Spanish gastronomy as a result of regional cuisines
There is no doubt that the Spanish gastronomy is world famous for many reasons.
One of Spain’s greatest attractions is, without any doubt, its cuisine, which is one of the best in the world for both quality and variety. Accurately speaking, one cannot talk of a national cuisine but rather of a multiplicity of regional cuisines influenced in each case by the climate and local way of life.
Spanish cuisine is distinguished by the traditional use of olive oil as the vegetable- and lard as the animal fat in the preparation of dishes, as well as the inclusion of a wide variety of fruit and vegetables introduced by Moorish culture, plus other ingredients, such as the potato and tomato imported from the New World.
Then again, the considerable development in Spanish cooking in recent years has also been due to the emergence of a clutch of first-class chefs who have successfully managed to reinterpret traditional dishes and recipes in tune with present times, endowing Spanish cuisine with a new dimension in presentation and flavour.
The north is a wet and rainy region which makes for a cuisine that is not only very tasty but varied as to both meat and fish.
The Basque Country leans towards seasonally-biased home-type cooking, with local specialities like marmitako (potatoes with bonito) and txangurro (clams and spider crab).
Asturias has a similar cuisine, though with local touches worthy of mention, such as the fabada (stew of haricot beans and pork), the regional cheeses and famed apple cider.
Cantabria offers diversity in a cuisine that blends sea and mountain, with top-quality ingredients, including beef, anchovies and dairy products.
Among the choice dishes of Galicia are the pote (potage made with ham bones, haricot beans and, depending on the chef, turnip tops), the caldeiradas (akin to bouillabaisse, but served in two parts: first the broth and only then, the fish), pulpo (octopus), dairy products and pastries.
Varied and delicious are the terms that define a cuisine that is simple, hearty and natural, that relies on the excellence of the local produce, and that is to be found in Aragon, La Rioja and Navarre. The fertile valleys across this belt of Spain are a paradise for fruit and vegetables, and the locally-grown asparagus, peppers, borage, cardos (cardoon – a celery-like vegetable), peaches and pears enjoy well-deserved fame for their superb quality.
Potatoes, cabbage hearts and platters of mixed vegetables or tender legumes, such as pochas (haricot beans allowed to ripen and swell in the pod) are starters or form the garnishing for dishes featuring trout from the nearby mountain streams and speciality meat marinades (chilindrones) and conserves (confits), a taste acquired from the French. Desserts, in which the stars are cheese, milk puddings (cuajada – curd) or fruit, either fresh, chocolate-coated or preserved in syrup, and a long tradition of fine breads, put the finishing touches to a highly-regarded cuisine.
The Mediterranean cuisine, associated with the famous Mediterranean diet that has been shown to be so beneficial for the health, is based on the “Holy Trinity” of wheat, the olive and the vine, with other important ingredients being: rice and legumes; garlic, greens and vegetables; cheese and yoghurt; fish, meat and eggs; and fruit. This is a school of cuisine which is as varied as it is complete, and which, in the Mediterranean areas of Spain, is interpreted with local differences and twists.
Ever since the Middle Ages, Catalonia has enjoyed a delicious and refined cuisine embracing plain, sea and mountain, a cuisine which on the coast has recourse to a wide array of fish, and inland, to typical dishes such as escudella (a meaty broth with pasta, usually followed by carne d’olla, a hearty stew) and roasts.
See also our Gastronomic Routes.
Great individuality and contrast likewise mark the Valencian cuisine, which combines typically Mediterranean dishes –fish, green vegetables and fruit– with those of the upland plateau, such as potages and game stews, and which assigns rice, served dry, moist or in paella, the leading role in an endless list of specialities. Sweetmeats, nougats (turrón) and ice creams keep the Arabic influence very much alive.
Murcia too displays this same character, namely, a cuisine of the sea and of the land, shaped by the merging of cultures.
Besides the fluffy pastries known as ensaimadas and the original and now world-famous mayonnaise (salsa mayonesa), Balearic Isle specialities rely on greens, fish (caldereta – sea-food stew) and pork (sobrasada – a spicy red sausage spread).
The cuisine on the Central Plateau is the product of a harsh climate that is unforgiving and demands hard and continuous toil.
In Castile & Leon the cooking is based on legumes: haricot beans (La Bañeza, El Barco), chickpeas (Fuentesaúco) and lentils (La Armuña). Pork which, in the case of the Iberian pig reared on acorns and chestnuts, attains a peak of quality and flavour, and game are also basic to the typical regional specialities (botillo, the mountain sausage from Leon, savoury bloodsausage or morcilla from Burgos, and the red Segovian sausage known as cantimpalo). Baby lamb, kid and sucking pig –deliciously roasted– are the star dishes, fish comes in the form of trout and cod, and there is a great variety of local cheeses made from goat’s, ewe’s or cow’s milk. Sweets and pastries, such as yemas (meltingly soft sweetmeats made from egg-yolk) and hojaldres (puff pastry), are in the most refined traditions of Arabic cuisine.
These same characteristics are also to be found in Extremadura, in a range of dishes and foodstuffs in which Iberian ham and pork reigns supreme. There are calderetas (stews) and cochifritos (lamb seasoned, garnished and casseroled in an earthenware dish), cold escabeches (marinades), wild vegetables (mushrooms, cardoons, leeks) and a wide choice of handmade cheeses to be had at the hearthsides of famous monasteries and convents (Guadalupe, Yuste, Alcántara) or in typical local eating houses.
The cuisine recreated in the story of Don Quixote of stockpot, salpicón (salmagundi) and duelos y quebrantos (a cattle-drover’s and shepherds’ dish, traditionally associated with St. Peter’s Day rivalry, consisting of a fry of eggs, bacon and brains, thought to be good by Sancho Panza and eaten by Don Quixote on Saturdays) serves to bring us to Castile-La Mancha, with its saffron, La Alcarria honey and Manchego (ewe’s milk) cheese. A country cuisine which in its gazpachos (not the better-known Andalusian gazpacho but a shepherd’s torta, a rough-and-ready dough made from flour, salt and water, eaten with game meat) and morteruelos (chopped pig’s liver braised with seasoning and breadcrumbs) retains the flavour of the old sheep-herding ways, and in its roasts (lamb, kid), the mouthwatering aroma of the hill country, rewarding the sweet-toothed with the ultimate delight of the exquisite Moorish-inspired marzipan of Toledo.
Like an island, Madrid contributes with the singularity of some of its typical dishes, such as cocido madrileño (a hearty stew for those with big appetites, where the broth is served first, followed by the soup-meat, chick-peas, potatoes and greens), cod and callos (tripe). The sticky torrijas (sweet fritters), desserts and sweetmeats are yet further local specialities.
Southern or Andalusian cooking takes its inspiration from the crucible of cultures that together forged its culinary heritage.
In tune with the local surroundings, one finds a cuisine of market-garden and field, a cuisine of country-style winter stews, and a Mediterranean cuisine along the coast. In addition, there is the region’s fine line in confectionery and pastry, again an Arabic legacy, and a variety of dishes based on pork and ham, epitomised in the ritual, colourful climax of the matanza (an annual event, often in late autumn, when families gather to help in the slaughter and butchering of a pig or two). The various gazpachos (cold Andalusian soup of diced tomatoes, cucumber and green peppers in olive oil, vinegar and garlic, usually served with a sprinkling of croutons) and soups, frituras (servings of small fried fish) and stews are just some of the individual items in a school of cooking that boasts a long and well-established cultural tradition.
The Canary Islands enjoy a very personal cuisine, with gofio (a local ball-shaped bread with flour made from toasted cereals), legumes, tropical fruits and the famous mojos (hot sauces spiced with paprika and coriander) being just a few of the local attractions.
DRINKS (WINES & MORE).
As an element, wine is a fundamental to each and every one of Spain’s regional cuisines.
The Romans introduced the art of viticulture, thereby making Spain into one of the world’s leading producers of wine. Spanish wine has earned itself a well-deserved reputation for quality, an aspect that, nowadays, is subject to stringent controls and official demarcations (up to sixty different wine-making districts).
Among these, mention must be made of the Rioja wines, which, on the merit of their bouquet, taste and body, have won international acclaim. Other highly-prized seals of origin are Ribera del Duero, Penedes and La Mancha, all of which have recently witnessed great advances in the quality of their wines.
Sherry (vino de Jerez) is a fortified Andalusian wine which enjoys great international prestige, particularly in Anglo-Saxon countries, and comes in a range of varieties to suit different tastes, e.g., fino (dry and light, usually drunk chilled), manzanilla (a pale, dry fina from Sanlúcar de Barrameda), amontillado (amber-coloured full dry or semi-dry), dulce (sweet) and oloroso (dark, full-bodied).
Cava, Spain’s sparkling wine made by the champagne method, is mainly bottled in the Penedes region of Catalonia, though in recent years production has spread to other areas, such as Castile.
Nowadays beer is an increasingly popular drink in Spain, especially as an aperitif to accompany the popular tapa-style snacks in bars. Spanish beer is of the light-coloured lager type, pleasant on the palate and usually served ice-cold.
In Spain spirits and liqueurs also have their local counterparts worthy of mention. Brandy is fundamentally produced in Andalusia, whilst aguardientes (natural alcohols, 80%-strength maximum) and orujos (fiery spirit distilled from grape skins and pips) hail from all parts of the country, inspiring the celebrated Galician queimadas (speciality made by setting aguardiente alight in a china- or earthenware bowl, in some cases with the prior addition of roasted coffee beans) as well as other different varieties of all kinds (dry, herb-, cherry- and honey-laced). Anisette (anís), pacharán de endrinas (bilberry liqueur) from Navarre and schnappes-like fruit liqueurs are the most popular drinks with the public.
EATING OUT IN SPAIN.
Eating out in Spain is one of life’s most enjoyable daily rites.
The sheer variety and range of the cuisine and Spaniards’ weakness for good food, make it a simple task, whether in the big city or in some small country village, to find a place where one can have a good meal. Ranging from traditional home cooking all the way up to famous five-star restaurants (maximum rating on a scale of one to five), travellers will have no difficulty in finding best value for money in terms of personal tastes and preferences.
Meal times tend to be approximately one and a half hours behind the European average, though the range of restaurant opening times is so generous that individuals will find it possible to more or less keep to their customary eating habits.
A menu listing the prices is usually displayed at the entrance to restaurants, which also usually offer a daily set menu at a somewhat reduced and/or fixed price. Service is included in the price shown, yet it is usual (though not obligatory) to leave 5%-10% of the bill by way of a tip.
Many restaurants tend to close one day in the week (Sunday or Monday), but there is any number of establishments open 7 days a week where one can have a bite at any time.