In Spain, especially in Andalusia, the presence of Moorish culture can be seen on every corner. Intertwined with the culture of catholic Spain, this is evident in everything from the architecture to the cuisine. This influence is due to the lengthy Islamic reign over the Iberian Peninsula. In the spring of 711 the Umayyad kingdom attacked Gibraltar and over the following eight years most of Iberia fell under Moorish control (except for Asturias and Galicia). For the next eight centuries the occupation of the peninsula, specifically in Andalusia, would leave an indelible cultural mark. One of the biggest influences was without doubt on the cuisine, a tradition which fortunately continues today. Having survived over thousands of years this is still a part of everyday Spanish life and is firmly assimilated in Andalusian customs.
The Introduction of New Foods
After arriving in Spain, one of the first innovations achieved by the Moors was the installation of irrigation systems which allowed the harvesting of arid areas, thereby expanding and improving vegetable plantations. They also introduced natural produce from Asia which was totally unknown to the Spanish. Many of these continue to be basic ingredients in today’s Spanish cuisine and include most spices and produce such as saffron, apricots, artichokes, carob, sugar, aubergines, grapefruits, carrots, coriander and rice. These ingredients remain a firm point of reference for Spanish and Andalusian recipes, featuring in for example pinchito moruno andaluz, a dish normally made with chicken, saffron, cumin and coriander. Another key example of the importance of these foods is a dish which perhaps best symbolises Spanish cuisine, paella, whose main ingredients are rice and saffron. Thanks to the success of such crops, Spain today is one of the main producers of saffron. In fact, along with Iran, Spain produces 80% of the crop worldwide.
The Moors brought with them many of the spices and aromatic herbs now known in Spain, along with the cooking methods associated with them. Not only did this mean they brought their own personality to dishes but it also allowed them to maintain their own methods of food preservation. Present day Spanish dishes such as salt crusted baked fish have been show to originate from the cuisine of the Islamic world. Another favoured method for cooking fish in present day Andalusian gastronomy, is to coat it in flour and then fry it in oil. This traditional method is still maintained in the region and often features in Andalusian festivities. When it came to preserving food, especially fish and vegetables, it would be mixed with salt or the item soaked in vinegar for a long time. These techniques are still used today in the famous boquerones en vinagre (anchovies in vinegar), as well as olives in brine and others.
Significant Influence on Dessert Making
The Moorish influence on Spanish cuisine is probably most evident in sweets and desserts, and the majority of the more traditional Andalusian desserts are clear examples of this. The introduction of almonds revolutionised pastry making. They are now an essential part of Spanish gastronomy and have left their mark on many dishes, including the famous torta de almendras. Other Moor-inspired desserts that have since taken on Christian inspired names as a result of the Reconquista include the torta real from Motril, torrijas de Semana Santa (like french toast deep fried in honey) and tocinos de cielo from Guadix. Many of these are produced in convents or other religious settings and sometimes have religious sounding names, such as cabello de ángel (angel’s hair), suspiros de monja (nun’s sighs) and huesos de santo (bones of a saint).
Legends and Cultural Ties
On visiting the towns and cities around Andalusia, the Moorish heritage can clearly be detected in the architecture, the street markets, and in the colours and smells. If you go to Granada you will see the magnificent architecture of the Alhambra, likewise in the Mezquita (mosque) of Cordoba and the cathedral of Seville. In fact, all throughout the region this fusion of Moorish and Christian styles testifies to the rich history. This cultural blend always offers something new; there’s nothing more enriching than to exchange cultures and see the world from different perspectives. However, we shouldn’t forget that this cultural diversity is largely a product of historical conquests and long fought wars.
Despite this, there are numerous romantic stories and legends that stick in the collective memory and which highlight the mutual affinity of these cultures. One of these tells the tale of Vejer de la Frontera and Chefchaouen. According to legend, when Spain was under Moorish rule, Mulay Alí ben Rachid, a famous emir, fell in love with Zhora, a lady from Vejer de la Frontera. When the Moors were expelled from Spain, the lovers emigrated to Morocco where Mulay Alí built a settlement in the image of Vejer, in order to alleviate the yearning Zhora had for her home town. This is now called Chefchaouen.
The city was founded in 1471 on the site of a small Berber community. Its original population consisted mainly of exiles from Al-Andalus (Islamic Iberia). Equal in number, the Muslim and Jewish people there left their mark on the old part of the city, and which today bears a strong resemblance to the towns of Andalusia, characterised by irregular narrow alleys and whitewashed houses (often with shades of blue). This charming legend resulted in the twinning of these towns in the year 2000. Firm relationships such as this one, create close bonds between different towns and cultures, and indeed delicious recipes for us to enjoy. The Moor-influenced rosquitos for example from Vejer is a simple recipe, easy to make and a perfect accompaniment to afternoon tea.