When thinking about food in Europe, France and Italy tend to get all the attention. Italy for it’s emphasis on the finest ingredients in simple preparations, and France, which really needs no introduction. We’ve all eaten at an Italian restaurant. It’s the world’s cuisine. And every dish you’ve ever eaten is probably touched in some way by French culinary innovation. Enter: Spain. This often overlooked culinary destination is entering the spotlight. According to Anthony Bourdain, the focus has shifted away from France as the prized destination for up and coming culinary stars to this neighbor to the south. Chefs like Dan Barber laud it for it’s respect of fine ingredients. Molecular gastronmists Ferran and Albert Adria have taken preparations to never before seen extremes. The bottom line: Spain has the best ingredients, fantastic creativity, and the utmost respect for fine cuisine.
Without further adieu, I present the 10 things I love most about food in Spain:
The obsession with quality of ingredients in Spain is ever apparent, but somehow also simply assumed. Coming from America, it is obvious to me that great care goes into the preparation of every component, as the quality greatly surpasses what I’m used to. To a Spaniard, however, it’s clear that they don’t think twice about it, this is simply how it is. Ingredients are great, and they wouldn’t dare think to use anything less. From the smallest street vendors to the popular restaurants, the ingredients are phenomenal top to bottom.
Leeann and I have had the luxury of eating in some of the world’s finest restaurants. Astrid y Gaston in Lima, Maido in Lima, La Colombe in Cape Town, the list goes on. When dining at these restaurants, you know you are about to eat great food. The service, the decor, the menu, they all scream fine dining.
Spain takes this notion and turns it upside down. In most countries, driving through the country side means periodic motor way exits occupied by gas stations and terrible fast food. In rural Spain, these exits are occupied by a single gas station with a single nondescript restaurant attached to it. Experience indicates that this food will likely be cheap, with the quality reflecting the price. This could not be further from the truth for Spaniards. These restaurants, although serving very inexpensive and simple dishes, are phenomenal.
On our way to Granada, we stopped at a tiny rest stop to eat at Venta Rio Frio. Absolutely nothing special about the appearance of this place. Apart from the delicious looking Iberico Ham hanging from the ceiling, the place looked less than appealing. We ordered baguettes rubbed with tomato and garlic, topped with Iberico ham and Spanish olive oil. Delicious. The eggs ordered by our friend were some of the freshest and most beautiful I’ve ever seen, their bright orange yolks putting any mass produced chicken to shame. Spectacular ingredients soared in all their simplicity. And this was not an isolated incident. All across Spain, small, unpretentious, family run restaurants dot the landscape, serving world class dishes with incredible love.
Where to begin? Pork. Speaks for itself. Iberico ham is everywhere in this country. It is present in some form at every meal. The chorizo is fantastic. Ham legs hang from the ceiling at most establishment and even homes. It is not possible to taste Iberico ham and not like the flavors happening in your mouth. Slip a vegan a sliver and they would be faced with a massive crisis of identity. It’s no secret that I love pork, and at one small restaurant I was caught visibly gazing and drooling as a worker carved a new leg of Iberico. Lucky for me, he noticed my salivation and slipped a slice for free. Move over prosciutto di parma, we have a new king of pig.
We did a lot of driving in Spain, from Madrid to Sotogrande in the south, then back up to Malaga and Granada. Everywhere we went, the landscape was covered in Olive trees. Olives are a staple in Spanish cuisine. Every meal comes with a small bowl of them, and every dish includes Olive oil in some way. Spanish olive oil is some of the best I’ve had, much more pepper and spice flavors than its Italian and Greek counterparts. The olive side dishes are also unique in every area you travel to, utilizing the local crop.
I love cheese, and Spanish cheese has to be among the best. It also accompanies most meals, with Queso de Cabra and Manchego being my favorites on the trip. I already knew I loved Manchego going in; it’s an ever-present staple in my fridge at home, but having at the source was a real treat. You haven’t lived if you think cheese is that plastic orange stuff or pre shredded bagged disgusting that you sprinkle on salad.
6. Tortilla de España
Quick note: this is not a Mexican tortilla, that corn or flour flat bread thing. Another note: although menus will translate it to “Spanish Omelette,” it is NOT your 6 egg monstrosity you get at Denny’s on Sunday morning. It is also not reserved just for breakfast. It can be eaten any time! Tortilla de España is best eaten cold, a wonderful concoction of potato, caramelized onion, and egg, cooked slowly and thick, where the egg is a gooey coating and glue more than anything. I’ve been trying to master its preparation for a while now, and this tutorial I found to be very helpful.
Coastal Spain is known for its seafood, and it is absolutely world class. They utilize every kind of fish imaginable, and shellfish (mariscos) are abundant. It’s fresh, prepared properly, and inexpensive. A lot of restaurants even have either a tank with live seafood in it or a deli counter where whole fish are stored on ice. My favorites were the Boquerones (anchovies), served either in vinegar or lightly fried (similar to tempura), and the calamares fritos (fried baby calamari). For another great seafood destination, read about La Mar in Lima, Peru!
While we are on the subject of seafood, we absolutely must touch on Paella. Probably the most famous dish of Spain, Paella is similar to jambalaya, with Saffron being the key ingredient. You can order it with or without seafood (although the traditional contains all seafood), and it almost always includes chicken and/or chorizo. Our favorite, from Rio Seco had mussels, clams, calamari, white fish, small and large prawns, langostinos, and chicken. The slightly crusty and crunchy rice at the bottom of the pan is the best. Just don’t ask for ketchup.
I can’t even begin to describe the glory that is Tapas. The concept seems impossible. You go to a bar, you order a drink, and boom! They bring you a delicious small plate of food! And we aren’t talking a bowl of peanuts. Anchovies, paella, small tuna and tomato sliders, pork stew. The absolutely FREE tapas that we had were also some of the best food I’ve eaten. Did I mention free? Granada still very much abides by Tapas culture, and for less than $6 I had 4 beers and 4 tapas. Amazing. If I lived in Spain, I would be out for Tapas every night. The idea is really quite simple, you order a drink and the restaurant gives you a free sample of their offerings, enticing you to offer (and pay) for more food. Why this hasn’t caught on everywhere else in the world is beyond me.
10. Meaningful meals
Finally, the way the Spanish eat is my favorite part of their cuisine. Too often here at home are meals something that you simply have to do. They are an inconvenience. We cram them in and eat them as fast as possible. Fast food is the norm, and stuffing down calories between appointments is ever present. In Spain, eating isn’t just a necessity, but it is an event. A meal isn’t worth having if it doesn’t take hours. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner all mean sitting down with family and friends to enjoy a long, drawn out meal. There’s something to be said for dining in this manner. By being mindful of how they eat, and making meals more of an experience, the Spanish truly get more enjoyment, and ultimately health, out of food. This concept has resonated the most with me since returning as I watch people misalign their priorities. If everyone would take the time to slow down a few times a day and enjoy meals with important people in their lives, then I think the world would be a better place. Food isn’t just calories. It’s an experience.