Gardens of New Spain

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Gardens of New Spain

How Mediterranean Plants and Foods Changed America

By William W. Dunmire

The fascinating story of the diffusion of plants, gardens, agriculture, and cuisine from late medieval Spain to the colonial frontier of Hispanic America.



33% website discount price


6 x 9 | 395 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-70564-7

When the Spanish began colonizing the Americas in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they brought with them the plants and foods of their homeland—wheat, melons, grapes, vegetables, and every kind of Mediterranean fruit. Missionaries and colonists introduced these plants to the native peoples of Mexico and the American Southwest, where they became staple crops alongside the corn, beans, and squash that had traditionally sustained the original Americans. This intermingling of Old and New World plants and foods was one of the most significant fusions in the history of international cuisine and gave rise to many of the foods that we so enjoy today.

Gardens of New Spain tells the fascinating story of the diffusion of plants, gardens, agriculture, and cuisine from late medieval Spain to the colonial frontier of Hispanic America. Beginning in the Old World, William Dunmire describes how Spain came to adopt plants and their foods from the Fertile Crescent, Asia, and Africa. Crossing the Atlantic, he first examines the agricultural scene of Pre-Columbian Mexico and the Southwest. Then he traces the spread of plants and foods introduced from the Mediterranean to Spain's settlements in Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California. In lively prose, Dunmire tells stories of the settlers, missionaries, and natives who blended their growing and eating practices into regional plantways and cuisines that live on today in every corner of America.

  • List of Tables
  • List of Maps
  • Preface
  • Prologue
  • Chapter 1. Pre-Columbian Spain—The Full Hourglass
  • Chapter 2. Mexico before Columbus
  • Chapter 3. Pre-Columbian Agriculture in the American Southwest
  • Chapter 4. European Plantways to the New World: 1492-1521
  • Chapter 5. Old World Agriculture Comes to the Mexican Mainland
  • Chapter 6. Spanish Trade, Technology, and Livestock
  • Chapter 7. New Mexico's First Mediterranean Gardens
  • Chapter 8. Into Sonora and Arizona
  • Chapter 9. The Corridor into Texas
  • Chapter 10. Hispanic Farmers Return to New Mexico
  • Chapter 11. Mediterranean Connections to Florida and California
  • Epilogue
  • Appendix: Master Plant List
  • Glossary
  • Sources
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

Spain: The word evokes a scent of orange and jasmine, passion of a flamenco dancer, the language of love, steel of a Toledo sword. To some, Spain may be a reminder of bloody conquest, destruction of native cultures, and lasting peonage; for many more of us, Spain is enlightenment, a wellspring of art, technology, and marvelously rich cuisine. Spain, too, was the collection point and place of departure for a Mediterranean plantway leading to America, a conduit for crops and animals unknown to people of the New World before Columbus.

The End of the Middle Ages

After centuries of rule by Arab and Berber Moors, the Middle Ages ended in the Iberian Peninsula with the collapse of Muslim dominance. Spaniards of the day knew that 1492 was the watershed year, to be commemorated not for the "discovery" of a New World, but for the final expulsion of Moors from their last European stronghold at Granada, which surrendered to the forces of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand precisely on January 1 of that year. From this day forward—for the first time in nearly eight hundred years—Christian sovereigns would rule all of Spain.

When Isabella, queen of Castile, arranged her marriage to Ferdinand, heir to Aragon, in 1469, it was only a matter of time before the boundaries of Spain's homeland core would roll eastward to the Mediterranean, most of the region finally ruled by a single monarchy. This decidedly rural land was owned by a powerful few and worked by peasants who made up more than three-quarters of the population of around 5 million. Alongside unending sheep pastures, wheat, barley, and rye fields dominated the farm scene with smaller plots of flax scattered about the dry, almost treeless elevated plains. Belts of olive trees along with fig and citrus groves were concentrated in the warmer south; small orchards of pears, apples, and other fruits were more prevalent in the rainier north or in river valleys where irrigation was possible. And tiny family vineyards, so necessary for the well-being of peasant and nobleman alike, graced the landscape everywhere, especially in the rolling hill country.

Despite an outward appearance of agrarian prosperity, most Spaniards in the late fifteenth century lived in poverty and were probably hungry much of the time. For a moment, forget the feasts of the wealthy few; daily fare for commoners was likely to have been slim and monotonous—more often than not consisting of olla podrida, or "rotten pottage." This endlessly boiled down stew consisted of mutton, beef, or pork remains plus always-present cabbage and garbanzos along with onions, carrots, and olive oil, and laced with garlic and black pepper—most appreciated if the meat had already begun to slip. Wine, too, helped in that regard. All vegetable stuff except the pepper came from local gardens.

Undoubtedly that kind of meal was partaken by peasants only on good days; more often hard, crusty bread, a piece of meat, and perhaps a bit of moldy, tough cheese accompanied by some watered-down wine would have had to do. In Don Quixote, that extraordinary and likely accurate commentary on the times, Cervantes provides the following clue from an on-the-road dinner so typical of many meals described in his narrative: "I have here an onion, a little cheese, and a few crusts of bread," said Sancho, "but they are not victuals fit for a valiant knight like your Grace."

The Land and Its People

Most of prehistoric Spain is believed to have been forested with evergreen oaks, chestnuts, and pines. As elsewhere in Western Europe, the greater part of these woods has disappeared through millennia of chopping and clearing, exposing bare ground to surface erosion. By the end of the fifteenth century, two-thirds of the productive land in Spain's heartland had been converted to grazing at the expense of crops—this resulting from the influence of constant local warfare, money, and politics rather than agrarian foresight. Yet the natural ecological diversity of Spain remained and is today unmatched by that of any other country in Europe.

Half again the size of New Mexico and, after Switzerland, Europe's highest country, Spain's provocative landscape is streaked by one range of mountains after another. In many ways its topography, climate, and growing conditions are comparable to what contemporary New Mexicans are wont to call their "land of enchantment," knowing full well that farming and ranching are hardscrabble occupations in their home state.

Like New Mexico, Spain, with a few geographical exceptions, was never a Garden of Eden. Much of it was (and still is) dry, rocky, and covered with thin, impoverished soil. After centuries of cultivation and heavy grazing, more than 16 percent of the Iberian Peninsula is sterile; by contrast, only 10 percent of Spain is considered richly fertile today. Summer drought and winter freezes compound the problem over much of the country. In short, considering the poverty of its land base and peculiarities of climate, fifteenth-century Spain was an unlikely candidate to become the fountainhead for an array of foods and crop plants that would funnel overseas. And yet it did.

With the Pyrenees ascending between the peninsula and the rest of Europe, human culture in Spain and Portugal tended to evolve in relative isolation. Thus Iberians developed attributes marking them off from other Europeans. Even as they inherited great ideas and new technology from other civilizations, notably Roman and Islamic, they also benefited from an infusion of bloodlines stemming from their ancient conquerors. When it came to edibles and growing them, the near-insular setting fostered an evolution of approaches unique to Spanish culture; mixing in genes and concepts from abroad further enriched this agrarian society.

In view of the relatively desolate character of the land, it may come as a surprise to learn how many different garden, field, and orchard crops were being grown in Spain on the eve of Columbus's departure. And, possibly even more surprising, among the two hundred or so food, medicine, fiber, and dye plants cultivated in Spain at that time, none appear to have been actually domesticated by Iberians from native plants. In fact, wild ancestors of most Spanish crops were absent from Western Europe. Though grain farming and livestock herding had been practiced there for more than seven thousand years, nearly all domestic animals and garden stuff originally had come to Iberia from afar. Early food production here resulted from crops, livestock, and agricultural know-how spreading from one tribe of people to another; it was also due to the migrations of farmers and herders themselves. By 1492 Spain was a completely filled agricultural hourglass on the verge of spilling its contents into a vast overseas receptacle.

Agricultural Beginnings

Filling the top half of the hourglass was a cornucopia of plants and animals that had originally been domesticated in what has aptly been called the Fertile Crescent—a twelve-hundred-mile-long arching zone of what at one time were verdant grasslands and woodlands at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Other domesticates in the Iberian hourglass mix initially had come from East Asia, India, or sub-Saharan Africa, typically passing through the Fertile Crescent along the way. Before examining those origins, however, we must answer the question, what, exactly, is meant by domestication?

In his insightful book The Emergence of Agriculture, archaeobotanist Bruce D. Smith provides a good starting definition: "Domestication is the human creation of a new form of plant or animal—one that is identifiably different from its wild ancestors and extant wild relatives." The difference may or may not be observable, but it always involves a genetic change that has occurred through the process of human selection over a long period of time, resulting in a symbiotic relationship between plant and humans—one that is obligatory for the plant. Full-fledged domesticates have, in fact, changed so much that they've lost their ability to survive in the wild. Wheat, corn, and lettuce are examples. A field of these plants left untended will cease to exist within a few years.

The earliest soil tillers must have been people who gathered wild plants, then began to manipulate their home environment by planting seeds of species they already were collecting for edible parts. Archaeologists believe the first to take up gardening anywhere in the world dwelled in a relatively bountiful place—the Fertile Crescent—allowing them to settle in one place for months, if not years, at a time. Picture this scenario: an unusually perceptive, possibly eccentric, tribesperson (most likely a woman, I suspect) experimenting with poking edible seeds collected from wild grasses into disturbed bare soil around his or her primitive shelter. Or perhaps the innovators merely encouraged seedlings of desirable weedy plants—seed-rich grasses such as primordial wheat or barley, for example—to mature on nearby open ground by weeding out competitive plants having no apparent use to them. Occasional successes could have led families or entire clans to repeat the experiments on a grander scale. (I say families, because small family plots can most easily be protected from birds or marauders, with individual plants watered by hand and inadvertently or even intentionally fertilized with household wastes.)

The provoking question of why people living east of the Mediterranean were the world's earliest farmers has to do with the location of the land and its natural resources, not the people themselves. Jared Diamond's profound book Germs, Guns, and Steel presents a compelling argument for this truth.

Suffice it to say that it all began sometime between eight and ten thousand years ago with the domestication of eight crops: two kinds of wheat, barley, lentils, peas, garbanzos, vetch, and flax (probably grown at first for its oily seeds). Before long the three grains, four legumes, and an edible seed plant were likely to have been growing side-by-side in the prototype gardens of history.

Fruits, including olives, grapes, figs, and dates were domesticated by those same people somewhat later, as were other crops such as garlic, turnips, almonds, and pomegranates along with a host of herbs and spices. (It must be pointed out that rainfall was more reliable in the Fertile Crescent in 8000 B.C. than in the arid, inhospitable-looking Middle East of today; post-ice age climates in the world's temperate zones tended to be gentler then, the vegetation more savannahlike.)

During the first five hundred years or so of plant cultivation, those beginning farmers continued to rely on dispatching wild beasts, with meat supplying most of their protein intake; they hunted gazelles, goats, and other game. But it wasn't long before domesticators of wild plants applied their newfound skills to wild animals, starting with goats, then sheep, followed by pigs and, a thousand years later, cattle. By this time tribespeople of the Fertile Crescent had seized their own destiny; food from tended crops and penned or herded livestock now made up the bulk of daily sustenance. And, most portentous to our story, those domesticates along with the germ of agricultural technology were about to explode outward in several directions—southward up the Nile and along the shores of the Mediterranean, eastward into Asia and the Indian subcontinent, and westward into Europe all the way to the Iberian Peninsula.

A wave of wheat and barley swept over the peninsula around 5000 B.C.; lentils, garbanzos, and olives arrived a thousand years later. By this time domestic sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle had reached Spain. Two thousand years before the birth of Christ, Spanish farming villages were also raising peas, grapes, figs, pistachios, and flax—now for its fiber rather than seeds. Owing to their lack of hard or fibrous preservable tissues, proliferation of most leaf and root vegetables is hard to track using traditional archaeological methodology. But now, through hieroglyphic writing and representational art, Egyptians were recording the cultivation of garlic, leek, onion, and lettuce, along with melon, and watermelon in the Nile Valley, and some of those crops surely had already made it to Spain.

The Fertile Crescent wasn't the only cradle for Old World plant and animal domestication. Among crop plants that eventually reached Spain, sugarcane, rice, buckwheat, taro, banana, apricot, peach, and most of the citrus fruits were long before cultivated in East Asia; chickens initially came from there, too. Sorghum and black-eyed peas originated in sub-Saharan Africa, cucumber and eggplant in India. These plants had to travel farther and so took longer to reach Spain than species from the Fertile Crescent; most didn't arrive until the Middle Ages.

The Agricultural Legacy of Roman Spain

By the time Roman legions were sweeping across Europe and into Spain two hundred years before the birth of Christ, agricultural technology had evolved into a science. Building on knowledge acquired from Homer's Greece and drawing from earlier agrocivilizations of Carthage, Egypt, and Mesopotamia all the way back to the earliest cultures who farmed the Fertile Crescent, the Romans developed a unique school of agronomy. Teachings included instructions on the seasonal cycle and how to follow an agricultural calendar for soil preparation, planting, weeding, watering, fertilizing, harvesting, and storage. Scholarly works addressed such varied topics as interrelationships between different crop plants, technical procedures for terrace plowing, and small-scale irrigation.

The first major publication on the subject, written around 160 B.C., was Cato's De Agri Cultura (On Agriculture), a slim manual aimed at the manager of a small estate. His instructions were unceasingly explicit, as shown by this excerpt on fertilizing:

Spread pigeon dung on meadow, garden, and field crops. Save carefully goat, sheep, cattle, and all other dung.... Divide your manure as follows: Haul one-half for the forage crops, and when you sow these, if this ground is planted with olives, trench and manure them at this time; then sow the forage crops. Add a fourth of the manure around the trenched olives when it is most needed, and cover this manure with soil. Save the last fourth for the meadows, and when most needed, as the west wind is blowing, haul it in the dark of the moon. (Cato, 1960: 53, 45-47)

Or on grafting:

Graft the vine as follows: Cut off the stem you are grafting, and split the middle through the pith; in it insert the sharpened shoots you are grafting, fitting pith to pith. A second method is: If the vines touch each other, cut the ends of a young shoot of each obliquely, and tie pith to pith with bark. A third method is: With an awl bore a hole through the vine which you are grafting, and fit tightly to the pith two vine shoots of whatever variety you wish, cut obliquely. Join pith to pith, and fit them into the perforation, one on each side. (Cato, 1960: 59-61)

The difficult technique of grafting—splicing together living plant tissue of closely related plant species—was developed in China and had spread to Europe by classical Greek times. Without grafting, apples, pears, plums, and cherries wouldn't have prospered during the Roman occupation of Spain, since these trees usually can't be grown from cuttings, and seed propagation invariably results in inferior fruit.

Classical Roman agronomic science reached its zenith two hundred years after Cato when Columella, who was born in Spain and later became an owner of several large Italian estates, wrote his treatise, On Agriculture. Three volumes of down-to-earth recommendations to fellow countrymen, many of whom were absentee farm owners, attest that he was the first agronomist to promote the idea of crop rotation to maintain soil fertility. Planting instructions in those volumes reflect years of personal observations of garden successes and failures. Gardeners—take note of this guidance, proffered nearly two thousand years ago:

Immediately after January 1st it will be proper to plant pepperwort. In the month of February rue, either as a plant or as a seed, and asparagus, and again the seed of the onion and the leek; likewise, if you want to have the yield in the spring and summer, you will bury in the ground the seeds of radish, turnip and navew [an elongated turnip]. For ordinary garlic and African garlic are the last seeds which can be sown at this season. About March 1st you can transplant the leek in sunny positions, if it has already grown to a good size; and at the end of the month of March you can treat all-heal in the same way, and then about April 1st leeks likewise and elecampane [a medicinal spice] and late plants of rue. Also cucumbers, gourds and capers must be sown that they may come up in good time. The best time to sow beet seed is when the pomegranate blossoms, but heads of leek can still be passably well transplanted about May 15th. After this, when the summer is coming on, nothing ought to be put in the ground except parsley-seed, and this only if you intend to water it; for then it comes on very well during the summer. In August about the time of the feast of Vulcan comes the third sowing time; it is the best time for sowing radish and turnips. (Columella, Vol. 3, Book XI, 1955: 139-141)

Columella appears to have been dispensing his advice to family gardeners, but Roman Spain had become oriented more toward large-scale commercial production of cereal grains and olives on latifundia—huge landholdings owned by the imperial family or absentee Roman patricians and worked by slaves, most of whom were prisoners of war.

Cattle as well as sheep, goats, and pigs, originally domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, had arrived in Spain long before the Roman conquest, but stockherding didn't play much of an economic role until well after the Romans departed. Exactly where horses were first domesticated, perhaps as long as six thousand years ago, is unknown, but they, too, were included in the Spain's pastoral package during Roman times. Indeed, herdsmen living in the humid northern mountains of the Basque region were becoming known for breeding swift mounts.

At the apogee of Roman influence during the second century AD, most grains, fruits, vegetables, and condiments we associate with traditional Italian or Spanish cuisine were being grown somewhere on the Iberian Peninsula. Locally grown herbs such as mustard, anise, coriander, basil, and parsley had partly substituted for spices that had to be imported at great expense from Asia. Perhaps the chief exceptions—tomatoes and squash—hadn't yet made their transatlantic crossing from the New World. Other exceptions included a group of plants like bananas, citrus trees, melons, and sugarcane then being cultivated in North Africa. They would be planted on Spanish soil a few centuries later.

When the Roman Empire declined and finally collapsed, agricultural innovation stagnated as Germanic Visigoths from the north and east overran the peninsula during the fifth century A.D. During the next three hundred years Spain experienced a massive population decline, partly because of repeated outbreaks of plague, partly owing to famine. The latifundia survived under new ownership with labor provided by peasants rather than slaves. The Germanic settlers, principally herders, had robust appetites for meat and dairy products, and growing grain was typically integrated with raising animals, but overall the agrarian economy slowly decayed. Nevertheless, the core of the agrosystem established during Roman times remained fairly intact, providing the underpinnings for the next wave of crops and technology to reach sunny Spanish shores.

An Islamic Green Revolution

A Muslim invasion from the sea, putting an end to Visigoth rule in A.D. 711, was the harbinger of a green revolution in Spain, bringing a new perspective on agronomy that placed enormous value on watering the land. For Moors, who came from a relatively waterless part of the world, simply loved water. One interpreter of Spanish history put it this way:

The sound of water to these desert people must have had something mystical about it; it was a Moslem ritual to perform daily ablutions, and one has but to roam through any of their palaces or gardens today to become aware of how much flowing water meant to them esthetically. Their finest architectural gems are inseparable from large reflecting pools and fountains. Their lovely gardens are possible only because of the constant flow of water. (Crow, 1985: 61)

As Islamic caliphs took control, Arab soldiers from Syria and Persia were encouraged to settle conquered lands in south-central and eastern Spain. They brought with them planting stock for orchard fruits that included sour oranges, lemons, limes, citrons, grapefruit-like shaddocks, apricots, and bananas, plus rice, taro, and sugarcane—all species domesticated in the Far East and later transported to the Fertile Crescent and the rest of the Arab world. New vegetable crops also accompanied the Moors—artichokes, celery, spinach, and carrots, along with sorghum, melons, watermelons, and cotton. Most important, hard wheat (Triticum turgidum var. durum) came with the Arabs. Pasta and hardtack could be made from this remarkable grain that in short order would be sown across Spain's interior.

The usual diet for rulers and commoners alike in Christian Spain was based on the trilogy of meat, wheat, and wine; however, Arabs were more accustomed to a mix of fruit, vegetables, and legumes, and their cuisine was conspicuously low in animal protein, though lamb was almost always served at banquets. Roasted lamb might be "stuffed with chopped meats fried in sesame oil, with crushed pistachios, pepper, ginger, cloves, mastic, coriander, cardamom and other spices, sprinkled with musk-infused rose water." With a shift in emphasis toward kitchen gardens, residents of Islamic Spain, known then as al-Andalus, were soon enjoying the kind of meals enlightened modern Americans consider altogether wholesome.

Many of the latest crops initially had come from semi-tropical or tropical lands where rainfall was dependable; when planted in Iberia they had to be artificially irrigated, particularly during the dry summer months. The succulent new fruits and the grains couldn't be grown successfully in most parts of Spain without an accompanying infusion of Arabic hydraulic technology. Fortunately, at the time Arabs probably were the world's experts in lifting, diverting, channeling, and distributing water from rivers and wells.

It's true that the Romans had employed modest irrigation systems and, of course, were known for constructing marvelous aqueducts, but these were built for delivering water to cities, not fields. Furthermore, most canals and aqueducts operational in Roman Spain had been allowed to silt up, and collapsed dams or weirs were never rebuilt during the three hundred years of Visigoth oversight. The Arabs fell heir to water delivery structures that were practically in ruins.

Two kinds of irrigation systems were employed in al-Andalus. Gravity flow canals from rivers or springs to fields and gardens were dug afresh or enlarged from existing trenches. Of greater consequence was water newly mined from wells and raised to field height by animal-driven hydraulic wheels. Occasionally the two modes were combined.

Waterwheels, or norias—devices that lift well water to the surface with an endless chain of pots dumping water into a ditch or holding tank—dramatically increased agricultural productivity whenever they were first introduced to farming regions. Norias were easy to build and allowed individual households to generate crop surpluses on formerly dry-farmed plots. Originally invented in Persia, noria technology migrated with Arabs all the way to their geographical frontiers, and in Spain it was instrumental in expanding farmland acreage suitable for the new crops. Norias also fostered double-cropping on existing fields where only winter crops were previously grown. Now the recently imported grains and vegetables could be raised on the same piece of land during the summer drought, irrigated from wells containing water year-round, even when local streams ran dry.

Except for their contribution of the noria and one or two other less important hydraulic devices, Arabs were notably builders on inventions of others. In the words of an eminent scholar of Islamic Spain:

The Arab conquests of the eighth century initiated a great era of agricultural revival resulting in an intensification of irrigation practice throughout the Islamic world. Technologically, the civilization of Islam was a synthesizing one. The Arabs may have invented little themselves, but they preserved, refined, developed, and intensified the technological practices of the ancient world. (Glick, 1970: 175)

Along with Roman agroscholars before them, Arabs, too, had their intellectuals who produced encyclopedic works on agriculture. Ibn al-Awam, who lived in Seville in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, included a month-by-month set of directions in his Book of Agriculture, reminiscent of Columella's treatise written twelve hundred years earlier. For November Ibn al-Awam proclaimed:

Be warned that while most plants and trees, particularly the cultivated olive, the fig, almond, palm, pear, pomegranate, jujube [a fruit tree originally from China] and pistachio, and their relatives love manure, there are some to which it is poison. These are the quince, cherry, plum, laurel, pine and apricot. And of the green plants so harmed are radishes, carrots and turnips; and of the aromatic plants affected are the marjoram, violet, basil, lemon-balm and thyme. (Ibn al-Awam, 1979: 12)

From Arabic works like this one it has been possible to compile lists of exactly what crops and ornamental plants were being grown in Spain at various times during the Islamic era.

Perhaps even more than for its agriculture, Islamic Spain was distinguished by a proliferation of luxuriant flower gardens. As with crop plants, a myriad of ornamentals came from the Orient—plants like tulips, yellow and white jasmine, narcissi, lilacs, and the perpetually flowering Chinese rose. Showy vegetation was typically arranged along walkways under a canopy of Oriental orange trees or sweet-scented almonds and forever accompanied by the sound of running water. Pleasure gardens, usually including utilitarian elements (particularly medicinal herb and spice plants), complemented the wealthier homes in major cities.

In fact, the Moorish Caliphate of Cordova became the urban garden center of all Spain, if not the world, with an estimated fifty thousand private gardens gracing the villas of that city at the time it was recaptured by Christians in 1236. None, however, was as elaborate as the magnificent terrace gardens, complete with water-lilied pools and courtyard fountains, of the Alhambra—the palace complex overlooking the city of Granada built toward the end of the Islamic reign. The story of Islamic gardens can and has filled books; alas, I must give it short shrift here.

Then there were the Berber tribesmen from North Africa who battled alongside their Arab allies during the Islamic invasion of Spain. Pastoralists at heart, when no longer needed as warriors, those who didn't return home settled in Spain's mountains where they herded cattle, sheep, and goats and tended groves of olive and fruit trees, just as they once had done on southern Mediterranean shores. Without doubt, the most lasting contribution of Berbers to Spain's agroeconomy was their introduction from Africa of an improved breed of sheep into the highlands sometime prior to 1300, an event whose unforeseen consequences would unfold during the next three hundred years.

Altogether, the centuries of Islamic rule had a momentous impact on Iberia. I haven't even touched on contributions of Islam to government, science, mathematics, art, or architecture. Muslim Spain's green revolution stands on its own. To be sure, not all the technological innovations and exotic food plants were or would be embraced by Christian Spain. Still, Spain's by now well-watered farmlands contributed greatly toward filling the top half of her pre-1492 hourglass food bin.

Reversing the Green Revolution

As more and more land came under Christian control during the Reconquest (90 percent of the peninsula by 1300), however, emphasis reverted from fruit and vegetable farming to grains, legumes, and grapes. At first, Islamic irrigation systems were retained intact; later, many were abandoned. Raising livestock was promoted.

Taking irrigated lands out of cultivation and converting them to pastures had long-lasting agricultural repercussions. Expulsion of Moors, freeing up vast expanses of grasslands on the central plains for more intensive grazing, fostered the ascendancy of meat diets once again. Indeed, the Iberian Peninsula became the epicenter for ranching throughout the medieval world during the fourteenth century, a situation lasting well beyond the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. Within a hundred years, two-thirds of the central core was devoted to grazing, and what we think of today as truck-farming was on the wane. Although cattle, horses, and pigs were part of the livestock mix, merino sheep, recently introduced from North Africa, were the real agents of this pastoral transformation.

Merinos, with their fine, kinky, white fleece, quickly became preferred over Spain's smaller, short-legged churro, a breed that provided tastier meat but inferior dun-colored wool. For economic reasons, Spanish royalty gave priority to wool production, so at first the two sheep were cross-bred, then every effort was made to eliminate chunky little churros. Raising sheep for food and fiber turned out to be more profitable than farming grains and vegetables. Wool became the principal and almost only export commodity.

By the end of the thirteenth century, the Castilian crown had united various sheep owners' associations into a single powerful protective organization that became known as the Mesta. Acting as spokesman and controller for the industry, the Mesta was accorded exceptional powers. It supervised the annual cycle of driving immense flocks along a web of sheep roads and trails from their winter pastures in the south to the northern mountains in spring and back again in fall, regularly passing through royal toll stations along the way. Conflicts that constantly arose between wheat farmers and the Mesta always seemed to be resolved in favor of herdsmen.

Ferdinand and Isabella did more than any other monarchs to throw imperial weight behind the Mesta, granting permanent tenancy to sheep owners who trespassed undetected onto private lands for even part of a season. The short- to mid-term effect of the burgeoning sheep industry was to pump money from the sale of wool at home and abroad (particularly the Netherlands) into royal coffers—money that would be used to wage war and launch upcoming expeditions to the New World. Longer-term consequences, however, would turn out to be disastrous for those who remained behind in Spain.

Some of the recaptured Moorish territory was divided up into repartimientos and allotted to private citizens, thus establishing a class of peasant landowners. Other lands were conveyed to communities or retained by the military and granted to private individuals for a limited time. Property left in Muslim hands carried the stipulation that a hefty annual tribute be tendered—a precursor to the encomienda system that would be adopted by Spaniards when they overwhelmed the Canary Islands and, ultimately, swept into the New World.

Small tracts owned or leased by peasants normally were converted to huertas—kitchen gardens and orchards with an adjacent vineyard producing fruits and vegetables for family consumption or sold in the urban market. Huertas were owned by peripheral villagers who supplied urbanites with the bulk of their regular fare except for grain.

What They Were Eating

Fifteenth-century Spaniards—rich and poor alike—ate bread, probably with every meal, and oftentimes, bread was the meal. The basic peasant diet included more than a pound of bread, day in and day out. Bread made from wheat—fine-textured white bread—was demanded by the rich, and they insisted wheat be grown even in districts where soils called for planting rye that reaped a higher yield. "Without bread, wheat would have been just another grain among many rivals," as one writer put it. Rye bread—dark, coarse, and often rock hard—or bread made from rye mixed with barley or sometimes wheat with plenty of bran, was the everyday stuff for peasants. One historian has suggested the whiteness and texture of bread could have been arranged hierarchically to precisely match the structure of society.

As for breadmaking, we learn this from a study of city-women's occupations during this period:

The townswoman's grain was either grown in a family plot outside the walls or purchased in the municipal market. Once it was ground, she made the family bread at home with the flour and the massa she kept for leavening. Usually she took her loaves to be baked at a municipal oven... such an oven was expected to hold about three dozen loaves, and the owner either operated it himself or rented it to a man and his wife who ran it as a family business and received a quarter of the receipts from sales and baking fees. They were fined for failing to keep it lighted or not getting up early enough to have it hot for their morning patrons. (Dillard, 1984: 151)

When Arabs introduced hard wheat (also called durum) to Spain in the tenth century, new cuisine was just around the corner. High gluten and low moisture content of hard wheat allows dough to be stretched and dried without breaking—essential for making pasta. A thirteenth-century Hispano-Islamic cookbook contained the following recipe that included pasta:

Take shoulder, leg, breast and loin and some fat. Cut it up and put in a stewpot with salt, onion, black pepper, dry coriander and olive oil. Cook on a moderate heat until ripe. Immediately remove from the stewpot and clarify the sauce. Return to the pot and add butter, softened fat and sweet oil, bring to a boil and add fidawsh [spaghetti], boiling furiously. Sprinkle with cinnamon and ginger and serve. (Wright, 1999: 625)

The preparation of couscous and hardtack also demanded hard wheat. Couscous was eaten (especially by Berbers, since this dish originated with them) in fifteenth-century Islamic Spain, and hardtack was an invention that would shortly abet long ocean voyages.

Another use for barley along with millet was making porridge; oats, a marginal crop, were usually reserved for animal feed. Moors had introduced sorghum, but this grain doesn't seem to have taken hold in medieval Spain. Whether in the form of bread, porridge, or pasta, grains comprised a remarkably high portion of an average Spaniard's caloric intake.

A study of sixteenth-century eating habits from one district in northern Spain concluded that, on average, grains made up more than three-quarters of each person's daily calories, meat and fish accounted for 7 percent, and wine an astounding 10 percent. This mix probably wasn't typical for central and southern Spain where olive oil and legumes would have scored significantly. The many Jews living in Spain at this time provided an impetus for oil consumption, since they were prohibited from cooking with lard; Muslims also cooked with olive oil.

Rice was propagated along the Mediterranean coast around Valencia where soil and climate were highly suitable for the grain introduced to Spain by Arabs in the eighth century. One dish combined ground rice with chicken breasts, almonds, and sugar, at times with the addition of a mixture of fragrant rosewater and water that had been boiled with orange blossoms. The oriental grain was more often served with milk and sweetened with honey or sugar. Rice was truly an expensive luxury in Spain and didn't become a staple until the eighteenth century. Paella, the signature Spanish rice dish today, may have been conceived in North Africa during the fourteenth century, but Valencia became the real Mecca for paella cookery. The genuine article, paella valenciana, was concocted with rice, chicken, rabbit, or lean pork, olive oil, and land snails, along with assorted vegetables and legumes, all topped off with golden saffron.

Food and Medicine for the Wealthy

Saffron—most coveted of all spices—is an extract from tiny dried stigmas of a certain crocus, Crocus sativus. This magical powder was grown for its culinary, medicinal, and golden-yellow dye properties. Saffron had become a virtual symbol for the precious metal, and there was no more effective way for a Spanish lord to impress his dinner guests than by sprinkling some on plates of meat and vegetables, making each dish sparkle like gold and emit an indescribable aroma. Saffron-bearing crocus plants had appeared in Spain about the time of the Arab conquest, and the idea of coloring food to enhance its presentation was another contribution from Islam. By the thirteenth century, cultivated saffron had become one of Spain's minor exports.

Some of the favorite spices couldn't be grown in the temperate climate. Black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg require hotter, wetter growing conditions and so were imported from the East. But most herbs and spices we use today were being cultivated in late-fifteenth-century southern Spain. The peasants' monotonously simple sustenance wouldn't have benefited much from the more exotic seasonings even if they had been affordable: garlic was the spice for the poor. But when eating approached banquet level, flavor was craved along with quantity, and complex meals of the nobility were highly spiced. Expensive spice-rich cuisine became one more defining symbol for the affluent.

Herbs and spices assumed another, equally vital, role. Most were thought to possess specific medicinal attributes (beliefs held to this day among traditional Hispanics living in the Southwest). Synthetic pharmaceuticals were, of course, unheard of, so for cures medieval medicine focused on plants, both wild and cultivated. Ponder this fictional exchange from Don Quixote for an example of herbal medicine in action. It took place in a goat herders' camp after the squire nearly had his ear lopped off during an imaginary battle with another knight:

"But all the same, Sancho, perhaps you had better look after this ear, for it is paining me more than I like."

Sancho started to do as he was commanded, but one of the goatherds, when he saw the wound, told him not to bother, that he would place a remedy upon it that would heal it in no time. Taking a few leaves of rosemary, of which there was a great deal growing thereabouts, he mashed them in his mouth and, mixing them with a little salt, laid them on the ear, with the assurance that no other medicine was needed; and this proved to be the truth. (Cervantes, 1949: 98)

Physicians frequently prescribed ordinary condiments to counteract divers maladies—hot dry spices to cure a cold, for example. Everyday foods had their medicinal complement: the quince was considered to be an antidepressant; garbanzos facilitated menstruation; lemon skins and anise were antidotes against poisons; turnips were thought to be aphrodisiacs. In fact, Cato, the Roman scholar, considered cabbage to be medicinally the most useful of all vegetables, possibly one reason cabbage became predominant in medieval Mediterranean meals.

When it came to haute cuisine, clearly the pampered nobility enjoyed the most stupendous feasts—royal banquets that typically featured heroic consumption of an unbelievable array of meats and fish. Historian John Crow recounts some refreshments that were delivered over a period of several days for the wedding of a duke in Madrid in 1612:

On each meat day the royal pantry supplied him and his entourage with the following items: 8 ducks, 26 capons, 70 hens, 100 pairs of pigeons, 50 partridges, 100 hares, 25 sheep, 40 pounds of lard, 12 hams, 3 pigs, 8 bushels of assorted fruits, and six different kinds of wine. On fast days the supply of seafood that went to the duke was equally impressive: 100 pounds of trout, 15 pounds of eels, 100 of mullet, 50 pounds each of four different kinds of preserved fish, 1,000 eggs, 100 pounds of butter, 100 pounds of codfish, and 100 pounds of anchovies. (Crow, 1985: 177)

Just how such an intimidating potpourri of fat and protein was prepared and served is unclear, even though the first Spanish cookbook had already been written. Be that as it may, what may seem unbelievable to students of European gastronomy is how a hundred years earlier and in a world apart, Aztec lords of Mexico had been feasting on a cuisine even more diversified and lavish, as we shall learn in the chapter that follows.

The degree of diet richness for monks and priests, on the other hand, seems to have varied widely. Some monasteries had become minor gastronomic enclaves with meat, fish, and eggs on the table almost daily. Perhaps in reaction to such extravagance, the more austere religious orders—Franciscans, for one—eschewed any semblance of gourmet cuisine and took up fasting from time to time. Nevertheless, abstinence rarely applied to wine; at some monasteries monks were known to consume more than two liters per day.

Despite prohibitions spelled out in the Koran, Moors had long concocted alcoholic beverages from figs, rice, and dates, as well as grapes, and Greeks and Romans are well-known for their love of the juice. But grape growing and wine making came into its own in Spain during the post-Islamic Christian era. The vine became ubiquitous wherever it was warm enough and could be watered—mainly in the southern two-thirds of the peninsula and in the lower Ebro Valley. Wine making was labor intensive but required little capital; thus vines were grown in huertas owned or leased by peasants and village commoners much more often than in fields of large landholders. Most Spaniards were part-time vintners, and practically everyone drank their product—in copious amounts.

As the fifteenth century drew to a close in Europe, the people were carnivorous, by choice if not necessarily in practice, while the rest of the world was essentially vegetarian. In Spain the rich incessantly dined to excess, while the poor were hungry much of the time. In his thoughtful book Spanish Society: 1400-1600, Teofilo Ruiz has observed "Besides clothing, there was no greater marker of social difference in the late Middle Ages and in the early modern period than eating."

Spain's population was soaring; its arable land base was not. Agricultural techniques were still exceedingly primitive, and the soil wasn't rested enough. Already famine was looming. A few of those hungry, restless Spaniards would soon have an opportunity to measure their luck elsewhere.

Wheat (Triticum spp.)

Wheat, vying with rice as the single most important domesticated plant in history, is a complex assemblage of several species in the grass genus Triticum, with tens of thousands of varieties today and more farmland devoted to it than to any other crop.

Humans were collecting grains from ancestral wheat plants long before they grew it in fields. The transition from gathering wild seeds to planting wheat occurred approximately ten millennia ago in the Fertile Crescent—land that includes parts of modern Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.

Wheat farming progressed west from its birthplace into Europe, reaching Spain about 5200 B.C. and England less than two thousand years later. A need for grain to feed the masses was a motivating force behind Roman conquests; Egypt and parts of Europe swiftly became wheat-growing breadbaskets for the Roman Empire. By biblical times wheat, particularly bread made from it, was ingrained throughout the continent. It had spread east across Asia, too, but would never replace rice as the dominant cereal.

Columbus brought seeds from Spain to the New World on his second voyage in 1493, but the humid Caribbean was unkind to wheat. Higher, drier ground in central Mexico was suitable, however, and the grain moved northward in step with expansion of the colonial frontier. English colonists tried to grow it in their settlements on the Atlantic Seaboard without much success. It wasn't until the 1870s that immigrants from Russia, bringing superior quality wheat seeds with them, found the ideal climate for grain farming in North Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas.

In the beginning, mature wheat stalks were harvested using hand-held stone knives. Harvesting was speeded up and made easier with the invention of metal curved-blade sickles, in use at least two thousand years ago, and later scythes—hand-held rakelike tools used to comb wheat grains from each plant. In 1834 Cyrus McCormick invented the mechanical reaper with its cutting blade of teeth that shift back and forth—a device that could replace sixty people using scythes. By the 1890s farmers on the prairies could purchase or lease a combine—an all-in-one machine that mechanically accomplishes every step involved in harvesting and bagging the grain.

Most wheat flour is used for breadmaking today. Bread is normally leavened or raised using a yeast fermentation process before baking. Flour may be refined by machine sifting to remove all traces of bran and bleached with chemicals to produce a whiter bread. Whole wheat bread made from entire wheat kernels has a darker appearance, chewier taste, and is more nutritious. Thus, back in 1826 it was recorded in London that "a dog, fed on fine white bread and water does not live beyond the fiftieth day, whereas a dog, fed on the coarse bread [i.e. whole wheat] of the military, lives and keeps his health." Nowadays white bread is usually enriched with the addition of vitamins and minerals, a legal requirement in many countries.

Cabbage and Its Relatives (Brassica oleracea)

Cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi, kale, collard greens, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts—all come from a single plant species, Brassica oleracea, known for remarkably high genetic variation. Over time variants of this Mediterranean native were selected and grown for their edible open leaves (kale and collards), large compacted leaf heads (cabbage), small auxiliary leaf heads (Brussels sprouts), thickened stems with dense flowers (broccoli and cauliflower), and bulbous stems (kohlrabi). It all began at least twenty-six hundred years ago when Greeks started cultivating some local form of wild cabbage.

Cabbage became an ordinary Greek and Roman garden vegetable and had achieved status as "the peoples' vegetable" throughout Europe by the time the Middle Ages drew to a close. Cabbage soup with a little meat thrown in (if they were lucky) was standard daily fare for a majority of Spanish peasants. Small wonder Columbus took seeds with him on his second voyage in 1493.

Cabbage from those seeds prospered in the New World's first Mediterranean gardens, and cabbage seeds traveled with Spaniards wherever they colonized new territory across Mexico and north into the American Southwest. Settlers planted cabbage at New Mexico's first Spanish colony in 1598, and a few years later the English planted it in their Virginia colonies.

When Roman agronomist Cato recommended cabbage as a universal panacea for combating illness, he was as good as his word, claiming he ate almost nothing else and pointing to the fact that he sired twenty-eight sons on account of his peculiar diet. One of this vegetable's myriad attributes was thought to be moderating ill effects from excessive wine consumption, perhaps one reason why cabbage was so popular in medieval Spain. In fact, B vitamins in the leaves do have oxygenation qualities that can, indeed, counteract alcohol's mind-numbing. Recently U.S. laboratory scientists have extracted a substance from cabbage useful in treating alcoholism.

Steeping fermenting cabbage leaves in salty brine to produce sauerkraut was in vogue before the time of Christ. Sauerkraut and later its Korean cousin, kimchee, were valued by mariners because of a high Vitamin C content, thus relieving the effects of scurvy. In the 1770s famed seafarer Captain James Cook claimed that tubs of sauerkraut in the holds of his ship were one of the secrets to his nautical success.

Brussels sprouts, formed as miniature cabbages when auxiliary leaf buds develop along the main stalk below the open leaves, apparently weren't grown until the late 1500s. The story is that they were first cultivated near the city of Brussels, Belgium.

Both broccoli and cauliflower are much older, going back to early Greek and Roman times, but not reaching Spain until after Columbus's voyages. Today Parisians are the champion consumers of cauliflower, averaging nearly ten pounds per person yearly. As we all know, broccoli and cauliflower (along with other cabbage relatives) are packed with vitamins and minerals, especially potassium, and so, of course, are good for you.

Common Fig (Ficus carica)

"Here, with a hedge running down on either side, lies a large orchard... and here the ripening fruit; so that pear after pear, apple after apple, cluster on cluster of grapes, and fig upon fig are always coming to perfection."

The above, from Homer's Odyssey, was written in the eighth century B.C., but the common fig extends much farther back in antiquity, having been cultivated in close association with olives and grapes at least six thousand years ago in the Fertile Crescent region. From there, figs advanced with farmers, eventually becoming a classic fruit crop of the Mediterranean.

Besides being relished as one of the sweetest fruits, fig trees and figs were sacred in most religions of people who grew them. Featured in the well-known Adam and Eve story, the fig is the first tree to be identified in the Bible. In India fig trees were consecrated to Vishnu, protector and preserver of the world, and in North Africa figs became fertility symbols (perhaps, in part, because of the tree's milky sap). The innumerable seeds in a fig are likened to knowledge among some cultures. Plato declared figs especially good for athletes.

Figs had been grown in Spain for some thirty-five hundred years before Spanish conquistadors crossed the Atlantic. Fig cuttings reached the West Indies in 1520, and by mid-century both red and white-fleshed varieties were thriving on the islands. The first natural history for the New World, published in 1526, stated that on the island of Hispaniola, "There are many figs throughout the year, many date palms and other plants and trees that have been carried there from Spain."

Figs tended to be at the fore as the Spanish colonial frontier pushed from Mexico City up the three corridors into the Southwest, but successful plantings were limited to warmer climates; thus figs didn't get much farther north than El Paso in the central corridor. Spaniards introduced fig horticulture to Florida in the 1570s and to California two centuries later.

Roughly eight hundred wild species of trees, shrubs, and vines in the genus Ficus occur in the world, most of them in the tropics. Included are the banyan tree of India, the strangler fig in Florida, and various tropical rubber trees. Wild figs are dispersed by birds and fruit-eating bats that defecate the tiny seeds. Only Ficus carica produces commercially important fruit today, although another species, the sycamore fig, flourished in ancient Egypt even before the common fig arrived on the scene.

Figs are rich in iron and calcium and low in fat, but fresh figs have perhaps the shortest life span of any fruit on the market. Once harvested, they last only about a week; consequently, about 90 percent of the world's fig harvest is dried.

Olive (Olea europaea)

Olive trees bearing the classical Mediterranean fruit essentially define that region's environment. They won't grow and produce fruit (technically berries) anywhere near the tropics or where winters are lethally cold. (Thomas Jefferson experimented with them at Monticello, but failed to produce a crop.) The evergreen trees are slow-growing and long-lived, often for hundreds of years. It's claimed some trees in Spain today are over one thousand years old.

Olives from trees growing in the wild have been picked and eaten by humans in the Fertile Crescent region for at least ten thousand years. Semitic people began cultivating the trees about five thousand years ago, and around 800 B.C. Phoenician colonists brought them to Iberia where olives would become a cornerstone for the civilized diet triumvirate of bread, wine, and oil (which, in those days, solely meant olive oil).

Tree seedlings accompanied Columbus to his Isabella colony in 1493, but the plants refused to mature in the moist tropical climate. Cortés later had them introduced to his holdings in the Mexican interior, and Franciscans and Jesuits almost always took cuttings with them as they founded mission after mission along the advancing northern frontier. Commercial olive production never fared well in Mexico or the Southwest, but when cuttings made their appearance in San Diego in 1769, thanks to Franciscan missionaries from Mexico, they found their Mediterranean climate home. Raising mission olives, along with mission grapes and figs, eventually became a major industry in Southern California.

In ancient times olives for eating had to be processed by drying, salting, or pickling to break down substances that leave an unpalatable bitter taste. All that changed around 1900 when a chemical process to remove the bitterness was developed.

Key to the historical importance of olives, however, is the up to 40 percent oil makeup of the fruit. Olive oil was desired by ancient Egyptians and Greeks as a cleanser to anoint bodies, as a lamp oil, and as a medicine and foodstuff. From Roman times on, the main use was for cooking and eating with bread.

Modern oil production involves crushing pitted olives into a paste that is pressed to release the oil. The first, light cold-pressing yields what is labeled as extra virgin oil. Ordinary virgin oil, with somewhat greater acidity, comes from a heavier pressing, and lower grades of oil result from succeeding pressings, usually with heat or in a bath of hot water. Olive oil contains monounsaturated fats and thus is recommended by up-to-date nutritionists to help lower blood cholesterol levels.

Today 90 percent of the world's olives are pressed for their oil. Spain produces the most olives, followed by Italy and Greece; only about 5 percent are grown in California. A good place to see mature olive trees in the Southwest (and perhaps taste an unprocessed olive from right off the tree) is on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson.


By William W. Dunmire

William W. Dunmire of Placitas, New Mexico, is a retired National Park Service naturalist and writer-photographer on natural history topics.

"Gardens of New Spain is certainly approachable by gardeners, cooks, and amateurs of Southwestern studies as well as professional is an important addition to the sparse literature in English on the Old Southwest in the colonial era."

Sixteenth Century Journal

"This scholarly document will be as enduring as the plants upon which it focuses and will reach a wide public audience because of its writing style."

New Mexico Historical Review

"With a light hand, William Dunmire traces the fascinating journeys of plants—from the gardens of the Alhambra, to the floating gardens of Xochimilco, to the sunken gardens of California's Mission San Luis Rey, and to all points in between. Deeply learned, with splendid maps, illustrations, and tables, this is an invaluable reference, but it is also a delight to read."

—David Weber, Robert and Nancy Dedman Professor of History and Director of the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies, Southern Methodist University

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