Arguably the most iconic dish in Spain is the tortilla, the Spanish or potato omelet, a staple of households across the country and almost always an option–whether in pintxo or tapa form–in any bar, cafe, or restaurant you may step into. But did this humble, tasty dish actually originate in the Basque Country? While some have suggested the idea that an “egg omelet” of sorts was known during Spain’s imperial expansion in the 16th century, still others point to more concrete evidence dating from the 19th century.
The first documented mention of the tortilla dates from 1817 in a message to the Parliament of Navarre–part of a system whereby people could leave messages for the parliament to discuss–detailing the sparse living conditions of the inhabitants of the more remote mountainous areas north of the capital of Iruñea-Pamplona; specifically, the message stated that typically 2-3 eggs (and even less) were used with whatever was to hand to thicken the mixture, including potatoes or breadcrumbs, to feed between 5 and 6 people.
Still another legend states that, in 1835, during the Carlist siege of Bilbao led by Tomás Zumalacarregui, the Basque general demanded a meal at a farmhouse one day and all that was available–with most of the local food sources reduced to a bare minimum–was a few eggs, a potato, and an onion. The extekoandre or woman of the house combined the scant provisions and the resulting dish so pleased the Carlist leader that he adopted it as a quick nutritious meal for his troops.
Check out the fascinating story of Zumalacarregui in The Most Striking Events of a Twelvemonth’s Campaign with Zumalacarregui in Navarre and the Basque Provinces, by C.F. Henningsen.
*Tortilla image by LLuisa Nunez courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Zumalacarregui image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.