F&HE travel editor Ingrid Casson shares her highlights of a gourmet journey through Spain, where she encountered both rustic and modern flavours
France and Italy have long flown the flag for gourmet Europe, but Spain is emerging as a new darling. Its eclectic history, heartwarming sunshine, passionate people and fresh produce make it a heady gastronomic destination. By retaining its traditions (Roman, Moorish and medieval) rustic, fresh and delicious food and wine can – and always will be – enjoyed plentifully across Spain. But with an influence of overseas cooking styles and ingredients, a new Spanish food scene is emerging. And it’s brave, trend-setting and well worth a taste.
Also known as tapas bars, tascas are the ideal way to bookend an evening out. Dinner happens between 9 and 11pm, leaving a hungry hole between work and dinner to bar hop and snack. Spaniards flock to these cosy, hole-in-the wall nooks which line cobbled streets and markets, sipping on sweet Spanish beer and sherry. Tapas (appetising snacks) are ordered from the bar by the plate, a few morsels at a time. It’s common for a tasca to have at least eight different kinds of tapas, and they’re usually laden with grassy local olive oil, garlic and paprika. Tapas vary from region to region so you’re never short of variety: at Madrid food markets expect bulbous green olives stuffed with ham, blistered green peppers crusted with salt, and bitesized wedges of bread draped in sweet red peppers and white anchovies. Closer to the coast you’ll find slices of succulent octopus sprinkled with pimento (smoky paprika), sweet razor clams doused in lemon juice and shrimp as small as your baby fingernail, which you gobble down whole.
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- Housed in an ornate 20th-century wrought iron building Mercado de San Miguel is one of the oldest covered markets in Madrid and is a bustling crossword of classy tascas and small bars with wine by the glass to wash it all down.
- Vinoteca Torres (www.lavinotecatorres.com) in Barcelona combines simple but exquisite tapas with a showcase of Torres wines by the glass. Housed in a glossy black and mahogony setting, it rubs shoulders with stores such as Chanel and Tiffany & Co.
Like its Mediterranean neighbours, the Spanish food scene has always represented beautiful simplicity – the freshest local ingredients, simply prepared. A big difference was the Moorish influence in the south, which introduced irrigation farming (rice brought about the famous paella), as well as sweetlyscented almond groves, swollen figs and saffron – foods still rooted to the Spanish diet. But in the last 20 years, as Spain has been influenced by the rest of Europe, local chefs have travelled the world to hone their classical skills. The result is an exciting ‘new Spain’ foodie scene, with many chefs represented in the Michelin guide.
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- Find the tiny La Venta de Moncalvillo (www.ventamoncalvillo.com) tucked away in Daroca de Rioja in the north. Chef Ignacio Echapresto tends to his own sprawling vegetable garden and orchard behind the restaurant, offering the freshest produce, from brussel sprouts to sweet baby apples and borage. Signature dishes: blood-pudding macaroons; fresh strawberry marshmallow and chocolate ‘pebbles’.
- In the pretty, bull-trodden town of Pampalona, Rodero (www.restauranterodero.com) is a 40-year-old foodie institution.Dishes are whimsical and surprising. Signature dishes: hake with velouté and jelly of swimming crab; crispy-fried artichoke crowns with prawns and pepper oil.
Likened to Italian prosciutto, jamón is dry-cured Spanish ham with a deep, smoky flavour and sweet, melting fat and is usually eaten on its own, sliced or diced. While a leg can set you back, you’ll find one in most households and it’s as common as biltong in SA. To prepare, fresh ham legs are trimmed, cleaned and submerged in salt for two weeks to dehydrate and preserve. The salt is rinsed off and the ham is hung to dry. There are two main kinds of cured hams in Spain: jamón serrano (‘mountain ham’), and jamón Ibérico (‘Iberian ham’). Jamón serrano does not apply to a specific region, it is made from different breeds of cereal-fed pigs and is cured up to 16 months. Jamón Ibérico is a hind up in quality. Made from the Iberian pig from the southwest of Spain and Portugal, it is cereal-fed but also traverses the forests, chewing on sweet acorns. The curing process lasts up to 36 months.
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Monte Nevado Jamon (www.montenevado.com) in the northern Segovia province is the largest exporter of jamón.
As well as serrano and Iberico, they produce the intenselyflavoured Mangalica jamón, from the rare, woolly Mangalica
Spain is prolific with vines and there are plenty of native gluggable varieties which are refreshingly food friendly. Best known are the reds of the Rioja and Ribera del Duero regions (known for their dry and spicy tempranillo), but Spain has tons more to offer. Jerez is the home of the fortified wine, sherry (classic with tapas); Rías Baixas in the northwest offers crisp, dry whites, bubbly Cava from the Penedès and deep reds of the sun-baked Priorat region. Most restaurants offer a good wine list at reasonable prices and it’s a great way to taste your way around Spain by the glass. As interesting as the wines is the architecture of the cellars, many of which have commissioned dramatic structures by famous architects.
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- Set in the sweeping, dusty scenery of Navarra in the northeast of Spain, the Señorio de Arinzano estate has been producing wines since the 11th century and a history of noblemen and kings have added inspirational architecture to the property. In 1988, the Chivite family discovered the estate and replanted the vines, creating incredibly focused red wines. The newest cellar was built by the famous Rafael Moneo (www.arinzano.es).
- Marqués de Riscal (www.marquesderiscal.com) is one of the oldest Rioja wineries and is recognised the world over for its fresh, approachable wines. It warrants a visit, if only for the iconic, 43-room hotel, built by architect Frank Gehry, also responsible for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
Olive oil odyssey
A symbol of peace, the olive is wedged deeply in Spanish culture and has for thousands of years thrived in the fertile soils and lashings of sunshine. As a result, Spain is one of the biggest producers of olive oil, with more than 200 olive varieties grown, offering a range of tastes and flavours to different dishes. The majority of Spanish olive oils taste mild and buttery, with tropical fruit and banana characters.
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- Hacienda Queiles olive farm and mill (www.haciendaqueiles.com) in the Queiles valley of Navarra boasts ornamental olive trees which have been cultivated since the ninth century. Passionate owner Alfredo Barral insists on organic farming with handpicking, extremely gentle pressing and absolute freshness in the cellar – an anomaly for a country with such high production. The result is a bright, golden, fruity oil made in low quantities and favoured by many Spanish restaurants.
Street and undercover food markets are a permanent fixture in the towns and cities and offer a rabbit warren of foodie finds.
Fresh jewel-like veggies feature heavily in the Spanish diet, often as a starter or main course, rather than a side dish. Veggies vary from region to region, but keep an eye out for baby artichokes (so delicate and fresh the choke and leaves are eaten); sweet, tiger-striped green tomatoes; and creamy, fresh white beans. The seafood on offer is impressive, as is the offal: everything from trimmed calve’s heads (eyes and lashes still intact) to tripe and white, fleshy pig ears. Preserved olives, anchovies and beans make for quick and delicious tapas.
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- At least half a day needs to be spent soaking up the incredible La Boqueria market. One of Europe’s best-known markets, it is thought to date back to 1217 when tables from which to sell meat were set up by the old city doors.
The Spanish are known for their ‘postres’ (traditional, simple desserts), but they also love their chocolate. Posh chocolate producers are popping up everywhere and, following the trend of elevating tastes and flavours to a fashionable new level, making chocolate outside of the box.
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- Inspired by his pastry chef father, Oriol Balaguer in Barcelona (www.oriolbalaguer.com) is the former pastry chef of El Bulli, whose creations include glossy, chocolate-coated wands of nougat and decadent gift boxes of handmade truffles inspired by exotic, overseas flavours.
- At Enric Rovira Xocolates de Barcelona (www.enricrovira.com) expect to be wowed by a Willy Wonker-type selection of chocolates infused with essential flower oils, multi-layered truffles designed to recreate an experience (like sucking an iceberg or biting into a violet), glossy balls painted to resemble the solar system and raw cocoa nibs.
Spain has a tradition of artisanal cheesemaking and for many citizens well-made cheese is a diet staple, whether eaten on its own, as a tapas, or dessert. Like much of Europe, the regions and their cheeses are formed around the lay of the land, the milks used, climate and level of production. The cheeses of Spain are varied and distinctive, from the mouth-puckering, biting flavour of the Queso de Cabrales blue sheep’s cheese of the north, to the fruity, creamy murcia al vino ‘drunken’ cheese of the south.
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The rural region of Roncal on the northwest of Navarra is renowned for its mild, acidic and sometimes smoked cheeses (recipes are fiercely guarded). As a result of globalpopularity and demand, traditional cheese producers such as Queseria Enaquesa (www.rynodenavarra.es) have been transformed into industrial operations, while still embracing the artisanal nature of the cheese.