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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Spices & salt
Foods From Spain: Spices & salt. Making the most of taste

Foods From Spain: Spices & salt. Making the most of taste

The term ‘spices’ is generally used to mean an assorted group of natural elements that are used as seasoning, flavor enhancers, aromatizers, colorants and dressings. The group includes minerals, such as salt and other seasonings, spices in the true sense of the term, aromatic herbs and other plants, and condiments, a broad category which includes sugar, fruit, vegetables, nuts, certain tubers and roots, flowers, oil, vinegar, some manufactured foods (such as cheese), some preparations such as sauces (garum, for example), and more.

That said, however, it should be borne in mind that definitions in this area have become blurred with the passage of time, (the word ‘condiment’ derives from the Latin condire, meaning ‘to season’) and that the words ‘spice’ and ‘condiment’ are sometimes used as synonyms.

Spices etymology

Strictly speaking, spices would be the hard parts of certain plants (seeds bark) and some leaves which, either ground up or whole, are used as a condiment. Exceptions include saffron, made up of flower stigmas (not a hard part of the plant), and pimentón, made from a fruit.

The word ‘spice’ derives from the Latin species, which literally means ‘distinguishing feature’, in the visual sense of ‘outward appearance’. It is related to the Latin verb specere, meaning ‘to look at, see, behold’, but was also used in Ancient Rome to mean ‘kind’ or ‘type’ - (the sense in which the word ‘species’ is used today) and, very commonly, ‘trade goods’ or ‘merchandise’. This meaning persisted into Medieval Latin, from which it entered many modern western languages. It could be said, then, that spices are something that stamps foodstuffs with character and personality, not forgetting that historically they have been perceived as products of long-distance trade, an exotic product from faraway lands, as was indeed true for the most highly prized spices.

The verb ‘to season’, meanwhile, means “to give flavor and taste to things” so that they are enjoyed “at their best”. This establishes the connection between spices and flavor and taste, and matches a definition of spice that appears in Spanish around 1250: “droga con que se sazonan los manjares” (‘drug with which victuals are 1.seasoned’), (‘droga’ being understood to mean a substance, be it animal, vegetable or mineral, used in medicine, industry or the fine 2.arts) and directly links spices with food.

Trying to condense the history of spices into one brief chapter is a tall order: merely mentioning the ones we use as seasoning would produce a very long list indeed. This big subject is perhaps best approached via a few frequently asked questions, leading in to the historical background of spice production and consumption in Spain.

Taste and flavors

Taste and flavors

There are five classic tastes in the sense of different impressions that various foods generate in us resulting from the chemical sensations we feel when they come into contact with specific sensors on our tongues (taste buds) and our sense of smell. The five classics are bitter (as in quinine), acidic (as in lemon), sweet (as in sugar), salt (as in sodium chloride) and umami.

Umami is particularly interesting: it is related to glutamic acid, of which monosodium glutamate is a sodium salt, present in some seaweeds, soy sauce, Manchego and other cured cheeses, salted anchovies and serrano ham. It was also the predominant flavor in garum, the fish-gut sauce that the romans loved so much and used as the main flavoring agent in their cuisine. Indeed, it continued in that role until well into the Middle Ages. These are all flavor enhancing foods which stimulate specific receptors on the tongue: this phenomenon was the subject of research by Japanese physiologist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908.

A sixth taste?

Scientists at the University of Burgundy (Dijon, France) go further, and maintain that there is a sixth taste – adipose - which is present in 3.fats. Both spices and fats modify and intensify flavors, which is why many natural fats are also used as a condiment (suet, olive oil, cream, butter, cocoa butter, egg yolk, nuts, and so on).

Some researchers argue for the existence of other specific tastes that our senses identify, though others prefer to categorize them as sensations rather than tastes. They are: hot (as in pepper, chili and ginger); astringent (as in tea and wine tannins); metallic; starchy; and fresh (as in the menthol present in mint leaves).

Sociologically speaking, however, tastes are either nice or nasty depending on the different preferences we acquire socially and culturally. Taste varies in all parts of the world, in every food culture, but it has also changed over time. Each of the cultures that has inhabited Spain in the course of its history has brought its own tastes and gastronomy along with it: for example, the strong acidic, salty and sweet-sour flavors of the Roman world were added to in the Middle Ages by the extreme sweetness, and heady aromas (created by frequent and heavy handed use of oriental spices) of Arab foodways.

Flavor and preserving

Actually, nearly all the classic tastes match up with preserving methods. The oldest of them are saltiness, as in sea, mineral or vegetable salt (this last is extracted from plants by some African cultures) and sweetness, as in honey. Next would come the adipose taste of the olive oil and rendered fat in which certain foods are immersed for flavoring and preserving, and that are used in making charcuterie; then the sharp taste of vinegar or other acids that are used for pickling and other present-day preserves. In fact, the flavor of many Spanish foods harks back to certain spices used for preserving, pimentón (a type of Spanish paprika) used in charcuterie and some cheeses, is a case in point.

Spices and their use

The main purpose of using spices is to alleviate the monotony of food. Adding spices, aromatic herbs or other condiments modifies the flavor and appearance of dishes and can turn one single foodstuff into dozens of different meals. The traditional received idea that spices were used as a preservative, or to disguise unpleasant tastes, is no longer accepted by experts except as a secondary motive, since what was actually used for preserving meat and fish was oil, vinegar and salt. Furthermore, in many cases meat was eaten fresher than it is today, as medieval and modern municipal regulations 4.reveal, and cookery books of the time tell us that many meats were intentionally not eaten fresh, being set aside to putrefy to what was considered the ideal degree for eating, even if the ‘off’ taste and smell might then be masked by vinegar and other condiments. This recipe is for a sauce to serve with (intentionally) rotting venison: “Boil water, beer and wine vinegar at the same time, together with a few leaves of bay, thyme, winter savory, fennel and rosemary, a handful of each kind, and when it boils put it inside the deer, let it boil and season 5.well”.

An additional factor for the Ancients was that each product was endowed with a set of magical, ritual or medicinal properties. This was true of spices and other condiments, too, so that seasoning a dish could sometimes be charged with intentions above and beyond merely influencing its color and flavor. Research has shown that, in many cases, the properties attributed to certain condiments by ancient and medieval medicine and traditional beliefs were rooted in scientific fact. For example, celery, garlic and onions were believed to be aphrodisiac when eaten regularly: it has since been proven that they do, indeed, improve the circulation of the blood.

Traditionally, spices are used to aromatize sauces, wines, distilled liquors, vinegars, oils, charcuterie, bread, sweets and stews. For the reasons outlined above, some have also played an important role in medicine and dietetics: aniseed, mint, cumin and pepper are just some examples.

Distinguishing features: condiments and social class

The use of condiments in general and spices in particular, has also functioned as a measure of social and economic differences.

For one thing, spices are a way of drawing a culinary distinction. The way in which food is seasoned is a marker not only of regional and national differences, but also differentiates one culture from another: it is a cultural indicator.

What is more, access to spices and condiments highlights socio-economic differences within the population. While the least well-off classes in the Mediterranean countries, for example, had - and still have - access to only the most ordinary condiments (garlic, onion, celery, leek, bay...) and typically Mediterranean spices and aromatic herbs (hemp seed, mustard, fennel, coriander, flax, poppy, oregano, thyme...), the wealthy could get spices that were valued for their rarity, having come from the Orient (saffron, pepper, sesame, etc...) and even dress their dishes with the most precious substances (pearls, gold...).

From the 19th century on, industrial food production meant that foodstuffs became more standardized and their flavors more homogenized. This effect was contributed to by some of the commonest spices, which were used habitually in prepared and preserved foods. In the course of the 20th century, certain industrial flavors and foods became commonplace the world over, yet the essential elements of home cooking survived relatively intact despite the cultural globalization that resulted in all traditional cuisines absorbing elements, dishes, flavors and spices typical of other cultures. The loss of distinctive flavors observable in certain canned goods and fast food chain products triggered the response among top chefs of seeking to make their food singular and special – so-called auteur cuisine – by using new techniques, unique aromas produced by clever mixtures of spices from all over the world, and the most sophisticated of condiments.

The value of spices: economics, travel and discoveries

Spices are indisputably important, and not just as a condiment. For over two millennia, the spice trade was one of the most important economic forces and one of the fundamental reasons for cultural interchange between the peoples of East and West. When the traditional routes to the Orient were severed, the quest began for alternatives so that a supply of the most sought-after and exotic spices and other luxury products could be sustained. This quest motivated the long voyages that, particularly in the Modern Era, resulted in the discovery by westerners of new lands and civilizations in America, Asia and Oceania. The search for more accessible routes to the source of oriental spices was one of the primary reasons for expeditions like those undertaken by Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) and Vasco da Gama (1469-1524). Around the Mediterranean, silk, pepper and other spices from Asia were in great demand, and were mainly exchanged for silver.

The salt and honey period

Salt may well have been the first condiment used by man. It was already in use in prehistoric times. Salt was so important as a condiment and preservative that for centuries it served as currency, even in civilizations as advanced as the Greek and Roman.

Honey has been eaten since the dawn of mankind, and it, too, is an excellent preservative and condiment. It was also used in prehistoric times and, like salt, has retained its original uses to this day. The Iberian Peninsula is a rich fount of both salt and honey, and the quantity and quality of both products are commented upon in many texts from Antiquity onwards.

Spices in Antiquity

The use of spices in food represents a certain degree of civilization. It is a kind of aromatic and visual ornamentation which, as discussed above, serves both to establish social differences and to abolish the ‘sameness’ of foods by adding a touch of distinction.

It is known that the first Iberian civilizations (Los Millares, Tartessos, etc.) already used aromatic herbs and other spices and condiments, some native and others obtained via the earliest trade encounters with peoples beyond the confines of the Peninsula. The Phoenicians, one of the first eastern Mediterranean peoples to establish ongoing relations with the Iberian Peninsula from the end of the second millennium BC, used spices in their food and also cultivated and traded in them. They can be credited with introducing other Western civilizations to their culinary potential. Later, other spices arrived through trade contacts with the Greeks (from the 8th century BC) and during the Roman Empire, of which Hispania became a constituent province.

The earliest deciphered Greek texts (Minoan) list aromatic herbs and spices, and there is evidence from Classical Greece of their importance and frequent use. Most of those used were regional in origin, although others came from the Orient and were considered to be highly luxurious substances, appearing on the most refined tables: pepper (Piper nigrum L.), the most sought-after, was obtained from India, taxes were levied on it, and fraudulent imitations of it were sometimes 6.attempted; silphium, the Syrian spice that provided one of the most characteristic flavors of Greek and Roman cuisine,which can never now be reproduced since the plant mysteriously became extinct in the early Middle Ages (6th century), its culinary role being taken over by asafetida (Ferula assa foetida L.); laserpicium, the resin of an aromatic plant (Laserpitium latifolium) cultivated and prepared particularly in Cyrene (present-day Libya), used for making sauces; ginger (Zingiber officinale), to which references as an ingredient in sauces and meat dishes occur from the 1st century on; costus root (Saussurea lappa Clarke), sometimes confused with the medieval herb costmary (Tanacetum balsamita), used for aromatizing wine; myrtle berries (Myrtys communis), used as a substitute for pepper; and saffron (Crocus sativus), highly desirable for its color and 7.perfume.

One of the principal sources of information about vegetable products that the Greeks and Romans used is the treatise entitled De materia medica, published by Greek physician Dioscorides in the 1st 8.century.

Spices routes in ancient times

The two main routes along which oriental spices traveled in ancient times were Alexander the Great’s (356-323BC) Hellenistic overland route from India via Mesopotamia, Persia and Syria to Asia Minor and Phoenicia, and another (a route known at least as early as the 1st century BC) that went overland as far as the outer limits of the Roman Empire and then across the Indian 9.Ocean.

Cooking in Ancient Rome was highly sophisticated in its use of seasonings. For the Romans, the aim of haute cuisine was to change the original appearance of foodstuffs, the very elaborate recipes involved in effecting the desired metamorphosis sometimes calling for no fewer than nine ingredients per To judge by Apicius’ recipes, which represent the foodways of a social elite, the ten basic condiments of Roman cooking were, in order of importance: pepper, garum, oil, honey, celery, vinegar, wine, cumin, rue and coriander. Five of these were among the six most important products supplied to Rome by the province of Hispania: oil, wine, vinegar, honey and – of course – garum. That said, Roman writer and agricultural expert Columella (4-70AD) was of the opinion that any cook, no matter how poor, could create sophisticated meals using simple products from the kitchen garden, such as parsley, endive, garlic and 11.onion.

The use of aromatic herbs in the Iberian Peninsula before the Romans arrived is little documented, but a few later texts acknowledge it as a tradition. Certain substances are mentioned as typical of the diet of the Celtiberian people, among them ‘the drink of a thousand herbs’, highly aromatic liquor produced in the Cantabrian area consisting of a mixture of wine, honey and large quantities of aromatic 12.herbs.

Al-Ándalus aromatic cuisine. Herbs, sugar and saffron

During the early Middle Ages (from the 5th century onwards), caravans bearing silk and spices from the Orient around Arabia and North Africa operated in parallel with the traditional routes of Byzantine fleets and Syrian merchants that set off from Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople heading for the occidental ports along the east coast of Spain – Barcelona, Tarragona, Valencia and Cartagena. As Muslim control of the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean increased, it became more and more difficult for the Christian west to gain access to Far Eastern spices. Journeys became more expensive and hazardous, and this raised the price of spices still further, turning them more than ever into luxuries that only the upper echelons of society - royalty, the aristocracy, ecclesiastical dignitaries, and so on – could afford. In the 11th and 13th centuries, the Crusades also operated as a link between East and West and were as much concerned with commercial control over the coveted spice route as they were with religious matters.

Muslim flavor revolution

Although the foodways of the Germanic Christian peoples who invaded the Iberian Peninsula after the fall of the Roman Empire retained many Roman and Byzantine (i.e. from the Eastern Roman Empire) culinary traditions, particularly as regards the use of spices and condiments, the real flavor revolution came about with the arrival of Arab invaders in the early 8th century. They did not bring in new spices, but they did use them (even the more exotic spices from the Middle and Far East) in a more everyday way, introducing their cultivation into Spain, writing prolific treatises about their culinary and dietary importance and irreversibly altering the traditional tastes and smells of Spanish cuisine. From the south western Mediterranean, they traded in these luxury goods with the rest of Europe from the 11th century on, following a route that extended from Valencia’s Muslim territories, through Catalonia as far as 13.France.

The main aromatic herbs and spices used in Andalusí recipes are pepper, cinnamon, ginger and spikenard (imported), along with coriander, saffron, cumin, mint, peppermint and thyme (14.local). Other spices that also feature frequently include clove, mastic, fennel, rue, caraway, basil, sesame, mustard and aniseed.


Cane sugar was the most important condiment that the Arabs contributed to Spanish gastronomy: it had been known and used in India, China and the Far East since ancient times. Evidence dating from before 10,000BC has been found to show that sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum L.) was being grown that early in north-eastern India. The first information about the existence of cane sugar reached the West in the wake of the conquests of 15.Alexander the Great. It was not, however, cane sugar as we know it today, but rather a kind of dark, granular syrup. During the Muslim agricultural revolution (8th – 13th centuries) the Arabs imported this crop from India and were the first to establish plantations with factories and cane sugar refineries. It reached Europe for the first time via Spain, after the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century. Even so, trading in cane sugar beyond the territories of Al-Ándalus was the exception rather than the rule. From the 11th century on, crusaders returning from the Holy Land also brought back cane 16.sugar. The 14th century saw the sugar-cane plantations in Andalusia, southern Portugal, Cyprus, Crete, Malta and Rhodes start to develop in economic terms, and 1420, planting spread to the Canary Islands, the Azores and Madeira. t is not known for certain whether it was actually Christopher Columbus took sugar cane to Hispaniola in 1493 or 1498, or Pedro de Arranca in 1506, but its implantation was so successful that, in that same year, Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566) was able to record the arrival of the first sugar cane mill for obtaining molasses, and by 1518 there were 20 cane sugar factories on the island. However, it continued to be a luxury product throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and did not become really popular until the 18th century.

Saffron from Spain

The Spanish saffron produced in the La Mancha region is considered to be among the best in the world, and has Protected Designation of Origin status. This sought-after spice is obtained from the stigma of the saffron plant (Crocus sativus L.), a bulbous plant belonging to the Iridaceae family, and another example of a crop introduced into Spain by the Arabs of Al-Ándalus.

Although it originated in south west Asia and has been used since at least the 3rd millennium BC, it is believed that the plant was first cultivated in Greece during the archaic period (by the Minoan civilization) when a species with abnormally large stigmas was produced from the wild species for eating purposes. Saffron was much used and appreciated by the ancient Greeks and Romans. It was, however, the Arabs who brought it into Spain: they grew it as a crop in 17.Al-Ándalus between the 8th and 10th centuries, for consumption by the uppermost echelons of Andalusí society. Saffron was the most important local condiment for both the economy and the cuisine of the Hispano-Muslims, featuring as a colorant and a dressing in many dishes.

The trade in Spanish saffron was sustained throughout the Middle Ages and the Modern Era in the main European markets, and its use in food became firmly rooted in traditional Spanish cuisine. However, the first available documentary information concerning saffron growing in La Mancha dates from the early 18th 18.century. By the early 19th century, La Mancha was already established as the producer of the best saffron in Spain, and of the best yield per unirrigated hectare in the provinces of Ciudad Real, Toledo, Cuenca and Albacete. Saffron-growing and harvesting know-how has been passed down within families from generation to generation.

Pepper to ‘pimentón´

With the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453, the main route for spices and other oriental products was almost completely closed to Christian Europe. The leading commercial powers then set about finding alternative routes that would provide access to pepper, the most coveted of spices. In 1492, Christopher Columbus set off on a voyage of exploration, heading westwards across the Atlantic, convinced that he could find a new route to the Indies. Finding a source of pepper was precisely one of his objectives on arrival in newly discovered lands was to find pepper, which explains why, when the first Spaniards ashore were shown a fruit by the native Americans that proved to be hot in a peppery way, they perceived it as a new and better pepper. Known in its place of origin as ají or chile, back in Spain it was christened pimienta de chile (chile pepper) or pimiento (the male offspring, as it were, of the new ‘pepper’).

A monastery lore

It is more than likely to have been Columbus himself who took the first Capsicum annuum (chili/ bell pepper) seeds to the monks of Guadalupe monastery in 1494. They were passed on from there to the Hieronymite monastery in Yuste, Extremadura, not far away, and thence to another monastery of the same religious order, La Ñora, in 19.Murcia. From these beginnings, it spread as a crop all over Spain and into Portugal, transferring rapidly from there to India after Vasco de Gama reached Calcutta in 1498, where it was soon being grown with great success. There it soon thrived as a crop, spreading into China and South-East Asia, to Africa and the Ottoman Empire and from there into the Balkans and Hungary. By the late 16th century, peppers were being grown all over Europe and much of Asia.

The fact that capsicum peppers were being grown at such an early date (the 1490s) in Spain, and particularly in the regions of Extremadura and Murcia, explains how a new spice derived from this new American plant came into being. The product in question was pimentón, today an integral part of Spain’s culinary tradition.

Spanish pimentón, not paprika

To produce Spanish pimentón, ripe peppers are hand-picked and transported to drying houses where they dehydrate and are left to dry out further in the sun, or in smoke, for a period of 10 to 15 days. The dried fruit, known in Spanish as cáscara (shell) is very stable in color (and smoky in flavor and aroma in the case of Pimentón de la Vera). Once dried, they are taken to mills for grinding on emery stones, and then on ?transmission stones?, where a certain proportion of vegetable oil can be added if necessary.

Pimentón rapidly became a Spanish favorite. Today, there are two Protected Designations of Origin for this spice in Spain: Pimentón de La Vera (a direct descendant of the first pimentón made in the late 15th - early 16th century in Yuste monastery, Extremadura), and Pimentón de Murcia, made with a variety of pepper called bola or ñora, descendant of the first pimentón made in the Murcian monastery of La Ñora. Spanish physician and botanist Nicolás Bautista Monardes (1493-1588) recorded the nationwide spread of ají or pimiento, and its medicinal and culinary uses: “…it is known all over Spain, for there is no garden, orchard or flower pot in which it is not sown, for the beauty of the fruit it bears (...). They use them in all the stews and potajes, for they give a better flavor than common pepper and mixed into stock, make a truly excellent 20.sauce”.

Over half the dishes that make up the Spanish repertoire include bell pepper or pimentón in their list of ingredients. Pimentón, which can be made from peppers of either the sweet or hot type, is a frequent ingredient in sauces and stews, and there are some dishes over which it is simply sprinkled before serving. It is also one of the favorite condiments in charcuterie and cheese making.

Another country with a deep-rooted tradition of making and eating pimentón is Hungary. Although Hungarian paprika (the word means ?pepper? and designates both spice and vegetable) came into production much later than the Spanish equivalent, it nevertheless spread through Europe more rapidly and gave the spice its name in many languages.

Modern Spanish spice routes

Modern Spanish spice routes

After the fall of Constantinople, Spain attempted to reach Asia from the west in 1492, but was delayed by encountering a new continent on the way. The Portuguese began their route to India by skirting the African continent and crossing the Indian Ocean: Vasco da Gama reached Calcutta via this route in 1498. Later, between 1519 and 1525, the expedition led by Spaniards Fernando de Magallanes (1480-1521) (known in English as Magellan) and Juan Sebastián Elcano (1476-1526) crossed the Pacific Ocean from the southern tip of the American continent and achieved the first circumnavigation of the globe. Reaching the Philippines, they established the first trade links with the Molucca islands. In 1546, another Spaniard, Miguel López de Legazpi (1510-1572) set off from western Mexico for the Philippines where he subjugated the islands’ inhabitants and established a new trade route to the East, with a stop in America, that became known as the Manila Galleon Route.

British and Dutch competitors

The trade in spices and luxury oriental products became the main driving force of the modern economy, and all the big European powers were eager to capitalize on it to the full. In 1600, Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603) issued the Royal Charter granting the newly-created British East India Company monopoly over trade with India with the aim of competing with the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch in such lucrative business. In under fifty years, it succeeded in wresting trade in Goa and Bombay from the Portuguese, and expanded its trade network over much of India and China, importing cotton, silk, tea and indigo in particular. It retained its privileges until 1858. In 1602, traders in the Netherlands followed its example and founded the Dutch East India Company, which gained control of the spice trade. They then turned their attention to American trade, founding the Dutch West India Company in 1621 and entering into competition with the Spanish and Portuguese. The Danes emulated the Dutch in 1612, and, along with the Swedes, who founded their own Company in 1731, became direct competitors of the English and actually surpassed them in tea imports in the latter half of the 18th century. In 1664, it was the turn of French traders to create an East India Company to reinforce their position so as to be able to compete with the English and Dutch companies.

From the 16th century on, the Moluccas and Philippines became the source of spices for Europe and, particularly, for Spain. In the 18th century, both spice production and the spice trade were still further strengthened by the new economic approaches adopted by the enlightened monarchs of Europe, put into effect in Spain by Charles III (1716-1788). Pepper, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg were the spices on which most attention was focused.

The principal luxury spices consumed in Spain in the Modern Era that still fetched high prices (in the royal household, they were kept under lock and key in special spice cupboards) were saffron (very expensive, despite being grown in Spain), cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, pepper and 21.galangal. The more everyday native spices - parsley, aniseed, cumin, dill, coriander, mint, peppermint, basil, caraway, mustard, oregano, rosemary, thyme, rue, sage and bay- continued to be eaten as well.

Spices in modern cooking

Taste in cooking has varied throughout history. Overall, the quantity of spices used in cooking has gradually decreased. Meanwhile, scientific advances achieved in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries have made it possible for the texture, color, smell and flavor of some foods to be changed (as in canned products and other preserves) using special techniques or new natural or chemical products, so that in some cases spices, aromatic herbs and other condiments have been ousted from the role that they have traditionally occupied since ancient times.

Although spices are used less than they used to be in western food as a whole, nearly all of them are still in use: some are now regularly and accessibly available to almost all levels of society, while others have actually played a part in creating the homogenized contemporary flavors that are an aspect of globalization. Some, like pepper and cinnamon, whose high price throughout history reflected the difficulty of transporting them from the distant lands where they were produced, are now in common use and readily affordable thanks to the revolution in transport and international trade. Others, such as saffron, remain expensive because of the complicated processes involved in harvesting and preparation.

All in all, the pattern of spice consumption in history could be said to reflect the consolidation of a fashion. Like all fashion, it was concerned with taste and with alleviating monotony: spices had the power to make food taste out-of-the-ordinary while charging it with social significance. Our use of spices has varied with the passage of time, but they are still very much with us today. .


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

Taste and flavors
Kikunae Ikeda (1864-1936), Japanese chemist whose research uncovered the chemical root behind Umami. Licensed under PDCreative Commons by Magnus Manske.

Al Andalus aromatic cuisine. Herbs, sugar and saffron/Saffron from Spain
Recolección de la rosa del azafrán. Harvesting the saffron rose. Josep Bru Albiñana (1855-1921). Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia, Spain.

Pepper to pimentón/Spanish pimentón, not paprika
Illustration of capsicum annuum by José Jerónimo Triana (1826-1890). Real Jardín Botánico.

Modern Spanish spice Routes
Illustration of cinnamon by José Jerónimo Triana (1826-1890). Real Jardín Botánico.