The energy of Spain is captivating! It’s a country of flamenco dancing, bull fights, fiestas, siestas, tapas, blue skies and glistening turquoise seas.
Food has always been at the core of the Spanish way of life with a love for eating and socialising embedded in its culture. So one of the best ways to understand this fine country is through food.
Traditional Spanish cooking makes the most out of what is available seasonally using good quality ingredients based on the region. Geographically, Spain is a large country broken into 17 regions and has many culinary influences. All of these areas offer delicious food prepared in a simple traditional way. It’s that culinary tradition of simplicity that makes Spanish cuisine so inviting. Believe me, once you get a taste you won’t want to leave.
Get ready to reset your eating habits.
“You eat how late?”
You’ll quickly notice the Spanish have their own dining timeline, which is very different from most other countries. If you’re unaware of their customs you can be caught off guard and left feeling rather hungry. The main meals are planned around socialising and taking time to enjoy the atmosphere and company as much as the food.
Unlike at home, breakfast isn’t the most important meal of the day. From early morning many start their day with a café con leche (coffee with milk) or orange juice and a pastry or toast. The cafés and bars are full of workers grabbing a quick coffee and a light snack from morning until about noon.
Lunch is usually from 2 to 4pm. These long sociable midday meals are where the famous siesta comes from, so be prepared for the shops in small towns and even cities to close while they all leave for lunch!
Due to the long lunch, dinner doesn't start until 9.30 or 10.30pm. But don’t worry, to get through the long wait, many bars offer tapas from 6 to 9pm and what a treat they are! Some bars charge per tapas but if you’re lucky you can find a bar where you receive free tapas with your drinks.
Dinner is usually lighter than lunch and is more of a social affair. So expect to find yourself sitting outside during the long hot evenings amongst tables bustling with flamboyant locals.
It’s worth mentioning that at meal times we are often most relaxed and that can make us vulnerable to thieves. A simple tip to staying safe is to keep your belongings where you can see them - that is except for your valuables, which are best kept out of sight.
When in Spain Do the Tapeo…the Tapas Crawl
Mmmmm tapas! You can easily eat your way around Spain sampling only tapas. Look for places that are crowded with locals and pull up a seat or lean against the bar.
Depending on the bar, you can order a few items from the blackboard menu or simply grab a plate and choose from the selection laid out across the bar. Pay attention to what’s going on because in some bars your leftover toothpicks are effectively your bill. Don’t be tempted to cheat and throw some of those little sticks on the ground, it’s theft and will be treated that way.
The tapas you’ll find in bars are classic dishes, based on fresh seasonal and local ingredients with robust flavours that are hearty and unpretentious. Believe us when we say how incredibly hard it is to choose a favourite tapa but here are a few top picks.
Jamon Serrano: this is mountain cured ham, salted and wind dried and cellared for great lengths of time to develop the flavour and colour. Often a selection of hams will be proudly hanging from the kitchen or behind the bar and the staff will shave off thin slices for you to savour. Hams are served at room temperature to allow the delicate flavours to come through. Add chorizo, salchichon and morcilla to the assortment and your appetite will be more than satisfied for traditional Spanish cured meats.
Tortilla Espanola: One of Spain’s most famous tapas, this egg and cubed potato omelette is cooked like a thick pancake in an iron pan until set. Depending on which region you are in, expect additions like spicy chorizo, wild asparagus and if you are further inland, sweetbreads.
Albondigas en Salsa: These are little pork and beef meatballs slowly braised in a spicy tomato and parsley sauce. The sauce reduces and coats the meatballs with a thick, rich tomato sauce.
Patatas Bravas: Another famous dish of bite sized cubed potatoes served hot, spiked with chilli and covered in salsa brava and served with a delectable garlic aioli.
Boquerones en Vinagre: These large anchovy fillets are commonplace in bars around little fishing villages and taste nothing like the anchovies we are used to at home. Fresh fillets are lightly pickled in vinegar with salt and garlic then drizzled with olive oil, you will totally forget you’re eating anchovies.
“We stayed in a resort which was very much overrun with tourists. And with that, most of the restaurants catered to the tourist palate. Wanting something a little more 'authentic' we hired a car and just drove, finding ourselves at Corralejo. We came across a fabulous little restaurant overlooking the sea, no tourist to be found, and a beautifully prepared seafood meal.”
Croquetas: Bread-crumbed little bite sized croquettes filled with a thick béchamel sauce and flavoured with either ham, fish, seafood or cheese then fried crisp so they are soft on the inside and have a crunchy outside.
Heuvos rotos or broken eggs: This simple dish consists of fried potatoes, onions, chorizo and eggs. It makes for a hearty breakfast or lunch but is more often eaten for dinner.
Olives: Let’s not forget the olives! Warmed bowls of black and green goodness, soaked in olive oil. Not sure if it’s the Spanish sun or because they are so fresh but the taste is nothing like anywhere else in the world.
“One of my fondest memories of Barcelona is stumbling across a tapas bar with a huge floor to ceiling barrel in the wall with a small spout. We stood around the bar sampling the most incredible tapas on offer and watching the staff expertly pour cider from this barrel. They stood a few feet away from the barrel and caught the spout of cider in a glass every time.”
Now for the mains
Caldo Gallego: If you’re a fan of pork and beans you will love this stew. Traditionally from the north, Galicia is a region that is known for its vibrant green landscapes and wet weather and stews are a staple of the area. Caldo Gallego is known as the peasant stew and uses fresh seasonal vegetables like potatoes and broccoli along with spicy chorizo floating in a broth of chunky bacon and white beans. Don’t let an opportunity pass to try this if you’re in the northwestern regions of Spain.
Sidra: or cider is a common cooking addition and up north Sidra is considered their regional wine. Merluza a la Sidra – Hake in Cider is a combination of hake fish, clams, onion, garlic, tomato, potatoes and apples, slowly stewed with a good amount of cider.
Navajas: razor shell clams are the long tube like clams, a very popular coastal delicacy. Navajas Al Ajillo is a simple clam dish served with chillies and garlic and drizzled with lemon.
Pulpo A La Gallega: is octopus pounded till it’s tender then cooked whole and cut into pieces. It’s seasoned with olive oil, paprika and salt and served on a large wooden dish. Octopus is a very popular dish and often served at family celebrations. It’s a dish that takes some getting used to. The octopus is tough and chewy and sometimes the suckers are left on and considered a delicacy.
“I remember a school group of exchange students (all of whom could run rings around me when it came to speaking Spanish) came in, looked at the menu, and then asked the proprietor for directions to the nearest McDonalds! I felt so sad for them, all that effort in learning the language and they weren’t willing to really experience Spain by stepping outside their comfort zone to experience utterly amazing food.”
Fabada Asturiana: is one of the most famous Spanish sausage and bean casseroles. The white beans or butter beans as we know them are grown locally in the Asturian region on the northwest coast of Spain. They are slowly cooked with ham, chorizo sausage and tomatoes and spices such as paprika and saffron for hours. This is the perfect winter comfort dish with that hint of spice from the sausage and paprika.
Gazpacho: One of the most famous dishes to come out of Andalusia and there are many different recipes but the traditional base of stale bread, garlic, vinegar and olive oil is always the same. Enjoyed in the heat of summer gazpacho typically includes sun ripened tomatoes, cucumber, onion and juicy peppers all blended until smooth and served chilled with extra fresh seasonal vegetables on the side for adding extra crunch.
Empanada: Is the Spanish savoury pie, but nothing like our pies. Think of a spicy cornish pasty or a turnover, but less stodgy. Spanish empanadas consist of rich fillings wrapped in a golden shell of pastry or bread. They are usually small in size and served in tapas bars all over Spain, but in Galicia you'll find large pies from which you order by the slice. Fillings are full and generous and have many varieties such as tuna mixed with a thick sauce of tomato, veggies, garlic and seasonings. Other varieties like
the empanada mixto are filled with ham and cheese and they do cater for vegetarians with options like pesto or spinach and cheese.
Paella: is a rice lover’s dream. Originally from Valencia it has become one of Spain’s most famous dishes. There are many varieties but the base is short grain rice combined with saffron and cooked traditionally over an open flame in a paellera pan. White meaty fish, clams, mussels, squid and meat and usually spicy chorizo are added to the rice base and slowly cooked. This is the king of one pot meals meant to be shared straight from the pan and is a great way to share a meal with new friends.
Coca: is like an Italian pizza but without the cheese. Originating in Catalonia, it started as a celebratory dish during the holidays. Now it’s a staple in many bakeries, you will see slabs in windows adorned with seasonal vegetables like peppers, courgettes, mushrooms and meats. A sweet base has eggs and sugar added and has fruits, nuts and cheese or Coca de Crema, which is topped with Catalan cream.
And let’s not forget dessert…
Chocolate Con Churros: if you ever needed a reason to eat sweets for breakfast then churros are the answer to your prayers! In Spain they are traditionally eaten at breakfast or as a snack. Long star shaped fried fritters sprinkled with sugar and served with hot chocolate for dipping. Originally from Castilla La Mancha in Madrid you will find Churrerias filled with people either early morning or late at night sharing dishes and sampling the many different flavours.
Crema Catalana: is a simple dessert of milk thickened with corn starch and egg and has a hard crust of sugar which is burnt with a gas burner to create a crunchy layer, very similar to Crème Brulée but with milk rather than cream. Like many Spanish dishes this dessert’s tradition started as a celebratory dish made on the last day of Lent, celebrating Saint Joseph.
Turron: is a traditional Christmas treat of Moorish decent. Still made in it’s original birth place, Jijona north of Alicante, this honey almond nougat bar even has it’s own Museum of Turron that shows the history of this famous sweet.
In many of Spain’s biggest cities you will find an indoor market which serves as the city’s ‘go to’ place for fresh produce. Considered a permanent farmers’ market they often are found in a central location and span several blocks. Along with the standard market produce the markets will have ready to eat food for you to try and buy. Believe me these bustling markets will set your senses into overdrive.
LA BOQUERIA Food Market in Barcelona is a must-see. About half way up Las Ramblas and on the left you will find one of the most famous food markets in Europe. You can spend hours here looking around and experiencing a feast for all senses! No matter what time you come it will be busy and loud. Once you go through the iron gates you will be overwhelmed by the colourful displays of fruits and vegetables all beautifully laid out. Follow the crowd and meander around stopping to look at displays of dried hams or jamon and sausages. Don’t be shocked if a man carrying a pig carcass passes you, this is just a reminder of how fresh the produce is! You will know you’re near the fish and seafood area not by the smell of fish but because the floor is wet and scattered with ice. The cheeses are displayed in beautifully stacked layers and there are plenty of free tasters of the most exquisite cheese’s, mmmmm. Beautiful glistening olives of all varieties are in large buckets like pick and mix lollies. They are so cheap, you will never tire of the taste of such sun-kissed freshness.
“La Boqueria was one of my favourite experiences in Barcelona, however I was pre warned about the gangs of pick pockets who work the famous strip of Las Ramblas and was terrified I would become one of their statistics. Thankfully I didn’t but it almost put me off going near the area. My advice is don’t dress like a tourist with your backpack and camera in full view. Take a small satchel style bag you can wear across your body and keep it close to your side. Walk with confidence and research where you want to go before you leave. If you get lost, stop in at a tapas bar (they are everywhere) and take a break, sample their fine offerings and regroup your thoughts and get your bearings back on track.”
EL MERCADO DE SAN MIGUEL is one of Madrid’s smaller markets housing artisanal goods, fresh produce and tapas bars and flower shops. The building alone is worth visiting, it’s the only iron structured market left in Spain. Restored in 2009 to its former beauty of 1916, it is considered a foodies’ paradise. Here you can buy fish from the fishmonger, have it cooked in the restaurant adjoining and have it served to you within minutes. Set up a table in the middle of the stalls and grab a selection of tasty treats from an array of cheese fromagieres, pickled vegetables and an impressive selection of jamon stalls. Recently set up is an audio guide for tasting local sherries. Not only do you get to learn about the different regions of this fortified wine, you learn how to properly taste it and you can take your glass and go around the suggested stores from the guide to pair your sherry with a mixture of tapas, combining the joy of food and wine.
“I absolutely loved it. There were so many tapas, pinchos and croquetta’s to try.”
MERCADO CENTRAL DE VALENCIA is huge! It covers 8,000 square metres and has approximately 1,500 stalls. The market is a beautiful building with high ceilings, colourful tiles and an art deco style. The architecture alone is worth a visit. The beautiful central glass dome is decorated with colourful mosaics of Valencian orange garlands, brightening even the dullest of days. Stall holders take pride in displaying their produce in such perfect order you don't want to disturb anything.
Final word for any foodies
Spain is not just about enjoying the food, it’s about experiencing the simple way of life, so please, slow down, take your time and enjoy. And of course please remember to take Southern Cross Travel Insurance with you