A big part of the Spanish food culture is tapas. The story began in the early days at Andalusian taverns when flying insects tended to get into bar patrons’ drinks on hot days. As a preventive measure, the patrons started using flat items to cover their glasses and it eventually evolved to using bread, cheese or meat as covers instead. The word ‘tapas’ is derived from the Spanish word tapar meaning ‘to cover’ and the concept of tapas was born with small bites being an integral part of drinks.
Andalusia’s culinary influence draws heavily on the North African and Arabic legacy bequeathed by nearly eight centuries of Moorish rule. The Moors were skilled agriculturalists, taming arid land into fertile oases to introduce an astonishing array of produce that included fruits, rice, nuts, vegetables and spices. It was only after 1492, when the last Moorish stronghold fell and Spain was reunified, that importation of produce such as tomatoes, potatoes, capsicums, chillies and chocolate from the New World contributed to the unique, hybrid nature of Spanish cuisine that we recognise today. With an abundance of fresh produce, seafood, meat, spices and herbs from around the world, this cuisine is a fantastic amalgamation of tastes and flavours. Essential ingredients and traditional favourites include:
Moorish peasants were the first to conceive paella, one of Spain’s hero dishes. It started life as poor man’s fare, using short-grain rice cooked with olive oil, saffron, vegetables and anything else at hand. While the key ingredients remain largely unchanged, there are certainly more variations available these days. Paella is almost synonymous with the broad, shallow steel pans used to cook it – the word ‘paella’ derives from the Latin patella meaning ‘pan’.
With a coastline stretching from France to Africa, and being lapped by the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Cantabrian Sea, it’s no surprise that seafood is a mainstay in Spain. One dish typical to southern Spain is pescado a la sal or whole fish baked in salt. A restaurant with a theatrical bent will crack the jacket of salt crust to unveil the perfectly cooked fish at your tableside.
A willingness to experiment yet respecting the importance of tradition, in combination with the influence of terroir, produces an extraordinary range of wine styles. With the largest expanse of land dedicated to viticulture in the world, quality Spanish wines range from cavas, classic white wines made from the Albariño grape, rich sweet wines made using the Pedro Ximénez grape, the famed Vega Sicilia, the standard bearer for the Ribero del Duero region, and celebrated red wines made mainly from the indigenous tempranillo grape in the Rioja.
Using cow, goat and sheep milk, Spanish cheese producers create over 100 official cheeses with 12 of them protected by the Denominación de Origen and takes prides in maintaining time-honoured methods despite modernised cheese processes. One of Spain’s most famous cheeses, manchego, is made from the milk of Manchego sheep. This semi-firm cheese has a rich yet mellow flavour that alters with age and is often served as a tapa with membrillo, a quince paste.
Ham or jamón is an integral part of life and retains its traditional artisan methods of production. Several varieties are available but the finest is jamón Ibérico de bellota made from black-footed pigs fed on a rich diet of acorns and herbs that lend the meat its distinctive flavour. Haunches of jamón are seen hanging from the ceiling of every traditional bar and restaurant in Spain.
Having arrived in Spain around 1000 BC with the Phoenicians and Greeks, the olive tree was further cultivated by the Romans and the Moors. An estimated 262 varieties are grown throughout Spain but only about 24 varieties are used to produce olive oil that is supplied worldwide. The fruit of the tree is also eaten after brining and is found in every bar and market.
Considered as the king of sausages in Spain, it comes in different shapes and sizes, raw or cured, spicy or sweet. Made from ground pork and its fat, flavoured with pimentón, garlic and pepper, it is a versatile ingredient that can be eaten right away, or used to flavour other dishes.
Chocolate and Churros
Popular chocolaterias or churrerias are typically abuzz from 4am until breakfast time where the churro, a long piece of savoury fried dough, is eaten dunked into thick bittersweet hot chocolate.
Regional and seasonal pastries and cakes are found everywhere around Spain. The rich tradition of sweets is associated with fiestas and religious ceremonies like turrón, a nutty honey-based nougat that is traditionally associated with Christmas and possibly dating back to pre-Roman times. Spaniards commonly enjoy pastries and sweets for breakfast or as a late afternoon snack rather than as an after-dinner dessert. As sweets are usually not made in homes nor do restaurants serve a wide range of desserts, stop off at any pastelerias to satisfy your sweet tooth.