Our Introduction to Spanish Food
When you think of Spanish cuisine, what comes to mind? Paella? Gazpacho? Tortilla Española? Sangria? We already had some favorites among classics like these, but our months in Spain last year opened our tastebuds to a whole new world. From Catalunya to Andalucía we ate our way through our new favorite food destination. While we leave the detailed recommendations and recipes to friends like Lauren at Spanish Sabores and the team at Devour Spain (whose Spanish food tours will give you a whole introductory education in a day), we learned a lot about Spanish food just being there and eating.
No discussion of Spanish food would be complete without talking about cured meats, in particular the famous Jamón ibérico. The Spanish are serious about their ham, and it almost seems like something is missing if you walk into a bar or restaurant and don’t see the ubiquitous leg of pork mounted on the bar, ready to be thinly sliced and enjoyed. If you want some of the best, look out for Jamón ibérico de bellota. Pigs in this category are free-range and acorn-fed. Of course, a variety platter adding salchichón and chorizo to the mix is always a good idea.
But we also learned that all that is good wine is not Rioja, becoming intimately familiar with the likes of Navarra and Ribero del Duero, Toro and Rueda.
Regional and Seasonal Specialties
Each region has its own iconic dishes. Among them it was hard to choose favorites. Who could choose from Pintxos and cider in Basque country to Cataluña’s grilled rabbit or Escalivada; or a glass of cava in Barcelona? In Córdoba, we were introduced to Salmorejo, the tasty cousin of gazpacho, thick with tomatoes and garlic. Andalucia wowed us with everything from seafood specialties to tapas and kebabs.
There are also seasonal specialties. We always try to eat what has been harvested locally and what’s in season. In Spain this fall that meant wild mushrooms were frequently on the menu, and we fell in love with the simple “Setas al Ajillo,” mushrooms with garlic, oil and a bit of white wine. Along the coasts, seafood, especially shellfish and octopus, were at their peaks. Anything in that category is always high on our list, and we’ll go for a good Pulpo a la Gallega (boiled octopus sprinkled with paprika, sea salt and olive oil) any time of year. We had a great one far from Galicia at the Feria Gallega del Marisco (Seafood Festival of Galicia) in Córdoba. Of course, roasted chestnuts are not to be missed at this time of year, either! That smoky, warming smell draws you right over to sample a cone of those hot-roasted delights. Spanish Sabores’ article on fall Spanish foods gave us a good heads up on autumn Spanish food specialties while we were there.
The cuisine of Andalucía is marked by Mediterranean and Arab traditions, along with Spanish and Jewish influences. The combination is hard to beat: think lots of high quality olive oil, fresh fruit, red wine, and almonds and honey in sweets. Here, we were usually “tapa-ing,” having small bites, which allowed us to try a little of everything. Nearby access to some of the best olives and olive oil in the country gave dishes a simple yet special touch.
In the Rioja region, a visit to the Bodegas Ysios winery taught us about wine-making in the area, and provided samples of their Reserva and Limited Editions. For eats we enjoyed patatas a la Riojana (potatoes cooked with paprika-dusted chorizo), rustic bean dishes with morcilla (blood sausage) and lots of local vegetables. Oh, and the cheese! It’s not just Manchego any more: in the north especially we ate amazing cheese: Goat’s milk Garrotxa, sheep’s milk Idiazábal (Basque) and piquant Cabrales with streaks of blue.
Some of the best croquetas we had in Spain were served in Zaragoza, but croquettes in general became a sort of benchmark when trying out new places. Olives did that for us as well! 😉
Huevos rotos became a comfort food go-to, first eating out, but then we started cooking them in our Air BnB kitchens too. These potatoes with fried eggs “broken” over them. Our favorite meal in Seville included Los Huevos de Ramon at the Antigua Abaceria de San Lorenzo. The high quality ingredients and the fact that Ramon himself “broke” the eggs and put the final touches on the dish set it a notch above all the rest.
We found another favorite in pisto, a Spanish ratatouille made with tomatoes, zucchini, onions, peppers and of course garlic and olive oil. We liked it best served with a fried egg on top. Favorite version: under an archway in the corner of Plaza de la Corredera in Córdoba on a very rainy day. And who can forget that other cordoban classic, Berenjenas Fritas con Miel de Caña (Eggpant with molasses?
Runners up in the comforting Spanish food category were all kinds of beans: Habas con jamón (Broad beans with ham) in Granada, Asturian fabadas with sausage, white beans with spinach, alubias a la riojana, a bean soup in the Alpujarras mountains. The list goes on.
Anchovies, sardines, herring, mackerel . . . I gravitate to these, and in Spain it was easy to get my fix. Marinate them in vinegar, drizzle with oil, fry ’em, grill ’em, bring them right over, please.
Our time at the beach, based in Nerja and Bolonia was highlighted by fish, fish and fish. My favorite was espetos (skewers) of grilled sardines, sprinkled simply with sea salt, cooked over an open fire, and served with a squeeze of lemon with a sea view. That smoky flavor and tender, flavorful fish will always remind me of those days at the beach. While most of the famous chinringuitos (small snack shacks by the beach) were shut down for the season, we were (okay, I was) so happy to catch the end of sardine season in October.
Although we weren’t there to witness the 3000 year old, annual tuna fishing tradition, the almadraba, we were still able to sample red tuna (Atlantic bluefin tuna, which is known for it’s reddish meat) in Zahara de los Atunes, Barbate and along the southern coast. Another favorite was Puntillitas, battered and fried baby squid. We ordered bacalao (cod) everywhere we went, while Donny discovered a deeper love of cuttlefish in various formats in southern Spain. Also of note was a delicious merluza (hake) we had in in the northeast. They say the hake are always gorging on sardines, so that may have something to do with how much I liked the merluza!
Please enjoying this Spanish food slideshow, and be sure to tell us what we’ve missed!