OLE TO SPANISH CUISINE
There is one much underestimated cuisine in Europe and that is Spanish. It has yet to rise unfairly to the international appreciation levels of say France or Italy. We do not say we are going out to our local Spanish bistro or ordering a Tapas takeaway yet half of Ireland will go there on their holidays, far more than to any other continental hotspot yet they will eat very little authentic Spanish food while there. When you see the touristy menus in their resorts serving the same nosh that the annual visitors eat all year at home then it’s no wonder we do not have local Spanish eateries in every town.
However when you do make an effort to eat local and look deep into Spanish past and present gastronomy it is as rich and varied as the other big culinary hitters. The Iberian Peninsula is also as big and diverse in regional ingredients and dishes as anywhere with virtually separate distinctive cuisines in say Galicia, Catalonia and the Basque regions alone. So all told they have a lot to shout about but they just do not make as much a noise. Tapas and one pot cooking like paella of course are the first things people think of with Spanish gastronomy but it is so much more than that.
For its beginning it really took off with the Romans planting the olives trees and wines, then the Arabs bringing rice, citrus fruits, almonds, saffron and other spices from the east as well as writing their first cookery books in those turbulent Middle Ages. There were Jewish influences as well with it all adding to a ripe recipe for a tantalizing national culinary identity that shines as vibrantly as their sunny blue skies.
The Spanish themselves then took their culinary style to the colonies of central and South America as well as bringing a load of new ingredients back with them like potatoes and chocolate. Finally in modern cooking they virtually invented molecular gastronomy catapulting cooking into a space age future with a galaxy of Michelin stars to beat the band. All this trailblazing puts them right at the top of the culinary charts in my eyes. They do not have to look over the borders with envy; they have it all going swimmingly for themselves.
The never ending coastlines make seafood a speciality of course but meat and vegetables from the land are as just as important to the repertoire all making the cuisine a fun and joyous eating experience. It has a casual and informal slant but deadly serious on seasonality, freshness and simplicity. An outstanding extra ingredient you get in Spain though is the natural and vivacious hospitality that really makes you feel welcomed. They are right up there with the Irish on this front.
Dish wise their cured hams and sausages have to be among the best. Pork and lamb is done well too as is the likes of rabbit. The seafood is where they really excel in everything from the salt cod, squid, octopus, mussels and clams to their favourites of hake, tuna, anchovies and sardines. The synonymous Mediterranean medley of peppers, tomatoes, aubergines, courgette and garlic along with flavouring herbs will more than compliment any piece of meat or fish on its own or in their superb stews.
For their couple of hundred cheeses they can really boast of some of the classics in cabrales and manchego. Dessert wise they were the first on the likes of egg custards and using nuts in all forms with their natural sweet tooth. The likes of nougat, churros and a myriad of pastries, puddings, biscuits and cakes ensures you finish any meal with a flamenco flourish.
Like all countries their culinary heritage is being invaded by fast and fake food so it is under threat of being diluted more and more going forward. A new modern generation are embracing other tastes and having our own cuisine and cooking it at home is the one thing that really gives us a sense of cultural individuality, I hope Spain clings on dearly to its gastronomic heritage as it’s a magnificent manifestation of the true enjoyment of life and food. Viva Espana.