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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Olives & pickles
Foods from Spain History: Olives & Pickles. Vinegar Works Wonders.

Foods from Spain History: Olives & Pickles. Vinegar Works Wonders.

The definition of pickling that appears in the 1732 edition of the Spanish Royal Academy’s Diccionario de la Lengua Española neatly sums up what is generally and traditionally understood by the term in Spain: “To cause certain fruits or vegetables to take the flavor of vinegar and to be preserved for a long time while kept in this liquid”. The dictionary also mentions that the Spanish word for pickling – encurtir- is much used in Andalusia: this is unsurprising, since Spanish pickles necessarily involve vinegar, and Andalusia is the part of the country with the longest tradition of wine vinegar making.

Modern regulations for pickling in Spain

Recent Spanish legislation maintains this traditional definition. The first of the current regulations governing the industrial manufacture of pickles defines them as “foods of vegetable origin subjected to the action of vinegar, optionally undergoing heat treatment and with the optional addition of salt and other ingredients [...] As raw material, the original product may be used completely untreated, preserved or cured in brine, in vinegar or having undergone lactic 1.fermentation”.

Vinegar also features as a common element in the Order dated 21 November, 2.1984. On an international scale, however, other types of product, not necessarily preserved in vinegar, may be included, as appears to be indicated by the FAO/WHO Joint Program’s draft regulations, which define pickles as: “Fruits, vegetables, cereals, pulses and edible spices and condiments in a liquid or semi-solid covering medium along with one or more of the [following] ingredients: Nutritive sweeteners, unrefined nutritive sweetener, edible vegetable oils, vinegar, citrus juice, dried fruits, malt extract, salt, brine, chilies, seasoning (seasoning has two types; plant origin and animal 3.origin)”. In other words, three types of pickle are contemplated: ‘in edible oil’, ‘in brine’ and ‘in an acid covering medium’.

This history of pickles in Spain adheres to the traditional Spanish definition of them, and also covers other foodstuffs, such as table olives, which, although processed differently, are considered variants of pickles.

The origins of vinegar and table olives

The history of pickles is closely associated with that of vinegar which, in turn, developed in tandem with the history of wine. The history of vinegar is dealt with fully in a chapter of its own.

As regards olives, evidence has been found in various archaeological sites in the Iberian 4.Peninsula to suggest that wild olives (the fruit of the wild olive tree: Olea europaea ssp. oleaster) were being gathered for food in the 5th millennium BC, namely before they were first used as a source of oil.

As for grapes, the fruit from which the wine is made that provides the vinegar used for pickling, recent archaeological finds and paleobotanical research have identified remains of seeds and fruits of varieties of wild vine (Vitis vinifera var. sylvestris, which occurs spontaneously) which show that they were being used for food in the south western area of the Peninsula from the 5.Paleolithic period (3rd millennium BC) on, and of cultivated varieties dating from the 6.Chalcolithic period (2700-1800 BC). However, there is no evidence of wine having been made from these fruits.

Although historians are still debating whether wine-making originated in the southern Caucasus and the southernmost part of the Caspian Sea or in Ancient Egypt, the latter theory seems to be gaining ground. A team of Spanish researchers has shown that three of the amphorae discovered in the funerary chamber of the pharaoh Tutankhamen contained three different varieties of wine: white (1,500 years earlier than previously thought); a type of sweet wine known as shede; and red - the first evidence that red wine was being made 3,300 years 7.ago. It is reasonable to suppose that the discovery of vinegar would have occurred in the place where wine was first made. Egyptian texts exist that mention vinegar as HmD, or hemedi, being used for pickling and for preserving radish and other vegetables.

Early pickling and olive processing in the Iberian Peninsula

The Phoenicians were responsible for the spread of vine-growing throughout the Mediterranean and, too, of wine and vinegar making and preserving food in vinegar, from the end of the second millennium BC on. However, no archeological proof has been found to support the hypothesis that native agricultural 8.products were processed and sold in the Iberian Peninsula, though it is quite possible that wines, vinegars, oils and preserves were already being made there. The earliest archaeological evidence of imported species of vine being cultivated in the Iberian Peninsula dates back to the 7th century BC, a period of trade links with the Carthaginians.

In Ancient Greece (1100-146BC), vinegar (óxos) was one of the three basic condiments used in cooking, the others being salt and oil. As well as adding various herbs (such as thyme) and spices to vinegar to give it different flavors, the Greeks used it in various ways, including preserving, macerating and seasoning various kinds of bulbous vegetables (garlic, onions, leeks, 9.hyacinths...). They also preserved wild radish in vinegar, serving them as an appetite-whetting 11.period. The Greeks used also to make a sauce from the remains of salt fish (similar to garum but coarser and thicker) called hálme. The same word was used for the brine (water saturated with salt and sometimes aromatized with spices), used for preserving various foodstuffs such as turnips and, particularly, 12.olives.

The Roman period

From the Roman period on, there is evidence of vinegar being in habitual use, and of its production and trade. Hispania, and more specifically Baetica (present-day Andalusia), was the main supplier of wine to the Roman Empire, and it is therefore logical to suppose that it also supplied it with vinegar. Vinegar (acetum) was one of the most prized condiments and preservatives in Roman cooking. Apicius’ recipe book (De Re Coquinaria) mentions vinegars of various types, according to their provenance and flavoring. However, not all of the different vinegars used in Roman cooking were wine-derived – they also used pear, marrow, Spanish bluebell, fig and other fruit vinegars.

In a pattern inherited from the Greeks, vinegar continued to be consumed in drinks, sauces and preserves. The taste for acidic and sweet-sour flavors is clearly reflected in Apicius’ recipes, of which a third contain vinegar or other mildly acidic elements among their ingredients. Needless to say, vinegar was still used in preserving, involving either immersing foodstuffs in an acid solution or boiling them in vinegar – a method used for certain meats and vegetables, such as elecampane and bulbs. Pliny the Elder mentions a mixture of vinegar, honey and cumin being used to preserve stalks of cardoon (13.carduus).

There were several Roman recipes for preparing olives, and they reveal that the process has barely changed at all in two thousand years. Here is one of them: “How to dress green olives: Before they turn black, they are trodden and put to soak: then change the water. Afterwards, when they have become very soft, drain them, put them in vinegar, add oil and half a pound of salt for a half of olives. Separately, marinate fennel and lentiscos (mastic) in vinegar. If you want to mix it with the olives, serve it quickly: put it in a little jar. When you want to eat them, take them out with dry 14.hands”.

Pickles in Spain in the Middle Ages

In medieval Europe, the taste for acidic flavors in food became more accentuated, giving rise to one of the most salient and distinctive features of European cooking in the Middle Ages. In the Iberian Peninsula, this taste was shared by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. In consequence, vinegar and other acidic ingredients were consumed in greater quantity in cooking - in sauces and salads as well as in pickling, whose processes were multiplied and honed.

In Muslim Spain, the acidulants used were vinegar and fruits such as tart apples, bitter oranges, pomegranates and unripe grapes; lemon juice came into use from the 11th century on. Despite the Koranic prohibition on drinking alcohol, grape-growing never died out completely. The acid-tasting condiments most widely used in Spanish cooking were grape-derived: agraz (unripe grape juice – the most acidic of all the edible acids) and vinegar.

With the discovery of the Americas, olive oils, olives, wines and vinegars began to be exported from Castile to the New World (America), as did Spanish techniques of making and preparing vinegars, pickles, olives and brine, which were applied to foods discovered in the new territories.

The Modern Era

The Modern Era

In the Europe of the Modern Era, the medieval taste for acidic foods waned somewhat, though mildly acidic elements remain an ingredient in half the recipes of the 15.period. From the late Middle Ages on, the market for sherry wines included exports to Flanders, Britain and Ireland on a considerable scale. Sherry wine exports from Jerez to England were kept up even during the 17th century European crisis. In the final decades of that century, demand from northern Europe for wine of all sorts increased and became more selective, and this was reflected in greater attention to detail on the part of the growers of Jerez. Between the 1770s and the 1830s, winegrowing in the Jerez region underwent its most dramatic period of change, in the course of which its traditional wine producing industry was turned into a modern one.

Treatises about food and dietary matters published in the 16th century, known generically as ‘libros de mermeladas’ (marmalade books), begin to include other traditional uses for vinegar. They feature jams made with honey or cane sugar, foods preserved in vinegar, sauces and spiced wines, but also soaps, perfumes and remedies. The explanation for this apparently incongruous mixture is that in the 16th – 18th centuries, sugar, honey and vinegar were looked on as dietary 16.remedies. Given that vinegar was thought to open the pores, helping foods reach all parts of the body, pickles were a desirable adjunct.

Olives, a special gift

Of all the products pickled in Spanish vinegar, table olives stand out particularly as a highly characteristic product and one that was much enjoyed during this period. A dish of olives seasoned with pepper is mentioned in the play El infamador (1581) by Juan de la Cueva (1543-1612).

Such was the regard in which olives were held that they were deemed suitable as gifts. When the Landgrave (Count) of Hesse visited Spain in 1618, for example, a barrel of olives, among other foodstuffs, was delivered to him by the henchmen of Baltasar de Zuñiga (1561-1622). A barrel of olives is again mentioned as a gift, this time presented to the nuns of La Encarnación convent, in Madrid, in 1676. In the 18th century, King Charles III of Spain sent a gift to the Pope of olives dressed in Seville, and other delicacies. It was at this same period, in 1769, during Spain’s colonization of California, that a mission of Franciscan monks planted the first Spanish olive trees in San Diego.

19th c. vegetable canning, bottling and pickles industry

19th c. vegetable canning, bottling and pickles industry

When Louis Pasteur (1822-1925) discovered in the 1860s the bacterium that turns alcohol into acetic acid and the fact that oxygen was needed for that process to occur, he also ascertained how to prevent its happening: ‘pasteurization’ killed the bacteria and sealed the receptacle hermetically. Vinegar-making became a definitively industrial process from then on. Nowadays, sulfur dioxide is sometimes added to wine to achieve the same effect, thereby making it much more difficult to produce home-made vinegar.

Up until its 1791 edition, the definition given in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española for the Spanish term ‘conservar’ (to preserve) applied only to fruit and flowers crystallized in sugar. From that year on, the definition was extended to include vegetables immersed in vinegar – namely, pickles. The current meaning of processed and hermetically packed foods does not appear in the dictionary until the 1869 edition.

In 1818 Spain’s first artisan canning factory was established in Villafranca del 17.Bierzo (Castile–León), producing preserved fruits a year earlier than William Underwood (1864-1929) started dealing in preserved fruit, cucumbers and sauces in Boston. Around 1850, the first vegetable canning factory in Spain opened in Logroño. In 1860, the Trevijano canning and bottling factory was established, also in 18.Logroño: it became one of the most important in the country, supplying the royal household and being visited by King Alfonso XIII (1886-1941) in 1903. Press reports from 1909 mention that the company had four other factories in Spain, 1,400 employees, modern machinery, huge caves for growing mushrooms, and extensive plantations of fruit trees; we also learn that, by that time, the quality of its canned and bottled products had earned it 57 international 19.prizes.

These trail-blazing fruit and vegetable canning factories did not yet have at their disposal the sterilizing techniques needed to produce cucumbers in vinegar and other pickles. Because of the difficulties involved, this part of the industry gave little thought to pickles, in that they called for different preserving methods. By the 1890s, la Rioja was the region of Spain best known for canned vegetables (with 38 factories and with canned sweet, red morrón peppers a particular specialty), though there were other noteworthy regions, such as the Balearic Islands which, as early as 1909, organized a conference in Manacor (Majorca) to foster exports of canned and fresh 20.fruit. Nevertheless, it was Murcia (fruit and vegetable growing region par excellence) that provided the industry with the vital thrust needed to meet the growing demand from foreign markets in the early decades of the 20th 21.century.

El aperitivo, a Spanish snack

Pickles and table olives also received a shot in the arm when, during that same period, they became an independent branch of the canned vegetable sector: the aperitivo division is an important one in Spain, supplying not only households but also the major market represented by the hospitality industry and the virtually nationwide custom of serving tapas with commercially served wine and beer. Olives, lupin beans, fermented cabbage, gherkins, capers, aubergines, maize, broad beans, peppers, chilies, tomatoes, artichokes, carrots, turnips, onions and cocktail onions, garlic, string beans, radishes, mushrooms and other fungi, cauliflower, ginger, tomatoes, asparagus, eggs, lemons...this wide selection of aperitivo products can appear in many guises - separately, together in Russian salad ( diced potato and other vegetables, often including peas, in mayonnaise) in the form of the traditional banderilla (onion, pepper, gherkin, chili and an olive speared on a stick).

Until the 1970s, foods of this type were very largely sold by street sellers, and on a retail basis, with no labels or guarantee of provenance. Their importance in Spain is attested to by the existence of shops dedicated mainly or entirely to selling olives, foods in brine, and pickles. Traditionally, there is also a shop or stall of this kind in most markets and shopping malls.

From the 1960s on, vegetables started to be sold in small cans (previously, they were all of 11 lb capacity) made of aluminum and, from the 1980s on, in glass jars. Not until then were solutions found to the processing and preserving problems attached to certain foods, such as gherkins, related to the acidity level of vinegar and to copper sulfate, an artificial coloring agent that kept gherkins - which otherwise turned pale in contact with vinegar - a vivid green (its use was banned in the late 1960s amid considerable controversy within the 22.sector).

Since the end of the 20th century, sweetness, saltiness and acidity, flavors traditionally associated with types of preserved food, have tended to take a back seat in favor of the new preserving methods that use air and cold, and keep the foods’ original flavors intact. The market for pickles has had to adapt and seek out alternatives to the traditional products, either in the form of new foods or new condiments in dressings, brines and vinegars.


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 Modern Era
Still Life of Fruits and a Place of Olives, Juan Bautista de Espinosa (1590-1641). Licensed under PDCreative Commons by the Web Gallery of Art.

19th C. vegetable canning, bottling and pickles industry
Mules carrying esparto saddlebags full of olives in the 1940's. José López Murillo.