If you think of Spanish cuisine, more often than not a few key foods will come to mind. Aside from tapas (read more about Spain’s tapas culture here), jamón and paella, tortilla will likely be one of the hot contenders. But how much do you really know about this Spanish food ambassador? And do you know where to go for a melt-in-your-mouth feast of tortilla deliciousness?
One dish, many names
Tortilla comes with many names. In Spain, where it originates, it’s usually called tortilla de patatas, or simply tortilla in short. In South America, they call it tortilla de papa(s) or tortilla española. The latter denomination is used to distinguish it from the thin maize flatbread going by the same tortilla name, which is eaten in Mexico and neighbouring countries. Why papas and not patatas? That’s a simple one. Papa equals patata in Latin American Spanish. Think of biscuit (British English) vs cookie (American English), aubergine (British) vs eggplant (American), and the list goes on.
But why do the Spaniards and Latinos have different names for the potato? The answer is, again, pretty simple. The incas called the potato tuber plant papa, but since it looked similar to the batata, the sweet potato, the Spanish called it patata when it was brought to Spain in the 17th century. On a side note, Italians at first gave these tubers a different name: taratouffli (truffles), because they thought it resembled this precious commodity. Variations on this original Italian name came into use as the potato spread to countries north and east, turning the patata into cartoufle in old French, and Taratouphli (later Kartoffel) in German.
As for the tortilla part of the name? Well, tortilla is in fact the diminutive form of torta (“cake” in Spanish), in other words it can be described as a little savoury cake consisting of sliced, fried potatoes held together with a beaten egg. Much like a sweet cake it is round and thick in form and is customarily eaten and often served in slices. Unlike a baked cake, however, it does not go into an oven, but is cooked in a skillet or pan.
So we’ve got the name down, and its development. But how was this incredibly simple yet delicious dish created? What did it take for the Spaniards to experiment with the potato and accept it as an ingredient that was not only worthy of their consumption, but valuable as a delicious addition to their meal?
First, let’s fast forward to the tortilla as we know it today. It’s comparable to, but not quite the same as what we often call the French omelette – tortilla francesa in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries. The French omelette is essentially a plain egg omelette consisting of – that’s right – eggs whipped and then fried in a pan. In contrast the Spanish tortilla is prepared in cake form and includes one key ingredient, which the French omelette lacks: the potato. Other essential ingredients include eggs, salt, and olive oil (virgin olive oil for best yet not overwhelming flavour, instead of extra virgin). It is also commonly made with onion.
Tortilla can be kept simple like that, with very few ingredients, but there also exist many variations, with each tapas bar and household taking pride in their own recipe. Additional ingredients may include chilli peppers, mushrooms, chorizo, etc. Eggs can be completely or half-cooked, the tortilla can be thick or thin. And then there’s the infamous onion or no-onion debate, although the belief that onion is another essential tortilla ingredient seems to be a more recent development in the history of this egg and potato dish.
When is tortilla had? At any occasion, including special ones (there is even a tortilla day celebrated in some municipalities, often coinciding with the start of carnival on Fat Thursday). It can be served hot or cold as a very affordable light dinner at home, an appetizer in a restaurant, or a tapa/pintxo in bars and cafés. It’s also sometimes had as a mid-morning snack, especially wedged in between two slices of baguette, turning it into a bocadillo (sandwich). If it’s not served in bread, then it’s likely to be accompanied by some. In Uruguay or Argentina tortilla can even be served as dice part of a picada (a starter made up of foods of small quantities, similar to the Italian antipasto).
From animal feed to an icon of Spanish gastronomy
The first egg omelettes (sans potato), as far as we know, were already consumed in the early 16th century by the Aztecs and the Spanish. But the first reference to the Spanish tortilla is found in a Navarrese document no earlier than 1817 (Navarra is a region in northern Spain with Pamplona as its capital). The document lists the sparse foods eaten by the farmers of the area, and then goes on to describe the tortillas the women prepared: “…two to three eggs in tortilla for five or six [people] as our women do know how to make them big and thick with less eggs, mixing potatoes, breadcrumbs or some other food.”
So tortillas were made big and thick despite the very scant use of eggs: two or three for five to six people. In comparison, it requires about three eggs to make a French omelette for one. The simple yet effective solution to making a satiating omelette with as few costly eggs as possible, was to mix in other ingredients. And what could be more filling than, well, potatoes?
As is often the case, folktales surrounding the origin of the dish abound, more often than not with a protagonist taking centre stage. One of these tells of Carlist General Tomás de Zumalacárregui happening upon a farmhouse in the forests of Navarra and asking the peasant’s wife for a meal. With what little things she had, you guessed it – eggs, potato, and an onion, she magically conjured up a meal. Of course the general was pleased by her omelette concoction, spread the recipe, and used it, amongst other things, to provide for the Carlist army.
Given that their food provisions were scarce, this tortilla, which could be easily and quickly made, and was also nutritious, was a godsend. Whether or not protagonist-focused stories such as this one are true, it appears that the tortilla did start spreading during the early Carlist wars. And it falls in line with the common trajectory of a traditional food as having emerged due to circumstances of hunger and necessity.
Another more recently identified origin story, researched and presented by scientist and doctor of Philosophy Javier López Linage, is that two men by the names of Joseph de Tena Godoy and Malfeyto invented a type of pancake (tortita) which was nutritious, cheap and efficient to make, since it did not require baking in the oven, but could be prepared in a pan. In their fight against the famine of the 18th century it was a potentially life-saving innovation. Linage argues that these so-called pancakes were in fact the first tortillas de patatas from which all other tortillas originate.
But in the end what really led to the invention of tortilla de patatas was not an individual, but a situation: poverty, famine and hunger. At the time any cheap, but filling and nutritious foods were highly in demand. And since the potato, a tuber grown in the ground, was not initially seen as worthy food for human beings, it was very cheap indeed, not to mention rich in nutrients. It had already been the custom to add flour and other ingredients to the omelette in order to replace expensive eggs and fill the dishes and the stomachs of those with little means. From then on it was only a matter of time until somebody would come up with the idea to add potatoes.
The potato, introduced to Europe by Pizarro in 1537, was an exotic product from the New World, but not valued in the same way as tobacco and cacao. In its beginnings it was far from being accepted as a food fit for human beings – much like any other foods growing in the earth. It was simply used as food for animals. With changing times, the potato gradually turned from a throw-away product to one sold cheaply to the poor. Why so cheap? Because there was lots of it.
The potato thrives in soils and weather conditions where other plants such as wheat would wither away. Once the potato grows in one place, its harvest is sure to be plentiful. It also doesn’t fall short of carbohydrates in comparison with other staple foods such as wheat (which requires more processing to be turned into foods such as bread), meaning that it can easily replace it. It is easy to cultivate with hand tools, and only takes three to four months to mature. In the fight against hunger, the potato fared very well indeed.
And given yet more time, Spaniards would come to realize that the potato was a humble and substantial, yet also incredibly delicious food. In the end, it was not until the middle of the 19th century that the potato came to be accepted as a dignified food. And peasants were the ones who helped lead potatoes to this acceptance, through starting simple yet mouth-watering traditions such as the tortilla de patata. Because they were the ones who realized that since potatoes were much cheaper than precious eggs, they served to increase the size of an egg-based tortilla and, on top of this, were a very filling addition. Necessity breeds innovation, how very true indeed. You’ll find this wisdom again and again in the history of food.
The potato in Spain came a long way from being regarded as tasteless (even described in that way by the Real Academia de la Lengua in 1560) to a key ingredient of one of the most-loved and iconic dishes of Spain today – a dish that in actual fact is not much more than two centuries old. To Madrileños, potatoes were not known until 1811, the year of maximum food shortage due to the War of Independence, which is when they were used to compensate for the lack of bread. But since then they’ve come a long way as a key ingredient of those little cakes of deliciousness to be found in the capital today.
Juicy tortilla at Bodega de la Ardosa, Madrid
The ideal state of a tortilla is claimed to be one that is thick and juicy. Unfortunately I have tried many a version where this is not the case. The juiciness of the dish makes all the difference to the point where I declared myself a “tortilla-non-aficionado” when all the tortillas I had tried were plump and dry. Tortillas, those rather boring and unappetizing foods I had tried, were slowly drifting from my mind and I was very close to declaring that it simply wasn’t for me. But! I did not give up. Especially not when we visited the land of tortillas and had found a recommendation online for a luscious, oozing tortilla in a tapas bar in the capital. Locals knew of their tortillas and stopped by just to grab a slice. And so would I.
And it really did pay off. Because now, if the dish is cooked right, I’m a huge fan of tortilla. If you’re thinking of making it at home, the key to a juicy one is not to overcook it, to use enough eggs, and to fry these just enough not to be raw, but still soft and not curdled. Although debated by some, many recipes state that a trickle of cold milk will also make it more succulent. Also important to know: The tortilla will remain juicy for about 24 hours, after which it will solidify.
I’m sure you caught the irony that a delicious, juicy tortilla requires more eggs, when the dish itself developed out of a necessity to use less. But it seems like for potato to be added to the dish at that time, famine and hunger were a necessary step. Luckily for us, eggs are not as expensive anymore, and we can afford to use an egg or two more than the Navarrese peasants were able to. The more succulent, the better.
If you find yourself in Madrid and want to know what the hell this tortilla is that I’m talking about, then be sure to stop by a very local and crowded bar called Bodega de la Ardosa. You will find loud regulars resting their glasses and plates on barrels inside and outside the bar. You’ll squeeze your way inside, take a few minutes to figure out what you want, and take ten minutes more to solve the puzzle of who to ask and how to get their attention.
At this point, you’ll likely get annoyed, and it’ll be hard to decrease your irritation even after you’ve placed your order. Were they really able to hear what I said? They wrote nothing down. Will they remember? Other customers who arrived after you will receive their orders first. You’ll squeeze yourself further inside to find a speck of barrel or bar for those tapas you ordered, barely being able to hear what the bartenders shout out underneath all the noise. And then finally you’ll come to a realization: There is no system!
But what makes it all worth it? That you’re truly experiencing the life of a local. No, scratch that. The only thing that could make up for this chaos and a rather high level of irritation (mind you, we had just arrived after dealing with the usual stresses of travel, were hangry, and just to stress it again, simply wanted to eat!) was the food. And make up for it it did, because it was by far the best tortilla I had ever eaten. A runny, oozing tortilla exploding with flavour was all it took to make all my stresses go away. It was more than I could have ever expected. It turned me into a tortilla aficionado and I hope one day it’ll do the same for you.
Area: Chueca neighbourhood in Madrid, Spain
Closest metro: Chueca (linia 5), Tribunal (linia 1, 10), Gran Vía (linia 1, 5), Santo Domingo (linia 2)
Address: Bodega de la Ardosa
Calle de Colón, 13