What is Spanish Cuisine?
Hearty, fresh and honest; the food of Spain is as diverse as its culture but all equally delicious. Endless varieties of tapas from croquetas to gazpacho will keep your mouth watering while the signature dishes like Paella are without compare!
Spanish Herbs and spices
Spanish cuisine is know for its use of flavours from around the world. New world ingredients like peppers and tomatoes get used alongside herbs and seafood that has fed the Iberian peninsula for millennia.
Spain's most famous spice is almost definitely Paprika, or pimentón, it's bright red colour and delicious fruity flavour make it perfect for bringing more vibrancy to a dish. Spanish Paprika can come in a number of varieties, the main being Sweet Paprika and Smoked Paprika. They are made of the same types of mild sweet peppers but the smoked paprika is dried over large oak fires, imbibing it with a delectable smokiness which can be added to almost any meal you want to bring a smoky flavour to. Paprika is the main flavour in Spanish classics like chorizo.
The star of Spanish paella is Saffron, the world rarest spice. It's painstakingly harvested strands at a time from Crocus flowers. The price is worth it though as there really isn't anything else with that same honey sweet aroma and floral complexity.
Spanish Spice blends
One popular Spanish spice blend is sazon, a paprika based multipurpose seasoning which can evoke the flavours of Spain in a pinch. Paella blends which contain all of the essential seasonings to elevate a paella are also popular.
History and Origins
Spanish cuisine during the Roman empire was defined by the "Mediterranean triad" of wheat, olives and grapes which were used to make the bread, wine and oil which was staple food at the time. These origins persist through to today, Spain still produces more olive oil than any other country and Spanish wine is much loved across the world.
The Moorish conquest of Spain in the middle ages brought culinary influences from Arabian and Muslim origins, Paella only exists due to the popularisation of rice and the introduction of Saffron.
Following the European exploration of the Americas a vast new array of ingredients were introduced to Spain's cooks. Many ingredients we consider indispensable today were originally of American origin. Tomatoes, peppers (and of course paprika), potatoes, corn, vanilla and chocolate are all intrinsic to Spanish cuisine today. Some dishes like patatas bravas simply could not be cooked without the new world ingredients introduced during the Colombian exchange.
Modern Spanish cuisine maintained it's identity despite the hegemonic influence of French cooking on European fine dining. The aristocracy adopted many of the French standards. In the 19th century attempts were made to push back against this influence, notably the serving of a rustic traditional stew, Olla podrida, at banquets as opposed to the excessive ornamental dishes that were typically offered. This insistence on maintaining identity has helped the highly regional cuisines of Spain to flourish and expand over time.
Food Holidays and Celebrations
In much of Spain food itself is a celebration! Even day to day lunches, "La comida", can be lavish and extensive with multiple courses and multiple tapa.
La Tomatina is a raucous annual celebration in the Valencian town of Buñol with one goal, throw as many tomatoes at as many people as possible! Held on the last Wednesday of August thousands of people assemble and participate in a food fight on an industrial scale. It is estimated that over 100 tonnes of tomatoes are thrown each year. While this is a huge amount of wasted food and has attracted criticism, the organisers have said that the tomatoes that are chosen are usually of low quality or are about to go off. The popularity of the event has actually helped keep several small towns afloat following the 2008 recession.
Another celebration that demands your attention is Carnaval, the Catholic celebration before the start of Lent. Carnaval, which supposedly originated from the phrase "farewell to meat", is one last explosion of excess before the traditional period of fasting. Celebrations are highly regional with different towns having unique ways of rounding off the year. Satirical songs, mockery of public figures and news events are all common sights at Spanish Carnaval. These parades involve lavish masks and costumes which are out of this world, some festivities in Catalonia can last more than a week with daily parades and games to participate in. Of course delicious fried street food is eaten across Spain during this time!
Spanish cooking employs a wide range of techniques, many of them familiar. Many of those techniques require cooking with Olive oil, an absolute essential for hundreds of years. Roasting, searing, grilling and frying are all made more delicious with good olive oil.
Grilling is particularly common for meats and fish and is usually done over charcoal, called la parilla this technique brings that distinct char flavour to whatever you cook.
Farming and Sustainability
With almost half of Spanish land being used for Agriculture it is especially important to consider the issues effecting sustainability. There is a great diversity of soils and climates across the Iberian peninsula, from deserts to mountains. The arid conditions in the interior of the country put it at significant risk for erosion, removing the fertile soils needed for growth. Extensive chemical fertiliser use has led to Nitrogen depletion in many areas.
The European Joint Programme for soils discusses some of the issues facing Spanish agriculture and the steps being made to improve sustainability. Sustainable agricultural practices such as reduced tilling, organic fertilisation and improved nutrient and water management systems are among the suggested solutions. Spain is already the European country with the most land dedicated to organic farming, increased education and understanding will hopefully help Spain face these issues head on.
The second sourcing trip we undertook was to Murcia, Spain where we were able to learn about the history of paprika production. We partnered with a producer in Totana who's artisanal paprika blew us away. Unlike most paprika this producer uses only their own Bola americana peppers grown by their farmer cooperative. Headed up by farmer Manolo, the skill and tradition has brought so much flavour to the Paprika that it won a Guild of Fine Food Great Taste Award!
Ferran Adrià- Head Chef of the former El bulli, Adrià is a molecular gastronomist who's work has been as innovative as it has been controversial. His famous "Liquid olive" starter involved turning olive juice back into the shape and appearance of the original olive.
Joan Roca i Fontané- Head chef and owner of El Celler de Can Roca, a multiple time best restaurant in the world candidate and 3 michelin star holder. He uses modern techniques like sous vide and "perfume cooking" to find new ways of introducing texture and flavour to diners.
- Crispy Bread with Mushrooms in Sherry- Champiñones al jerez crocante de pan
- Patatas Bravas
- Lentil and Leek Croquetas with fried padron peppers
- Vegetable paella with mushrooms, kale and peas