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Eating in Spain in the Middle Ages….stacks of bread, gallons of beer and roast beaver!

I think that the Keto diet has drawn me ponder upon this!

In the past the variety of foods was just not available, so affordable ingredients like nuts or mushrooms were used. How things have changed!

In the current average Spanish diet, it is almost impossible to now avoid the presence of fats , sugars, additives or processed products. Even in an era where healthy and balanced ingredients are plentiful, fast food  restaurants have not stopped growing in recent years.

For centuries, bread accounted for 70% of a person’s daily diet.

If we look back, we ask ourselves: do we eat worse now than in the past? The answer could not be more subjective. For example, in the 1970s, “breakfast cereals were very sugary or of little nutritional value. Today, there are more cereals that are high in fibre, and even the sweetest ones have limited salt and sugar content. Then we have bread, which was even worse than in the Orwell days. White ‘plastic’ bread, sliced, was all the rage, and in most households they had not heard of wholemeal or wholewheat bread.

Orange juice, squeezed in the morning was once considered a luxury.  Even the eternal favourite, (well mine anyway!) the potato, was unceremoniously cast aside for a while when the instant mashed potato peaked in popularity. So how has food evolved over the years?

This is how it used to be

A group of peasants sharing a simple meal of bread and drink; 
Livre du roi Modus et de la reine Ratio, 14th century.

If we go back to Prehistory , man followed a limited diet based on plants, leaves, small seeds, tubers and wild fruit. Later, there was meat from the wild animals that lived around the consumers. Ingredients that were kept until a European Middle Ages, where social classes determined the type of food the “diner” could afford. Although it now serves only as a supplement, bread accounted for 70% of a person’s daily ration for centuries. The rest of the meals were prepared exclusively to accompany the bread….traditional stews for example. They complied perfectly where Adafina, ( a chickpea stew made with lamb) took centre stage.

Water is now a a popular drink at lunchtime, but back then it was, most definitely beer, wine or cider. The reason? The water did not undergo any purification process, so it only served to transmit diseases. A situation similar to that of milk. On the other hand, beer was very well received, exceeding six litres a day per person in some parts of the country. The wine, meanwhile, included strange ingredients such as honey, sugar, ginger, nutmeg or cardamon.

Among the most popular vegetables were onions, garlic, beets and carrots.

Meat was a delicacy reserved for the wealthy , who were personally responsible for hunting all kinds of species. From swans and wild ducks to storks. The poorest had to settle for pork legs, ears or offal. On the other hand, salted fish was very popular, although the Spanish were much more open to consuming molluscs such as oysters or mussels.

Among the most used vegetables were onions, garlic, beets and carrots, although the orange version that we all know did not arrive in Europe until the middle of the 17th century. They were considered second-class foods , but also a much more affordable and versatile ingredient than the rest. Fruit was mainly used as a sweetener, as sugar and honey were too expensive for the ordinary person. Lemons, bitter oranges, quinces or grapes being the most popular. But what happened to everything that disappeared along the way?

Very different ingredients and customs back then

  • One of the most widespread habits, now considered an inconceivable mistake, was to make only two meals a day : a strong lunch at noon and a lighter snack to close the day. 
  • Evening banquets were believed to incite sin through gambling, sexual intercourse, or violence.
  • Nor were there household items such as the fork, knife or serviette. In fact, diners were to bring the latter from their own home. As for  glassware , it was normal that they were shared between several people, being a sign of elegance and good etiquette!
  • The weight, size, and price of bread were stringently established to avoid deception . Those who dared to scam their clients suffered a terrible punishment: they were dragged through the city with a piece of adulterated bread hanging from their necks.
  • The meat of beavers was considered a real delicacy and entered into the most popular establishments. Other animals that are no longer part of our diet are ground urchins , whales, larks and squirrels .
  • As is well known, some of the most common foods in Spanish kitchens did not exist in medieval times. It was not until the discovery of America that potatoes, cocoa, tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, corn, or green beans arrived in Spain. Of course, not without first going through a lengthy process of national adoption.

And yes… people do still eat beaver meat!! – A page that reminds me of a Monty Python sketch!!

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