Welcome to the lighter side of history. This week we will ponder the nature
of summer refreshment in Spain and, in the process, hopefully learn something
about the colonisation of the Western Mediterranean.
Point of Departure: Any 'HeladerÝa'
Now that the warm weather is here, most of us, if we are honest, have been
lured into an 'heladeria', enticed by the colourful array of creamy concoctions.
There is no need to feel sheepish about admitting to this. Ice cream is a global
affair, as inescapable as the 7 o'clock news. It is available in the seven continents,
and, after bread, probably constitutes the most widespread manufactured food
But what many newcomers to Spain may not know is that Spanish ice cream parlours
offer an additional sweet treat that is completely unique in Europe and dates
back to the low Middle Ages, if not before. It is a drink called 'horchata'.
The origin of this ancient beverage is somewhat of a mystery and still has not
been traced with any high degree of accuracy - probably because the chroniclers
of yore were too busy following the intrigues of state to notice what people
put in their mouths.
What Is It?
Before we get started on the historical process, allow me a quick parenthesis
to explain a bit about the drink and how it is made. Horchata is the milk of
the 'chufa' or tiger nut - a.k.a. earth almond, earthnut, groundnut, rush nut
or Zulu nut. It is actually not a nut at all but the small underground bulb
or tuber of the chufa plant. The drink is made by soaking dried chufas in water
and then pounding them to a pulp to release their milky white juice. (In the
Modern Age, we forego the pounding and let our food processors do the work.)
The mixture is then strained to eliminate the fibrous remains of the tuber,
sweetened and chilled.
I will now attempt, in my own meandering way, to map out the path the tiger
nut travelled in order to arrive in Spain, apparently its only European stronghold.
The earliest evidence of the tiger nut dates back to ancient Egypt where trace
remains of the tuber have been positively identified in burial tombs that were
sealed as long ago as 3000 BC. These findings indicate that this foodstuff was
held in enough esteem to be included among the grave goods of the noble classes.
In ancient Egyptian belief, the primary purpose of organic funerary offerings
was to sustain the departing soul through its long journey across the River
Styx and into the afterlife. Seen in this light, chufa's presence in burial
tombs is a testament to the high nutritional value which we are just beginning
to realize is one of horchata's chief bonuses - along with its great taste,
A few millennia later, the Greek philosopher and natural scientist Theophratus
(c. 372 - c. 287 BC) referred briefly to the tiger nut in his writings as a
crop peculiar to Egypt, the root of which was prepared by boiling at length
in barley water.
From this report one could assume that the tiger nut never made its way across
the Mediterranean to Europe during antiquity but stayed on the southern side
of the sea until a later date . . . unless, in the course of trade, the Phoenicians
- merchant neighbours of the Egyptians and early colonizers of Spain - should
have chanced to take some of the dried chufas to their outposts in Malaga and
Cadiz. This happenstance would place the introduction of the tiger nut in Spain
between the 8th and 6th century BC.
As remote as this possibility may sound (mostly because the Phoenician forte
was commerce not agriculture), it intrigues me. More so, if we take into account
that the Phoenicians were eventually supplanted in southern Spain by their brothers
in race, the Carthaginians. Inspection of a map reveals that the capital of
Punic Spain, Cartago Novo (or New Carthage) is just south of the only place
in present-day Spain where chufa is commercially grown - Valencia.
Debate Goes On
In her book, 'The Wines and Food of Spain', Penelope Casas maintains that 'horchata
de chufa' is undeniably of Arabic origin. Presumably, this means that it was
introduced by the Moors during their occupation of Spain from the 8th to the
However, if we really want to get picky, the term "Arabic origin"
could be construed to mean two things. A very technical interpretation could
imply that the nut may have spread Northeast from its ancestral home in Egypt
to Damascus - ancient capital of the Islamic world and home of the fertile crescent
- where growing conditions would have approximated those in the moist and fecund
Nile delta. On the other hand, "Arabic origin" could mean that over
the centuries the chufa plant spread westward from Egypt, travelled along the
African littoral, and eventually took root in Morocco and Algeria from whence
the brunt of Spain's Islamic occupation was launched.
As unlikely as the first scenario sounds, Damascus was in fact connected, if
only briefly, to medieval Spain. The first 45 years of Moslem rule in Iberia
is known as the Emirate of Damascus (711 - 756), a political situation which
would have opened trade channels between the two countries, and perhaps led
to the implantation of the tiger nut via the Middle East rather than North Africa.
Leaving improbable musings behind, the second scenario far outweighs the first
for several reasons. To begin with, after the Iberian Moors cut ties with Damascus,
they carried on ruling the peninsula from strictly local bases. As expert farmers,
they were responsible for introducing rice to Spain, and consequently the rest
of Europe as well. Rice and tiger nuts require similar growing conditions, a
coincidence which argues for the simultaneous introductions of both crops. Not
surprisingly, Valencia is also the rice capital of Spain. Moreover, rice was
used interchangeably with chufa during centuries to make horchata.
Ironically, in recent years, the popularity of rice horchata in Spain has dwindled
in favour of the chufa variety, while, in health food shops across Europe and
America, rice milk (i.e. horchata) is the latest craze.
What's in a Name?
Often the etymology of a word will help dispel mystery regarding its origin.
In this case it does not. But, now that the subject has been brought up, I might
as well add a few findings. According to Raymond Sokolov in his article "Barley's
Ghost" (Natural History magazine), the word 'horchata' derives from the
Latin 'hordeum', meaning 'barley'. He states that, "In Spain the most venerable
of grain drinks, barely tea of barley water, survives only as the name of a
popular beverage called 'horchata'."
Here I must interject that I do remember a time when barely water (agua de cebada)
was still available from street vendors in Madrid. Usually, it was mixed with
delicious slushy lemonade in order to sweeten it, in the manner of a shandy.
But that was long ago in 1980 when I first came to Spain.
Getting back to Sokolov's interesting research, we may deduce that a drink
made from barley, common to the Roman world and its satellites, was eventually
modified in Spain by substituting locally grown rice and chufa. Still, the definitive
version of how the tiger nut arrived in Spain, and why it did not take root
in any other European country, remains a matter of speculation.
Although we have not succeeded in unravelling horchata's distant origins, it
is nonetheless possible to enjoy this intriguing drink in the here and now.
Leave ice cream for the unenlightened and dare to try a truly ethnic concoction
that might have been the potion of Pharaohs! You may even want to make it at
home following this simple recipe:
Ingredients: I cup dry rice or tiger nuts, if available; water; sweetener of
Method: Soak the rice or chufas in one quart of cold water for 24 hours. Change
the water, then mix both liquid and solids in a blender until the water becomes
white and frothy. Strain, sweeten to taste, and chill.
Bottoms up! See you next week when we will get started on the Sant Joan celebrations.