Food of Medieval Andalusia and the Expulsion of Spanish Muslims

Alhambra in Granada

Seville, along with Genoa, Leghorn (Livorno), Venice, Ancona, and Naples, was one of the great commercial centers of the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century. The riches of America flowed to Seville exclusively because it was in direct line of the trade winds and had a legal monopoly on that trade. The soil was productive, and olives and vines prospered in lower Andalusia during the sixteenth century. At that time, half the population of Andalusia were still Muslim. As Seville and Andalusia prospered, they looked outward. Venetian ambassadors regularly described Andalusia as a splendid land. Wheat was the leading product of trade in Andalusia; nevertheless, Seville was often short of grain, while neighboring towns Puerto de Santa María, Jerez de la Frontera, and Málaga had abundant food. One solution to the crisis of Seville’s food supply was a product from the New World, the potato, although it didn’t become fully integrated into Spanish cooking until the mid-seventeenth century where it is represented in Bartolomé Estéban Murillo’s (1617?-1682) painting showing the poor of Seville eating from a cauldron of potatoes, the food of the humble.

The sources for the feeding of Seville, as with all Mediterranean cities, were confined to the territory within carting distance of Seville. Fish came from Cádiz and other nearby villages on the coast. Pork came from Ronda, Aracena, and other towns on the fringes of the Sierra Nevada and Sierra Morena. Rice was from Valencia and raisins came from Almería. Wheat came from local farms, and a little from France and North Africa, and some cheese was later imported from Germany, Flanders, and the Canaries. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, there was a decline in Andalusian agriculture, and provisioning shifted from domestic to imported. By 1617, salt pork came from Ireland and salt beef from Flanders.
By the mid-sixteenth century, the Genoese controlled the American trade and exerted a powerful influence over the economic life of Seville because of their superior understanding of the mechanisms of finance and their access to capital. Society in Seville was changing from a medieval one where the nobility defined its virtues in terms of valor, to one where profit making motivated a new class of people looking to acquire luxury items and live well. The population of Seville was ninety thousand in 1594; it was the largest city in Spain. The Guadalquivir River was the mainspring of Seville’s economic life, bringing the fabulous riches of the Indies to the city.

Bartolomé Estéban Murillo’s painting of St. Diego of Alcala feeding the poor

Soon the very nature of Seville and Valencia and all of Spain–town and country–would forever be changed. The Lérida plain was still being worked by filāḥīn in the sixteenth century, as was the Rioja in the Ebro valley. The filāḥīn were the peasant farmers who were originally Muslim but converted to Christianity. These were the Moriscos, the name given to the descendants of the converted Muslims. The filāḥīn, like the Lombard rice workers, were very poor. In the Mediterranean the rich were very rich and the poor, very poor. You can see this today in Morocco, where the very rich own vast tracts of olive and argan trees.
In the end, even the Moriscos were driven out of Spain in the final great expulsion of 1609-1614. In 1609, the Moriscos accounted for one third of the total population of Valencia. Although they controlled Valencia’s fertile huertas (large vegetable gardens), without an aristocracy to lead them there was no organized resistance to their oppression. There were occasional revolts, such as one on Christmas night in Granada in 1568, but the decision to eradicate any Muslim presence in Spain had already been made by Philip II in Granada. Muslim costumes were forbidden, speaking Arabic was forbidden, women were forbidden to wear the veil, and all traces of Muslim civilization were banished. By 1614, three hundred thousand Moriscos had been expelled out of an overall population of eight million.

Farmers from a medieval Arab-Andalusian agricultural manual

They were expelled because they never assimilated, and they were hated for it. But hatred could not wipe out the thousands of Arabic words and places names in Spain, the dark black eyes of the Andalusians, nor the rich, evocative cuisine that conveys the taste of the celestial paradise of the dar al-Islam (house of peace), as so many Andalusian culinary preparations demonstrate.


  1. Ruth Silva says

    I loved reading about when and how potatoes were introduced into Spanish cooking… I thought all food blog talk was unbearable self-centered blabbering but this has proved me wrong.

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