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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Subtropical fruits
Foods From Spain History: Subtropical Fruits. A Round Trip

Foods From Spain History: Subtropical Fruits. A Round Trip

The category ‘subtropical or exotic fruits’ covers all fleshy fruits of tropical and subtropical origin.

Early subtropical fruit consumption

Early subtropical fruit consumption

Some of the plants that we still categorize as subtropical made a very early appearance in Europe. The wild pomegranate bush, for example, was known to the early Greeks. It is difficult to pinpoint when this plant might have arrived in the Mediterranean, Macedonia and the Balkans from India or Persia, but it was certainly in prehistoric times. Be that as it may, it was in the southern Mediterranean that pomegranates were most in evidence: we know that they were eaten in Egypt in the third millennium BC, and may well have enjoyed a renaissance during the Roman period owing to the influence of the Carthaginians, as Linnaeus’ name for this fruit – Punica granatum - seems to suggest.

Pomegranates were rediscovered in the Iberian Peninsula as both crop and foodstuff with the arrival of the Muslims in the 8th century. The pomegranate, regarded as a fertility symbol from ancient Babylon on because of the many ‘grains’ of which it is composed and from which it takes its name, was indeed a favorite fruit among the Berbers who invaded the Iberian Peninsula. One theory among many regarding the etymology of the name of one of the most important Berber cities in al-Ándalus – Granada (capital of the Nasrid Kingdom) - is that the Muslims perpetuated the meaning of the Roman name of old the city situated in the Albaicin, calling it Hizn Garnata, meaning ‘fortress of the pomegranate tree’.

Another fruit traditionally grown in subtropical climates, and one of the fruits that Spain produces in greatest quantity, is the banana. Bananas are first mentioned in the west in connection with the campaigns of Alexander the Great (356-323BC): he sampled the fruit in India in 323BC, though it seems actually to have originated in southeastern China. However, there is no evidence of there having been bananas in Europe before the Arab and Berber invasions of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century. Late in the 15th century, the Spanish introduced banana-growing into the Canary Islands at the start of the Catholic Monarchs’ campaign to conquer the islands in 1477.

Irrigation in Al-Ándalus

Irrigation in Al-Ándalus

Although systems of water management channels already existed in Roman and Visigothic Spain, it was the Muslim occupation (711-1492) 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 (norias) 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 1.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, spinach, asparagus, artichoke…) laid the foundations of the rich fruit and vegetable heritage that the present-day autonomous communities of Valencia 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 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 2.animals”.

New varieties from the Americas

New varieties 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.

Many of the exotic fruits we actually eat today came from the American continent after the conquest of America; they include pineapple (Ananas comosus), avocado (Persea americana), cherimoya (Annona cherimola) and papaya (Carica papaya). This last, native to Central America and first described by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (1478-1557) in his Historia natural y general de las Indias (Natural and General History of the Indies), was taken from the Caribbean to the Moluccas and the Philippines in the 18th century, and from there to India, from where it spread throughout 3.Asia. But the fruit that exerted most appeal in Europe was the pineapple, brought back to Spain by Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) himself in 1493. As late as 1880, there are records of pineapples being sent to the Queen of Spain from the 4.Americas.

However, surviving documents relating to what was eaten in the Royal Palace bear witness to the fact that there was little demand for vegetables or fruits at Court while, with the exception of some fruits (such as the cherimoya or custard apple at the court of Philip II, in the 16th century), new species from the Americas featured merely as botanical curiosities.

Mango, kaki and kiwi: from East to West

Other species, such as the mango (Mangifera indica), made the journey in reverse: the Portuguese took mangoes from south-eastern India to the New World, where they were successfully introduced and from where they were traded with Europe.

The kaki, or persimmon, (Diospyros kaki) is an exception: technically a berry, originally from China, this was possibly introduced as a crop more or less simultaneously into Europe and America between the 17th and 19th centuries, the plant being then prized more for its wood (persimmon) than its fruit.

The kiwi, or kiwifruit (Actinidia deliciosa), the fruit of the actinidia – a wild Chinese plant – is another exception. It only began to be cultivated in its country of origin in the 17th century, and its performance as a crop was greatly improved by new techniques applied in New Zealand in the first half of the 20th century. From the 1940s on, it was exported from there all over the world. In Spain the first crop was in 1969, in Gondomar, Pontevedra (Galicia).

Evolution: fruit selection processes

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. Given that most exotic subtropical fruits have only recently joined the ranks of large-scale crops, they have evolved extraordinarily in a far shorter period.

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.


Subtropical fruits from Spain today

The very fact of being exotic for the European market means that these fruits are unusual by definition and therefore not readily affordable by the average consumer – at least, that was the case until a few years ago. Until well after the 1950s, exotic or tropical fruits were so expensive as to be accessible only to a social elite. One reason for this was that few parts of Europe and the northern Mediterranean possess suitable conditions for growing subtropical and tropical species as a crop. Spain’s Mediterranean coast and Canary Islands enjoy a privileged climate that places them among those few.

Spain grows bananas only in the Canary Islands, and produces around 409,000 tonnes a year (2008). Other tropical fruits – pineapples, mangoes, avocadoes - are also grown in the Canaries. Around 74,000 tonnes of avocadoes are grown in Spain each year, over 80% of them in the coastal areas of the Andalusian provinces of Almería and Malaga, in 2008. In the fruit and vegetable growing region known as La Costa Tropical de Granada- Malaga, there have been family-run farms devoted to intensive cherimoya growing since the 19th century, and commercial plantations of the fruit in the Río Verde valley since the 1940s, making Spain the world’s leading producer of cherimoya. Furthermore, the fruit comes with the quality guarantee of Protected Designation of Origin.

Since 1960, the municipality of Carlet in the Valencia region has specialized in kaki (persimmon) production, capitalizing on plants that grew spontaneously from just a few seeds and adapted readily. Current production (2008) is over 25,000 tonnes a year and the fruits are covered by Protected Designation of Origin under the name of Kaki Ribera de Xúquer.


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

Early subtropical fruit consumption
Still life with glass bowl of fruit (pomegranates) and vases in Pompeia, 70 AD at Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy. Licensed under PD Creative Commons by York Project.

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

New varieties from America
Drawing of Ananas Comosus from Flora de Filipinas, Atlas II by Francisco Manuel Blanco, 1880-1883?, Manila, Filipinas. Biblioteca Digital Real Jardín Botánico-CSIC

Evolution: fruit selection process
Bodegón con granadas, manzanas, acerolas y uvas en un paisaje. Still life with pomegranates, apples, haws and grapes in a landscape. Luis Meléndez (1716-1780), Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.