Food History

From Eating Asturias, the Encyclopedia of Asturian Gastronomy
The Peasant Wedding, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1566-69
The Peasant Wedding, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1566-69

Asturias has an exceedingly long culinary history. While written records are scant until recent times, there has been a wealth of paleontological and archeological work done in Asturias which has helped to piece together the early food history of the region. This is my overview of that history.


El Sidrón cave in Piloña has offered up not just thousands of neanderthal fossils, but the earliest traces of gastronomic history in Asturias. These 50,000 year old remains are remarkably well preserved. So much so that when they were discovered in 1994, the initial assumption is that they were from the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Only later were they dated to the Upper Paleolithic. To put this in perspective, this is twenty thousand years before the last massive glaciers recede from Asturias. Mushrooms, mosses, and pine nuts were notable parts of the diet of the denizens of El sidrón. [1] [2]

Bronze Age

Reliable Asturian food history begins in the Atlantic Bronze Age (~1300-700BC). This period sees a network of economic and cultural exchange develop from Scotland to Portugal. This network led to a high degree of cultural similarity between coastal communities, including those in Asturias. Roasting spits, giant cauldrons, and flesh hooks (the earliest evidence of butchery in Asturias) all date to this era.[3] [4]

Iron Age

Around the year 1000 BCE, Celtic culture was in bloom in Asturias. Whether this grew out of earlier Hallstatt expansions or dates very close to 600 is up for debate. What we do know is that a well-developed Celtic castro (hill fort) dwelling people called the Astures were resident throughout modern Asturias, and parts of Galicia and León.

Occupants of these castros developed a food economy that remains the basis of Asturian food culture to this day. They bred cattle for meat, milk, and butter. Sheep and goats were also bred for meat and wool, and pigs were raised for meat. In-shore fishing and hunting deer and boar were widespread.

With axe, plough, sickle, and hoe, they grew wheat, millet, rye, oats, flax, and barley. Beans, peas, and cabbage were widespread, and huge amounts of chestnuts have been found in castros. That nut based gastronomy would last until corn was introduced in the Columbian exchange. Echoes of it can be found in the Amagüestu celebrations at the end of the harvest season in modern Asturias.

The Ancient Period in Asturian Gastronomy

Asturias, though the aegis of the Astures enter the historical record in the third century BCE. Serving as mercenaries in the Punic wars on the side of Carthage, they feature widely in the wars of subjugation the Romans waged throughout the northwest of Iberia. So fierce was their resistance and inhospitable their territory that though they had the emperor himself at the head of seven legions, even once they formally surrendered in 25 BCE, they were never fully conquered, and for most, their way of life changed little if at all. Indeed, Romanization was very slow, incomplete, and near impossible. A second Asturian revolt in 54 CE took fourteen years to put down.

Hispania was the rural hinterland for the Roman empire – a place to grow food for the metropolitan Rome. And Asturias was the hinterland of Hispania – a place unfit for wheat, grapes, and olive trees; the three big exports from the peninsula.

However, Rome brought to Asturias several culinary innovations that would be long-lasting. Firstly, and most importantly for the current character of Asturian food culture, they planted apple orchards in huge numbers.

In addition, Gijón became a center for production and export of both salted fish and garum. This much-loved Roman condiment is the forerunner of the modern Worchestershire Sauce. Neither fermented fish sauce nor salted fish made much of a lasting impression on Asturian cuisine, but apples certainly did!

Medieval and Visigothic Asturian Cooking and Eating

The visigothic conquerors of Iberia, particularly those who settled in Asturias and eventually became the Kings of Asturias, did not disturb (or contribute much to) the already existing food culture in Asturias. They were cattle raising people who practiced transhumance like the locals did, and they reinforced those practices. While politically, much changed in Asturias and Spain in the medieval period, very little changed in food culture.

The autarky of the family farm (caserío) became the primary goal of bread labor, and remained so in Asturias until the modern period. Tastes were very conservative, and food revolved around the trinity of bread, pork, and beans.

Early Modern Foodways in Asturias

The early modern period was one of massive upheaval in culture worldwide, and even insular Asturias was not immune to the culinary shocks brought on by the Columbian Exchange.

Columbian Exchange

Try as they might, the Spanish conquistadores could not bend Mother Nature to their imperious will, and their demands that the Americas produce wheat bread and wine for their sacraments fell on the equally imperiously deaf ears of nature. Instead, they learned the ways of potato, corn, pumpkin, tomato, bean, and chile pepper. Imagine Spanish food without tomatoes and pimentón! As impossible as imagining American food without the previously unknown pig!

The potato quickly became a staple crop in Asturias, as did corn. Corn was initially so popular in northern Spain that John Locke observed in the 1670s that it was grown throughout the Mediterranean region, where it had acquired the name “Spanish Bread”. So quickly did Spain adopt corn that they invented (as they often do) a story about how it was an indigenous Spanish plant.

Beans as well were enthusiastically incorporated into Asturian foodways. Indeed the American Phaseolus vulgaris quickly supplanted almost all other beans in cultivation, not just in Asturias, but throughout Europe.

The Indianos

Indianos is the name given to Asturians who went to the Americas to seek their fortunes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They are responsible, in part, for one of the biggest developments in Asturian food distribution. Namely, the mass bottling of cider for export.

Asturias gained a couple of interesting additions to its food culture from the Indianos as well. A man known as Anton de los Pontones who had been a gaucho in Argentina brought back the technique of cooking beef a la estaca, and adapted it to lamb. There is still a yearly festival de cordero estaca near where he was from.

Anton, and others like him, also gave rise to an interesting food adaptation – Asturian chimichurri. Modeled on the Argentinian/Uruguayan original, it has been adapted to local tastes, and now is wholly different, though it retains the name

Contemporary Asturian Food Culture

There is much to say about contemporary food culture in Asturias. As immigration from Latin America gains pace many of the best escanciadores in Asturias hail not from Oviedo or Grau, but from Caracas and Santo Domingo.

It feels like every holiday, celebration, and regular event on the calendar in Asturias has its own dish, if not an entire menu. Not that I am complaining mind you! I love few things more than seasonal festive foods. So being in a place that has a new one of these every other week is pretty close to heaven for me. And when there is no specific holiday to celebrate, there is always the espicha. A celebration of anything that needs celebrating, marked by eating a buffet and drinking cider straight from the giant barrel.

While much of Spain sees the chestnut roaster arrive at the beginning of Autumn, in Asturias things get turned up a notch. Amagüestu marries chestnuts to the first fruits of the cider barrel, and preserves a pre-Christian harvest celebration that immediately follows the Celtic Samaín.

  1. Weyrich, L., Duchene, S., Soubrier, J. et al. Neanderthal behaviour, diet, and disease inferred from ancient DNA in dental calculus. Nature 544, 357–361 (2017).
  2. Callaway, Ewen. “Neanderthal Tooth Plaque Hints at Meals — and Kisses.” Nature, vol. 543, no. 7644, 7644, Mar. 2017, pp. 163–163.,
  3. Cunliffe, Barry (2008). Europe between the oceans : themes and variations, 9000 BC-AD 1000 (First printed in paperback 2011. ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 254–258. ISBN978-0-300-17086-3.
  4. Bowman, Sheridan; Stuart Needham (2007). “THE DUNAVERNEY AND LITTLE THETFORD FLESH-HOOKS: HISTORY, TECHNOLOGY AND THEIR POSITION WITHIN THE LATER BRONZE AGE ATLANTIC ZONE FEASTING COMPLEX” (PDF). The Antiquaries Journal. 87: 53–108. doi:10.1017/s0003581500000846. Retrieved 30 July 2022.