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The “cañaílla” of Cadiz

Technique of purple dyeing by the Phoenicians.

A mollusk named “murex brandaris.”

The “cañaílla” is a sort of marine gastropod mollusk, found in shallow waters, found in the bay of Cadiz.

Seen this way, it doesn’t get our attention, but when we dig a little in the history, we realize that long ago, it became more important than gold… why?

“cañaílla” or “murex brandaris.”

The importance of purple colour.

Surely you have seen some artistic representation throughout the history of kings, emperors, priests or religious people wearing this colour. The truth is that its use and importance comes from antiquity.

This colour denoted royalty, prestige and sacredness; therefore, its use was limited only to powerful people of the highest spheres and this may be due to the fact that there’s a lack of this colour in nature , which made its acquisition very difficult. It is an exclusive colour.

The famous Roman writer Pliny the Elder, in his work “Historia Naturalis” tells us about a possible mythological origin of the discovery of purple colour, when the dog of the Phoenician god Melkart (Heracles/Hercules) dyed the snout of with this colour when biting one of these mollusks during a walk along the coast.

Although it is known that the Phoenician civilization fabricated and trade the dye, probably they werent the ones who discovered it, since it is believed in Crete, by the year 1600 in it was already used.

The Phoenician purple dye.

The Phoenicians realized that from the gill glands of the mollusc could be extracted the so precious royal purple, imperial or purple of Tyre colour.

The color was as difficult to obtain, as its manufacture was…

  • To obtain 60 grams of dye was needed a kilo of the mollusc glands, this was less than a quarter of what was needed to dye a kilo of wool.
  • To produce that kilo of glands, nothing less than 50.000 molluscs were needed.

And what about the process? it gets more difficult…

  • First, shellfish were collected in mass, using baits to catch them.
  • Once fished, they were stored alive in artificial ponds or large pools.
  • When the time came, they would be grind to a pulp.
  • Once obteined the desired amount of pulp, it was poured intoa a salty pond to dry for about 10 days. These ponds or pools were located far from the villages, by the beaches’ shores, due to the intense and unpleasant smell they gave off.

In this way, these great merchants of the Mediterranean sea, enriched their trade of spices, ivory, olive, cedar wood and ceramics with such prestigious dye, which was paid between 10 and 20 grams of gold for each gram of dye already processed.

The dye factories in Gadir.

The phoenician trade.

Some 3000 years ago, Phoenician traders dared to sail across the Strait of Gibraltar, leaving behind the columns of Hercules and reaching the famous Gadeiras islands. As it couldnt have been otherwise, they were captivated by the wealth of these lands, even more so when they realized that there was abundance of “murex brandaris.”

The laborious production of purple dye required expanding the factories, so they added the rich Gadir, Cimbis and Puerto de Menesteo among others (Cádiz, San Fernando, the area of Chiclana including Sancti Petri and El Puerto de Santa María) to their production areas.

The relationship between the Phoenicians and the purple dye had to be known exorbitantly, as evidenced by the word that the Greeks assigned to the colour purple, “phoinix”, from which derives the term “Phoenician.”

The use of purple colour along the history.

“The last supper”. Juan de Juanes. 1510.

In ancient Phoenicia, kings and priests wore purple robes and cloacks.

The kings of Egypt, Persia and even the great Alexander the Great used this colour as the basic one in their royal uniforms.

The Romans restricted the use of purple, being in republican times the generals who could wear it in their tunics. Those of lower rank, could only use it in bands of a size according to their rank. Later on, in imperial times, only the emperor could use the purple dye for his robe.

Byzantine emperors also wore it on their robes, as well as on the coverings of beds, seats, floors and walls, in different shades though. Likewise, the sons of emperors were known as the “porphyrogenites”, meaning “those born in the purple”. The Byzantines, like the Romans, used purple to decorate tombs and sarcophagi.

The Catholic Church used such prestigious colour in the Pope and the cardinals clothing, as well as in furnishings for celebrations during Advent and Lent time. The most important person in Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth, “the King of Kings”, is widely depicted wearing such elevated color.

The “cañaílla” and the province of Cadiz nowadays.

The mollusc “murex brandaris” is still very present in our lives.

Talking abour our gastronomy, the mollusc is very famous both in the bay of Cadiz and throughout Andalusia, where they celebrate tapas routes and gastronomic festivals in its honor. The easiest way to eat the “cañaíllas” is boil them to let them open and then, with the help of a toothpick and a few drops of lemon, enjoy the flavor of its meat.

It is especially advisable to enjoy “cañaillas” tapas in San Fernando, where even the people of its inhabitants have received the name of the famous and coveted mollusc.


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