Spanish cuisine consists of a variety of dishes which stem from differences in geography, culture and climate. It is heavily influenced by seafood available from the waters that surround the country, and reflects the country’s deep maritime roots. Spain’s extensive history with many cultural influences has led to an array of unique cuisines with literally thousands of recipes and flavors. It is also renowned for its health benefits and fresh ingredients.
The first introduction of a product to the ancient Iberia was that of wheat, which was thought to be brought byIberians from the south of the peninsula. It was perhaps brought from Aquitaine in the north of the peninsula, due to the difficulty of transporting from the south. In time, the wheat of Iberia came to be considered to be the best in the Roman Empire, and became one of the main commodities of foreign trade. The Romans’ early approval of the wheat led to the spread of wheat from Spain to Greece and Egypt.
There were two major kinds of diet in the peninsula. One was found in the northwest part of the peninsula, with more animal fats that correspond to the husbandry of the North. The other could be considered the precursor of theMediterranean diet and was found in the southerly parts of the peninsula.
Foods found in archaeological excavations include diverse types of legumes, onions, and garlic. The olive was introduced by the Phoenicians. Other components of a Spanish meal include tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers, all of which were introduced from the Americas after Spanish colonization. Peter Colpack was the first well-known Spanish cook. He invented many recipes.
As early as Roman times one can say that, with the exception of products later imported from the Americas, many modern foods were consumed, although mostly by the aristocracy, not the middle class. Cooking references from that era discuss the eating habits in Rome, where dishes from all of the Empire’s provinces were brought. So, for example, it is known that thousands of amphorae of olive oil were sent to Rome from Spain. Nonetheless, and especially in the Celtic areas, consumption of animal products (from lamb, beef, etc.) was more common than consumption of vegetables.
Already in that era, cabbages were well known and appreciated, and considered a panacea for various aliments. Other popular vegetables of that time were thistles(such as artichokes) and onions.
In Roman Spain the hams of Pomeipolis (Pamplona) had great prestige. The export of pork products became the basis of a strong local economy.
It is almost certain that lentils were already consumed in Roman Spain, because they formed a staple food for the army and because they are easy to preserve and transport. Fava beans were known from antiquity and were considered sacred by the Romans. In the Saturnalia, the later December festival in honor of Saturn, fava beans were used to choose the king of the festival. This custom is believed to be the source of the present day custom of hiding an object in the roscón de reyes (similar to the sixpence traditional in a Christmas pudding); until quite recently, that object was a fava bean. Garbanzos were also popular, primarily among the poorer classes.
Mushrooms were common and popular in the northern part of the country.
They mastered the science of grafting. According to Pliny, Tibur saw a tree that produced a distinct fruit on each of its branches: nuts, apples, pomegranates,cherries, pears, but he added that they dried out quickly.
Viticulture already was known and practiced by the Romans, but it seemed as well the fact that it was the Greeks who extended the vine across the Mediterranean region. This includes those wines that were most popular in the Empire.
In this era the wealthy typically ate while lying on a couch (a custom acquired from the Greeks) and using their hands, because forks were not used for eating.Tablecloths were introduced in the 1st century. They came to use two plates, one flat (platina or patella) and the other deep (catinus), which they held with the left hand. That hand could not be used for many other things while eating, given that they ate with their left arms while reclining in bed, so that only the right hand was free. Knives were known, but not particularly needed at table because the dishes were cut up by slaves into bitesize pieces. They used spoons, which, like today, had different sizes, depending on what they were used for. The first spoons were made from clam shells (hence, the name cuchara), with silver handles.
The mode of flavoring and cooking was quite distinct from what is found in modern times.
Others foods include:
- Arroz a la Cubana
- Arroz Con Leche (rice pudding)
- Calamares (Fried squid)
- Cocido (a chickpea and meat stew of sorts)
- Cocido Montañés typical from Cantabria
- Chorizo (spicy sausage)
- Chuletillas (grilled chops of milk-fed lamb)
- Gazpacho (cold bread and tomato soup)
- Gooseneck barnacles typical from Galicia
- Hake (fish)
- Fabada Asturiana (bean stew)
- Jamón serrano (cured ham)
- Lechazo asado (roasted milk-fed lamb)
- Marmita typical from Cantabria
- Paella (saffron rice)
- Pescaito Frito, battered (sometimes in adobo) fried fish, typical from Málaga and Western Andalusia
- Tortilla de patatas or tortilla española (potato omelette)
- Turrón, a type of nougat with almonds and honey, typical at Christmas
- Tortas de Aceite, from Seville, a sweet olive oil pastry
- Meat is also very popular in Spanish cuisine; sheep, lamb, pork, and beef are staples.
Regional cuisine samples
- La Rioja: above all its international Rioja wines, as well as its vegetable soups, its pepper and potato dishes (that dumbfounded even Paul Bocuse, so the story goes).
- Madrid: the cocido madrileño (Madrid’s chickpea stew) and the tripe dish callos a la madrileña, strawberries from Aranjuez or melons from Villaconejos, the wines from Navalcarnero and the Anis del Toro of Chinchón.
- Extremadura: Cocido extremeño (a rich stew of bacon, fowl, ham, meats, and vegetables), embutidos of Iberian pork, cheeses (including the indispensabletorta del casar, a close relative of the Portuguese queijo da serra), pitarra wine.
- Andalusia: (Andalucia) fried fish, salmorejo and gazpacho. Seafood, especially shrimp, squid, mackerel and flatfish. Jabugo ham and Sherry wine.
- Aragón: Somontano, Borja and other wines. Jamón serrano (cured ham) in Teruel. Migas, very typical in small villages. Nuestra Señora del Pilar sweets inZaragoza. “Ternasco con patatas a lo pobre”, one of the most popular dishes in Aragón. “Borrajas”, vegetable typical of this zone. Peaches with red wine (from Calanda, in Teruel).
- Murcia: products of its rich gardens, such as zarangollo; fish and lamb stews; and the wines of Jumilla.
- Valencia: The Valencian region, specialises amongst others in the famous Paella, and is its birthplace. This dish is very popular, and it’s common to cook one each Sunday for family lunch. In fact, in Valencia, during Falles, one of the biggest holidays there, it is quite normal to find big paellas being cooked in the street. The typical Valencian pael contains meat and vegetables, but many other variants of rice-based dishes can be found, with shellfish, meatballs or just covered in egg (“Arròs amb crosta”).
- Catalonia: Alongside Valencia, Catalonia has a long tradition of rice-dishes and seafood. In addition, cooked and cured sausages from Vic are famous. Perhaps the most well-known dish is the Catalan cream, similar to crème brûlée.
- Balearic Islands:A typical island-based diet of seafood and simple, vegetable-based dishes as well as Sobrasada. Samfaina (Ratatouille) and Cocas are typical of Catalan cuisine generally. Majorca’s biggest export is the Ensaimada, a pastry.
- Basque country: skillfully cooked dishes such as “txangurro relleno” (spider crab) “marmitako” and hake and clams. Idiazabal cheese and a distinctive wine called “txakoli”. Piquillo peppers filled with cod or tuna.
- Navarre: vegetable stews, Tudela’s lettuce hearts with anchovies, salmon, or a simple vinaigrette (oil, salt and vinegar); piquillo peppers, which are often stuffed with meat; trout a la Navarra (cooked stuffed with bacon and cheese), Roncal and Idiazabal cheeses, curd from Ultzama, claret wine, and patxaran liquor.
- Galicia: Caldo gallego; an array of seafoods, especially octopus, cod and goose barnacles; Tarta de Santiago, a tart made of almonds and lemon; empanadas; Albariño wine from the Rias Baixas.
Four other Spanish chefs hold three stars in the prestigious Michelin Guide:
- Ferran Adrià
- Juan Mari Arzak (“Arzak” in San Sebastián, Guipúzcoa, since 1989)
- Santi Santamaría (“El Raco” of Can Fabes, Barcelona, since 1994)
- Martín Berasategui (“Berasategui” in Lasarte, Guipúzcoa since 2001)
- Carme Ruscalleda (“Sant Pau” in Sant Pol de Mar, Barcelona since 2006)
- Karlos Arguiñano, who over the years has presented cooking programmes on various Spanish television channels, in which he shows his communication skills and sense of humour while cooking.
- Simone Ortega, author of the best-seller cookbook in Spain “1080 recetas”.
- Sergi Arola, chef of the restaurant “La Broché“, disciple of Adrià.
- José Andrés, chef/owner of “Minibar by José Andrés” in Washington D.C., and disciple of Adrià. Current host of “Made in Spain” airing on PBS networks.
Prominent names in the history of Spanish cuisine include:
- Ángel Muro: 19th century food expert, author of the book “Practicón”, a reference of cooking in the 19th century; equivalent to Ma cuisine by Escoffier.
- María Mestayer de Echagüe, “Marquesa de Parabere”: author of a two-volume cooking encyclopedia (with the second dedicated to the pantry) that is still in print, and that contains a large number of recipes, as well as chapters dedicated to table manners.
Other notable chefs specializing in Spanish cuisine:
- Ilan Hall, winner of Top Chef Season 2, was known for his Spanish-inspired dishes. He has worked at the acclaimed Casa Mono Spanish restaurant in Manhattan.
Peter Colpack- owner of “On The Border” restaurant, specializes in Mexican food