There is something utterly unique about Spain, and you can taste it in this country’s classical cuisine, celebrated worldwide for its rustic, fresh and flavorful ingredients.
The foods of Spain can be profound in their simplicity. One taste of Jamón Iberico reveals why it is considered the most sublime aged ham in the world. And no wonder, it is made from Iberian black swine that run in ancient oak forests, the same that produce the finest cork for wineries around the world. These boars enjoy a diet of rich, nutty acorns, and their meat is patiently cured in old mines and caves for two years. Gazpacho is not just a cold soup, it is delicate and refined– thickened by soaking dry bread and emulsifying it with tomatoes and seasonal garden vegetables. Each dish of Spain contains an elevated sense of timeless, sun-kissed flavors.
The Mediterranean diet, as high in nutrients as it is naturally low in saturated fats, is considered one of the healthiest in the world. It’s a little known fact that Spain is second only to Japan as the largest consumer of seafood per capita. From sea bass to swordfish, mussels, clams, oysters, shrimp, squid and tuna, as well as seasonal migrating species through the Straights of Gibraltar, seafood plays a starring role in Spanish Paella, Tapas and Caldos (soups).
Spain’s long and complex history is reflected in its food. The Moors occupied Spain for more than 700 years, and the Arabic trade routes imported rice, dried fruits, nuts, and aromatic spices from across Northern Africa and the Orient. When the Spanish discovered the New World, they were the first to access a wealth of new foods including potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and maize.
The warm, sunny climate in Spain’s southern region permits a year-round growing season. Mostly too hot for cows, Spain’s dairy comes primarily from sheep and goats. Therefore, olive oil, not butter, is the fundamental medium in Spanish cooking.
Surrounded on three sides by the Mediterranean Sea, the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean (and later Portugal), Spain is second only to Switzerland as the most mountainous country in Europe. Its numerous coastal towns and valley villages safeguarded a staggering variety of livestock, game, olives, fruits and vegetables for centuries. Choice ingredients, from an incomparable diversity of fish and game to ham, specialty beef, olive oil, seasonal vegetables, ripe fruits, and aromatic spices, are at the foundation of this enlightened cuisine.
Separated from each other by more than five mountain ranges, many villages developed certain foods in different manners. These uniquely regional ingredients are considered heirlooms: including chorizo (sausage), beef, cheese and wine. Certain regions are known for signature dishes, such as paella from Valencia, cooked in a single flat-bottomed pan, with seafood, chicken, chorizo, rabbit and saffron-infused Bomba rice. The quintessential Spanish tortilla of Madrid is unlike the wheat flatbread tortilla of Mexico. The “Tortilla Española” is an omelet of potatoes and onions, and is widely considered to be the the first dish to be missed when a Spaniard travels far from home.
Almost a decade ago, Spain’s major wine regions including Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Jerez, home of the famous sherry wine, Rias Biaxas and Catalonia came into the international spotlight. There are also lesser known regions producing some of the most acclaimed varieties including Navalcarnero, Somontano and Borja wines from Aragón, Jumilla, and Yecla and Bullas wines from Murcia. Popular wine drinks include the famous dry and fruity Sangria and Tinto de Verano, a blend of red wine, lemon and Casera.
In Spain, it’s a long-held tradition to eat smaller portions throughout the day rather than three big meals. This is one of the reasons why tapas, small dishes with big flavors, are so popular. Eating smaller portions provides a much greater variety of foods than the three-meal-a-day approach. Traditionally, people start their day with a cup of coffee or thick, hot chocolate and a type of pastry like “churros.” Mid-morning brings las onces, which usually consists of sausage, eggs and bread. Next comes platos, a late, large lunch usually taken around 2 p.m., when all businesses close for the meal and a Siesta. Sometime after 4 p.m., businesses re-open and work resumes until sunset, when you’ll hear the common cry “Vamos de tapeo,” or “Let’s go for tapas.”
Tapas are a relatively unknown portion in the United States, and are eaten with wine or sherry and shared with friends and loved ones. Little plates of olives with Manchego cheese, Catalan-style grilled bread rubbed with tomato and garlic and served with Serrano ham, lamb brochettes with spicy marinade, and cured ham from acorn-fed Iberian pigs are just a few examples of the many variations of Spanish tapas.
A meal in Spain is not just taken to fill the stomach. It’s a stimulating, nourishing, and social “coming together.”