We know that the westward expanse of Islam covered significant portions of southern Europe. From the eighth to the fourteenth century CE (until 1492, in fact), portions of the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, and France were under Arab rule. This is evident in the decorative arts and architecture that remain there, but also in many foodways, which are often touted as iconic European foods, and agricultural technologies.
The expansion of the Arab Agricultural Revolution brought new techniques of land management, material technologies and infrastructure, and perhaps most evident, new crops brought from the Asian continent. Economic historian Andrew M. Watson argues that novel crops, including rice, artichokes, citrus, eggplants, spinach, and wheat, to name a few, result from this westward expansion, but this is not simply a matter of cultural dispersal. To grow these thirsty tropical crops in Europe, novel methods of irrigation were necessary. Methods of microculture, polyculture, crop rotation, and organic fertilization were introduced to create a novel system of propagation and land management that was more productive and sustainable than the feudal land systems of northern Europe. This revolution was not limited to the technological and economic practices of farmers, but also included a reorganization of agronomy as a science. Historian A. H. Fitzwilliam-Hall writes extensively on the Seville School of agronomists, who started the first experimental botanical gardens and published both scientific texts and practical farming manuals known as books of filāha, or “husbandry.” The Seville School was a prolific scientific community in Al-Andalus during the tenth through fourteenth centuries, CE.
The Arab Agricultural Revolution gives Europe popular plant crops, but we must not neglect the role of animal husbandry. If, as Davis asserts, these pastoral and dairying practices have largely been erased, what are we missing out on? There are traditional fermented dairy products of North Africa that we simply will not recover, and we certainly do not need to read a scholarly article to understand the French take pride in their native cheeses. As such, it is important that we not let cheese be held up as a distinctly European food. Despite the assortment in American and European cheese shops, these cases may bear great similarity to a cheese stall in, say, Medieval Cairo. We can still find distinctly non-European styles that have entered Europe through from North Africa and West Asia. Milk of the Asian water buffalo is used for the original mozzarella in (surprise!) southern Italy. This species may be the wild-card animal at the cheese shop, but, after the cow, it is the most widely milked animal in the world, and, in Europe, an artifact of medieval expanse of Islam.
The typical Portuguese torta style, coagulated with thistle rennet resulting in a distinct texture and flavor, is likely an artifact of thistle-renneted cheeses still widely produced in Algeria and Tunisia. And if you want to call out a very familiar European cheese as an import of the Maghreb, look to the iconic fresh chevres of the Loire Valley, a popular “French” style. These fresh goat’s milk cheeses are an artifact of pastoralists from the Maghreb who settled in this area during the Middle Ages and are reminiscent of the fresh cheeses produced in Egypt and the Maghreb today. Though it may be a trek to visit a cheese shop in Algiers or Tunis, or a farmer’s market in Cairo, rest assured that the if you look past some of the Westernization in the cheese case, you will be able to find the heritage of Arab and Berber foodways in these shoppes.
To read part I of this post published on 9/10/2023, please click here.
Ann Campbell is a PhD candidate in the History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University Bloomington, where she studies the intersection of agriculture, natural history, and political economy in the eighteenth-century. She is also an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional dedicated to cheese education and exploration.