“Spain is rich in honeys, abundant in fruits, teaming with fish, well provided with milk… filled with deer and hunt, covered with cattle, merry with good wine, happy with an abundance of bread and sugar…well stocked with oil and fragrant with saffron.”King Alfonso “The Wise.”
This could easily be right from a recently published travel guide promoting Spain and its incredible cuisine, but it’s not. It’s just a bit older, coming from the ruler of Spain during the thirteenth century. It’s a beautiful picture of Spanish cuisine at the time, albeit from a royal’s banquet table. Spanish cuisine and its embrace of the ingredients that earlier conquests had introduced, had helped to enrich the cuisines of Europe. But the Spanish conquistadors of the 16th century took it to a whole other level with the foods they returned with from the New World like tomatoes, corn, peppers, and turkey.
Spanish cooking generally depends on basic, down-to-earth ingredients. Its flavors are dominated by the fresh ingredients from its long coastline and mountainous, arid, and fertile farmland. Every region has developed its own unique cuisine around what is grown locally and its rich history of invaders and conquests. Spanish national cuisine can be represented by a few prominent foods:
- Olive oil – Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world and it is far-and-away the dominate oil used in cooking, marinades, and with salads and vegetables.
- Garlic – There a very few dishes in Spain that don’t include garlic in some form, except maybe desserts.
- Pimenton (Spanish paprika) – Spanish monks took the red peppers brought back from the New World, dried them over oak fires, and finely ground them to create the bright red paprika found in many Spanish dishes.
- Chorizo – This dried pork sausage existed in Spain during Roman times and became the red sausage synonymous with Spain after Paprika was added. Chorizo has given birth to many different variations from Portugal to Brazil to Mexico to Argentina.
- Jamon – There is nothing more Spanish than Jamon Serrano or Jamon Iberica. Both come from the front shoulder of pigs raised in the Pyrenees. Jamon Iberica are fed only acorns which, it is said, imparts a nutty flavor to the meat.
- Eggs – Eggs can be found in many Spanish dishes – from tapas to desserts – and in pretty much any form including raw (Aioli), baked (tortillas, cakes and flans), hard boiled (tapas and sauces), fried (on top of steak), hard boiled (in paella), etc. Suffice it to say, the Spanish like their eggs as much as they like their garlic.
- Saffron – Although the world’s most expensive spice, saffron adds both a delicate but recognizable scent and color to many rice dishes, especially paella.
Spanish cuisine has been molded over the centuries by the availability of ingredients. As a gateway between Europe and Africa as well as the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, Spain has been fought over by some of the greatest empires in history. The foods, techniques, and technologies left behind have helped to redefine Spanish gastronomy several times over. The most influential invaders are a who’s-who of invaders, starting with the Greeks and Celts in the 8th century BC. The Greeks introduced olives, olive oil, and wine making to the coast while the Celts introduced fish and meat pies to the interior. The Romans followed in the 2nd century BC, introducing irrigation and harvesting technologies as well as Italian and Jewish cooking techniques, mushroom gathering, and advanced viticulture. Next up, the Muslim Moors in the 8th century AD, coming from northern Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar. The Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal, too) introduced new ingredients from other parts of the world like Persia and India, such as rice, sugar, honey, saffron, cinnamon and nutmeg, spinach and eggplant, lemons, oranges, and almonds.
By the 15th century AD, after being occupied by everyone else for centuries, the Spaniards kicked everyone out and sailed the seas in search of others to conquer for themselves. From a culinary standpoint, they hit the motherload upon finding the New World, especially Mexico. They returned to Spain with new foods like tomatoes, potatoes, beans, corn, peppers, chocolate and vanilla that, when combined with existing foods, created the basis for the exciting Spanish cuisine we know today. When the Spaniard’s creativity, flair, and fierce regional pride meets the foods history left behind, you end up with the unique and exciting Spanish cuisine we know today.
Notable Spanish Dishes – Gambas al Ajillo (Garlic Shrimp Tapas), Pan con Tomate (toasted bread rubbed with fresh garlic and tomato), Jamón Ibérico or Serrano (dry-cured ham) Gazpacho Andaluz (Cold Tomato Soup), Pollo Pitoria (chicken in egg, almond, and sherry), Albondigas (lamb meatballs in brandy sauce), Chuletas de Cerdo a la Madrilena (Pork Chops), Paella Valencia (rice with mixed seafood), Espinacas a la Catalan (spinach with pine nuts and raisins), Tortilla a la Gallega (potato, chorizo, and pimento omelet), Tarta de Santiago (flourless almond cake?), Flan (baked caramel custard).