the cuisines and foods of Spain
Spanish cuisine is heavily influenced by historical processes that shaped local culture and society in some of Europe’s Iberian Peninsula territories.
- 1. GEOGRAPHIC SETTING AND ENVIRONMENT
- 2. HISTORY AND FOOD
- 3. FOODS OF THE SPANIARDS
- 4. FOOD FOR RELIGIOUS AND HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS
- 5. MEALTIME CUSTOMS
- 5.1 Chocolate a la Española (Spanish Hot Chocolate)
- 5.2 Churros
- 5.2 Tapa: Crema de Cabrales (Blue Cheese, Apple, and Walnut Spread)
- 5.3 Tapa: Tartaletas de Champiñón (Mushroom Tartlets)
- 5.4 Tapa: Aceitunas Aliñadas (Marinated Olives)
- 6. POLITICS, ECONOMICS, AND NUTRITION
- 7. FURTHER STUDY
1. GEOGRAPHIC SETTING AND ENVIRONMENT
With Portugal, Spain makes up the Iberian Peninsula, or Iberia. Iberia is separated from the rest of Europe by the Pyrenees Mountains, which rise to a height of 11,168 feet (3,404 meters). The peninsula is bordered by the waters of the Mediterranean Sea on the east, the Strait of Gibraltar on the south, the Atlantic Ocean on the west, and the Bay of Biscay on the northwest. Spain’s miles of coastline (more than any other European country) provide it with bountiful seafood and fish. Spain is also a close neighbor to Africa. Morocco lies only a short distance—eight miles (thirteen kilometers)—across the Strait of Gibraltar from the southern tip of Spain.
Rich soils in interior valleys yield a variety of cultivated vegetables, while the country’s arid (dry) climate provides excellent growing conditions for grapes and olives. The high plateaus and mountainsides of the interior are grazing grounds for sheep and cattle.
2. HISTORY AND FOOD
As a gateway between Europe and Africa, and the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, Spain has been much fought over throughout history. The Greeks settled its coastal areas as early as the eighth century B.C. , while Celts occupied interior regions. By the second century B.C. , Spain was under Roman domination. In the early eighth century A.D. , the Moors (Arabs from northern Africa) crossed Gibraltar and entered Spain, occupying it for the next 700 years before Christian kingdoms drove them out.
This long history of invasion is still evident in Spain’s cuisine. Olives, olive oil, and wine tie it closely to Greek and Roman (Italian) culture. Meat and fish pies show the Celtic heritage. The Moorish influence
is seen in the use of honey, almonds, citrus fruits, and spices, such as cumin and saffron (a yellow spice).
A leader in exploration and colonization, powerful Spain was among the first nations in Europe to discover the treasures of the New World. Beginning in the late 1400s, explorers returned from voyages across the Atlantic Ocean carrying such exotic new foods as tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, corn, peppers, chocolate, and vanilla—all native to the Americas. These foods were slowly joined with the Spanish diet.
3. FOODS OF THE SPANIARDS
Spain’s culinary traditions rely on an abundance of locally grown vegetables and fruits as well as meats and poultry. Jamón serrano , a cured ham, and chorizo , a seasoned sausage, are popular. Seafood and fish are popular in coastal areas. Other popular foods are cheeses, eggs, beans, rice, nuts (especially almonds), and bread (a crusty white bread, baked fresh daily, is common). Olive oil and garlic are common ingredients. Spain is also known for its wines, including the rioja , made in the northern province; sherry, a fortified wine that may be dry or sweet; and sangria, wine mixed with fruit and soda water.
The best-known Spanish dish, a stew called paella (pie-AY-ah), originated in Valencia, an eastern province on the Mediterranean Sea. Rice, a main ingredient, is grown in Valencia’s tidal flatlands. Though there are numerous variations, paella is usually made of a variety of shellfish (such as shrimp, clams, crab, and lobster), chorizo (sausage), vegetables (tomatoes, peas, and asparagus), chicken and/or rabbit, and long-grained rice. Broth, onion, garlic, wine, pimiento (sweet red pepper), and saffron add flavor to the stew.
Every region has its own distinct cuisine and specialties. Gazpacho, a cold tomato soup, comes from Andalucía in southern Spain. Traditionally, a special bowl called a dornillo, was used to pound the ingredients by hand, but modern Spanish cooks use a blender. Andalusians also enjoy freidurías (fish, such as sole or anchovies, fried in batter). Cataluña (Catalonia), in northeastern Spain, is known for its inventive dishes combining seafood, meat, poultry, and local fruits.
In the northern Basque country (país Vasco), fish is important to the diet, with cod, eel, and squid featured prominently. The signature dish of Asturias, in northwestern Spain, is fabada, a bean stew. In the interior regions, such as Castilla, meats play a starring role. Tortilla española, a potato omelet, is served throughout the country. It can be prepared quickly and makes a hearty but simple dinner. Spain’s best-known dessert is flan, a rich custard.
3.1 Gazpacho (Cold Tomato Soup)
- 1½ pounds (6 large) fresh tomatoes in season, or 28-ounce can of whole tomatoes (with liquid)
- 1 medium green pepper, washed and cut into pieces
- 1 small white onion, peeled and cut into pieces
- 1 large cucumber, peeled and cut into pieces
- 4 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
- ¼ teaspoon tarragon
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled
- ½ cup cold water (if using fresh tomatoes)
Optional garnish: crouton, diced cucumber, diced avocado
- Place ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until almost smooth.
- Transfer to a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and chill at least 2 hours or overnight.
- Serve in small bowls. May be topped with croutons, diced cucumber, and diced avocado. Served with bread, gazpacho makes an excellent summer meal or first course.
3.2 Tortilla Española (Spanish Omelet)
- ⅓ cup olive oil
- 4 large potatoes, peeled and cut into ⅛-inch slices
- 1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced
- 4 eggs
- Heat 3 Tablespoons of olive oil in a non-stick skillet; add potato slices and onions.
- Cook slowly, occasionally turning potatoes until they are tender but not brown. Remove from heat and set aside.
- In a medium mixing bowl, beat the eggs and add potato-onion mixture; add a sprinkle of salt.
- Return skillet to the stove, add the rest of the olive oil and turn heat to medium-high.
- Wait 1 minute for the oil to become hot. (Be careful not to let it splatter.)
- Pour potato and egg mixture into the skillet, spreading it evenly with a spatula. Lower heat to medium.
- Cook until the bottom is light brown (lift the edge of the omelet with a spatula.)
- Carefully place a large dinner plate on top of the pan, and turn it upside down (so that the omelet falls onto the plate).
- Slide the omelet (the uncooked side will be down) back into the skillet. Cook until the other side is brown.
- To serve, cut into wedges.
3.3 Flan (Custard)
- 1¼ cups sugar
- 3½ cups milk
- 6 eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- ¼ teaspoon lemon rind, grated
- Preheat oven to 325°F.
- In a saucepan, heat ½ cup of the sugar over low heat, stirring frequently until the sugar melts completely and turns amber (golden).
- Pour it into a 1½ quart (6-cup) ring mold, tilting the mold in all directions to evenly coat the bottom and sides. Set aside.
- Break the 6 eggs into a mixing bowl.
- Separate the remaining 2 eggs. To separate the yolk from the white, break the egg over a small bowl or cup and allow the whites to drip out of the shell halves, then transfer the yolk back and forth between the 2 halves until all of the egg’s whites have dripped into the bowl.
- Place the egg yolks into a separate bowl. and keep yolks. (The whites may be discarded or used for another purpose). Add the 2 egg yolks to the other 6 eggs.
- Beat eggs until blended. Add the rest of the sugar and the grated lemon rind; beat again. Set aside.
- Measure the milk into a saucepan and warm it over medium heat, but do not allow it to boil.
- Gradually stir the heated milk into the beaten eggs and sugar.
- Pour the mixture into the ring mold. Place mold in a larger pan with about one-inch of hot water in it. Transfer to oven.
- Bake for 1 hour. Flan is done when a knife inserted into the custard comes out clean.
- Remove from oven and allow to cool. When cool, chill in refrigerator.
- To serve, run a knife around the sides of the mold (to loosen the custard).
- Put a large plate on top of the mold and carefully turn the mold onto the plate; the custard should gently slide out. Lift off the mold.
Serves 6 to 8.
4. FOOD FOR RELIGIOUS AND HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS
To bring good luck in the year ahead, Spaniards traditionally eat twelve grapes, one with each chime of the clock at midnight on New Year’s Eve. On February 3, St. Blaise’s Day ( Día de San Blas ) is celebrated by baking small loaves of bread, called panecillos del santo, which are blessed at Mass in the Roman Catholic church. According to tradition, all the children in the household are to eat a bit of this bread to protect them from choking in the year ahead.
The Christmas season officially begins on December 24, called Nochebuena (the “good night”). It is marked by a special family dinner. A typical menu includes onion and almond soup; baked fish (cod or porgy); roasted meat (such as turkey); and red cabbage and apples (or another vegetable dish). Dessert may include flan and a variety of fruits, cheeses, and sweets—especially turrón (almond and honey candies) and mazapanes (or marzipan, a glazed concoction of almonds and sugar) which are sometimes shaped like coiled snakes to signify the end of one year and the beginning of the next.
After this festive dinner, it is tradition to attend church. Christmas ends with the festivities of Three Kings Day, or Día de los Tres Reyes.
On January 5, parades are held to welcome the arrival of Baltasar, Gaspar, and Melchior who arrive that night to bring gifts to children. (Baltasar, Gaspar, and Melchior were the “Three Wise Men” who, according to the Christmas story, brought gifts to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.) The next day, January 6, the traditional Roscón de Reyes (a sweet bread) is baked and enjoyed. A small surprise, such as a coin, is baked into the cake and the person who finds it in his piece is believed to enjoy good luck in the year ahead.
4.1 Mazapanes (Marzipan or Almond Candies)
Ingredients for candy
- ½ pound almonds
- 1 cup sugar
- 4 Tablespoons water
- Powdered sugar
- In a food processor or blender, grind the nuts on high speed to form a paste.
- Add the sugar and beat again.
- Gradually add water and continue beating to form shapeable dough.
- Dust a clean, flat surface (such as the counter) with powdered sugar.
- If the dough cracks and is too dry to work with, lemon juice may be added, drop by drop, until the dough is easier to work with.
- Pinch off pieces of the dough. Working on the surface dusted with powdered sugar, roll the pieces of dough to make short pencils, about 4 inches long.
- Join the ends to make rings. Place on a cookie sheet.
- Leave uncovered in a dry place overnight to harden.
Makes about 50 candies.
Ingredients for glaze
- ½ cup powdered sugar
- 1 egg white
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- To separate the egg yolk from the white, break the egg over a bowl and allow the whites to drip out of the shell halves, then transfer the yolk back and forth between the two halves until all of the egg’s white has dripped into the bowl. Discard the egg yolk.
- Using a mixer, beat the powdered sugar with the egg white until mixture is creamy and thick.
- Add the lemon juice; beat 5 minutes.
- Dip the top of each marzipan candy into the glaze and return the candy to the cookie sheet.
- When the glaze hardens, the marzipan candies are ready to eat.
5. MEALTIME CUSTOMS
Daily meals in Spain begin with a light breakfast ( desayuno ) at about 8 a.m. Next comes a three-course lunch (comida ), the main meal of the day. Families gather to eat it in the mid-afternoon (about 2 p.m.). At about 10 p.m. supper ( cena ), a lighter meal, is served. In addition, bollos (small rolls) may be eaten in the late morning; the merienda , a snack of tea or Chocolate a la España (Spanish-style hot chocolate) and pastries may be enjoyed in the early evening (about 5 p.m.); and tapas , traditional Spanish appetizers, are consumed around 8 p.m., before supper.
Though American fast-food restaurants have opened in Spain’s cities, traditional “food-to-go” includes churros , sugary fritters sold at street stands; and bocadillos , sandwiches typically made of a cured ham ( jamón serrano) or other meat and cheese. Bocadillos may be found in the school-child’s lunch box, as might a wedge of a cold Tortilla Española (Spanish omelet), fresh fruit, and cheese.
The tradition of tapas, now enjoyed in many U.S. restaurants, originated with the practice of bartenders covering a glass of wine or beer with a small plate of free appetizers ( tapa means “cover”). The great variety of tapas enjoyed today are testimony to their popularity. They may be as simple as a slice of fresh bread with tuna, as extravagant as caracoles a la madrileña (snails, Madrid style), or as comforting as an empanadilla , a mini meat pie. Invariably they are accompanied by lively conversation, a hallmark of Spanish daily life.
5.1 Chocolate a la Española (Spanish Hot Chocolate)
- ½ pound sweet baker’s chocolate
- 4 cups milk (2% okay)
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- Chop sweet chocolate into small pieces. Place in a small saucepan.
- Add milk to chocolate in saucepan, and heat over low heat, stirring constantly with a wire whisk, until the mixture just begins to boil
- Remove from heat. Dissolve cornstarch in a little cold water in a cup.
- Add cornstarch solution to chocolate mixture. Return to low heat, and, stirring constantly, cook until the hot chocolate thickens. Serve hot.
- 2 cups water
- 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 cups flour
- Vegetable oil (for frying)
- ¼ cup sugar
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
- In a medium saucepan, combine water, 1 Tablespoon oil, and salt. Bring to a boil.
- Add the flour and immediately turn heat to low; stir constantly until a ball of dough forms. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
- When dough can be handled, place it in a pastry bag or cake decorator with a fluted tip; press the dough into 4-inch strips that are about 3/8 of an inch in diameter.
- In a skillet, heat vegetable oil (about ½-inch deep) until very hot.
- Reduce heat to medium and fry the churros until they begin to turn golden brown, about 2 minutes, on each side (turn them once while frying).
- Cook only a few at a time, to keep an eye on them.
- As churros are done frying, remove them from the pan and place on paper towels to drain.
- Roll warm churros in sugar (mixed with cinnamon, if desired). Serve.
Makes about 30 fritters.
5.2 Tapa: Crema de Cabrales (Blue Cheese, Apple, and Walnut Spread)
- ¼ pound blue cheese (the Spanish variety is cabrales, but gorgonzola or roquefort may be used)
- 2 teaspoons raisins
- 1 Tablespoon white grape juice or cider
- 1 Tablespoon cream
- 2 Tablespoons apple, finely chopped (about half a peeled apple)
- 2 Tablespoons walnuts, finely chopped
- ⅛ teaspoon dried thyme
- Remove blue cheese from refrigerator and allow it to come to room temperature (let it sit on the counter for an hour or more).
- Soak the raisins in the fruit juice for 20 minutes.
- Using a spoon, remove the raisins from the juice and set aside.
- When the cheese has reached room temperature, place it in a small mixing bowl.
- Add the cream and fruit juice.
- Using a fork or wooden spoon, combine ingredients until smooth.
- Stir in raisins, apple, walnuts, and thyme.
- Serve with crackers.
5.3 Tapa: Tartaletas de Champiñón (Mushroom Tartlets)
- 5 Tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- ½ teaspoon dried parsley flakes
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- ¼ pound (8 to 10) mushrooms, washed, drained, stems removed, and finely chopped
- 20 miniature tartlet shells or toast triangles (tartlets are available at supermarkets)
- Salt and pepper
- In a medium bowl, mix together the mayonnaise, garlic, parsley, and lemon juice.
- Stir in the mushrooms, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate mixture for 1 hour.
- Fill the tartlet shells with the mushroom mixture and serve immediately. (If using toast triangles instead, proceed to steps 4 and 5.)
- To prepare toast triangles, remove crusts from 5 pieces of good quality bread thin-sliced bread. Toast them in a toaster; cut each piece into four triangles by cutting an X across each slice of bread.
- Then, using a slotted spoon, put a spoonful of the mushroom mixture onto each triangle and serve immediately.
Makes 20 tartlets.
5.4 Tapa: Aceitunas Aliñadas (Marinated Olives)
- Large empty jar, with a lid
- 14-ounce can pitted black olives, with their liquid
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
- Slice of lemon or ½ teaspoon lemon juice
- Combine all ingredients (including the liquid from the olives) in the jar.
- Refrigerate several days and up to a few weeks.
- The longer the olives marinate, the more flavorful they become.
- To serve, use a fork or slotted spoon to remove the olives from the marinade and place them in a small bowl.
6. POLITICS, ECONOMICS, AND NUTRITION
The Spanish economy is strong. Spain was one of the countries that joined the European Monetary Union in 1999, and the country adopted the European currency, the euro. Nearly all Spanish children receive adequate nutrition.
In the late 1990s, concerns about mad cow disease, which was affecting cattle in the United Kingdom, caused all Europeans to be more cautious about eating beef. The market for Spanish sheep and hogs strengthened slightly, as Spanish cooks decided to cook more lamb, mutton, and pork.
7. FURTHER STUDY
Casas, Penelope. The Foods and Wines of Spain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982. (A complete cookbook of Spain’s traditional foods. Most recipes are quite involved, but many are preceded by the author’s notes on the dish and its origins.)
Goodwin, Bob, and Candi Perez. A Taste of Spain. New York: Thomson Learning, 1995.
Mendel, Janet. Cooking in Spain. London, Eng.: Garnet Publications Ltd., 1997. (Recipes and background information on Spain’s cuisine)
Sterling, Richard, and Allison Jones. Lonely Planet World Food: Spain. Victoria, Australia: Lonely Planet Publications, 2000.
7.2 Web Sites
Spanish Gourmet. [Online] Available http://www.spanish-gourmet.com/ (accessed July 19, 2001).
Tienda. [Online] Available http://www.tienda.com (accessed August 17, 2001). (Tienda is a Virginia-based company selling food products from Spain; its web site also offers recipes).