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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Other fruits
Foods From Spain History: Other Fruits. Modifications To The Grand Design

Foods From Spain History: Other Fruits. Modifications To The Grand Design

The term ‘fruits’ is used here to cover all edible, sweet, fleshy fruits. It therefore includes melon and watermelon, which are often treated as vegetables, along with the other cucurbitaceous species. Because of their particular significance in Spain’s history and economy, subtropical fruits and citrus are dealt with in greater detail in chapters of their own.

Early fruit consumption

Early man’s direct ancestors were, essentially, frugivores (fruit eaters), like Australopithecus africanus. The first hominids seem to have been similarly inclined, probably eating fruits, roots, small prey and carrion (especially the marrow from bones left behind by large predators). In other words, our earliest ancestors were frugivorous rather than vegetarian, and occasionally omnivorous. We seem to have inherited much the same pattern given that our teeth are still more suitable for eating fruit than meat, unless cooked, and despite the fact that fruit all but disappeared from the diet of some social classes during certain periods of Spain’s history.

Early fruit growing

For the most part, fruits were among the last plant species to be cultivated by Man for food. This is unsurprising since it takes years of tending and expertise to obtain fruit from the seed of a tree. Furthermore, it seems likely that the first human settlements would have been formed in places where water was most readily accessible: in such naturally fertile areas, those early growers of pulses and cereals would have found various species of fruit growing spontaneously close at hand. Given their highly perishable nature, it is virtually impossible to find evidence of the cultivation of fruits (or vegetables) that predates the first written references.

Most of the fruits grown in Spain today originated in Asia, Africa and the Americas. There would, perhaps, have been some native wild species, such as grape vines, strawberries, blackberries and other woodland fruits, and some wild fruit trees, such as certain species of arbutus, pear and apple (also typical of temperate Europe). There is prehistoric evidence of plums, blackberries, grapes and nuts being eaten, though it is impossible to know whether these would have been cultivated or wild because the few available palaeobotanical remains do not provide enough 1.clues. Many species of fruit tree traveled overland to the Iberian Peninsula from Asia Minor and the Caucasus in the course of the sporadic inter-cultural encounters that occurred thousands of years BC; others arrived by sea with the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans during the 1st millennium BC and, later, with the muslim invaders from the 8th century on. Later again, after the Discovery of the Americas in 1492, came the first great wave of tropical fruits.

Evolution: fruit selection processes

The fruits we know today are among the most spectacular examples of evolution brought about by human intervention and selection. Many commonly eaten modern species either did not exist a few decades or centuries ago, or are the descendants of wild species no longer recognizable as relations just a few millennia on.

The precursors of today’s species were created by early growers who, having spotted differences between some specimens and others within the same species, began an artificial process of positive selection (also known as ‘basal’ selection) consisting of keeping the biggest seeds from the best fruits obtained from the most productive plants. A second phase - creating hybrid species by crossing one with another - succeeded the discovery of gender in plants (from the late 17th century on). However, it was the formulation of the laws of genetics (by Mendel (1822-1884)) and theories of mutation (starting with de Vries) in the 19th century that produced the greatest advances in this field.

The symbolism of fruit

All edible fruits and vegetables used to be regarded as possessing some medicinal property: the history of food and that of medicinal plants overlap at this point. Many cultures considered vegetable foodstuffs to be inferior, fit only for the lowest classes. However, fruits – especially tree-borne ones - occupied a superior position within the vegetable kingdom: they did not have to be extracted from the soil, nor did they grow on top of it in contact with fertilizer, and they were charged with symbolism.

Generically, fruits represented life, health and fertility, sensuous pleasure and sex. But specific fruits have also had their own symbolic significance throughout history, retained for thousands of years in some cases, while in others it has varied in different periods and places depending on the culture currently holding sway.

The apple, one of the most frequently depicted fruits in art, represents sin for the Judeo-Christian civilization (it is usually identified with the biblical forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which appears in the book of Genesis), and is also a symbol of knowledge and of loss of virginity. For the same culture, the pear symbolizes the will of God. The peach represented immortality in the ancient empires of the Far East, while in many cultures apricots, with their vulva-like inward fold, symbolize the female sex.

As the fount of wine, grapes symbolize the Christian Eucharist, also known as holy communion. For the Romans, strawberries symbolized Venus, love and female sensuality because of their shape and color, but the fact of their being the first spring fruits later made them a Christian symbol of the Resurrection. A similar role is still played by the cherry in Japan, again a symbol of spring with its associations of purity, beauty and sincerity. The watermelon, a summer fruit par excellence, represents the fruitfulness of the earth and the fruits of one’s labor.

In Ancient Greece and Rome, the quince stood for love and happiness, while the fig symbolized fertility and procreation in the East, abundance for the Greeks and sincerity for the Christians. The pomegranate, with its many seeds, was a fertility symbol from ancient Babylon on. The plum represents long life in the Far East yet, paradoxically, is also symbolic of illness.

Fruit in Antiquity

Fruit in Antiquity

The Phoenicians grew figs, apples, quinces, dates, pomegranates, lotuses and citrons, continuing a tradition of cultivating fruit species mentioned in many Assyrian and Babylonian 2.texts. The Phoenicians’ trading activities were also instrumental in spreading most of these species around the Mediterranean.


The Ancient Greeks did not differentiate linguistically between fresh fruits and nuts, but there is evidence that they ate fruits as dessert. One fruit – the fig (sykon) - stood out in importance from all the rest in Ancient Greece: many wild and cultivated species of fig, from all over the eastern Mediterranean, were known and eaten in quantity, both fresh and dried. As to other fruits, there are notable written references to different species of pear (ápion), apple (mêlon) and quince (kydónion), the latter sometimes being regarded as a variety of apple; grapes (bótrys or staphýle), tree strawberries (mimaíkylon), blackberries (móron), white mulberries (sykáminon), melons (pépon), loquats (méspile), myrtle berries and lotus fruit were also eaten. Peaches (mêlon Persikón) reached the Greeks across Persia and Asia Minor, as did apricots (mêlon Armeniakón or prekókkion), cherries (kerásion), plums (kokkýmelon), pomegranates (rhóa) and dates (phoînix). The citron (mêlon Medikón o kítrion) - the first citrus fruit known in Europe - was imported from Persia by Alexander the Great (356-323BC): it reached Greece and Rome around the 1st century 3.AD.

Fruit and social status

In Ancient Rome, the same species of fruits were eaten as in Greece and the rest of the Mediterranean. In Roman culture, different categories of food were associated with the social status of the individual. Foods extracted from the ground were considered the most vulgar, and even these were divided into two 4.categories, those grown in tilled soil (such as cereals and pulses) representing the lowest rung on the food ladder, and those grown in orchards and gardens (fruits, green and other vegetables), being considered more ‘civilized’, although this epithet was again fine-tuned to different degrees of nobility according to their proximity to the soil: buried in it, exposed to the sun on top of it, or borne above it on trees.

Fruit in Roman cooking

Documentary evidence tells us that certain fruits were in common use in Roman family cooking. One example of such evidence is a list found in Pompeii of an artisan family’s expenditure on food which reveals the dietary basics to have been cereals and cheese, followed by oil, fish and charcuterie, onions, leeks and 5.dates. Dates, grapes and other fruits and nuts were among the favorite foods eaten for dessert by the Ancient Romans, and they also ate them for breakfast. They preferred cooked food to raw and usually boiled apples and pears, for example, before eating them. We have the Romans to thank for the first recipes for cooked fruit tarts, and the very ancient recipe for arrope (grape-must reduced to the consistency of runny honey by boiling, to which cooked or very ripe fruit was added) may also date back to them.

Apicius recommended immersing individual pieces of fruit in honey (without removing the stalks, to prevent them drying out) or burying them in sawdust in a cool place as methods of keeping them edible for 6.longer.

With the passage of time, contact between the Romans and the peoples of the Iberian Peninsula resulted in the cultural and culinary customs of the Empire gradually becoming dominant, and crops had to be diversified and grown more intensively to meet their demands. However, it should not be forgotten that there were already broad swathes of irrigated land in the Guadiana and Guadalquivir river valleys in the south, and several reservoirs for irrigation purposes in the central plateau and eastern coastal regions when the Romans arrived in the Peninsula. Rome prized Hispania overall as highly fertile territory, and the poet Claudian also describes it as a rich source of horses, fruits and 7.metals.

Fruit in Visigothic Spain

The products that were grown and eaten in Medieval Christian Hispania were the same as those that formed part of the Roman diet, albeit with stronger leanings towards meat-eating than towards fruit and vegetables. Peasant dwellings traditionally had a small patch of land attached, made highly productive in comparison with fields of cereal crops by manure (supplied by animals and humans) and, furthermore, not subject to taxation by the landowner. Fruit trees were also frequently to be found in the orchards and gardens of monasteries and palaces. In the Middle Ages, many regions gradually specialized in growing certain fruits. The north, for example, grew apples in quantity; citrus fruits were grown in the eastern coastal region from the 12th century on; figs grew in the south… but only Murcia, in the south east of the Peninsula, went on to be identified primarily with fruit and vegetable growing.

Irrigation in Al-Ándalus

Irrigation in Al-Ándalus

In the Middle Ages, Christians prioritized cereals in their diet, cultivating very little in the way of fruit and vegetables: these were eaten at specific times of year by some peasant families whose dietary mainstays were bread and porridge made from cereals and pulses. In the course of just a few centuries, many of the species introduced by the Romans were lost (until recovered later by the Muslim occupiers).

Although systems of water management channels already existed in Roman and Visigothic Spain, it was the Muslim occupation of large areas of the Iberian Peninsula that produced the real revolution in harnessing water as a resource. The Muslims were skilled at irrigation and imported innovative methods already in use in the Middle East and North Africa, and also applied and improved upon ancient oriental treatises on agriculture.

In the south of the Peninsula they deployed lifting machinery to extract water from wells and hydraulic devices like the water wheel; along the east coast they capitalized on the natural lie of the land to divert river water to 8.crop-growing areas. Clever use of water, land and climate resources, and the introduction and improvement of a wide range of fruit trees (citrus, cherry, pomegranate, fig, almond, date …) and vegetables (aubergine/egg plant, spinach, asparagus, artichoke…) laid the foundations of the rich fruit and vegetable heritage that the regions of Valencian Comunity and Murcia still possess, and are still famous for, today.

As a result of these advances in agricultural technique and the wide variety of species they grew, the Muslims occupying the Iberian Peninsula could eat fresh fruit and vegetables all year round. Indeed, consuming large quantities of fruit and vegetables became so characteristic of Al-Ándalus (the Muslim-occupied areas of the Peninsula) that the Spanish Inquisition used it to test for adherence to the Muslim faith. An old meat-eating Christian man expressed his view of the Andalusí Mediterranean dietary habits as follows: “Their meals were coarse, always eaten sitting on the ground […] they ate vulgar things […] such as pulse flours, lentils, maize, broad beans, millet and bread made thereof. With that bread, those who could ate raisins, figs, honey, syrup, milk and fruits in their season such as melons, even though they were green and no larger than your fist, cucumbers, peaches and all sorts of other things […] the areas that they occupied were many and good, and they scarcely used them for growing things of substance but rather for fig, cherry, plum and peach trees and vines for raisins, and certain vegetables, melons and cucumbers, neglecting the important vineyards, the fruitful olive groves and the tilling of the rough land and the raising of herds of 9.animals”.

The importance of the citrus fruits introduced into the Iberian Peninsula by the Arabs from the 10th century on is dealt with in the chapter entitled Citrus.

A revolution in eating habits: fruits from the Americas

Most of the new American species of fruits and vegetables arrived on Spanish soil in the first half of the 16th century, but although their use was well recorded by botanists who traveled to the New World, they did not attract much interest beyond curiosity. It was not until the mid-16th to mid-17th centuries that some of the new species started to come into use.

Among the first products brought back to Spain, between the late 15th and early 16th centuries, were some fruit species that particularly appealed to the Spanish: pineapple, cacao, cherimoya (custard apple) and avocado (‘pear of the Indies’). In the 16th century, fruits from Europe, Africa and Asia were taken to the Americas where they adapted perfectly to the new continent; they included rutaceae (citrus), banana, coconut, mango, tamarind, grape and melon. The importance of tropical fruits is dealt with in a dedicated chapter entitled Subtropical Fruits.

Strawberries, known and eaten as a wild species since ancient times, and cultivated from the 13th century on, were ousted as a crop by a bigger species native to Chile (known in Spanish as fresón or frutilla de Chile).

Vitamin C and fruit

Vitamin C and fruit

The poorest classes are traditionally believed to have suffered all kinds of ailments through vitamin deficiency caused by not eating fruit. In fact, the cause is more likely to have been overall dietary deficiency, particularly among urban dwellers. As with vegetables, the everyday diet of rural peasants would almost certainly have been supplemented by wild or cultivated fruits and nuts. What varieties they ate, and in what quantities, would obviously have varied considerably according to region and time of year. If they used grapes for making wine, apples for making cider, and pears, cherries and other fruits for making different drinks and distilled liquors, they would certainly have seized every opportunity to augment their diet with fresh fruit whenever it was available.

Surviving documents relating to what was eaten in the Royal Palace bear witness to the fact that many varieties of fruit featured in its menus as a first course, as an accompaniment to meat served in sauce, as a garnish, and as dessert, but they were far from being favorite foods. The accession of the French Bourbon dynasty, at the end of the 17th century brought changes to dietary habits of the Court: fruit was no longer served at the start of meals, and was generally looked on more 10.favorably.

Europe showed little awareness of the beneficial properties of fresh fruit until the rediscovery of Galen in the mid-16th century. During the Middle Ages, and on into the Modern Era, it was commonly believed in Europe that: “…usually, fruits are not good, but there are differences among them; some, like loquats, are always bad for you; some others, such as figs and dates, are not so bad […] suffice it to say that, as a general rule, fruits are harmful, everyone should avoid them, they should not be mixed with other foodstuffs; should anyone want to eat [them], let them be the softest ones, like 11.prunes…”.

One of the most serious illnesses caused by not eating fresh fruit and vegetables is scurvy. The connection between this condition and lack of Vitamin C was discovered in the 20th century by a Hungarian doctor, Albert Szent-György (1893-1986), though it had already been established two centuries earlier that it could be cured by eating fresh fruit and vegetables, even if it was not understood why. After the siege of Thorn in Germany (1703), Lutheran scientist and theologian Johann Friedrich Bachstrom (1688-1742) was the first to observe that the outbreak of scurvy that had ravaged the city abated once supplies of fresh fruits and vegetables were restored. However, it was not until 1777 that an English doctor, Jacob Lind, after conducting experiments with sailors suffering from scurvy, concluded that lemon juice could both prevent and cure the disease.

Fresh fruits gain status

Fresh fruits gain status

In the modern era, there was a shift of attitude towards fruit. One force for change was the emergence in the latter half of the 19th century of a vegetarian movement that had been gestating in Germany since the century before, its influence being spread by such books as Cristoph Wilhelm Hufeland’s (1762-1836) Macrobiotics, and Theodor Hahn’s (1824-1883) Natural Diet, the Diet of the Future (1857).

Other influences were advances in the field of medicine, again from the late 18th century on, when the link between certain ailments and vitamin deprivation was discovered and foods containing those vitamins were identified, so that it became advisable to eat a varied diet involving more fruit and vegetables. The combined effects of these factors, and a gradual departure from the traditional diet (as reflected in an increasing number of recipes for meatless dishes in cookery books published between the 17th and 19th centuries), changed eating habits to such an extent that, in Europe as a whole, fruit and vegetable consumption doubled in the course of the 19th century and then doubled again by 12.1950.

Present-day fruit production in Spain

The agrochemical and technological revolution that occurred in the 20th century made it possible for any fruit or vegetable species to be grown intensively at any time of year using greenhouses and chemical fertilizers. New species were also created, and varieties were specifically tailored to meet consumer demands, while advances in finely-tuned industrial chilling made it possible to keep produce fresh for longer. Today, eating fruit and vegetables is regarded as one of the principal characteristics of the Mediterranean diet and as a passport to good health.

The 2199.190.000 acres dedicated to non-citrus fruit-growing in Spain (622.692000 acres of which are irrigated) yield 10.802.638 lb of produce; of this total, 6.834.322 lb are consumed fresh by the domestic market and 3.747.854 lb are exported. Considered together with the even greater quantities for citrus fruits, these figures demonstrate how important this sector is for Spain’s agriculture and economy. Apart from citrus, the species produced in the biggest quantities are peaches, apples, pears, melons and some tropical species such as bananas and 13.avocadoes. Spain is the EU’s leading producer of citrus fruits, pomegranates, loquats and strawberries, and the second producer in the world of these last two fruits.


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

Fruits in Antiquity/Fruit in Roman cooking
Cover of Apicius De Re Culinaria cookery book, printed in 1541 in Lyon by Sebastianus Gryphium. Licensed under PD Creative Commons by Tiptop.

Irrigation in Al Andalus
Ancient wooden noria (1100 BC) on Orontes River in Hama, Syria. OPIS Zagreb@Shutterstock.

Vitamin C and fruit
Cover of Johann Friedrich Bachstrom's book describing scurvy in 1734. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

Fresh fruits gain status
Bodegón con sandía. Still life with watermelon. Eugenio Lucas (1817- 1870). Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.