human Diet

Nuts are fruits that contain less than 50% water. There are two types of nuts: those that dry naturally, encased in a hard shell, and those that are desiccated by man. The desiccated types are also covered by the chapters entitled Other Fruits and Preserved Vegs & Fruits.

Nuts, an oldtimer

Nuts are among the foods that man ate for thousands of years, long before starting to cultivate them. They have been an important nutritional element of the human diet in that - along with pulses and cereals - they are one of the main sources of calories. Furthermore, the oils extracted from them have been used in perfumery and pharmacy since ancient times.

We now know that nuts not only provide our bodies with a significant energy boost, but also that their high vegetable fat content contains bioactive substances, such as monounsaturated fatty acids and powerful antioxidants, that help prevent chronic diseases, particularly those of a cardiovascular nature. They also contribute minerals, vitamins and fiber and help bring down cholesterol 1.levels.

Since nuts are not always classified within the same food group in the food history bibliography, the main species to be dealt with here need to be defined and specified: nuts are sometimes categorized as fruit, and sometimes treated as condiments under the heading of spices.

This chapter is primarily concerned with the history of the hard shell type, the ones that are an integral part of the Mediterranean tradition. Their history is also very closely associated in cooking with that of desiccated fruits (such as dates, raisins, prunes, dried figs and dried apricots and peaches).Exotic nuts are dealt with more briefly.

Nuts, a Mediterranean classic

The classic nuts within the Mediterranean tradition, given their capacity to withstand a dry climate, are almonds, the fruit of the almond tree (Amigdalus communis, Prunus amygdalus or Prunus dulces), originally from the Middle East; hazelnuts, fruit of the hazel tree (Corilus avellana L.), originally from Asia Minor; walnuts, the fruit of the walnut tree (Juglans regia L.), of which ancestral species have been found in Tibet, and whose provenance extends from central Asia to Eastern Turkey; pistachios (the fruit of the pistachio tree (Pistacia vera L.), originally from the Middle East; chestnuts, the fruit of the chestnut tree (Castanea sativa), native to Asia Minor and southern Europe; and sweet acorns, the fruit of a subspecies (ballota) of holm oak (Quercus ilex), a Mediterranean.

The discovery of American nuts

The discovery of American nuts

After the discovery of the Americas and Australia, the introduction into Europe of other, exotic, nuts belonging to more moisture-loving or tropical species took a long time to initiate and even then proceeded slowly. The nuts in question were: cashews (Anacardium occidentale), from the Amazon basin; macadamia nuts, the fruit of the two edible macadamia species (Macadamia intergrifolia and Macadamia tetraphilla), originally from south-eastern Queensland and north-eastern New South Wales, in Australia; brazil nuts (Bertholletia excelsa), also originally from the Amazon; and pecans (Carya illinolensis), native to the whole of the Mississippi basin and its tributaries as far as Mexico.

Also covered by this category of nuts are: sunflower seeds (Helianthus annuus), popularly known as pipas in Spain, thought to be originally from Peru and introduced into Europe by the Spanish early in the 16th century; and sesame seeds (Sesamum indicum), originally from southern Asia. Although not fruits as such, other edible seeds tend to be included by extension: pine nuts, the seeds of the cone or fruit produced by the pine tree (Pinus pinea L.), which occurs throughout the Mediterranean from Portugal as far as Syria; pumpkin seeds; and even some legumes, such as peanuts.

The prehistory of nuts in the Iberian Peninsula

Nuts grew abundantly in the wild throughout the Mediterranean basin in prehistoric times. Two big climatic regions coexist in the Iberian Peninsula: the Euro Siberian region, which extends across the whole of the northern fringe in contact with the Atlantic Ocean, the Bay of Biscay and the Pyrenees, which is wet and cool, with leafy deciduous woodlands; and the Mediterranean region, which is dry and hot, with less varied woodlands in which evergreen trees are predominant. In the former, there are two outstanding nut-producing species: hazel and chestnut, while in the latter, pinyon (nut-bearing) pines and holm oak predominate. These four nut-producing species were already present in the Iberian Peninsula at least as long ago as the Miocene period (between 25 and 5 million 2.years). In other words, they were in existence long before man appeared on the scene. There are also fossils of some other species – walnut trees among them - that may have existed alongside the peninsula’s first human inhabitants. However, it is possible that some of these prehistoric species (such as walnut, chestnut and pinyon pine) became extinct during periods of glaciation and were then reintroduced by other Mediterranean 3.cultures.

Acorns in Iberia

Acorns in Iberia

Throughout history, nearly all whole nuts in their shells have been given the generic name of nut in Spanish, and the soft edible seed within has been generically called almond regardless of the species to which they belong. This means that in many documents from Ancient Greece (1100-146BC) it is difficult to be sure what kind of nut is being referred to, unless the word nut is qualified by a geographical adjective, for example, as tended to occur in Greece.

Two types of nut were particularly important to the diet of the human population of the Iberian Peninsula before the arrival of the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, two were particularly significant: hazelnuts, present in the woods of Catalonia from at least as early as the Holocene, and acorns (fruit of the holm oak), the Peninsula’s most abundant nut. Writing in the 1st century BC, Strabo (64BC-24AD) observes: “...those mountain dwellers [a reference to the Astures, Cantabri, Vascones and other pre-Roman tribes in the north of the peninsula] drink nothing but water, they sleep on the ground and wear their hair long in the feminine way, although for doing battle they bind their foreheads with a band [...]For three quarters of the year the mountain people eat nothing but acorns, leaving them to dry, crushing them and then milling them and making with them a bread that keeps for a long time”. Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) makes a similar observation: “The acorn represents wealth for many peoples even in times of peace. When there is a shortage of cereals they dry acorns, they shell them and make dough of the flour for a sort of bread. Nowadays, even in the Hispanias, the acorn features among the 3.desserts”.

It is possible that after contact with the Phoenicians (11th century BC) and the Greeks (8th century BC), some nut producing species of tree that had disappeared from the Iberian Peninsula were reintroduced and that other new species were brought in for the first time, cultivation of them increasing during the process of Romanization. Evidence that the Iberians were eating walnuts, pine-nuts and almonds (it is unclear whether cultivated or wild) in the mid-7th century BC has been unearthed at various sites in the northern half of the peninsula’s east coast (modern-day Catalonia and 4.Valencian Community).

Nut consumption in Antiquity

The Phoenicians cultivated fruit trees extensively, particularly fig, date palm, almond and pistachio. Figs from their colony of Carthage were renowned, and were exported to Greece and Rome. Dates were an essential food for the inhabitants of Carthage, but walnuts, hazels, almonds and chestnuts were also eaten in large quantities (shells from the first three have been found in many Carthaginian tombs in Africa and 5.Europe), so it is unsurprising that the powerful commercial influence of Phoenicia and Carthage on the Iberian Peninsula should also be reflected in an increase in the consumption and cultivation of certain nuts that were less common in this region, and that it was these cultures from the eastern Mediterranean that were responsible for the very early introduction of pistachios.

Nuts, better toasted according to Ancient Greeks

Ancient Greek sources, mostly treatises on medicine and nutrition, provide evidence that almonds, hazels, walnuts, pistachios (as an exotic item), pine nuts, chestnuts and acorns were eaten. It was recommended that almonds, hazels, chestnuts and acorns be eaten toasted. However, even though the treatise-writers declared them hard to digest and conducive to headaches, nuts belonged in the category of favorite foods. The acorns of many species of Quercus were eaten, all being looked upon as poor people’s food, and only one (Quercus aegilops L.) being sweet enough to qualify as good to eat, the rest being used largely to feed livestock. Like the Romans after them, they believed certain nuts to be a good antidote to alcohol. Almonds were the most eaten nut by a long way. Not much is known about almond growing before the Romans arrived in the Peninsula, but remains of Prunus dulces have been found in the excavated Iberian site of Bastida de les Alcuses (Moixent, Valencia), dated at between the 5th - 4th centuries 6.BC. They were all eaten as dessert and were also used for making or decorating honey-based sweets, in boiled, toasted or ground up 7.form.

Nuts made up a major part of the diet of Ancient Rome, along with bread, cheese and olives. They were usually eaten as dessert and the aristocracy also used them in confectionery. Soldiers and travelers carried them because they are a high energy food, take up very little space and stay in good condition for a 8.long time. From the sociocultural point of view, nuts were not a vulgar food, like legumes, but were comparable in status with fresh fruit.

Nut consumption in Muslim Spain

Throughout history, nuts have played a dual social role in the Iberian Peninsula: they supplemented the diet of peasants who lived close to areas of woodland and dehesa (wooded scrubland) where they were plentiful, but some of them were also considered desirable by the nobility: hazels and almonds, for example, appear as gifts fit for royalty up until the 19th century. More specifically, hazels - one of the main native varieties - are mentioned in several medieval documents dating from the 12th century recording bylaws relating to them, which is indicative of there being an already considerable trade in them in Spain’s eastern coastal strip under Muslim 9.rule.

Indeed, the cuisine of Muslim Spain (8th-15th century) was responsible for raising the profile of nuts in gastronomy and used them habitually in many of its dishes. The originally Persian and Arab recipes brought in by the first Muslim invaders contain different nuts such as pistachios, walnuts and almonds: the first of these would have had to be imported and the latter are replaced in recipes from the north east of the Peninsula by the more readily available hazelnut. In general, dates, dried figs, raisins, almonds, hazels, walnuts, pine nuts, pistachios and sesame make up one of the main food groups that, along with certain fruits and spices, were used in seasoning and flavoring originally Arab dishes, and were precisely what gave them their singular quality. Almond, walnut and sesame oils also had certain specific uses both in cooking and in cosmetics and pharmacy. One of the main contributions of Hispano-Muslim gastronomy to European cuisine is the use of nuts in certain recipes, particularly sweet ones: the nut-and-honey combination provides the basis for a huge range of desserts (see the chapter about turrón). There is evidence that, in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Catalan nobility of Christian Spain used almonds, walnuts and other nuts as a condiment for 10.meat, which seems to suggest that they had been influenced by direct contact with Andalusí cuisine.

Chestnuts and acorns in Spain

That said, there are two nuts in Spain whose consumption bears no relation to Andalusí Arabic gastronomy, but have provided subsistence food for thousands of years in a tradition that lasted into the 20th century: chestnuts and acorns. Research into chestnut eating carried out in other areas of Europe with abundant leafy deciduous woodlands indicates that they served as a basic foodstuff for dwellers in mountainous areas, who made flour from them as a substitute for the cereal-derived variety (when cereals were scarce) and also used them for making bread and porridges. Another finding was that the distribution of woodlands with the greatest density of chestnuts matched that of population 11.clusters. This pattern was replicated in those parts of Spain with a similar climate, namely in the north of the Peninsula, especially the wooded areas of the Cantabrian mountain chain and the Pyrenees (particularly that part of the north that corresponds to the present-day Spanish provinces of Lugo, Asturias, Santander, Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, Navarra, Lleida and Girona), where chestnuts were, in the absence of cereals, the main source of carbohydrates until potatoes and maize were introduced as crops from the newly discovered Americas.

However, what distinguishes Spain from the rest of Europe is that people ate acorns: acorns served the same purpose for almost the entire Iberian Peninsula as chestnuts did there. They were probably Spain’s most abundant nut; over the centuries, mankind has ensured the presence of certain species of holm oak in the low woodlands and dehesas by selecting the varieties that yielded the sweetest fruit and that served to feed human beings in times of scarcity as well as domestic animals. A particular example of the latter application is the systematic feeding of Ibérico pigs on acorns, which gives a characteristic flavor to the cured hams made from them (see the chapter about Ibérico ham ).

Both acorns and chestnuts were preferably eaten roasted, though they could also be eaten raw or in the form of different products made from their flour (flatbread, savory porridge, sweets...).

Eating chestnuts and acorns as a staple was a constant feature of the Spanish peasant diet from prehistory up until the mid-20th century, but was of greatest importance up to the middle of the Modern Era, at which time other carbohydrate-rich foods such as rice, beans, potatoes and maize started to be introduced in quantity.

Spanish nut dishes in the Modern Era

Spanish nut dishes in the Modern Era

In those provinces of Spain where the nut trade has been studied, data have emerged that show trade in nuts to have been regular and ongoing. Tarragona province (Catalonia) is a case in point: a document from 1578 – 1580 records a ship being loaded with the considerable quantity of 683.433 lb of hazels obtained from Salva del Camp and 12.Alcover.

There was no change in nut consumption in the Modern Era. For the peasantry they continued to supplement their diet, and to serve as a staple in periods when food was scarce. The combination of the Jewish, Hispano-Muslim and Christian traditions became consolidated in Spanish foodways at both ends of the social scale. The survival to this day of recipes such as ajoblanco (cold almond and garlic soup), turrón (a nougat-like paste of honey or sugar with almonds or hazelnuts), manjar blanco (a highly regarded rice dish consisting of game bird breast meat and almonds mixed into ground rice, sweetened with cane sugar and allowed to set; over time, the meat element was lost and it became a dessert dish - still made in some parts of Catalonia); picada catalana (made by pounding together garlic, parsley, toasted almonds, hazels, walnuts, pine nuts, toasted bread and a little broth, this mixture is for adding to the sauce of other dishes which it thickens and enriches); and frutos secos garrapiñados (nuts coated in caramelized sugar) exemplify the importance of nuts in Spanish food. They also play a less conspicuous role in countless sauces and sweets, in which their role is to thicken and lend a hint of flavor.

While many fresh fruits were served at the royal table at the start of a meal during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and much of the Modern Era, between the 15th and 18th centuries nuts continued to be served as dessert in all the European courts, particularly almonds, hazels, walnuts and pine nuts. María del Carmen Simón Palmer’s book on palace cuisine during the reign of the Habsburg and Bourbon dynasties in Spain (16th – 20th 13.Century), includes an appendix that covers the foods featured on the cooks’ shopping list: only two types of nut feature - walnuts (16th - 19th century) and almonds (16th and 17th centuries). This should be read as representing the nuts that were eaten most regularly, and illustrative of when they were were particularly in demand. There have been plantations of almond trees in Spain’s eastern Levante region and in the rest of the country, since Antiquity, and of walnut trees in most of the Peninsula, too. Up until the 20th century, Spain was an exporter of both these products; it is still an important producer of almonds on a world scale, but has now become one of the leading importers of Californian walnuts.

Nuts travel to America and back

Nuts travel to America and back

Attempts were made to consolidate the growing of certain Mediterranean nuts in the Americas as early as the 16th century. Pinyon pines, almonds and walnuts did particularly well in Mexico and later in California where almonds and walnuts were introduced by the Spanish colonizers at the end of the 18th century and beginnings of the 19th.

As regards the discovery of exotic new nuts, Spanish explorer Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1490-1564) in his account of his extraordinary journey from Florida to 14.California, was the first to mention the existence of certain nuts (they were pecans) that were eaten by the native north Americans alongside whom he lived in 1592. The cashew nut (the English name is taken from the Portuguese cajú) was described for the first time in 1558, in Brazil, by a French monk and naturalist, André Thevet (1502-1590). The cashew was cultivated and exported to Asia and Africa by the Portuguese from 1568 on. By 1726, it appeared by name in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, albeit with a curious warning attached: “Drinking or eating cashews incautiously generally leads to very serious accidents”. Rubber extraction in the jungles of Brazil, Bolivia and Peru two centuries ago was paralleled by harvesting Brazil 15.nuts .The first westerners to gather Brazil nuts were members of a reconnoitering party sent by the Spanish military to the Madre de Dios river (in the Amazon basin) under the command of Juan Álvarez Maldonado in 1569. At that time, the new nut was dubbed almendra de los Andes (almond of the Andes). It was not grown commercially until the 19th 16.Century . Other exotic nuts, such as macadamia (or Queensland) nuts, native to Australia, were not grown on a commercial scale until 1858, and then no so much for the actual nut as for ornamental purposes, especially in Hawaii, where it was introduced in 1882.

Sunflower seeds in Spain

Nearly all these exotic nuts were not consistently available in Europe until well into the 20th century, with one important exception: sunflower seeds. The first evidence of domestication of the sunflower plant, now thought to be native to North America rather than Peru, has been dated as far back as the 3rd millennium 17.BC (though some archaeologists place it at the end of the 5th 18.millennium) in the present-day State of Tabasco (Mexico), though very early traces have also been found at sites in Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas. The indigenous tribes that originated in the north of Mexico and the center and south of the United States used the sunflower plant for its ornamental, ceremonial, medicinal and nutritional properties for thousands of years. The first sunflower seeds reached Spain early in the 16th century, brought back from Peru by Francisco Pizarro (1476-1541). The plant spread though much of Europe, where it was grown for decorative purposes. The first plantations for the purposes of obtaining sunflower oil are documented in Russia around 1769, and it was there that sunflowers started to be grown on a large scale from 1830 on, to compensate for a shortage of other types of oil.

In the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española there is no mention of the uses to which this plant was put until the 1899 edition, when the entry reads as follows: “It is grown in this country more for decoration than as a plant for industrial use”. In the following edition, it is described as being originally from Peru and the facts that its seeds are edible and that ‘oil that is a good condiment’ can be extracted from them are mentioned, but it is still considered a primarily ornamental plant. This obsolete definition was retained until 1984 when, at last, it was recognized that ‘it is grown for obtaining oil, and on a lesser scale for its edible seeds’.

Sunflower oil was not all that late in being put to regular and commercial use in Spain, but it occurred later than in the rest of Europe. An article in the weekly periodical Nuevo Mundo written in 1930 by Dionisio Pérez Gutiérrez (1872-1935), journalist and food critic, who wrote under the name of Post-Thebussem, honorary president of the Professional Association of Chefs of Catalonia, describes as ‘disgusting’ the sunflower and other seed oils that were by then being consumed in France on a regular basis, and lays particular stress on the suspect origins of the fats that went into 19.margarine . Spain was clearly still committed to olive oil. However, sunflower seeds became a popular snack in Spain after the plant started to be grown for its oil on an industrial scale in Andalusia in 1964 and sales and consumption of toasted sunflower seeds went up, too.

Nuts enjoy a belated commercial boom in Spain

Nuts enjoy a belated commercial boom in Spain

As far as many aspects of the Spanish diet are concerned, the Contemporary Period did not begin until the second half of the 20th century. In the 18th and 19th centuries, international trade increased, largely as a result of progress in modes of transport, thanks to which production levels also rose, and many products started to be grown commercially that, until then, had been sold only locally, or regionally with some transport problems. There is a sad lack of documentation regarding the Spanish nut trade in the 19th century, with the result that there are great gaps in what we know about such age-old products as Catalan hazelnuts. From the First World War on, however, the picture becomes clearer: there are references to vast hazel woods in Reus (Catalonia): 29,652,000 acres of the 32,123,000 of hazel woods in existence in Spain between 1914 and 1923 were located in Tarragona province, and that part of the country also produced 20% of Spain’s total almond yield. It was not that these plantations appeared suddenly, but rather that relevant information was by then being efficiently recorded.

Consumption of nuts varied very little from Antiquity until well into the 20th century; although it has always been thought that a certain increase in hazel growing in Catalonia might have been prompted by a quest for a tradable product to compensate for the loss of vines to the phylloxera epidemic towards the end of the 19th century.

Until about 1950, trading in nuts was mostly conducted on a small scale. In the small towns and villages, locally grown nuts were eaten, especially chestnuts and acorn but also sunflower seeds and pine nuts and, in those areas where they were grown, walnuts, almonds and hazels. These three last were considered something of a luxury product in the non-producing regions, and most of the population would have eaten them on special occasions. From the late 1950s on, ready-packed, toasted sunflower seeds (commonly known as pipas) started to appear for sale in Madrid and other big towns, almost a decade before the oil they produced was first sold in Spain. From then on, pipas became the most generally eaten aperitif nut in Spain, a fact explained in part, no doubt, by the fact that they are cheap. Eating sunflower seeds is a significant phenomenon in Spain, from a sociological rather than gastronomic point of view. Eating pipas is a small pleasure, but one that is deeply engrained among the Spanish people and shared by the inhabitants of parts of North Africa and some Latin American countries.

The more exotic nuts, such as cashews, macadamias and brazils, that can now be found in any supermarket or specialist shop did not make their appearance on the Spanish market until the 1980s.


Enrique García Ballesteros, (BA in Early Modern and Modern History and MA in Communication and Journalism) is a Spanish historian, writer and journalist. He has published over a hundred scientific and general interest articles on history and the media in prestigious magazines such as Historia National Geographic and La Aventura de la Historia. He has also authored biographies, interviews and book reviews for major institutions and the Spanish press. He is a regular contributor to the Spanish national daily newspapers El Mundo and Público (now online version only).

Research coordination: María del Carmen Simón Palmer, has a phD in history and is a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council, CSIC. She is a member of the governing body of the Real Academia de Gastronomía. Her published works include: La cocina de Palacio (1591-1932), (Castalia, 1997) and Bibliografía de la Gastronomía y Alimentación en España, (Trea, 2003).

Translation: Hawys Pritchard, M.A. (University of London) is a freelance translator currently based in Wales and Mallorca. Her work has appeared in various books and magazines (including Spain Gourmetour) that reflect her interest in food, wine, travel, art and architecture.

Photo credits

The discovery of American nuts
Helianthus annuus, Gerald John, The Herball, London, A. Islip, J.Norton and R. Whitakers, 1633. Andersen Horticultural Library.

Acorns in Iberia
Strabo. Schedelsche Weltchronik, 1493, Nüremberg. Licensed under Creative Commons by Schedel.

Spanish nut dishes in the Modern Era
Bodegón con manzanas, nueces, cajas de dulces y otros recipientes. Still life with apples, nuts, boxes of sweets and other recipients. Luis Meléndez (1716-1780), Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Nuts travel to America and back
Monument to Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca in Houston, Texas, USA. Licensed under Creative Commons and GNU by Ealmagro

Nuts a belated commercial boom in Spain
Women peeling almonds, ©Consejo Regulador IGP Jijona y Turrón de Alicante