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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Preserved meat
Foods from Spain History: New Technology Gives Food Longer Life

Foods from Spain History: New Technology Gives Food Longer Life

The history of preserved foodstuffs can be traced back to earliest Man, who used the available natural resources to prevent food from rotting and keep it in an edible condition for as long as possible. These resources were: sun, wind, ice, smoke, salt, honey.

Traditional ways of preserving meat

Many traditional methods of preserving were used in the Ancient World and have survived (albeit not in industrial form) to this day: drying, smoking, salting, immersing in alcohol (wine, distilled spirit), brine or oil, frying in oil, cooking in honey, immersing in vinegar (pickling)... All these methods have been used for preserving meat and fish.

But the methods most generally applied to meat were drying, smoking and salting. These are dealt with at some length in the sections devoted to the history of traditional charcuterie, Ibérico ham and Serrano ham. Salting processes are also described in the section devoted to preserved fish, and other methods are mentioned in the chapter on honey.

Actually, these methods mentioned above were the only ones used for preserving meat until well into the 19th century.

Hermetic preserving and artificial cold

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

Hermetic preserving

Studies conducted throughout the 19th century into improving methods of preserving foodstuffs hermetically relied on three fundamental props: the steam engine and Denis Papin’s (1647-1712) experiments between 1690 and 1707 with heating and achieving a hermetic seal by creating a vacuum; the Appert method of placing food in a glass container with a cork stopper and boiling it; and chemist Louis Joseph Gay-Lussac’s (1778-1850) erroneous counter theories that the presence of pathogens and the presence of oxygen were inter-related. The great revolution was to occur in the 1860s with Louis Pasteur’s (1822-1895) discoveries about germs and sterilizing food. Pasteurization – a vindication of Appert’s theories - had arrived.

Appert’s food preserving methods, further developed by Joseph Colin in Nantes from 1822 on, were widely adopted first, and most enthusiastically, in Spain and Germany.

In 1830, Baron Wilhelm Eberhard Anton von Campen, having heard about Appert’s discovery during a diplomatic mission, successfully used the Appert method to preserve game meat on his return to Brunswick. Such was his success that many of Lower Saxony’s tinsmiths began to try their hand, setting up a canning factory in 1840 that was to expand 1.rapidly. From 1860 on, numerous canning and bottling companies were set up, in the USA, primarily to supply the troops during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Furthermore, from the 1870s on, the United States capitalized on the agricultural crisis in Europe to export its surpluses, enhancing both trade and the canning and bottling industry in the process. In the latter decades of the 19th century, canning and bottling factories spread throughout Germany (there were 224 by 1906), as they did in the north and south of Spain where they appeared early and developed rapidly, but mainly devoted to fish preserves.

Artificial cold

Chilling is the most ancient method of preserving food. It has been used at every period, nature permitting. Some parts of Spain turned mountain ice and snow into their most prized natural resource: for example, in the 17th century the inhabitants of the little town of Ibi (Valencian Community) traded in it as a method of preserving food, and also became famous for their ice creams. Selling snow even became a recognized occupation: neveros (snow-sellers) continued to operate until the end of the 119th century. Natural ice was used in an almost industrial way in some fish factories during the Roman period. The first refrigerators were pits in the ground, protected from the sun, in which ice could be kept during the summer months. Up until the 19th century, the Scandinavian countries used to export ice by sea, keeping it in sawdust and special containers.

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

Mere ‘chilling’ became ‘refrigeration’ in 1834 when Jacob Perkins (1766-1849), a North American inventor, patented an ice-making machine that used ether, even though it proved to be more expensive to make it than to import it. In 1844 John Gorrie (1803-1855) patented a compressed air machine whose surface became cold when the air expanded; this led to his patenting the first refrigerator to use a steam engine to compress and expand air in the United States in 1851. In 1868, French engineer Charles Tellier (1828-1913) started studying refrigeration using compressed air motors and in the following decade was able to put his findings into practice manufacturing meat refrigerating machines for use on board ship. The first was installed on a cargo boat carrying meat from Buenos Aires to France (a journey of 105 2.days). This new technique was to make it possible to import all kinds of fresh products into Europe, especially from countries with a large surplus of meat, (Argentina, Australia, the United States, New Zealand), which was then sold very cheaply to France and Britain.

The first domestic refrigerator was sold by Larsen in the United States in 1913, though they did not become popular there until Kelvinator produced the first model with automatic controls in 1918. This did not become available in Europe until 1931, when it was sold under the Electrolux brand.

Preserved meat

Preserved meat

From the early 20th century on, preserving meat relied on the two methods described earlier: hermetic preserving and artificial cold.

The fact that international trade in fresh meat could be conducted throughout the 20th century was thanks to artificial cold. Furthermore, refrigeration is the only preserving method that does not produce essential changes in foods or what they taste like, so its availability changed dietary and eating habits.

Hermetic preserving made it possible to supply the population with meat in periods of crisis, such as during the two World Wars, the Spanish Civil War and the problematic post-war periods.

At times of economic boom, cooked and precooked preserved meat products have ceased to be essential foodstuffs and become complementary ones: these include charcuterie, ‘home-made’ style stews, and genuine delicacies, artisan cooked and packed, aimed at a growing gourmet market:

Livers and by-products: whole duck, goose and gander livers; pig, duck, goose and gander liver derivatives aromatized with wines, liqueurs, spices and herbs, and of various textures and qualities (depending on the percentage of liver): pâté, foie gras, mousse. Morteruelo merits a separate mention: this pig's liver stew to which other poultry and game meats are added appears in written references dating back as far as the 15th century. It is made by adding breadcrumbs and spices (some recipes also include nuts, cheese and milk) and pounding all the ingredients together with pestle and mortar to produce a paste sometimes referred to as ‘La Mancha’s answer to foie gras’.

Cooked dishes: made with pulses (fabada asturiana, cocido madrileño, lentils with chorizo); made with pork, lamb or beef (meatballs, tripe, pigs trotters, tail, shank, tongue, meat-and-vegetable braises and stews...).

Game-birds and other game: quail, partridge, pigeon, wild duck, wild boar, venison, hare, rabbit, frog legs, snails...


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

Hermetic preserving and artificial cold/hermetic preserving
Bodegón con verduras, fruta y lata de conserva. Still life with greens,fruit and a tin can. Marqués de Cerralbo (1845-1922), Museo Cerralbo, Madrid, Spain

Preserved meat
Santagna labels for meat products in the 1950's. Santagna, Conserves de Carn, Blanes, Girona, Spain.