The Columbian Food Exchange

374-the-columbian-food-exchangeWhen we cook or just consume food and eat meals we don’t pay much attention to the origin of the ingredients in them. We focus mainly on the taste itself and the quality of the ingredients. But have you asked yourselves where some products have come from and whether they are native to your continent? People from the Old World availed of the products from the Indies during the Age of the Great Discoveries and the post-period of conquest of the New World when lots of products arrived to Europe. In the beginning the Europeans were skeptical about them. The ingredients themselves were greatly ignored and even banned before they penetrated local European cuisines and before they became inseparable part of them. I am going to tell you some brief stories about some of the products from the New World without pretending to be accurate. And here they are.

Tomato: Due to the lack of spices, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was obsessed with the idea to fetch the Spanish Catholic kings various exotic products. He noticed that local Indian tribes ate them but he himself didn’t ever dare to taste them for two reasons. Firstly, he was afraid that they wouldn’t be compatible with his nutrition habits and delicate “European” stomach. Secondly, he hated the Indians too much because he thought they belonged to a lower race. But at the same time he was obliged to bring some products to Castile so that he could justify the costs and investments made in his voyage. He was ashamed to bring his King only one plant with yellowish fruits which the Aztecs called “tomatl” and that’s why he added one sack of gold forcibly robbed from local rulers. Thus tomato crossed the Ocean and arrived in Europe.

It was the beginning of the 16th century when a primitive tomato was fully ignored. People from Castile thought that outlandish plant with exotic leaves was a “relative” of lethal and poisonous belladonna and it didn’t bring them anything good. When the vegetable reached Italy, it was called “pomodoro”, i.e.”golden apple”, owing to its roundish shape and form and yellowish colour. As to the Iberian Peninsula, the vegetable wasn’t welcomed till the 19th century when the Jesuits imported one tomato sort which was definitely vivid and attractive with its red color, i.e. pmodori which are just like today’s tomatoes. Having in mind that it covered so many kilometers and overcame so many obstacles, we cannot regard a tomato as a vegetable of savages nowadays. Definitely .. NO. 🙂

Potato: Tomatoes and potatoes belong to one and the same family – Solanaceae, and are supposed to be toxic plants. Potatoes appeared in Europe relatively late – at the beginning of the 16th century or around 50 years later after the discovery of America. The Kingdom was ruled by King Carlos (King Charles I) who settled down in Seville. Once arrived, the plant gained much success because of its beautiful fruits which the palace was decorated with. Royal members even ate them as a delicacy.

A tuber was thought to be food for pigs. According to the Catholic Church, there could be nothing good that came out from the ground and it even prohibited the consumption of potatoes saying that they were the devil’s creation and that this was food only for cattle, infidels and prisoners. In the course of time it became clear that the attitude and the statements of the Church were a result of the fact that there were not any taxes imposed on villagers and peasants who grew the vegetable.

In 1756 Prussia was under the Seven Years’ War (1754 – 1763). Locals managed to avoid hunger and starvation owing to potatoes. There was a pharmacist named Parmentier, who managed to survive in one of the prison camps for three years thanks to the consumption of potatoes. When he obtained his freedom, he assured King Louis XVI to substitute some of the wheat fields for potato ones. The monarch gave out some hectares to Parmentier so he could grow potatoes. After the first harvest, an official potato-based dinner was held during which Queen Marie Antoinette put some fruits of this plant in her hair. The Queen imposed that fashion in the Court and soon after that every woman was considered a true aristocrat only if she decorated her hair with the fruits of the plant.

Unfortunately, people were still reluctant when it came to potatoes. That’s why the French King used one very cunning and useful strategy. He ordered that royal guardians would keep an eye on the potato fields but only at day time. This “woke up” people’s curiosity and they fell into the trap easily. They penetrated the fields at night and robbed that plant, thinking that it must have been too precious in case it was guarded so carefully by royal guardians. Thus potatoes entered peasants’ houses in France.

Beans: The inclusion of pulse crops in the menu of the Spaniards and other European nations was fatally important for keeping the racial purity. The proteins in beans contributed to the increasing of the number of Europeans born after the mediaeval times. It’s a fact that beans had been consumed long before the discovery of America although the sorts that had been known were very primitive. Later American beans substituted the European analogue because the outlandish one was more stable and delicious.

In the 16th century beans started its journey to the Catholic European lands. It stumbled upon the same resistance as tomatoes and potatoes experienced and it gained popularity hardly in the 18th century. Although this fatal start, the three American products (tomatoes, potatoes and beans) have been inseparable part of Catalan and other cuisines up to now.

By the way, beans are called mongetes in Catalan (from monja which means a nun) and judias in Spanish (literally the Jews). Nuns frequently ate beans and the name came from that fact. On the other hand, the word judia in Castilian stands for the cruelty that was applied to the Jews, e.g. pouring hot water on them like we do when we pour it over beans before cooking them.

Corn: America Indians adored it. It was their main food. Corn is one of the few crops that has been thoroughly examined and studied. Lots of genetic experiments have been made on it . The origin of corn is traced back to the ancient times and its birth place is America. The nations who inhabited the American territories had a very developed culture and when speaking about corn, they always combined it with meal, beans, vegetables or fish, thus achieving balanced nutrition.

The Spaniards showed great ignorance to corn and declared it food of the poor as it happened with most of the products that had come from the New World. Poor people consumed it without anything like they did with wheat, for instance. They couldn’t afford to combine it with other products and it was rather insufficient to feed them. Wheat consists of vitamins and gluten (the latter being a protein) while there are only carbohydrates in corn. This way, the poor who consumed only corn without anything else, got ill quite often. Knowing this, the rich and wealthy refused to eat corn at all saying that it caused diseases.

Some 50 years passed when corn arrived in Germany. There it was “immortalized” by German painter Hans Burgkmair. Due to great significance of the plant in his masterpiece, German upper class and high society started being interested in it and began adding it to its menu. Thus the general notion of corn was completely changed due to this masterpiece and thus the crop managed to penetrate daily life of the Europeans.

Red/green pepper (paprika): The confusion regarding pepper and red/green peppers dates back to the age of the discovery of the New World. Christopher Columbus tried a dried and hot red pepper and it reminded him of pepper. He was extremely happy with the fact that finally he would be able to bring the Catholic Kings a spice and herb from the new lands and that’s the reason why he called it “pepper”.

Unlike other products that came from America, dried and ground red peppers were warmly and fast welcomed on the Old Continent and at Spanish and other European markets. They were used in the same way as pepper which had been brought from India by Alexander III of Macedonia. The only difference was the price. Red peppers were cheaper and more affordable than pepper because they perfectly got used to the climate and soils of Spain while pepper was imported from distant countries and lands (that made it more expensive).

But red/green peppers became popular not only because of their low price but also because of their numerous characteristics and features. On the one hand, they kept food fresh and thus they prolonged the expiry date. On the other hand, they added more saturated taste to meals because they were as spicy as pepper (and even spicier than it). In addition, red peppers provide more specific taste which the Spaniards adore and are in love with. This specific feature changes the colour of local traditional and local sausages. Have you met a Spaniard who can live without chorizo or Escabeche, or Catalan sauce Romesco? 😉

There are several other products from New World …. 🙂


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