The refreshing Valencian drink that took Madrid by storm

In the 'horchateria', an illustration from a magazine in 1907.
In the 'horchateria', an illustration from a magazine in 1907. / R. C.
  • Horchata was one of the greatest gastronomic 'booms' of the nineteenth century and popularised the tiger nut milk across Spain

Many Spaniards will remember drinking glasses of chilled Valencian tiger nut milk during the summers of their childhood. The refreshing drink perpetuates a unique Hispanic tradition that became a national symbol and summer obsession.

It was Jaime I de Aragon (1208-1276) who brought an ancient drink called 'ordeate' (or perhaps ordiata, ordiate, orgeate or orzata) with him into Valencia. The word comes from Latin 'hordeata' meaning 'made with barley'. Barley water was a popular drink in Roman times and during the Middle Ages it was attributed with refreshing, analgesic properties and was believed to increase milk secretion, which is why it was recommended to breastfeeding mothers. Ordiate, soaked and squeezed barley grains, appear in three recipes in the oldest culinary manuscript in Spain, the fourteenth-century Book of Sent Sovi, accompanied by other vegetable milks such as oat and almond.

These were sweetened with honey or sugar and cooled with snow, the first popular soft drinks, a category to which over time would be added the aloja (water, honey and spices) wine lemonade and numerous horchatas based on different seeds and fruits. As the method for making these drinks was the same as for making barley water, all the vegetable milks were called 'horchata', whether they were made with melon, pumpkin or sesame seeds, rice... or tigernuts, of course. The tiger nut had been introduced by the Arabs from Africa and once acclimatised to the Valencian climate it too became one of the 'horchateables'.

In 1800 tiger nut milk was already popular in Madrid, made seasonally by Valencians who, during the cold months, ran shops selling matting or turrón. As soon as the weather grew warmer, they turned their shops into frozen tiger nut milk stalls. The development of the ice industry and the growth of the population of Madrid, with its corresponding sweltering summers, led to a growing popularity of tiger nut milk and the emergence of numerous horchaterías. So much so, that in 1895 there was almost a plague of them among the elegant establishments in Madrid.

The horchata, whatever the quality, was drunk by all classes of society: "The horchata, instead of a beautiful cream tone, will have a suspicious bluish shade; but it will be frozen horchata and the bell hops, the servants, rascals and the beggars will satisfy their sweet tooth and be cooled", affirmed Galician writer Emilia Pardo Bazán in 1897, who said that no matter that the idea or the raw material were Valencian, tiger nut milk was best known in the streets of Madrid. "In the opinion of intelligent people, tiger nut milk, in its native land, Valencia, is far removed from the horchata made in Madrid. Some attribute it to the water of Lozoya; others to the sugar but in my own opinion nowhere is it better than in Madrid".