I’ve been to Spain more than any other country (probably 30 times) and yet I still fill my suitcase before the flight home with charcuterie, cheese, olive oil or wine. Food is a real passion in Spain, which is something I’ve come to appreciate more, especially as Ireland has so much great quality food too – my goal is to cook more, experiment with new ingredients and share some of these tips with you, so we can all enjoy amazing finger licking food.
Fresh Bread (Pan)
It’s a crime in Spain to eat stale bread, or even buy a loaf of bread. I love the way people have the ritual of going to the local panaderia in the morning to collect a barra of fresh bread. It smells so good and you can have it for breakfast (tostada) or use it later over lunch or even on tapas. Best panaderia: El Museo del Pan Gallego in Madrid – there are constant queues out the door.
Ireland has a growing coffee culture, which is great as we can now drink great coffee all over the country. However the big difference with Spain is that we take coffee to go a lot of the time, whereas in Spain tomando un café is an event, not just a take-out coffee. It means sitting down in a small cafeteria, ordering a café solo, un cortado or café con leche and enjoying the moment – it might only take 10 mins but are our lives in Ireland so busy that we can’t stop to enjoy the experience?
Taking the Time to Enjoy Food (Tiempo)
It’s not just coffee that’s enjoyed – I really like the way Spanish (and Mediterranean people) spend more time preparing, eating and talking about food. Lunch is the biggest meal, with a starter (entrante), and maybe primero and segundo platos. Finished off with a postre and cafe. This could take 1-2 hours and the bigger the group of friends or family the better. Sometimes we see mealtime as a quick pit stop rather than a way to spend quality time.
Huge Choice of Fish (Pescado)
In Ireland, we love our salmon, trout, mackerel and cod, but beyond those staples we can sometimes struggle to get fish in supermarkets or in restaurants. In Spain I love the choice in mercados or even the fish counters in supermarkets, which have every type of shellfish and fish. Prawns large and small, fresh octopus (pulpo) plus a multitude of cuts including some of the most colourful and ugly fish you’ll see. The markets in Madrid (300 miles from the sea) can have fish caught that same morning, yet our supermarkets have lots of Donegal Catch or fish fingers?
A Million Cuts of Meat (Carne)
I’ll be honest, I don’t know half the cuts of meat on a cow in English, not to mind their Spanish equivalents. All I know is that you can find every part of the animal from tail to intestines to ears, eyes, tongues and cheeks on the menu or in the butchers. The segundo plato is normally meat or fish – I like the way it comes served simply with little garnation, accompanying vegetables or sauce. It’s all about tasting the meat. Same goes for the massive selection of charcuterie, whether it’s lomo, chorizo, salchicon, jamon or morcilla.
Regional Delicacies (Regiones)
The four corners of Spain are very different culturally as well as gastronomically. Everywhere you go you’ll discover a local speciality – whether it’s the fabada in Asturias, paella in Valencia, gazpacho in Andalucía, potatoes in the Canaries or octopus in Galicia, you’ll never get bored of the choice on offer. Multiply this choice by a hundred when you think of tapas. Some of my favourites are patatas bravas from Catalunya, pulpo gallego, paella valenciana, pimientos del padron, gazpacho andaluz or any type of lomo del buey.
Now this is the best way to eat, drink, chat and tour a city all at the same time. Tapas have different names across Spain: pintxos in Basque Country, montaditos in Alicante or tapas in most other places. Pintxos are bigger, while in Andalucía tapas always come free with drink – whereas in the rest of Spain you normally pay to get a tapa (or with a drink you might get nuts, olives or some bread).
What a way to spend an evening wandering through the old streets of Seville or Granada – a caña (small beer) with a tapa in each bar, where you’ll eat well and discover some amazing little bars. Some of my favourites are: pan con tomate, boquerones (anchovies in vinegar), calamares, pescado frito. Try out a chain of tapas bars called 100 Montaditos for a start, although ask a few locals where the best places are – the smaller the better!
A World of Wine (Vino)
Spain is better known for its choice of reds, but there’s also a mix of fresh whites, sparkling wines (cava) as well as mixes such as vino tinto de verano, kalimoxo (wine with coke), sangria (red wine with lemonade and fruit). What I like is the provenance of local grape varieties and vineyards rather than taking the better known international names such as Torres, Faustino V or Marques del Riscal. I’d recommend trying some of the sweeter white wines from the Canaries, or a good Crianza Reserva.
Sharing Food with Friends & Family (Comida Compartida)
Come on, eating alone or in front of the TV is boring. Mealtime should be social, a time to chat, laugh, have fun, argue. In Spain I like how everyone sits down at the table and eats together, as well as sharing more plates – whether it’s tapas or starters or even main courses (paella, fish, meat, vegetables). That way you get to try lots of different plates, plus you only eat as much as you want.
Fresh Fruit & Veg (Frutas y Verduras)
Irish supermarkets have a wide choice of fruit now – much more exotic than when we were growing up: all we knew were bananas, apples, oranges and maybe strawberries in summer. Now we have kiwis, watermelons, papaya, blueberries and every type of fruit juice. Yet how many of our fruit and veg can be out of season or shipped from Costa Rica or Brazil?
In Spain the oranges and tomatoes are so fresh, juicy and tasty – sometimes I eat a tomato here and can’t taste a thing. Same with strawberries that look red but are white (and not ripe) inside. Fruterias in Spain have genuinely fresh and in season fruit and veg. Try a mandarin, avocado or banana in Spain and you’ll be hit with flavour.
So there you have it – my 10 favourite things about Spanish food. Let me know what you like or don’t like. What are your favourite restaurants? Favourite tapas? Best recipes? Wines?
Next time I hope to write more about food, inspired in part by my friend Gluten Free Cailín: possible topics include my favourite restaurants, best regional foods, new things I’m cooking at home, a lot about beer or even healthy eating for an active/sporty lifestyle.