No one can deny the Seductive pull of Spanish culture. The country has drawn people to its glorious shores for centuries. From Spain come spectacular writers, the likes of Miguel De Cervantes, Lope De Vega, Carlos Ruis Zafon, and the inimitable Gabriel Garcia Lorca. Not only its literature, but its history is also full of adventure, mystery and discovery. The Spanish Armada was a formidable force in the 16th century, coming up against British Naval forces under Queen Elizabeth’s Sir Francis Drake. Spain’s Empire was the envy of many nations and the Spanish character can still be seen today throughout South America, Cuba and the Caribbean, and the Philippines. This really is a spectacular nation of passion and energy!
But what about the Spain of today? Synonymous with pristine beaches, gothic architecture, the cinema of Pedro Almodovar, music, sangria, flamenco, summer holidays, sizzling romances and, of course, amazing food. This country has so much to offer the international community and it is no surprise that millions of visitors flock to Spain each year (68,000,000 in 2016!) to soak up the distinctive Spanish atmosphere and culture. A major part of that culture is of course, Spanish food, which has long been popular among people of all nations.
With a fantastic climate for growing it is no surprise that food is such a central aspect of Spanish culture. The quality of Spanish produce is just so wonderful; from olives, olive oil, Valencian oranges, tomatoes and so much more; not to mention Spain’s fabulous range of wines. The vineyards of Aragon stretch over rolling hills - this area produces the Spanish Cariňena grape, a protected growing area from the early 1930s, testament to its quality and character. However, no discussion of Spanish wine is complete without mention of the most famous, classic Spanish libation, grown in the Rioja and Navarre region in the north of Spain, with its distinct peppery, almost smoky flavour. A perfect wine to enjoy with the nutty flavours of Spanish Manchego cheese and spicy chorizo sausage.
There are just so many delicious facets to Spanish cuisine, it is simply impossible to talk about them all in one short article, however, the classics are absolutely undeniable.
No discussion of Spanish food is complete without mentioning the quintessential Spanish tortilla. This is an absolutely delightful (and filling!) dish made of eggs, potato and onion. It is almost like a more substantial omelette and can be eaten on its own, with a little salt, with some Spanish salsa, or as part of a bocadillo (Spanish sandwich, usually served in a long baguette). In fact, this way of eating tortilla remains a staple among Spanish students, the ‘tortilla bocadillo’, is filling and the perfect fuel for studying, but more importantly, it is also cheap! Tortilla is often ordered as part of Spanish tapas, and who can imagine a more social and exciting way to eat than to share a table of lots of little individual dishes simply bursting with exotic Spanish flavours?
There are so many different dishes that can make up a table of Spanish tapas, and if you have never tried it, then I would suggest just picking five or six from a given menu, because whatever arrives on your plate, it will be delicious. Again, it is impossible to discuss every possible tapa, but here are some of the classics! From gambas pil pil (prawns fried with olive oil, chili and garlic); chorizo frito al vino, Spanish sausage made with paprika, fried in red wine: croquetas (essentially a Spanish take on potato croquettes, usually made with ham, cheese, or in some regions bacalao (cod fish); pimientos de pardon (small green fried peppers), served simply with sea salt these are a real treat, and not spicy despite their fiery appearance! However, no Spanish tapas meal is complete without Patatas Bravas - small fried potatoes, served with a pleasantly spicy tomato-based sauce. Wherever you order Patatas Bravas the sauce will always vary slightly, as every restaurant seems to have its own (closely guarded!) recipe. It is also not unusual to have this dish served with alioli (home-made garlic mayonnaise) as well as a spicy tomato sauce. A bowl of traditional Patatas Bravas to accompany an ice-cold beer is a Spanish pleasure that everybody should try. Absolutely delicious!
Although travelling through Spain is an absolute privilege, it is undeniable that at some times during the year, it can also be almost unbearably hot. Testament to this is the recent Lucifer heat wave that swept across Europe. At times like this, the idea of a hot and spicy dish is not a welcome one. No, what is required is something that is going to cool down the palate, not heat it up. It is perhaps unsurprising therefore, that another traditional Spanish dish is a cold soup made from vegetables. This may sound strange, particularly if you are used to the hearty soups of the UK; piping hot tomato, filling scotch broth and the cure-all, chicken. All served steaming on a winter’s evening, what could be more comforting and warming than that? Well on a roasting Spanish afternoon, that is the absolute opposite of what you want. Enter the solution: Gazpacho - made from liquidised and carefully sieved, peppers, cucumber and tomato, with added very good quality extra-virgin olive oil and garlic. You can add breadcrumbs or sherry vinegar if you wish, but it is unnecessary. The flavours are so fresh and clean that you can feel it revitalising you from the very first taste. It is sometimes actually served with ice in the bowl, and is always served chilled out of the fridge, not at room temperature. Not only is it the perfect antidote to the baking heat of the afternoon sun, but it is hard to imagine a healthier meal!
Once you have escaped the heat of the afternoon, enjoyed your siesta and had the prerequisite pre-dinner G&T, it is undoubtedly time to enjoy a traditional Spanish dinner, and you cannot get more traditional than paella. Paella is available all over Spain but it is a dish that originates in Valencia, and the Valencians are rightly proud of this. It is a rice-based dish, and this is probably due to the fact that the Moors from North Africa introduced rice through trading ports like Valencia on Spain’s southern coast over 1,200 years ago. It usually contains freshly-caught seafood and is cooked in a large flat dish, in which it is also served, flavoured with saffron, which gives it its distinctive orange colour. However, paella can contain anything that the maker wishes to put in it. It is often cooked for celebrations, and can be cooked over fires outdoors in enormous dishes designed to feed entire, extended families. This communal way of cooking the dish makes paella a feast for the eyes as well as the mouth!
There is so much more that could be said about the variety and flavour of Spanish cooking – this really is only a fraction of the mouth-watering delicacies that Spain has to offer. However, if you do find yourself in the country, my above suggestions should give you some idea of the amazing diversity and quality of the food on offer, and I would urge you to try absolutely anything and everything you can!