Guest Author - Rachel L Webb
When the Mediterranean diet or Spanish cooking is mentioned what comes to mind are tomatoes, garlic, peppers, chilli peppers, yams, sweet potatoes and even chocolate.
For all the above we have to thank Christopher Colombus or Cristóbal Colón and his discovery of the Americas. New World foods, especially the hot, sweet chilli peppers, were rapidly adopted by the Spanish. The new foods gained popularity across the nation through the extensive network of Spanish monasteries.
Up until the Colombus introduction, other traditional foods came from outside sources too. The Phoenicians, who arrived in the south-west corner - now Cadiz, planted the first grapevines. This area is now the sherry-producing centre of Spain.
After the Phoenicians came the Romans who brought with them and planted the first olive trees, producing the first crop of olives and olive oil in A.D.210. Spain is now the world leader in olive oil production.
When the Moors arrived in 711 and conquered practically the whole Kingdom of Spain apart from the upper-most regions - Asturias and the Basque country, they planted more olives across a wider area.
The Moors brought with them different crops and methods of cooking which were soon adopted such as spices such as cumin and saffron - the paring of fruit and nuts with meats, and pastries and sweets made with honey are still in evidence today.
They also introduced rice, almonds, dates, aubergines, citrus fruit as well as the very popular coffee, and began the cultivation of some of these crops. The ingenious irrigation systems they put in place are still visible.
The Jewish community too, had their influences and several of the traditional dishes of today, particularly the cocido stew, which was the basic workers fare that could be served as a three-course meal. First the broth was eaten followed by the vegetables and lastly the meat. The quantity of meat was variable and at times practically non-existant.
This dish was prepared by the Jews on the day before the Sabbath and left to cook overnight and into the next day, when already hot, it only needed serving. There was a time when even lighting a fire to cook was considered work, so the stew was kept hot until lunchtime, the main meal of the day.
Of course the different regions also affected the type of cooking. In the southern heat quick hot dishes were devised, like pinchos or kebabs as cooking over a fire was pretty uncomfortable, and cold dishes such as gazpacho and white garlic soup ajo blanco appeared.
In the colder northern climate, especially to the north-eat French and Italian influences can be found, seafood in the coastal areas and stews with game in the mountainous regions. Traditional Spanish gastronomy with its chequered past, variable climate and massive inland areas along with a lot of coastline really means that what is typical in one area is not so typical in the another.
That in itself, like the country, brings interest and diversity hard to equal in anywhere else in the world.
Spanish cuisine is "un-boxable".