Food Museums in Spain
Oil press in the Museo del Aceite in Mora, Toledo (Castile-La Mancha). Fernando Briones/©ICEX
Author: Bingen Urquijo/©ICEX
Countless museums have been created to preserve the heritage that generation after generation of mankind has created on every continent. Some of these - take the Hermitage, the Louvre, the British Museum or the MOMA - even serve as cultural landmarks for the World as a whole. Foods from Spain visits two parts of Spain and tours exceptional museums whose exhibits, far from requiring sophisticated display cases, frames and strong-rooms, feature daily on the tables of discerning eaters.
The first notable difference between the solemnity of the Prado and the many museums dedicated to difference foodstuffs is that in the former you can really see the products. They are really on a table in front of us. We can smell them and appreciate their shapes and textures. Far from being forbidden, touching and, especially, tasting the exhibits is encouraged.
The driving force behind the museums are enthusiasts whose professional experience has involved them in the often arcane and demanding worlds of olive oil, Ibérico ham, citrus fruits, Jijona and Alicante turrón, and countless other equally genuine and exceptional Spanish products. The aim of each of their projects is to preserve the history of a product that has been integral to the landscape and life of certain towns and even entire areas of Spain, a product that has shaped the lives and culture of generations of men and women.
Growing and/or processing these products will have influenced and shaped regional festive calendars, traditional culinary repertoires, family incomes, crafts and language, to mention just a few examples. In addition to reflecting the aforementioned aspects, these little museums also aim to inform consumers about characteristics that are specific to their particular products and representative of their excellence. Additionally, part of their job is to slough off erroneous clichés and misconceptions that are perhaps associated with them. They all share the same mission statement: "To preserve and to make known".
To this end, their exhibition spaces feature instruments and machinery dating back hundreds of years alongside educational videos, old photographs, well-designed information panels, historical documents, traditional tools and equipment and didactic computer programs. A few gastronomic museums are already firmly established as institutions, while others are just starting to convert their aspirations into reality.
Thanks to the efforts of local councils and businessmen, some of the products in our imaginary still-life - all unchallenged staples of Spanish gastronomy - already have their own museum from which to tell their story. What follows is a gastronomic and cultural itinerary embracing two of them: we visit the Museo del Olivar y del Aceite (Olive Grove and Olive Oil Museum) in Baena (Córdoba, Andalusia), and the Museo del Turrón (Turrón Museum) in Jijona (Alicante, Valencian Community).
The town of Baena sparkles like a flash of white amidst the monotonous silver grey of the gently rolling countryside and the unruffled sunny Córdoba sky. The little houses huddle on a hill that rises above serried ranks of olive trees, grove upon grove stretching as far as the eye can see. Olive pits excavated during an archaeological dig in nearby Torreparedones attest to the fact that olives were being grown here as early as the 7th century BC. In April 2003, Don José Alcalá Santaella's olive oil mill, which stands among the houses along Baena's Cañada Street, became the Museo del Olivar y del Aceite.
One gets the impression that the mill was frozen in time just as a delivery of olives was expected from the groves. Most of the oil mill's machinery, dating back to the late 19th century, has been preserved so that the traditional oil-making process can be traced down step by step. In the old days, three millers would have worked here at harvest time, processing between 2,000 / 4400 lbs and 3,000 kilos / 6600 lbs of olives a day which had been gathered in El Chitadillo and La Vela.
However, this museum aims to do more than just demonstrate the traditional oil extraction process. It also tries to recreate, in an instructive way, the entire culture that permeated the local people's lives and evolved around what it refers to as "the concentrated essence of civilization". Old black and white documentaries shown in the audiovisual room are testaments to the hard work involved in harvesting the olives and the celebrations that followed.
An interesting exhibition panel engages visitors in a trivia game centered on the language of the olive oil world, and as we play we learn strange words related to this world such as vecero or macaco. There are also charming recordings of traditional songs about the olive tree and its oil that would still have been heard in the streets of Baena and the surrounding countryside not so long ago.
But still there is more to come as we head to the kitchen. This section of the itinerary dealing with olive oil in cooking does a good job of promoting the product's many virtues - as a vital ingredient in salmorejo (a cold soup, typical of southern Spain, made with tomatoes, bread, oil, garlic and vinegar), salads and artichoke dishes. An age-old breakfast specialty known as tostón molinero (miller's toast) made by coating bread with lots of olive oil and then baking it in the oven sounded particularly delicious. Attention is also devoted to training consumers in how to interpret the information available to them.
Dotted around the exhibition hall are various computers on which thousands of olive oil bottle labels can be called up. The collection is backed up with examples of other uses for oil and the olive tree not directly related to nutrition, such as in medicines and cosmetics, olive-wood furniture (a specialty of the nearby village, Castro del Río) and twig basketwork.
The most surprising byproduct is a bio-fuel made from a substance known as alperujo, an amalgam of the orujo (the paste of olive pits and skins) and alpechín (olive juice) left behind after the oil is extracted. The Museo del Olivar y del Aceite is a bright, well-designed museum whose educational remit is particularly patent in a special children's area where they can work, paint and learn through structured play.
Almond trees come into flower around Jijona in mid-February, showing up as patches of white in the small holdings that surround this Alicante town. By the following December, this mass of blossoms will have been transmuted into the turrón that is so much a part of the Spanish family's Christmas tradition. The Museo del Turrón (Turrón Museum) was created in the 1960s on Juan Antonio Sirvent Selfa's initiative, a member of a family of master turrón makers that has been making Christmas sweets in Jijona since the 18th century.
The museum's premises have expanded over the last 30 years. It started off in the El Lobo turrón company's old carpentry workshop, where tools and equipment were deposited as they were eventually superseded by more modern ones in the turrón making process. Today the museum is an established institution occupying Turrones El Lobo-1880's new facilities.
This museum's mission is to make the public more aware of the centuries of history behind turrón, which the company sees as contributing an intangible yet undeniably appealing element of added value to their product. The collection is exhibited on three floors, each devoted to a thematic area: the raw materials that go into turrón (sugar, honey, almonds and eggs), the manufacturing process (differentiating Jijona turrón from both the Alicante type and marzipan) and selling the product (early turrón stalls, advertising, packaging and the history of the company itself).
The museum visit also includes the current factory floor and thus a chance to see how the turrón that is part of Christmastime desserts in millions of homes is made today. Overall, this museum clearly demonstrates how traditional recipes and skills work hand-in-hand with the latest industrial technology, combining an artisan past with an innovative future. One comes away with vivid mental images of bees making honey in the hive, master turrón makers stirring the thickening mix with sticks known as punxet, and for the coup-de-grace: a glamorous, memento-laden Rolls Royce that was used for distributing turrones at the beginning of the 20th century.
Many other parts of Spain also have comparable museums. There are dozens of them scattered all over the country, among them the Museo del Cereal (Cereal Museum) in Arévalo (Avila, Castile-León), the Museo del Pan (Bread Museum) in Tona (Barcelona, Catalonia), the Museo de la Leche (Milk Museum) in La Foz del Morcín (Asturias), the Museo del Queso (Cheese Museum) in Villarejo de Periesteban (Cuenca, Castile-La Mancha) or the Museo del Azafrán (Saffron Museum) in Monreal del Campo (Teruel, Aragón).
The two top quality products whose museums we visited - olive oil, and Jijona and Alicante turrones - are both classic elements of Spanish gastronomy. But there are many more products, distributed all over the world, just waiting to be discovered. So next time you go food shopping, look closely at the products on the shelves and focus on those with a label that reads España.
You might just have a contemporary museum piece in your hands.
Bingen Urquijo Garay is an archivist and former intern at Spain Gourmetour.