Use cookies

This website uses cookies to deliver superior functionality and to enhance your experience. Continued use of this site indicates that you accept this policy.

Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Sauces
Foods From Spain History: Sauces, Soy, Garum, Mayo…

Foods From Spain History: Sauces, Soy, Garum, Mayo…

Sauces are liquid dressings that either accompany or envelop the food on a plate. They may have been used in the process of cooking the food, or simply be served alongside it at table, and can be hot or cold. Sauces have been used to enhance or disguise the flavor of certain foods throughout history – although we have only written evidence of their use down the ages, there seems to be a correlation between them and the process of civilization. Spices or other additives are used in cooking in nearly all cultures; sauces represent a step further forward in that they mix and incorporate those elements into a liquid base, and are reproduced time after time to, at least, similar effect.

This account is by no means exhaustive: it focuses on landmark sauces in history, and those most closely associated with Spanish gastronomy.

The first sauces

The first sauces

Thick sauces made in Assyria (2000-612BC) and Babylon of a mixture of wine, spices and 1.honey for eating with game are noteworthy among the earliest known examples. Sauces were also a feature of the food of Ancient Egypt (3150-1100BC) and Ancient Greece (1100-146BC): Apicius’ cookery mentions Egyptian sauces made by boiling up spices such as oregano, cumin and coriander in oil and wine or vinegar for dressing fish cooked over glowing coals. The pestle and mortar that were part of everyday kitchen equipment in the Roman Empire were used for grinding up spices and making sauces.

Most of the sauces made during Antiquity were based on one of four fundamental ingredients - wine, vinegar, honey and brine - to which many spices could then be added. There were, however, others that called for blood, oil, eggs, bread, cream and other ingredients. Strong flavors were thought to be essential, to stimulate the 3.senses.

There were two important exceptions to these categories:

Soy sauce

Soy sauce, made by fermenting soya beans with toasted wheat grains. This sauce probably came into being during the Zhou dynasty of Ancient China (1045-256BC) to fulfill the need for strictly vegetable derived condiments required by the vegetarianism associated with the spread of Buddhism in the middle of the 1st millennium BC.


Garum. This famous 4.sauce, Phoenician or Greek in origin, became one of the best known products of Hispania during the pre-Roman and Roman periods. It was made by controlling the fermentation that sets in when fish entrails (in this case, mainly eel, sardine and mackerel) start to rot. The most famous version was garum sociorum from Carthago Nova (present-day Cartagena in southeastern Spain), made from the blood and intestines of a variety of mackerel known as garós, possibly a different species from the present-day Scomber scombrus. A by-product of garum-making was liquamen, a thinner liquid which was also highly prized: we know today it that it was rich in amino acids) such as monosodium glutamate) and was therefore an excellent flavor enhancer in sauces and stews.

The Roman province of Hispania was the leading supplier of fish, mollusks and garum in the entire Roman Empire. Supplying the voracious demand for fish was not left to chance , but guaranteed by the use of fish-farming methods – keeping, fattening and breeding fish in captivity, in tanks (piscinae) installed in the very factories (cetaria) where they would later be cleaned, cut up, salted, seasoned and packed, or garum would be made and put into containers.

The important Hispanic fish salting industry in the south of the Iberian Peninsula, to which garum manufacture was linked, probably originated early in the 1st millennium BC, but the first archaeological and textual evidence we have relates to Phoenician- Punic trade in the Mediterranean, beginning in the 8th century BC.

The Romans looked on garum sauce as a delicious, multi-purpose condiment. It was believed to be an aphrodisiac, and was an ingredient in most other sauces as well as being used on its own or in combination with olive oil. Top quality garum fetched very high prices in the marketplace. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire (395-1453DC) inherited some of its traditions, including the manufacture and use of the prized garum, which continued to be eaten in Greece and Anatolia or Asia Minor throughout the Middle Ages.

Sauces in the Middle Ages

In medieval Europe, sauces continued to be used as an accompaniment, mostly to meat dishes. Garlic sauce served with beef steak, a little salt pork and puréed beans was considered delicious in areas where the cultural imprint of the Romans was deepest, yet 10th century Lombard diplomat, historian and bishop Liutprand of Cremona, author of an impressive history of the Byzantine Empire, expresses his astonishment at the ‘stinking fish sauce’ (garum) that they poured over their

The Romans garlic sauce would later be revived by the Arab occupiers of the Iberian Peninsula as the blend of garlic and olive oil known as alioli.

In the Middle East, olive oil, sour cream, citrus fruits, nuts and vinegar were also brought into play for sauces, and the Arab founders of Al-Ándalus brought this inherited tradition into the Iberian Peninsula with them. One common example of this oriental Muslim heritage was camelina sauce, which was thickened with crushed almonds and flavored with cinnamon. Combining as it did the oriental tradition with the Roman and Hispano- Visigothic, the gastronomy of Al-Ándalus, could justifiably lay claim to being the finest of the medieval period.

Modernization of sauces

Modernization of sauces

From the Renaissance on, especially in tri-cultural (Christian, Jewish and Muslim) Spain, even the most firmly established European culinary traditions absorbed influences from both east and west in the dressing and flavoring of food.

From the 16th century on, there was a discernible tendency in Spain and other European countries to replace the strong, spicy and acidic sauces of ancient and medieval times with milder, fattier, sweeter sauces which allowed the intrinsic flavor of food to show 6.through. Furthermore, new ways were found of thickening sauces: toasted flour replaced bread, butter started to come into regular use, and sauces bound with egg were adopted and refined.

The modern era saw the creation at Court of the role of saucier or head sauce-maker, one of many palace occupations associated with cooking for the royal family. His duties included responsibility for the utensils and condiments (of which the especiero was in charge) needed for making sauces, as well as actually making 7.them and, during royal banquets, waiting at the door of the hall to hand the footmen silver bowls of sauces for the table in exchange for the plates they had just cleared from it. At public dinners, his duties included laying the table and sideboard with a cloth, and placing the vinegar (for salads) and sauces in readiness.

From the 17th century on, two originally Spanish sauces became much more widely known and acquired a certain prestige, going on to make an important contribution to international gastronomy. Despite their possibly humble and ancient origin, ‘mayonnaise’ and ‘sauce espagnole’ were taken up by the royal households of Europe: they were given their now well-known names after being ‘discovered’ by the chefs in the French royal kitchens.

Spain’s traditional sauces



According to the original recipe, this sauce consists of crushed garlic cloves gradually blended with olive oil until it takes on the consistency of a cream or pomade, and seasoned with a little salt and lemon juice. The more famous mayonnaise, featured below, is clearly derived from this sauce.

The word alioli comes from the Catalan all i oli, which simply means ‘garlic and oil’. This sauce may well be related to the garlic sauces known to have been used in Ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, this recipe, like many others, was recovered by the Hispano-Arab cuisine of Al-Ándalus and spread primarily around the former Kingdom of Aragón area- Catalonia, Aragón, the Valencian Community and the Balearic Islands - where it received its present name and in whose cuisine it features frequently as an accompaniment to the region’s specialty rice dish, paella, and its noodle equivalent, fideuá.

Sauce espagnole

Sauce espagnole is a meat-based brown sauce used for enriching the flavor of stews and as the basis for making many other derivative sauces. Although it comes in many varieties using many different ingredients, it is essentially a thickened, highly concentrated reduction of meat stock. The stock is made with veal bones and vegetables and water or wine (preferably sherry), constantly reduced and topped up until a dark concentrate has been achieved, the process can take several days. To make sauce espagnole, chopped vegetables, including onion, mushrooms and tomatoes, are browned in a brown roux (made with butter or oil and very toasted flour) to which the reduced stock is then added, and allowed to cook into a concentrated gelatinous sauce.

Most professional cooks consider sauce espagnole and the French demi-glace to be one and the same thing. However, some food writers believe that the French sauce is in fact a derivative of the Spanish, with slight variations in the ingredients. In general practice, the two terms tend to be used interchangeably for any sauce made with brown meat stock.

Though there is no proof of its historical accuracy, oral tradition has it that sauce espagnole became famous after Anne of Austria (1606-1646), daughter of King Philip III of Spain, married Louis XIII of Bourbon, King of France (1601-1643) on 18 th October, 1615. The French king’s new consort (famous for her alleged infidelity with the Duke of Buckingham in response to her husband’s secret homosexuality, and the inspiration for the story line of Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers) arrived in Paris with a retinue that included several Spanish cooks, who taught their French colleagues how to make it. Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), an opponent of the queen and of the House of Habsburg as a whole, was supposedly one of the first, however, to appreciate the Spanish sauce and its property of heightening the flavor of meat dishes, particularly lamb, game and poultry.


Mayonnaise (a derivative of alioli) is an emulsion made by beating raw egg with olive oil until it takes on a creamy consistency, then seasoning it with salt and lemon or vinegar. It is difficult to ascertain where and when this sauce was created, but it may have been made in Roman times, but there is no written evidence. However the oral tradition persists in both Spain and France that seems to fix the dates when this recipe was transmitted from the households of Spain to the Court of France and this at least indicates when it received its current name and began its international career.

Tradition has it that mayonnaise started out as a simple, anonymous egg-thickened sauce habitually eaten in Menorca. It was served to the Duke of Richelieu during a period spent in Mahón, the capital of that Balearic Island, in 1756: led by Richelieu, French troops conquered the island, taking it from the British (who had invaded it in 1708 during the War of Spanish Succession) and returning it to the Spanish. Richelieu was so impressed by the sauce that he asked for the recipe and took it back to France, where he christened it ‘sauce mahonnaise’, which later became corrupted to ‘10.mayonnaise’.

In the 20th century, a controversy was triggered in Spain by the suggestion that it was originally French: this hypothesis was based on a document (a poem in French) which allegedly mentioned mayonnaise a century earlier than Richelieu’s stay in Menorca. The situation was resolved by a now famous article by Camilo José Cela (1916-2002), winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989, demonstrating that the document in question in fact dated from the late 18th century and declaring that “...the French have always known that (the term) mayonnaise was just a folk version of mahonnaise.

One of the most widely sold and consumed sauces in the world, mayonnaise also provides the basic ingredient for other famous sauces such as tartare sauce (basically a mayonnaise into which chopped pickled gherkins, capers and onion have been mixed), and Marie Rose sauce (at its simplest, a mixture of mayonnaise and tomato ketchup). It is also the base for other sauces such as sauce allemande, a velouté enriched with raw egg yolks.

The Catalan sauces

These Catalan sauces originated in the ports along the coast of Catalonia and Valencia, probably in the 19th century. There is a lack of documentary evidence that would date them more specifically, but it is known categorically that they go back no earlier than the 17th century since all of them has tomatoes or peppers - which were not in general use until at least that period - among their main ingredients.

Romesco sauce

The ingredients for romesco sauce are olive oil, vinegar, garlic, bread, almonds or hazelnuts and dried red peppers (the type of pepper generally used is a local specialty known as pebrot de romesco). It is a thick sauce made by mixing together sofrito (see below) and the granular paste produced by crushing the nuts (toasted) with the bread (fried in olive oil), using a pestle and mortar. It originated among the fishermen of the Tarragona coast, probably in the 19th century, and was eaten with fish and seafood.

Variants on romesco include salvitxada, a sauce served with calçots (the tender spring onions traditionally eaten roasted in some areas of Catalonia). This is made by adding fresh mint. Another is xató (the sauce for xató salad), for which ñoras peppers are used; it is served with escarole, anchovies and salt cod.

Suquet sauce

This sauce – a classic of the Catalan and Valencian coast - gives its name to the seafaring fish stew, suquet. It is made with garlic, onion, almonds, parsley, salt, saffron and ripe tomatoes, and was originally used by fishermen, particularly for cooking and eating fish badly damaged during catching or handling.

Canary Islands mojos

Canary Islands sauces are known as ‘mojos’ – an adaptation of the Portuguese word molho, which simply means ‘sauce’, although for the inhabitants it means a particular type of sauce, made with a pestle and mortar. The vocabulary of the Canary Islands is much influenced by the fact that, historically, there has been a strong Portuguese presence in these Spanish islands.

Like the Spanish and the Genoese, the Portuguese started arriving in the archipielago when it was rediscovered in the 14th century, and continued to do so until 1520. Many of these immigrants were of Jewish or Morisco (Christianized Moorish) extraction, hoping to make their way inconspicuously to the Americas by avoiding the ports of the Peninsula where the ban on non-Christians traveling to the New World was more assiduously applied.

In the course of the 16th century this kind of immigration stopped, and a wave of emigration to the Americas began that virtually depopulated the islands until controls were applied in 1574. A second, lesser, wave of Portuguese immigrants reached the Canary Islands from the late 18th century onwards. Canary Island cuisine as a whole reflects Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American influence: these characteristic mojos are originally fishermen’s sauces of more recent, probably 19th century, origin and their name is simply one of the linguistic quirks that are another product of this multicultural input.

Mojos can be classified into two major groups - red and green - according to their ingredients. The most usual red mojos are made with palmera (or picona) peppers and pimentón (a Spanish type of paprika). Green mojos are the ones that the local people eat most of, and contain aromatic herbs. Broadly speaking, these types of mojo are made by macerating either hot pepper (for the red ones) or aromatic herbs (for the green ones) in olive oil. There are many other mojos, such as various kinds of mojo queso, made with local cheese; mojo de ajo, made with garlic sauce; and mojo de azafrán, made with garlic and saffron, and every family has its own recipes. A classic use for a mojo is to serve it with potatoes boiled in their skins with lots of sea salt, known locally as papas arrugás (wrinkled potatoes).

Red mojo

Although both red and green mojos are types of mojo picón – piquant sauce - it is the former that tends to be identified as such. For making mojo picón, or mojo rojo, one needs garlic, dried chili pepper, red pepper, oregano, bay, thyme, olive oil, vinegar and salt, with cumin, coriander and parsley as optional extras. This sauce is particularly suitable for serving with meat.

Green mojo

Mojo verde calls for garlic, green pepper, olive oil, vinegar, coriander, cumin and salt. One of the main variants is mojo albahaca, which uses basil mixed with the coriander. In green mojos, the piquant zing is supplied by the garlic in the recipe. They tend to be served with fish.

Sauces in today’s Spain

Sauces in today’s Spain

Nowadays, the sauces we eat most of are the ones associated with international cuisine. Some sauces were produced commercially very early on, in the latter decades of the 19th century, and met with great success: Worcester sauce (‘salsa inglesa’ in Spanish) is one example, first marketed by Lea and Perrin in 1836, though it did not really catch on until the 1930s; ketchup is another: the first industrial version was packed and marketed in North America by Henry J. Heinz in 1876.

The main sauces used in professional cooking nowadays are still those listed by Auguste Escoffier (1847-1935) - sauce espagnole, mayonnaise, béchamel, hollandaise, tomato sauce and velouté - and known as the ‘mother sauces’.

The most popular sauces from the commercial viewpoint need a parallel list of their own: mayonnaise, soy sauce, mustard, tomato sauce and its variant, ketchup. Some of these commercial sauces - soy sauce, for example - have centuries of history behind them.

Finally, there is one Spanish sauce that deserves a mention because of its ubiquity in traditional home cooking, sofrito, the hot sauce that provides the basis for nearly all the stews and braises in the Spanish repertoire. It is made by frying chopped vegetables such as onion, pepper and tomato in olive oil until they release their liquid and allowing them to continue cooking in their own juice.


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).

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 first sauces
Bronze mortar and pestle from the tomb of King Zhao Mo of Nanyue (137 BC). Licensed under Creative Commons by Babel Stone.

The first sauces/Garum
Garum factory in the Roman town of Baelo Claudia, north of Tarifa, Spain. Licensed under GNU & Creative Commons by Annual.

Modernization of sauces
Christ in the house of Marth and Mary, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), The National Gallery, London, United Kingdom.

Spain's traditional sauces/mayonnaise
Portrait of the Duke of Richelieu by Auguste Couder (1790-1873), Palace of Versailles, France. Licensed under PDCreative Commons by Jimmy44.

Sauces in today's Spain
First label for Choví Mayonnaise, 1953. Courtesy from Chovi SLU.