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Foods From Spain History: Fresh Vegetables, Essential Eating

The term ‘vegetables’ is traditionally used to mean the edible parts of all plants except those used as spices, sweet fruits, nuts, seeds, dried pulses, cereals and, more recently, certain flowers. The label therefore covers roots, tubers, stems, leaves, flowers and fruits, both cultivated and wild.

Early vegetables consumption

Vegetables were the main source of nourishment for early man: our earliest ancestors on the evolutionary ladder ate meat only sporadically, obtained from carrion and by hunting small prey. It remains an open question whether we owe our greater intelligence to an increased consumption of proteins and animal fats or whether our intelligence increased anyway, thereby equipping us to make tools needed for hunting and eating 1.meat. Either way, the fact is that our teeth are still more suited to eating fruit and vegetables than meat, unless it is cooked. Our early diet, then, was omnivorous with a preference for vegetable foodstuffs, although this has been forgotten during some periods of our history

Early growing

It seems likely that when the first human settlements were established in areas with ready access to water, early plantations of cereals and pulses would have coexisted with other edible plants, fruits and vegetables that grew spontaneously in those naturally fertile areas. Highly perishable as they are, it is virtually impossible to find evidence of vegetables being cultivated that predates the available written references. Furthermore, the inaccuracy of descriptions in early accounts, and the astonishing ways in which these species evolved through human selection (with original or intermediate species often being lost in the process), make it difficult to study their origin and evolution. Even so, some experts in the field believe that certain tubers were the first species to be cultivated, before cereals and pulses, on the grounds that they reliably supplied the most calories in return for the least 2.effort.

Most of the vegetables currently grown in Spain originated in the Near East, various parts of southern Europe, and North Africa. It is easy to imagine non-native species being introduced by the Phoenicians, the Greeks and the Carthaginians.

Another factor to be considered is that, like all edible plants, vegetables were perceived as possessing some medicinal value, so that the history of food and that of medicinal plants overlap here. Supposed attributes were often based on no more than shape – cucumbers, for example, were believed to be aphrodisiac; others, however, have been scientifically corroborated – wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa L.), considered anaphrodisiac and sedative, and known to the Romans as ‘the eunuchs’ plant’, actually does contain more lactucin and lactupicrine ( both having analgesic and sedative effects) than the cultivated 3.variety.

Evolution: selection processes

The vegetables we know today are among the most spectacular examples of evolution brought about by human intervention and selection. Many 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 vegetable 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) and theories of mutation (starting with de Vries) in the 19th century that produced the greatest advances in this field.

Vegetables in Antiquity

The wealth of written evidence available to us from ancient Mesopotamia and China suggests that many of the vegetables that we eat today were already established as crops in ancient times. The fact that they were plentiful, readily available and cheap made them a food suitable for the lower orders.

The frequency in Greek texts of references to vegetables and different ways of preparing them reflects their importance in the diet of one of the earliest Mediterranean cultures to enter into contact with the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula. Antiphanes (408-334 BC) describes the Greeks as phyllotrôges (leaf eaters), and other texts reveal that vegetables constituted a very important, though never exclusive, part of their diet, and that they were eaten at banquets, then as now either raw or cooked, as a first course or as an accompaniment to meat. The sources mention various types of cabbage (krámbe or rháphanos) both cultivated and wild (some of this latter type being purple in color); various species of turnip (bouniás, rhaphys and gongylís); radish (raphanís); the leaves of certain species of mallow (maláche), which could be eaten raw (when young) or boiled; pumpkins and courgettes (kolokýnthe or sikýa), whose species are difficult to identify since, in some cases, they seem to refer to varieties thought to have originated in the Americas; different types of cucumber (sikyós); carrots (staphylînos); artichokes (kynára); cardoons (káktos); wild amaranth (blíton), asparagus (aspáragos), lettuce; beetroot; chard; nettles; palm hearts; garlic, onions and leeks, among other 4.plants. The fact that many of the Latin names (and Latin-derived Spanish names) given to vegetables are Greek in derivation shows the influence of this Mediterranean civilization on the tradition of cultivating species, comparable only with that exerted by the Andalusí civilization of the Moorish invaders a thousand years later.

Vegetables al dente in Rome

Vegetables familiar to the Greeks were also commonly used in Roman cuisine. The Romans preferred to eat them raw or only lightly boiled, however, and used them not only as a primary foodstuff but also as a condiment.

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 5.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 distance from the soil: buried in it, exposed to the sun on top of it, or borne above it on trees.

Documentary evidence tells us that certain types of garden produce 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, and with onions, leeks and dates consistently 5.present. The Romans were inordinately fond of onions and leeks, onions being eaten throughout a meal and used as both foodstuff and 6.condiment.

Contact between the Romans and the peoples of the Iberian Peninsula would certainly have entailed mutual exchange of native species and varieties of vegetables. Both the peninsula’s climate and evidence of other foods unearthed by archaeological digs militate in favor of the theory that, like the Greeks, Romans and other Mediterranean peoples, the Iberians were already eating what we now call the ‘Mediterranean diet’ before the 6th century BC. Rich in carbohydrates, this encompassed cereals, pulses, fruits and green and other vegetables, though it is hard to establish whether these three latter elements would have been gathered from the wild or grown systematically.

The importance of vegetables in the peasant diet

Vegetables tend to play an inconspicuous role, and perhaps for that reason there has been little research into their historical importance. Yet it seems reasonable to suppose that from Ancient times right up to the Modern Era, they have been a key element in the diet of peasants living at subsistence economy level. Although the poorest classes are traditionally believed to have suffered all kinds of ailments through vitamin deficiency caused by not eating fruit and vegetables, in fact the cause is more likely to have been overall dietary deficiency, particularly among urban dwellers. The everyday diet of rural peasants would almost certainly have been supplemented by vegetables. What varieties they ate, and in what quantities, would obviously have varied considerably according to region and time of year, but they would surely have grasped every opportunity to augment their diet with whatever foods were available. 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. Furthermore, its produce was not liable to taxation by the landowner. Onions, various types of cabbage, turnips, lettuces, carrots and artichokes would have supplemented bread and pulses on the humblest of tables.

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 the 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. Even the upper class cuisine of Christian Spain during the medieval period made little use of vegetables, which were considered difficult to digest.

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 (Al Ándalus) 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 crop-growing 7.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.

Vegetable consumption and the Inquisition

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 8.animals”.

A revolution in eating habits: species from the Americas

Most of the new American species of fruit and vegetables arrived on Spanish soil in the first half of the 16th century, and 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. The main species of vegetables introduced into Europe from the Americas were yam, potato, tomato, pepper and certain varieties of pumpkin.

There was some confusion in the 16th and 17th centuries between the yam, or sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas L. Lam.), and the potato (Solanum tuberosum L.). The yam, tropical in origin, is known to have been brought back to Spain when Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) returned from his first voyage (1493), but there is no evidence to indicate when the potato (discovered in the uplands of Peru) arrived: the earliest written reference dates from 1567, when a consignment of potatoes is recorded as being sent from the Canary Islands to Antwerp.


The first evidence of potatoes being grown as a food crop dates from 1573, when they were planted by the monks of the Hospital de la Sangre in Seville to feed their patients, with highly satisfactory 9.results. As in many other instances, the Spanish Church pioneered the study, introduction and cultivation of these new species which were later to be so successful in the rest of Europe.


The tomato (Solanum lycopersicum L.) also originated in the Andes, but was actually brought back by Spaniards from the Aztec empire, where it was known as xitomatl. It appears to have reached Spain in 1540 and to have adapted readily to the Mediterranean climate. The earliest types to be cultivated were smoother and smaller than those we know today, and came in yellow, orange, green and red 11.varieties. Writing in the 17th century, Father Bernabé Cobo (1596-1657) informs us that “…they are not eaten raw. Rather they are added to stews and taste good because they have an appetizing sharpness […] so that the Spanish preserve them in syrup and they are considered a great 12.treat”. Meanwhile, Francisco Hernández (1514-1578) anticipates the recipe for the gazpacho of the future in his description of how, when dressed with olive oil and vinegar and “ground up and mixed with chili, they make a very nice sauce which improves the taste of nearly all foodstuffs and stimulates the 13.appetite”. Writing in 1672, Jouvin describes “a light meal of tomatoes, which is a species of fruit shaped like a red apple that grows on a plant around a foot tall and which the Spanish use in their sauces or dress with a lot of vinegar salt [14.sic].

The first tomatoes taken from Spain to Naples were yellow, which explains why Italian botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577) christened them ‘golden apples’, hence the current Italian name pomodoro. Most of Naples’ traditional tomato-based recipes have their origins in dishes invented by Spanish monks.


The bell pepper (Capsicum annuum), was also introduced into Spain from Mexico in the 15th century and was soon adopted as a crop by the Hieronymite monks in certain monasteries in Extremadura. They dried and ground them up to produce pimentón (Spanish type of of paprika) which became one of the most highly prized spices. It is currently covered by two Protected Designations of Origin in Spain: Pimentón de la Vera (the direct descendant of that first 16th century pimentón) and Pimentón de Murcia, made from the bola variety of pepper. Writing in the 16th century, Spanish doctor and botanist Nicolás Bautista Monardes (1493-1588) describes how widespread the pepper has become in the peninsula and the culinary and medicinal uses to which it is put: “It is known all over Spain, for there is no garden, orchard or flower pot that is not sown with it, for the beauty of the fruit it bears […] They use them in all stews and potajes, for they give a better flavor than ordinary pepper and added to stock make a truly excellent 15.sauce”.

The Bourbon dynasty brings vegetables to royal tables

Surviving documents relating to what was eaten in the Royal Palace reflect the low esteem in which vegetables were held at Court, while the new American species (with the exception of the occasional fruit, such as custard apples) seem to have been regarded as no more than botanical curiosities. The poor were known to “make their main sustenance of 16.them” (though, in fact, 80% of their diet is likely to have consisted of cereals and 17.pulses), but they made only rare appearances on the Habsburg table. Only the accession of the French Bourbon dynasty and the presence at Court of powerfully influential German ladies succeeded in making vegetables (spinach, artichoke, cabbage, aubergine, 18.pumpkin…) a regular feature of the royal diet, and then only in the role of dessert or garnish.

Vegetables gain status

The first clear evidence of recognition for fruit and vegetables in Spanish cuisine is provided by some of the still life paintings that constituted a particularly Spanish genre from the 16th century on. Although it emerged as a phenomenon throughout Europe around that period (and has classical precedents), still life painting in Spain quickly took on its own very characteristic style, as exemplified in the works of such masters as Sánchez Cotán, Juan Fernández El Labrador, Antonio de Pereda, Ribera and Zurbarán, and many others.

In the modern era, there was a shift of attitude towards fruit and vegetables. 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 19.1950.

Present-day consumption of fresh vegetables 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. Present-day consumption patterns and tendencies are also influenced by historical factors. At present, the vegetables eaten in the greatest quantities in Spain are, in descending order: tomatoes (at over 30 lb per person per year, twice as much as any other), onions (nearly 15 lb kg per person per year), lettuce, peppers, carrots, courgettes and runner beans. Over the last few decades, consumption of fresh vegetables has shown a slight downward trend, particularly among people in the middle income bracket living in the big 20.cities. There are also important differences in vegetable consumption among Spain’s regions: it is highest in traditional growing areas like Navarra, Murcia and Catalonia, and lowest in unirrigated areas like Extremadura. Particular products exhibit even greater differences: Navarra consumes the most lettuce and asparagus; Murcia the most tomatoes and broad beans; the Balearic Islands the most aubergines; and the Canary Islands the most pumpkins, courgettes and 21.peas.


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

Vegetables in Antiquity/Vegetables al dente in Rome
Floor mosaic with remnants of food, Vatican Museum, Rome, Italy. Licensed under PDCreative Commons by Clausule.

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

A revolution in eating habits. Potatoes
Solanum tuberosum by Gaspard Bauhin (1560-1624). Licensed under PDCreative Commons by Valérie75.

A revolution in eating habits. Peppers
Portrait of botanist Nicolás Bautista Monardes (1493-1588). Real Academia Española de Medicina.

Vegetables gain status
Bodegón de cardo. Still life with chard, Fray Juan Sánchez Cotan (1560-1627). Permanent collection at Museo de Bellas Artes de Granada, Spain.