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The long history of 'butter' in Spain

A still life by Floris van Schooten with a dish of 'lard'.
A still life by Floris van Schooten with a dish of 'lard'. / R.C.
  • Until not long ago, the term 'butter' was used to describe something which very different to what we use nowadays

These days we drink milk every day, spread butter on our toast and there is even controversy about whether or not we should. In the past, though, dairy products were considered a delicacy. That is where phrases such as 'crème de la crème' come from, to reflect people's social status.

For centuries and in most regions of Spain, apart fromthe fertile lands of the north, cream and what we now call butter were luxury items because there was little pastureland, a lack of transportation and no refrigeration facilities. That is why Spanish gastronomy has traditionally been based on olive oil and, to a lesser extent, pork fat; they simply did not have the ability to use anything else, unlike other countries in Europe.

We are talking about cows' milk, of course, and butter can only be produced from vaccinated animals, so until Friesan cows were introduced in Spain, less milk was produced and even then only at certain times of year. The native cows were bred to work in fields or for meat and leather, so milk was something only drunk by farmers' families and, if there was an abundance, they would produce small quantities of cheese and other derivatives. Because of the amount of land needed for cows, goats and sheep were always more popular on the Spanish mainland and their milk was also considered healthier and tastier. With a higher fat content it was perfect to make what was then called 'manteca de ganado', or lard, but was actually butter.

In modern Spanish, 'manteca' is lard and 'mantequilla' is butter, but we now know not only that they are two very different things, but that the versions used then were completely unlike the ones we have today. When we use the word lard we are referring to pig fat, but in the past the word was used to describe fat from all types of animal, including sheep, goats or cows. So what we know as butter today used to be called lard, and the word butter was first used to describe cream, cream cheese or even pomade, until in 1734 the Royal Academy officially defined it as "a paste made with fat from a cow, beaten smooth, with sugar".

The meaning of words changes over time and it is sometimes difficult to follow. That is why if we search for butter in Spanish recipes, it would seem that whole milk was not used until almost the 19th century, when the terms 'manteca de ganado' or 'manteca de vacas' came into common use.

We should bear in mind that the vast majority of old cookery books which still exist do not really reflect popular dishes. They were designed for privileged people, so it is not surprising that they would include such an unusual item as butter.

The 'illa' part of the word 'mantequilla' (meaning butter) differentiated the type which was mixed with sugar and other ingredients from the normal version.

A type made from goat's milk was regularly consumed in Al-Ándalus during Moorish times: fresh, salted or cooked to remove the solids and impurities, extracted by the same Berber method used until not long ago in the Canary Islands to separate the fat from the liquid. In fact, the Canarians still refer to cooked butter or ghee with medicinal purposes as 'manteca de ganado'.

In Aragón butter was already being made with sheep's milk in the 14th century, according to a document dating back to 1335 from the Pilar archive, and it refers to priests eating eggs fried in sheep fat. In 1798 there was also reported to be a "very delicate but not abundant" production in the villages of Escartín, Basarán and Cortillas, in Huesca.

Are you wishing you could try some of these ingredients now? They were used to make cakes and pastries, according to the 'Libro del Arte de Cozina' cookery book (1607), written by Domingo Hernández de Maceras en Salamanca, while 'Regalo de la vida humana', written by Juan Vallés, from Navarra, explained the method used to obtain sheep fat in the 16th century, and a hundred years later royal chef Francisco Martínez Motiño (as well as giving several recipes using 'manteca de vacas'), explained how to remove the fatty part of goats' milk and then make buttery sweets and cakes.

The history of butter and other fats in Spain is quite a long one, and there is no space to continue it here, but don't worry: part two will be coming up in the near future.