Spanish food is in a league of its own. Okay, I might be slightly biased when I say that Spanish cuisine is world class but it’s hard not to fall in love with it. Whether you prefer sweet or savoury, there’s bound to be something to tickle your tastebuds.
One of the first things I do when I visit a new town or city is find the local market. Most big towns and cities have a central market where you’ll find pretty much every type of food from fresh meat and fish, seasonal fruit and vegetables, as well as bread, cheese, and olives for an impromptu picnic.
For a true taste of the best Spanish food these are some of the things you shouldn’t miss.
The Spanish love their jamon (ham) which, traditionally, is made from the hind legs of pigs which are dry cured – first by placing in a barrel of salt and then by hanging to mature which can take anything from six months to several years.
Jamon Iberico is the gold standard of Spanish cured ham, and in pretty much every bar and restaurant throughout the country you’ll find huge legs of ham hanging from the ceiling. The best (and most expensive) jamon is ‘de belotta’ which comes from pigs that have feasted on acorns as they roam the oak forests. As you’d expect this gives the meat a real nutty flavour not to mention quite a price tag!
Jamon Serrano is the most common type and the cheaper alternative to Iberico.
Whichever option you choose, there’s a definite skill to slicing the ham from the leg and the Spanish take it very seriously, with slicing competitions held throughout the country.
Don’t worry if your budget doesn’t stretch to a whole leg of ham. You can have it sliced off in front of you in most shops and supermarkets or you can buy it ready sliced and sealed in a vacuum pack. Look for Pata Negra ham to be sure you’re buying the very best.
If you do want to have a go at slicing your own ham at home you can buy special stands to hold the leg of ham – I’ll stick to letting the experts do it for me!
Chorizo is another Spanish favourite – a pork sausage seasoned with garlic, salt and pimenton (the paprika which gives it its distinctive colour). Depending on the type of pimento used, the chorizo will either be picante (spicy) or dulce (sweet).
Chorizo can be eaten on its own or is frequently added to dishes to give a depth of flavour thanks to the pimenton.
If you’re in a tapas bar and see chorizo al infierno on the menu it’s worth ordering for the spectacle alone – the chorizo is put on a skewer in an earthenware dish, sprinkled with brandy and set alight at the table. Using the skewer you can turn the chorizo to ensure it’s cooked on all sides before tucking in and then mopping up the juices with crusty bread.
Mention Spanish cheese in conversation and most people think of Manchego. A hard cheese, it’s made with sheep’s milk and matured for anything from 60 days to two years. However, there are plenty of other Spanish cheeses to choose from.
If you’ve ever holidayed in Menorca you’ve probably tried the cow’s milk cheese of Mahon – one that’s definitely worth a look (and a taste!).
One of my favourites is payoyo made locally to me in the Sierra de Cadiz with milk from the payoya goat, and I’ve also recently discovered cheese matured in Pedro Ximenez sherry – both strong tasting hard cheeses which are absolutely delicious.
Cheese is a staple of tapas bars around Spain and is an ideal way of discovering which cheese you like (and which you don’t).
With coastlines on both the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean it should come as no surprise that seafood is popular in Spain. One of the joys of living so close to the sea is being able to sit at a chiringuito eating grilled sardines or calamari caught fresh that day.
If you’re not lucky enough to be close to the sea then the tinned or jarred seafood that you find in most shops isn’t a bad alternative, particularly the boquerones (anchovies) marinated in vinegar or olive oil – classic choices and my personal favourites. They’re ideal for recreating the tapas experience at home – just plate up and enjoy with some crusty bread.
Olives tend to be a love ‘em or hate ‘em food and, given that Spain has over 250 million olive trees, it should come as no surprise that olives are everywhere here. Go to a bar for a drink and, chances are, you’ll be given a small bowl of olives alongside your beer.
When I’m wandering around some of the amazing local weekend markets I’m always amazed at the variety of olives – luckily the stall holders are usually only too happy to offer free samples.
If you don’t have the luxury of try before you buy, I’d recommend the classic Spanish olive – the manzanilla. The name means ‘little apple’ and these olives are plump and juicy. You can buy them with or without the stones as well as stuffed with anything from lemon to anchovies.
Naturally, where there are olives there’s olive oil. Spain is the world’s biggest producer of olive oil and no meal is complete without a generous glug or two either during its preparation or when it’s brought to the table. Even a simple Spanish breakfast of pan con tomate is elevated to new heights with a splosh of oil – extra virgin being the best.
Originating from the Andalucian city of Jerez, sherry vinegar is used in a lot of Spanish dishes including the traditional Jerez dish of ‘Riñones al Jerez’ – kidneys in a sauce of sherry wine and sherry vinegar.
If that’s not to your taste it’s ideal for simple vinaigrette dressings or it can be added to dishes such as soups and stews to enhance the flavours.
Tortas de Aceite
Probably my favourite sweet treat, these are light and crispy tortas made with olive oil and flavoured with anise and sesame.
With their origins in Seville, they’re still hand made to the same recipe from over 100 years ago and are delicious as a sweet snack any time of day. You can even get them flavoured with Seville oranges as a nod to their roots.
If you’re missing your Spanish holidays but still want a taste of Spain you can buy a hamper of your favourite Spanish delicacies (or put together your own) to transport you back to sunny days by the sea.