Monday, September 26

The flower of the Sun | Today

Page from ‘Rerum medicarum Nouae Hispaniae’ (Francisco Hernández, 1561) and illustration by Basilius Besler, 1613. / TODAY

When the ‘Helianthus annuus’ or sunflower, today a coveted product, arrived from America in the 16th century, it amazed Europeans with its size and appearance

Ana Vega Perez de Arlucea

Less to hoard sunflower oil and more to buy churros. That is the only advice I can give you, dear readers, and the only one that makes any sense in the face of panic over shortages. Let us cede the remaining oil to those who truly need it and suffer the consequences of its scarcity, such as the owners of churrerías, fry shops and canneries. Let’s buy their products if we can and resign ourselves to frying at home with olive oil or not frying, which is healthier and less fattening.

Don’t get fussy about the fact that olive oil is very strong and French toast doesn’t look good: in Spain sunflower oil didn’t become popular until the 1960s and by then French toast had already been made for at least five centuries. Although sometimes they are fried with lard, the usual thing –and in Lent, forced– was to do it in olive oil, a product that in our country was traditional, abundant and affordable. We did not need other vegetable fats until the middle of the 20th century, when the development of the food industry required new options at a better price and with a higher smoking temperature. Extra virgin olive oil begins to burn at 160ºC, while fats extracted from coconut, corn, peanut, soy or sunflower do so at 232ºC.

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By opening up to the international market and imitating foreign production systems (for example, for snacks or pastries), the Spanish economy gradually introduced vegetable oils into its gears that until then had gone practically unnoticed by the public. In the 1970s, “refined seed oil” with a mixture of sunflower, cotton and grape seeds was sold in Spanish supermarkets, while corn oil was promoted as the most beneficial fat for the heart and the best ingredient to enhance flavor of fresh food.

The rapeseed oil tragedy in 1981 interrupted that brief period of fervor for novel oil paintings. Of all of them, only the sunflower one survived, currently so ingrained in popular uses that the mere idea that we are missing it has caused purchases as wild as those that toilet paper starred in at the beginning of the pandemic. Until the conflict in Ukraine is resolved, the unctuous sunflower will not flow normally again. We will have to resort to other vegetable fats (the churreros seem to be betting on soy) or return to our old olive growing privileges, just as in the days before the world discovered the advantages of Helianthus annuus.

The sunflower has suddenly become a state affair. The President of the Government has had to pronounce on the issue, consumers are fighting for the last bottle on the shelf and stores put a limit on the units that can be purchased per person; manufacturers are pulling their hair out for having depended on Russian exports, farmers claim to dedicate more hectares to their cultivation in Spain… Certainly things are not valued until they are lost, and for my part I confess that even the Last week he hadn’t paid any attention to the poor sunflower. He didn’t even know where it came from. He lived in the most complete lack of sunflower cultivation, without even realizing that this plant was part of the Columbian exchange and came to Europe in the 16th century aboard Spanish galleons. Everyone knows that tomatoes, potatoes, peppers or chocolate come from America, but few would say that the sunflower came from the same place and at the same time.

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five thousand years ago

The sunflower was domesticated about 5,000 years ago in the area between the southeastern United States and northern Mexico. Among the endless plants that surprised the Spanish conquerors was the chimalacatl (shield cane) or chimalxóchitl (shield flower), a strange plant that the Extremaduran lexicographer Fray Alonso de Molina defined in 1571 as “a certain large and round herb”.

Its name came from its resemblance to the circular shields of warriors (in Nahuatl, chimalli), a link that the Aztecs had reinforced by using the sunflower flower as a peace offering to visitors. It was also used as a dye, medicine and food, but what the Spaniards noticed was the great height that the plant reached – up to two meters – and the showiness of its flowers, as large, round and yellow as the sun. .

Later they realized that its young shoots also followed the movement of the solar star during the day and they called it “sunflower”, “mirasol” and “tornasol”, although initially it received other names such as flower of the sun, sun of the Indies, royal crown, giantess. or cup of Jupiter. It was immediately brought to Spain as an ornamental plant, arousing the immediate curiosity of doctors and botanists such as Nicolás Monardes, who in 1574 wrote that they had known the “yerva del sol” in Seville for several years, “strange in its grandeur, that I have seen it twice spears high, and because it throws the largest and most particular flower that has ever been seen». He didn’t say anything about the oil and I won’t either for the time being. It’s for another day.

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