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History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

The History of Horchata


Historical Information

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 'Heladería'

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 on earth.

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.

Egyptian Roots

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, of course!

Greek References

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 13th centuries.

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 choice

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.

Emily Kaufman