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Spanish | The Food Society


Spanish Cuisine 78

The cuisine of Spain is rich and varied. The Moors of North Africa are credited with introducing cumin and saffron, olives, nuts and oranges although it is thought that olive oil came originally from Greece. Viticulture and wine making are thought to have been introduced from Greece and Rome. Vegetables such as tomatoes, capsicums, courgettes and potatoes were brought back from the New World by the early explorers during the 15th century.

Regional cuisines are as varied as the geography, cultures and climate of the country. In the north, meat, particularly chicken, pork and rabbit and sausages form a major part of the diet, whereas in the south, the diet has more of a Mediterranean character, making use of more vegetables and fruits such as asparagus, spinach, eggplant, artichokes and mushrooms. The consumption of seafood – shrimps, sea bream, swordfish, anchovies, sardines, squid, monkfish and tuna – is widespread all around the coastal regions and inland anywhere that good communications exist. Beans, peas and lentils are commonly used in soups and stews throughout the country. In modern times, regional cuisines have tended to merge throughout Spain although generally retaining their regional character at their places of origin.

In Spain, food is, when possible, treated as a social event, rather than merely a means of sustenance. Families tend to eat together and it is normal for several generations of the extended family to sit down together, particularly on feast days and on family occasions.

Regional Cuisine

The North of the country stretches from windy and wet Galicia in the north west, through Asturias and Cantabria, to the Basque region in the Bay of Biscay. The cuisine makes full advantage of the qualities of the locally available ingredients with only minimal inclusion of herbs and spices. Emphasis is put upon cooking food until it is “just right”, neither under nor over cooking it. The region is rich in a large variety of seafood including: crab, mussels, oysters, scallops, gooseneck barnacles, salmon, eels, tuna and cod. Lamb and pork are produced throughout the region. Rabbit is commonly eaten rather than chicken. Popular dishes include empanadas – a turn-over meat pasty and fabadia Asturiana – a rich broth of pork, sausage (chorizo), beans and potatoes. The climate and topography of the region are favourable to cattle raising and many cheeses are made from the abundance of dairy produce. Arroz con leche – a creamy rice pudding is a popular dessert.

Spanish ham

Cured meat and ham feature heavily in Spanish cuisine

The North East borders on to the Pyrenees mountains and contains the regions of Navarre, Aragon and Catalonia. La Rioja lies close nearby. The lush Pyrenean pastures encourage the raising of beef and lamb alongside a thriving dairy industry. Close by, trout and salmon are plentiful. Boar are found in the area and form a popular addition to the local cuisine. Orchard fruits such as apples, pears, peaches, cherries and plums grow in profusion. Strawberry, asparagus and onion growing are major activities in the area. Meat dishes using lamb, chicken, cured hams and sausages are popular in the more northerly part of the area, while Mediterranean ingredients such as tomatoes, garlic, legumes, eggplant and fish-based dishes predominate in the southerly parts. The world-renowned Rioja wines originate in the region.

In the regions of central Spain: Extremadura, Castille-Leon, Castilla-La Mancha and Madrid, a blend of Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions influence much of the local cuisine. Rustic styles of food preparation are employed to produce much of the dishes of these regions. Local produce includes: mutton, fine hams and sausages, lamb, veal, young goat and sucking pig, hare, frogs’ legs and fresh water fish including trout and river crab. Crops include: chick peas, beans, olives in profusion, saffron, chestnuts and pumpkins. Serrano ham and Manchego cheeses are among the finest produce of central Spain.

Andalucia, Murcia and Valencia lie in the South and South East of the country, mainly bordering onto the Mediterranean. Much of the cuisine of the area owes its origins to the Romans and, more particularly, to the Moors who introduced rice, sugar-cane, eggplant, citrus fruits and spices, particularly saffron, cinnamon and nutmeg. The landscape of the areas varies from mountains to fertile plains and this diversity, coupled with irrigation systems introduced by the Moors, has encouraged the cultivation of a wide variety of agricultural products. Production of olives, much of which is consumed whole, either fresh, bottled or canned, supports a large olive oil industry. Large quantities of fish and seafood, together with fresh fruit and vegetables contribute to the predominantly Mediterranean diet of the area.

National Cuisine

The popularity of a number of regional dishes has spread to much of the remainder of Spain and throughout much of the world, although retaining some of their distinctive flavours in individual areas. Most notable of these are paella and gazpacho. In addition, the serving of Tapas has developed from a small snack or appetizer, served with a drink, to a complete meal.


Paella is often considered Spain's national dish.

In Spain, paella is still regarded as a Valencian dish although it is popular throughout the country and internationally. Paella is traditionally cooked in a wide, shallow, circular pan called a paellera over an open fire of orange and pine branches which infuses the dish with aromatic flavours. The main ingredients are cooked first in the paellera to which is added water, saffron and other herbs and cooked down to a broth to which the rice is added and the dish simmered until the rice is cooked. When cooked over an open fire or on a hob, the rice at the base of the pan toasts and this is regarded as a delicacy. When paella is cooked in the oven it is sometimes finished off on the stove top to achieve the same effect.

Valencian paella contains meat, typically rabbit or chicken, green vegetables and beans. In seafood paella (paella de marisco) the meat and vegetables are replaced typically by shrimp and whatever other seafood is available. Mixed paella (paella mixta) may contain any mixture of meats, vegetables and seafood. The one common ingredient of all paellas is the saffron rice.

Gazpachio is a summer tomato-based raw vegetable soup originating in Andalusia and served cold. Raw vegetables, including onions and garlic are chopped small and then either puréed or pounded in a pestle and mortar with fresh herbs. Stale bread is sometimes added at this stage. The dish is then completed with the addition of chilled water – sometimes with ice cubes – vinegar and seasoning.

Tapas are an integral part of Spanish lifestyle and have developed from a small appetizer or snack, served with drinks in bars into a series of small dishes making up a complete meal. The word tapa means cover in Spanish and tapas are thought originally to have been morsels of food placed on top of a small piece of bread placed over a drink to keep flies out.

Spaniards tend to eat tapas, often with a drink in the early evening, to bridge the gap between lunch and dinner which is customarily eaten between 9 and 11 pm and frequently even later. Typical tapas dishes include: Seafood – anchovies, salt cod, sardines and mussels in a tomato-based sauce, olives and pickled vegetables, chorizo and cured meats, meat and seafood croquettes, Manchego and Castilla cheeses, fried diced potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce (patates bravas) and Spanish omelette (tortilla espagnol) containing potatoes, onions and chorizo

Spanish Wines

Spain has produced fine wines, such as Rioja and Priorato, for a considerable period although, at the same time it has also produced some unremarkable products, particularly from the undistinguished Airén grape. Red (tinto), white (blanco) and rosé (rosado) wines are all produced in the country. An indication of quality can be judged from the label denominations Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva which indicate in rising order the length of time that the wine is aged in oak and the bottle before release.

Spanish vinyard

Spanish vinyards basking in the sunshine

The Ribera del Duero produces some fine reds to rival the better known but equally good Riojas of the Rioja/Navarra/Basque region. Good white Albarinos and red and white Ribeiros are produced in Galicia. Priorat is a highly regarded red from Catalunya. Traditionally, bulk wines are produced in Valencia, Murcia, Extremaduras and Castilla-La Mancha although some higher quality products have appeared in recent years.

SHERRY (Vino de Jerez) is a wine made from white Palomino grapes which is fortified with brandy at the end of the fermentation process. It is produced in the Jerez de la Frontera region of Cádiz. Sherries vary from the dry light Finos to the darker, heavier Olorosos and Amontillados.

CAVA is a sparkling white wine made using the traditional method of secondary fermentation in the bottle. It is available in various degrees of sweetness from brut (extra dry) to dulce (sweet). It is claimed that the better quality cavas rival French champagnes for quality.

Recipesort icon Description Cuisine Course Type of recipe Dietary requirements Skill level
Paella Fried Rice A quick take on a classic Spanish dish. Easily halved/doubled.
Potato and Wild Mushroom Melt A lot of ingredients but well worth the effort!
Salmon and Leek Paella Satisfying one-pot meal. Easily doubled.
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