Spain is famous for the quality of its food. Food is very important to the Spanish, and because fresh produce is readily available it is easy to achieve fine, rich flavours. Garlic and olives are favourite ingredients. Flavoured cheeses, cured hams, and sausages are a Spanish speciality. Between breakfast and lunch, many people have a snack called almuerzo, which usually consists of a bocadillo - a crusty roll with perhaps a ham or cheese filling. Lunch is the main meal of the day in, served much later than in other European countries at about 2.30pm, sometimes with a few glasses of wine. Businesses and shops usually close for a few of hours to allow the siesta to take place. Evening meals are light and eaten later still at 10pm. Before dinner, people are likely to have a drink and eat tapas, a selection of light snacks and sweetmeats served in all bars and restaurants to accompany early evening drinks.
Eating out in Spain is very affordable. Restaurants are graded in five categories of excellence, indicated by forks. A five-fork restaurant is the absolute best and highly recommended.
Spanish food is traditional and varied and differs greatly from region to region. In the North the fish and sea food from Galicia are a speciality. Valencia excels in rice dishes, which are delicious when served with a traditional tasty chilli or marinade sauce from the Pyrenees. In the Balearic islands many delicacies are made, not least the special sweet pastries from Mallorca and the spicy sausages and cured hams.
Spains most famous meal is paella, and it has many variations. Seafood, snails, rabbit, or poultry can be chosen as the base ingredient for this dish, and this is then fried in a big pan with onions, peppers, and olive oil and served with saffron rice and lots of finely chopped herbs and vegetables.
Andalucia has more tapas bars than anywhere else in Spain. Rumour has it that this custom began here when a generous bar owner overlaid each drink he served with a slice of cheese or ham. Others say tapas was invented as a means to make your drink last longer. As dinner is eaten late, tapas makes a useful snack and is still regarded as informal, street-style food, although it is also served in high-class restaurants.
Tapas can range from traditional hams or mussels on cocktail sticks to carefully stuffed anchovy olives or octopus. The variety is amazing, but what makes tapas a real delight is the dips and sauces that accompany each mouthful. Toast rubbed with garlic, topped with tuna and roasted peppers and dripping with olive oil is just one example. Alternatively, you might have a piece of nutty Manchego cheese or baby-octopus, dipped in bean oil with chilli.
The best thing about preparing tapas is that it is so easy
and quick. For example, vegetables can be chopped and covered in mayonnaise,
spiced oil, or marinade sauces. Thin slices of ham and chunks of cheese
can be served with dried bread or biscuits.
Spain is one of the largest wine producers in the world, and three million tonnes of grapes are bottled each year. Rioja wine is the most famous of all its varieties. This comes from the northern Rioja region which boasts 129,050 acres of vineyards. The climate and soil in this area are perfect for grapes. Tempranillo grapes are the most common Rioja type. They ripen early on in the season, hence their name from temprano, meaning early. They have a high-sugar/low acidic content and so combine well with other varieties.
Quality Rioja wines have a common feature: they are aged in oak casks for several years before they are ready for bottling. The oak wood is always American because it has small pores and lets in less air. This means the wine develops slowly and more smoothly and acquires the flavours it is famous for.
Photo courtesy of the Spanish Tourist Office