September 28th, 2011
A British made television series that saw the chef Rick Stein travel around Spain has revitalised interest in Spanish food. An enthusiastic Stein was on a voyage of discovery, trying to see if Spanish food had improved since he first ate in the country as a child. He decided it has come on in leaps and bounds. And he’s not wrong.
I’ve been known to set off on my own culinary tour of Spain and I have been fortunate enough to taste some of the best food on offer in the country.
And unlucky enough to eat some of the worst.
Let’s be honest. The best chefs are producing the finest food over the Spanish border, in France. It has been that way for years. But, thankfully, those skills have crossed over into the culinary cuisine of northern Spain.
I live in the south for the light skies and sunshine. But, without doubt, if I wanted to live in Spain primarily for good food; I would be living in the north of the country. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. And, understandably, there are some very large male stomachs in northern Spain.
So let us begin a culinary tour of Spain in the north of the country.
Well Galicia is a pretty good place to begin. Lots of visitors to Spain never go here because they have heard that it rains often. It’s true. It is not known as green Spain without good reason. But, whatever the weather, this is a beautiful part of the country. I urge you to go there.
Whether it is for the impressive and historical city of Santiago de Compostela, from where pilgrims often progress. Or to the home of my favourite Spanish white wine, Albariño. The Rias Baixas areas includes the province of Pontevedra. Fewer than 10% of the million people who live in this province reside in the city of Pontevedra itself. So there’s always plenty of elbow room.
I like this city a great deal and some of the best food I have consumed in Spain has been served to me in Pontevedra, including the very best seafood soup I have slurped anywhere in the world. And, believe me, that is saying something. Only big fish have eaten more seafood than I.
For those who, when in Spain, want to eat something akin to a Cornish pasty then you are in the right place in Galicia. Though they are popular all over the country, the Spanish Empanada is a Galician speciality. You can buy them over the counter and with a vast array of fillings.
Asturias is another great northern location in which to enjoy superb food. Earlier this year its most famous chef won a top award. José Andrés, 41, has been credited with making tapas popular in the USA. It is in that country that he now has restaurants in Washington, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. He began his culinary career as a young chef in the kitchens of the famous El Bulli restaurant.
On picking up the distinguished award from the James Beard Foundation, José said: “I feel like I am an ambassador bringing the food of Spain to America and to the world.”
Chefs are not famous for their modesty!
Across the other side of Spain, on the Costa Brava, the influence of French cooking is plain to see in cities such as Girona, a magnificent and very wealthy city that is one of my favourites in Spain. Nearby, in coastal towns such as Begur, the food on offer is a delight.
If you undid a notch or two on your belt, or wore a size 12 dress rather than a size 10; you could do worse than set off on a culinary journey between, for example, Santander south to Barcelona. En route you would eat some fantastic food.
Of course much has been made of the new breed of chefs working in Catalonia and the modern dishes they have been creating. You know the sort of thing. Meals when you can see more plate than grub!
That’s all well and good but when I go out to eat I want to know thereafter that I have indeed eaten. There are some spectacularly overpriced and overrated restaurants in Catalonia. Places where you need to send out a search party to find the food on your plate. Not for me, thank you.
Give me proper Spanish food. Hearty food in winter. Refreshing meals in summer. But I don’t wish to leave the bar or restaurant still hungry.
Elsewhere in the north of Spain there is sumptuous Spanish food to savour in locations such as La Rioja and the Basque country.
As for choice, well you are spoiled for it in Barcelona, the tourist hotspot of Catalonia. When you have seen enough Gaudi and rambled up Las Ramblas, get yourself to some of the best restaurants in Barcelona.
Ask around for advice on where you should be dining. You do not need to be going to the posh and expensive places. Indeed, I would suggest you avoid the majority of them. There is some very good Spanish food being served in Barcelona, and at affordable prices.
If you are travelling to Spain, getting good food can make all the difference to your holiday experience.
There will be many tastes you are not used to. Sure, you can self cater in Spain and cook in your rented house or apartment. But, sooner or later, you’ll get tired of cooking and you will want to go out to eat. Even if you are on holiday in some of the tourist hotspots, for example along the Costa del Sol, you will read menus on which some dishes are a mystery.
If i tell visitors to Spain to do one thing it is to be adventurous when it comes to dining out. Don’t stick with what you know. You are in Spain for pete’s sake; why do you want to eat fish and chips or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding? Let’s face it, they will never be as good as you have at home so why on earth waste money on them in Spain?
When in Spain, try some new tastes. Surely experiencing local food is part of what life is all about.
Try chorizo not a burger. Eat calamares not chips. Or compromise and eat them together. If all else fails, do as the Spanish do. Eat egg and chips but with some tasty padron peppers on the side.
Down south in Andalusia, chef Kevin Richardson has earned plaudits for the food he cooked at Mirador Cerro Gordo in La Heradura on the ever popular Costa Tropical.
Now Kevin is moving on. He has taken over a small hotel and restaurant further west along the coast in the direction of Malaga, a city that is worth staying in for the food alone. I have no doubt that Kevin will bring his own brand of quality cooking to The Avalon in Nerja. As ever, he will be trying to encourage customers to test their tastebuds.
Kevin agrees with me regarding the north-south divide when it comes to culinary Spain. He told me: “Andalusia is simply not cuisine orientated. Here any chef has his work cut out to entice customers to try something new. They know what they like and they don’t like change. We have had many Spanish customers over the years who never ask to see the menu. They have the same thing every time. In one way, that is a compliment. But the food they ask for is the food they have ate all their lives.
“Many restaurant owners have the same approach. They are resting on their laurels. They say: ‘This is the way we have always done it, and this is the way we will always do it'; “that’s what i hear so often.”
That is not to say that you cannot find fine food in the south of Spain. Of course you can.
Sit outside a restaurant in the wonderful El Puerto de Santa Maria and eat the freshest of seafood. This is one of those locations in Spain where more people should holiday and experience local life. So much is on your doorstep and so many places can be easily reached by ferry or road.
Travel a short distance and eat the very best king prawns with salt in one of the great restaurants of Cadiz, a grand city by the great beaches of the Costa de la Luz.
Spend a weekend or longer in the oh so smart Jerez de la Frontera. Have a memorable Spanish meal washed down with some locally produced sherry.
Sit in the main square of Sanlúcar de Barrameda and sample some terrific tapas. And talking of tapas, then Seville and Granada serve the best down south.
In Granada, a city that has to be experienced in full, you will be served free tapas with your drinks. Saturday is a great day to sample this enigmatic city and its atmospheric bars.
For those with a bigger appetite, one of my favourite meals at a certain Granada bar is steak served with green peppers and salt. The latter is one of the oldest tricks in catering. Serve your customers salty nuts or put sea salt on their food and they are sure to order more drinks.
But the Spanish love salt on their food. Sometimes chefs and cooks use way too much in the preparation of food.
I once ate a paella the main ingredient of which seemed to be salt. I was drinking water for a week afterwards.
Garlic is universally popular and, of course, many a meal will come to you swimming in olive oil. If you don’t like garlic or olive oil, and you are dining in southern Spain; you had better make sure you tell the waiter five times that you don’t want your meal covered in either or both.
One of the most fantastic and filling culinary experiences I had down south was on my first ever visit to El Tintero restaurant on the seafront at El Palo, just outside of Malaga. The original restaurant (there is now more than one) is famous for its atmosphere and for its fish. You can see the food being grilled prior to the busy waiters walking around carrying the food and shouting out the name of the fish they are offering.
You simply ask for whichever dishes catch your eye and that’s that. All plates and glasses of drinks are left on your table. At the end of your meal the quantity and size of both are added up and the total of your bill will be written on your, by now, messy tablecloth. Years ago the restaurant did have some tables and chairs actually on the beach. But a few mean diners buried plates and glasses in the sand so as to avoid payment.
I ate so much fish that day I could have swam back home. I was greedy. But dining in Spain – be you in the south, in the middle of the country or up’t north – is meant to be a leisurely experience. Lunches should take no less than two and a half hours.
Come occasional rain, or come shine, eating out in Spain should be a highlight of your time in the country.
So take your time over it.