Land Reclamation, Irrigation, and the Development of Mediterranean Cuisines

It was the nascent class of wealthy capitalists that profoundly changed the land of the Mediterranean during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Canals were built originally to improve trade and help the dukes of Milan build a regional state, but soon they led to irrigation improvements. The network of drainage and irrigation canals throughout the Lombardy plain made it possible to run dairy farms, which in turn led to the development of an industry producing Parmesan cheese, which would find markets far from home.

    The central markets of the towns were fed by surrounding vegetable gardens and wheat fields. Spain saw the same kind of development. A Venetian ambassador passing through Castile in the sixteenth century wrote of the wide paramos (barren wilderness) where sheep grazed and the secanos (un-irrigated land) reserved for wheat, all of which appeared to him as barren countryside. But he also saw the green patches of irrigated land around the towns, the orchards at Valladolid, and the gardens bordering the banks of the Pisuerga River.

    Land reclamation and irrigation eventually enriched the towns, such as Valladolid in northwestern Spain. Valladolid was the financial capital of Spain in the sixteenth century, and merchant families such as the Ruiz got rich on the wheat trade. The city was crowded with milk- laden donkeys brought from the countryside to the cheese, butter, and cream making centers in town. This was a luxury in Spain. The riches made by budding capitalists who reclaimed surrounding land and made it productive are evident, too, when we look at what was eaten. The Valladolid poultry market saw seven thousand birds sold daily, the mutton was considered the best in the world, and the people were consuming twenty-six kilos of meat per person a year.

    The same link between the towns and agriculture appeared in sixteenth-century Provence, with new land being brought under cultivation in Mandelieu, Biot, Auribeau, Vallauris, Pégomas, Valbonne, Grasse, Barjols, Saint-Paul-de Fogossières, and Manosque. Market gardens were developed all along the Durance Valley. Many of them embraced New World discoveries such as sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosus), zucchini, and tomatoes within a century of their introduction, growing them alongside traditional chard, cabbage, and spinach.