Food writer Janet Mendel explains that Spanish cuisine is as varied as the country itself.
Spain is an enormous country, diverse in its landscapes, culture and character. The cuisine of Spain reflects that diversity.
Eight hundred years of Moorish rule in southern Spain left a culinary legacy in Andalusia of refined, almost oriental flavors; an opulent use of spices and herbs; oranges and other fruits in savory dishes; almonds and cinnamon with meat; honeyed sweets...
The far north of Spain, by contrast, is a verdant region of gentle rains and good pastureland. Its cuisine features sturdy dishes of beans, sausages and vegetables as well as some of Spains best seafood.
The east coast of Spain, facing Italy, encompasses the regions of Catalonia, Valencia and Murcia. Spain probably got is pasta from Italy (pasta dishes are naturalized in Catalonia), but Italy certainly got its risottos from Valencia, the home of Paella, Spains best-known dish. This region has been growing rice since the Moors introduced its cultivation many centuries ago.
The interior of Spain, the immense regions of Castile, Extremadura, La Mancha and Aragón, is famous for its roasts, baby lamb and suckling pig done to turn in wood-fired brick ovens.
With nearly 2,000 kilometers of coastline, Spain is renowned for its fresh seafood. And its said that the best fishermans wharf in the country is in Madrid, in the dead center of the Iberian peninsula: pristine fish and shellfish arriving at Mediterranean and Atlantic ports are whisked overnight to satisfy the Spanish capitals boundless hunger for seafood.
THE NEW CUISINE OF SPAIN
In spite of the diversity of the cuisine, several dishes appear everywhere in Spain. One is the Tortilla (nothing to do with the Mexican tortilla), a round, flat omelet made with chopped potatoes, and a favorite fare in bars specializing in tapas, those small, bite-sized dishes served with drinks. Another is the Cocido, a meal-in-a-pot with meat, vegetables, pulses and sausages, typical home-cooked food, as is Sopa de Ajo, garlic soup, which though it varies slightly from region to region basically consists of little more than bread, oil, garlic and water. Of solid peasant origin, the soup is better than the sum of its parts, like that other simple soup, Gazpacho, a nutritious and delicious concoction of fresh tomatoes, peppers, cucumber and garlic, served cold in summertime.
Spanish cooking is emphatically home cooking, based on local produce and prepared to recipes handed down through generations, but some of the best of Spanish cooking today is being created fresh by the countrys innovative restaurant chefs.
They take inspiration from the traditional dishes and ring changes on them. Why not pair on olive oil sauce and a butter-based hollandaise for a succulent grilled fish? Or add scraps of truffle to an old-fashioned lamb stew? Or turn that perennial Basque favorite, tiny elvers, into a salad? Some of it is whimsical and fun, some approaches high art. It these are not the típico dishes of Spain, they do make dining out in this magnificent country an exhilarating experience.
Janet Mendel is currently working on her fifth book, for an American publisher, devoted to the Spanish kitchen. Her previous books have included Cooking in Spain, The Best of Spanish Cooking and Tapas and More Great Dishes from Spain (all published by Santana Books, Spain) and Traditional Spanish Cooking (Garnet Publishing, UK).
Photo by John James Wood.
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