We know we are only 15 kilometres from Morocco when you take the coast road to Tarifa. There looming in front of you in all its glory is Gibel Musa. No wonder our everyday eating is massively influenced by Arabic tastes and customs-not to mention the fact they lived here for quite a few centuries! In fact they were here from 711-1492 so it can be a little difficult to identify all the influences as they are so well entrenched in our daily food.
Starting with herbs and spices Andalucia has always been a source of thyme, oregano, rosemary and bay but the moors bought us many more flavours. Mint became a popular flavour and is used extensively in the preparation of meats and snails! Cinnamon, nutmeg, sesame, coriander and aniseed all became part of the daily preparation of sweets, breads, drinks and meats. “Arroz con leche” (rice pudding) with cinnamon being a classic example. However the queen of all spices –saffron – was also introduced by the Arabs and still reigns supreme for flavouring and colour, especially in rice dishes.
Rice in fact is another introduction from across the Straits and soon grew in popularity from a luxury food to an everyday meal. The paella in fact is a basic Arab introduction, although we associate it with Valencia rather than Andalucia. As the Arabs planted rice in this area. No paella is complete without rice, saffron and some of the many different sorts of vegetables introduced by our gastronomic neighbours. Good solid lentil based dishes were also a welcome addition
Vegetables and fruits are specialities of our area and we gained some of our best from the Moors. They introduced olives, lemons, oranges, figs, dates, aubergines and vines. When you think of how much of our agricultural land is devoted to theses crops and their importance in the Andaluz diet it makes you wonder what the fields were full of before!
One of the more delicious local tapas is aubergine slices fried with honey-a fantastic Arabic combination. Olives and olive oil are now, of course, a daily staple in the local diet and as longevity and health is directly related to the consumption of this excellent oil we have a lot to thank the past invaders for! Oranges and lemons contribute massively to health too and also provide Malaga and Cadiz provinces with a major export.
Moving onto nuts the importance of almonds in our nutrition is also imported from the Moors. Vast almond groves were planted in the area when they settled and some of these areas are still growing the same crop. Today there are numerous cakes and small sweets consisting of an almond or marzipan base and if you compare the products of a good pasteleria here to one in Morocco there is very little difference-excluding the ones with tocino (pig fat) in!
The pine nut as a delicious addition to cakes and sauces also arrived then. Many small villages have their special cakes based on almonds or pine nuts. The “pionate” of Jimena, near Sotogrande, is a rich mixture of almond flour, honey, spices and pine nuts. It’s a bit like Kendall’s Mint Cake, a small piece can keep you going for hours and it doesn’t go off!
Other Moorish based local sweets include polvorones, tocino de cielo (custard and caramel) and yemas de San Leandro (marzipan based). Sugar cane and the use of sugar to preserve fruits (to produce crystallised fruits) was also introduced.
Finally you may not associate the Moors with alcohol but the word originates from Arabic as does the word for the still used in the production of sherry in Jerez (alembic). Perhaps moderate drinking had its place then in the Islamic world.