Category Archives: Spanish History

Potatoes and Northern Europe

While I was eating potatoes and eggs for dinner tonight, I remembered a quote I had read about the importance of the potatoes in Northern Europe from Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.

When the potato got to Europe, it changed the course of European history. Before the potato, the northern tier of Europe, the population was relatively small and was held back by regular famines caused by failures of the grain harvest.

The further north you go, the dicier it is to grow wheat. And so the center of gravity in Europe, before the potato, was the Mediterranean, where you could grow grain more reliably. The potato did very well at the more northerly areas. It did very well in wetter areas, and it did very well in really poor soils.

So suddenly there was this vast new source of calories that could underwrite the growth of the population, such as never would have happened without the potato.

Since one individual can grow so much food, you need fewer people in the fields to support an urban population. So it’s really hard to imagine the Industrial Revolution proceeding as it would without the potato to kind of support it. This New World food remade the Old World.

Some evidence to Northern Europeans lack of ability to produce and harvest lots of wheat is the fact that Northern Europeans and their descendants are much more likely to have Celiac Disease than Southern Europeans, who rely a lot more on wheat, eating loads of bread and pasta.

So, the Spanish, bringing the potato to Europe from America, spawned Europe’s population growth which led the industrialization of the northern region and a subsequent shift of Europe’s power from Italy and Spain to England, Northern France and Germany—which remains to this day. Northern Europe’s success was—and still is—dependent on the potato.

Interestingly enough, it took the potato quite a while to catch on in Europe. It was initially used by only the poorest and by sailors, who found it could keep scurvy at bay.

Gradually, the Spanish realized that potatoes were perfect food for sailors on ships returning from Peru. . . . As early as 1570, potatoes could be purchased in markets in Seville, and, by 1573, they were being fed to hospital patients in other parts of Spain.

Through the first half of the seventeenth century, potatoes were eaten primarily by the poor and soldiers in Spain. . . .

From Spain, potatoes spread to all parts of Europe. Spanish ships carried the vegetable to Italy around 1560, making that country the first after Spain to eat potatoes on an appreciable scale.

The inventive Italians were quick to incorporate New World foods into their diet. It then spread throughout most of the world through Europe’s trading empire.

By 1600, the potato had entered Austria, Belgium, Holland, France, Switzerland, England, Germany, and, most likely, Portugal and Ireland. Some historians claim that it was Basque fishermen who first brought potatoes to Ireland, when they came ashore to dry their catches on their return voyages from Newfoundland. Others maintain it was Sir Walter Raleigh who planted the first potatoes on his estate in Ireland. The potato was introduced in India, possibly as early as 1615, and had reached the most remote parts of China by 1643. Beginning about 1730, the Scottish Highlands adopted potatoes as completely as Ireland had.

But the potato would have to undergo de-stigmatisation before it could be fully disseminated. Many priests and peasants feared its evil nightshade power (as do our modern nutrition health gurus).

Aside from its odd, unaesthetic appearance and initially bitter taste, the tuber was feared for a variety of reasons. Since it was not mentioned in the Bible, it was often associated with the devil. As a consequence, in the north of Ireland and in Scotland, Protestants flatly refused to plant them. In Catholic Ireland, to be on the safe side, peasants sprinkled their seed potatoes with holy water and planted them on Good Friday.

Another source of prejudice against the potato was its membership in the nightshade family . . . So great was the fear that, when Frederick the Great of Prussia ordered his people to plant potatoes in 1744, they pulled them up. Frederick was forced to post soldiers to guard the crops. Ten years later, in 1754, the king of Sweden also ordered his subjects to grow potatoes. Yet, when famine struck Kolberg in 1774, wagonloads of potatoes sent by Frederick were rejected.

Frederick the Great really was great by the way. But I’ll save that for another blog post. It took the French, who also initially reviled the potato, to make it both acceptable haute cuisine and as a symbol of the republic’s dedication to liberte, egalite and fraternite.

The French were no more enamored of the potato at first than any other Europeans. Legrand d’Aussy, in his 1782 Histoire de la vie privée des Français (History of the private life of the French) wrote that the pasty, indigestible tuber should be eliminated from aristocratic households and left to the poor. . . . .

By 1780, potatoes were the chief food of the Pyrenean highlands. By 1840, the potato was well established in French cuisine, making its way in through the soup pot, where it added bulk and absorbed flavors. . . .

In 1793, during the “Reign of Terror,” the French people celebrated potatoes as their republican salvation. Even the royal Tuileries gardens were symbolically converted into a potato field. . . .

Potatoes gradually acquired a place in haute cuisine. Collinet, the chef for King Louis Phillippe (reigned 1830–1848), accidentally created the famous pommes soufflées (puffed potatoes) when he plunged fried potatoes into extremely hot oil to reheat them when the king was late for dinner.

And then there’s one of those odd twists in history where the potato made its way back to North America by way of Europe, rather than directly through South America. It took the Irish immigrants to entrench full scale potato eating to America; and the common potato we eat is the Irish potato, a breed that’s undergone modification in Europe for almost 300 years now, and far removed from the much more colorful and flavorful Amerindian varieties.

These potatoes, of which there are thousands more varieties, are more nutritious than the European type; less sugary, starchy, with more flavor and vitamins. One downside, however, is that they do contain more of the harmful substances that the European peasants were so worried about and are more likely to harbor viruses. I’ve heard stories of people eating too many potatoes in the Andean highlands and falling into a deep 12 hour sleep with little memory of what happened due to the large amount of solanine in these potatoes, which was bred out in the European varieties eaten in most places around the world.

But even the Irish variety is a nutritious feast, despite what our health overlords will have you think. The only real downside is its high glycemic index—which means you should just eat it with an ample serving of butter or sour cream.

You can actually get all the nutrients you need to survive on a diet of potatoes, milk and oatmeal. Sounds pretty damn Irish to me. Actually, this guy argues that that’s what they were basically eating for quite some time, and that there were reports of them being quite healthy on that diet.

Before the Great Famine, the traditional Irish peasant meal consisted mainly of potatoes, milk, oats, beans, barley, and bread. Potatoes were the mainstay. As the years grew leaner, dairy products largely disappeared from the Irish diet, since poverty forced many farmers to sell their milk to pay rent. By the time the famine hit, the peasants were eating pretty much just potatoes, supplemented with some salt fish and oatmeal.

How did the Irish do on this diet? We can’t be certain — nobody was conducting nutrition studies in those days. But there’s reason to believe they were healthier than you might guess. In the century before the famine, Ireland had the highest birthrate in western Europe. Some credit potatoes, saying the availability of easy-to-grow, easy-to-cook spuds made it practical to raise large families. Telling evidence on this score, one historian writes, “is that the Irish in general and Irish women in particular were widely described as healthy and good-looking.”

Not that that’s the most scientific analysis, but the trio of Irish women I met the other night were certainly Celtic beauties.

The only downside to that monolithic diet was, well, first they stopped being able to afford milk and then they got hit by the potato famine, so that, even if Ireland had the highest birthrate in Europe (still does by the way) its modern population is only about half of what it was a couple hundred years ago.


After the King Dies

Spain is currently a constitutional monarchy. Juan Carlos, appointed by the law succession after the death of Franco in 1975, oversaw the transition from dictatorship to democracy. In 1982, his rule became almost entirely symbolic, though he commands great moral authority and is a very popular figure in the Spanish media and politics. His opinions and words are taken seriously.

Juan Carlos is now 72 years old and recently had a benign tumor removed, but speculation about his health is unclear. When he dies, his son Felipe, Prince of Asturias is destined to take over as symbolic head of the state. But in Spain there is resurgent cry for a republican style of government in Spain, like that of Second Spanish Republic, established in 1931 and fought for during the Spanish civil war. Republican flags were seen flying and strapped to the backs of demonstrators in Puerta del Sol, Madrid on Thursday night to celebrate its establishment 80 years earlier on April 14th, 1931.

According to a recent poll, 39% of Spaniards want Spain to be a republic, while 48% prefer the current monarchy. More supporters are from the People’s Party and more dissenters from the Socialist Party and left wing movements. Many people speculate, however, that it’s not the monarchy most people support, but Juan Carlos. It was Juan Carlos who facilitated a quick transition from dictatorship to democracy and the integration into greater Europe, but people have a more lukewarm opinion on the system of monarchy itself.

The younger generation is more in favor of a republic and more indifferent, or even hostile, to the symbolism of the monarchy. Indeed, a poll taken just 6 years ago, showed a 65% preference for the monarchy and 22% for the republic, a huge difference from today’s numbers. As time passes, the respect for the monarchy is likely to continue to decline. The death of Juan Carlos may be the moment at which a referendum is called to vote for the official establishment of a republic in Spain.


Spain’s Olive Oil Industry

Spain is the world’s largest producer of olive oil, producing twice as much as its greatest competitor, Italy. It’s also the second largest consumer per capita. Only the Greeks consume more than the Spanish, and I imagine they must use a lot of olive oil, because it’s customary in Spain to fry eggs and meat in a half-inch of olive oil and put a healthy portion on your salad. It also is eaten at breakfast with pan tumaca.

Admittedly, the olive oil most people in Spain use isn’t very high quality. It neither bad nor good, it’s just normal and incredibly cheap, apparently because they produce too much. A mediocre bottle of olive oil will cost you about 1 Euro in Spain. Even the stuff marked “extra-virgin” (whether it actually is, is another question) is only a 1-2 Euros in Spain. In America it’d be at least $10. For a higher-quality bottle you can pay about 3 Euros.

But artisan varieties, which are common in California, are actually quite hard to find in major cities. Olive oil in Spain is seen not as a luxury, but as a regular, daily product. Most of the production in Spain is done on a massive, industrial scale, and much of the olives are even imported from North Africa and the Middle East, where they are cheaper to grow. Spanish olive oil apparently suffers from high-acidity and much of it cannot be called “extra-virgin” on the international market, and their oil has less world-renowned reputation like Greek and Italian olive oil. Even so, Spain still grows some 260 varieties of olives and is, without a doubt, one of the most formidable olive oil producers in the world.

In smaller towns, especially in the south, there are still many traditional olive oil producers, but their future appears is bleak, as traditional methods of production have been shown to be unprofitable compared to industrial olive oil, which Spaniards are now used to buying. Still, the 6000 year old methods of traditional olive oil production are unlikely to disappear. Traditional olive oil production will likely persist as a vocational craft, similar to old-fashioned wine- and cheese-making methods.


Merida, Spain

Merida lies in the center of Extremadura, one of Spain’s least populous, least visited regions. Regardless, Merida is an overlooked gem, reflecting the long and complicated cultural throes of the Iberian peninsula.

Before it was ruled by the modern Spaniards, it was ruled by the Moors, who constructed a large alcazar around 700 AD to protect themselves from the rebellious, mostly Christian denizens. Before the Moors lost power, over 700 years before the city was an important outpost in the Roman empire. In 15 BC an enormous Roman amphitheater, for which the city is known, was built. The town flourished for a while, but by the year 400 the empire was crumbling, its influence waning, and the population of its exterior—of which Spain was a vital part—in precipitous decline. The marks of Roman influence remain an integral component of the town, as well as an important dynamo for its tourist industry.

Merida today houses about 60,000 people. Like most provincial Spanish towns, its extremely compact, walkable, open and friendly. Under the orange and palm trees you can sip a cafe in the plaza and watch the people (mostly families in this small town), go about their business in front of all the world. And like every Spanish town, no matter if they’re full of families or students, things pick up after dark falls and hardly anybody is awake at 10 am. on a Saturday morning.

Here are some photographs I took of Merida. I stopped on my way to Lisbon and stayed in a quiet, unspectacular, rinky-dink hotel called the “Hostal Bueno”. It cost me little, kept me near the action and provided me a place to rest my head when it was far past my bedtime.

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Posted by on April 2, 2011 in Spain, Spanish History


Spanish Dream: Become an Apparatchik?

While “civil servant” is perhaps the most literal translation of the Spanish word “funcionario“, it doesn’t quiet capture the multi-sided flavor of the word, which can range from (faceless, Mandarin) “bureaucrat” to (unfireable, useless) “apparatchik”. That’s not to say that everybody speaks badly of government functionaries in Spain, or that all of them are useless. For one, a funcionario is just as envied and respected as it is depsied. Teachers and police-officers certainly could not be dispensed with, and it’s not like their earnings are ridiculously high as are bailed out CEO’s in the States, but with the Spanish economy being what it is, there is a lot of resentment toward the funcionarios—the majority of whom are not teachers, firefighters, and mailmen, but rather paper-pushers.

I don’t want to go into the economics and politics too much, but suffice it to say that a lot of the resentment comes from the fact that the current socialist government in Spain is quite bloated and that the civil servants (who were supposed to have sacrificed a high private-market salary that for the security of a stable monthly salary) are now earning higher wages and doing less work than the rest of Spain—all at a huge expense to the indebted Spanish government.

Of course, in the Spanish mindset, just because you hate them and disagree doesn’t mean you wouldn’t trade places with them. So there’s something of a joke in Spain that the Spanish Dream is to become a government functionary, who needs barely to show up to collect a stable salary. And it’s not easy to do so. The tests are notoriously difficult, so it’s mostly the top-of-the-class who gets to such positions, but when they’re in they’re in for life and even the most studious people need incentives and gentle pushing to keep doing a good job.

As an outsider, I run the risk of sounding too critical. But don’t get me wrong. Spain’s economy could continue to decline the strength of the Spanish family would likely keep the society fairly stable, the cities inhabitable and the culture lively. You see very little crime in Spain (especially violent crime) and the people tend to have a more live and let live mentality. That is, they don’t want to root out everyone who isn’t doing their job and make sure they lose their work and get put out on the street. You just don’t look over someone’s shoulder to make sure they’re doing their job in Spain. You wouldn’t want them doing that to you, right? But the whole problem with that is—and I’ve noticed this among myself—that things get so relaxed and easygoing it can be hard to push yourself out of a somnolent do-nothing mindset. Something Ortega y Gasset noted about the pueblo-dwellers in his Revolt of the Masses was that the reason the Spanish in small towns are so helpful to outsiders isn’t that they really seek to help them out, but that they have absolutely nothing else to do.

So from time to time, it’s fun to laugh at the parallels of the future and the past. Such as this record of the historical decline of Spain, which has been going on for about 400 or so years now.

…Into the 1600s in Spain the landed aristocracy was holding on to its powers, and many if not most Spaniards clung to the values of the aristocracy. They believed that business was fit only for Jews, Arabs and other foreigners [Nowadays, the British, Germans and Chinese]. For employment, people looked to the Church [Zapatero’s socialist government], to the imperial court and to governmental bureaucracy. Rather than the bourgeoisie’s interest in frugality, those with wealth squandered it on luxuries for the sake of prestige, and Spain’s Habsburg rulers squandered wealth fighting wars for the sake of prestige and their Catholic faith. [The upperclass hasn’t changed all that much in this respect, minus the wars.]

Rather than interest in balancing its financial books, the king’s government was engaged in deficit spending. [Same.] The precious metals gathered from the Americas was used to purchase goods from other countries. Much of the coffee and tobacco that Spain took from the Americas it consumed rather than sold to other countries. It fell to the merchants of the United Netherlands to buy goods in Spanish ports and transport them elsewhere, including to the colonists in the Americas.

Spain’s population declined as a result of its wars and a migration to the Americas [Today, a low birth rate makes them rely on immigration from the Americas]. And Spain had lost the skills of Jews and Arabs driven from the country in the early 1600s.

Spain’s nobility was one tenth of its population [like the modern funcionarios]. They spent some of their fortune seeking government office, and in government, it is said, were thirty parasites for every man who did an honest day’s work [same complaint today]. Some of the nobility maintained customs barriers as a source of revenue, taxing commerce and driving up prices. … Harvests in northern and central Spain were gathered by French workers, doing work that the Spaniards preferred not to do and taking their pay back with them to France. Trade and industry in Madrid was pursued largely by Frenchmen, about 40,000 in number, who claimed to be Flemish or Burgundian rather than Frenchmen, in order to escape a special tax imposed upon the French.

It surely is not that bad today. Certain parts of the country are more European, with a large, frugal, entrepreneurial middle class, such as Catalan—though that also means they’re not as nice to outsiders asking for directions.

But anyway why should the goal of the Spanish be the same as the goal of the Chinese or Americans, who often put a robust economy over other social concerns? As the Spanish say, “trabajar para vivir, no vivir para trabajar” (work to live, not live to work).


Posted by on March 14, 2011 in Economics, Politics, Spain, Spanish History


The Fate of Ferdinand and Isabella’s Children

Spain owes its empire—which was actually rather brief and ineffectual as empires go—to the dynamic, Machiavellian duo, Ferdinand and Isabella. That’s not to say they were nice, at all. Or even sane. Like it or not though, what they achieved, through blood and iron, was the groundwork for a modern Spanish nation-state. Their children did not fare so well, however… Here’s an excerpt from The Last Crusaders by Barnaby Rogerson.

If Ferdinand and Isabella can be seen to have triumphed on every imaginable frontier in political life — conquering Granada, banishing Jews and Muslims from their land, annexing the Kingdom of Naples, pacifying Navarre, silencing all religious and political dissidence through the Inquisition and commissioning Columbus to discover America for them — there was yet a threshold where the gleaming canvas of perfection was turned to ruin, like the true face behind the mask in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Indeed Queen, towards the end of her life, began to believe that her family had been punished for her political crimes. Her daughter Isabella, after twenty years of negotiation, had been married to the crown prince of Portugal, Afonso, who promptly died in a hunting accident. Their second daughter, Juana, was betrothed to Philip the Handsome, the Hapsburg heir of Emperor Maximilian. Juana, who loved her husband, was driven insane by his fidelities and lack of reciprocal feeling. Ferdinand and Isabella’s son, Prince John, had been married to Emperor Maximilian’s daughter, Margaret, in a double-marriage pact. Their experience was to be the very opposite, for the young couple were so madly, so ardently in love, so delighted by the mutual freedom of their bodies, that they wore each other out. The court physicians grew alarmed at the amount of time the lovers spent in bed. By July the crown prince of Spain knew he was dying of love. His published will, providing a million maravedis to house poor orphans and half as much again to ransom prisoners, might indicate that he was too good for the world into which he was born…By tragic coincidence, John passed away the week that his widowed elder sister, Isabel, was married to the new King Manuel of Portugal, so that “the rejoicing of the wedding were exchanged with lamenting and mourning … within a single week.” Then, like some triple-twisted Gothick tale, Princess Isabel died giving birth to a male heir, the infant Miguel, who stood to inherit every throne within the Iberian Peninsula. When he died two years later he delivered the “third stab of pain to pierce the Queen’s heart.”

It goes on. It’s hard to believe this isn’t fiction. It turns out that Juana’s adulterous husband then died and she:

Like some dark heroine from a Gothic novel, she refused to be parted from his body and would night after night set forth on a torchlight procession to the crypt chapel, where she would command the coffin once again to be opened so that she could embrace her true love and assure herself that he had indeed departed from her.

Reading this makes the antics of the various travelers in Don Quixote more understandable—and indeed, less dramatic and over-the-top than it seems to modern eyes. It also makes Shakespeare seem less of a dramatist and more of a realist, since this behavior was pretty standard among royal families in Europe.

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Posted by on March 12, 2011 in Royalty, Spanish History