Sunday, 6 April 2008

A Cook's Tour Of Spanish Regional Cuisine

When I reviewed the TV series "A Cook's Tour Of Spain" the other week, I said I'd post a compact guide to the regional cuisines of Spain. I hope this information, collated from various sources in addition to my own knowledge of Spanish regional cuisine, will be of interest to you.

Spanish autonomous communities and citiesAs with many other countries, to really understand the food of Spain you need to drill down into regional cuisine. Although many characteristics of Spanish cooking are recognisable across the whole country, regional food reflects differences in the climate, landscape, flora & fauna and - in many instances - local political history and the external influences that this brought to the region and its culture. Spanish regional culture is reflected in the 17 autonomous communities which, along with two autonomous cities, comprise the Kingdom of Spain under the 1978 constitution. The enduring strength of local village culture in Spain means that, like Italy, cuisine very much is grounded at village level. Each has its own variants on traditional regional dishes - women in one will use thyme in a dish while next-door villagers will swear by tarragon - but the outsider can still readily identify the regional character of the food.

As foreigners, we all have stereotyped views of national cuisines based on our experience of the food as imported to our native land. It comes as quite a shock to us Brits when we first discover that Chennai's Tamil food tastes very different from the more familiar dishes of northern Indian Mughlai cuisine and that Hunan cooking draws on very different ingredients and techniques to the familiar Cantonese cuisine from Guangdong. Spain is no different. The food of the Galicia on the north-western Atlantic coast is very different from the food of Valencia on the south-eastern Mediterranean coast. I'm no expert on Spanish regional cuisine, but I've tried to learn something about the food of the country which has taken me in as a trainee professional chef. For anyone who's interested, here are a few notes I've collated on the regional cuisines that go to make up the fabulous food of this great country.

Andalusia - land of passion
Andalusian cuisine has its origins rooted in the Islamic culture of the Middle Ages, with Berber recipes such as the famous gazpacho featuring widely in the cuisine and with much use of almonds and figs originally introduced by Arabs. The most important products in the region's Mediterranean cuisine are olive oil, ham, sausages, seafood, cheeses, grapes, garlic and wine (notably sherry from Jerez). The community, with adjacent Extremadura, is famous for its 'jamón ibérico' - cured ham from acorn-fed black pigs. Andalusia produces a wide range of fruits, vegetables and spices, including saffron. With hot weather and relatively little firewood, cooking was traditionally stove-top or barbecue rather than oven-based and used olive pits, dried grape twigs and charcoal as fuel. 'Paella' is a common dish in the south-eastern province of Almeria, traditionally using rabbit with wetland ingredients such as snails, frogs and duck. The maritime cuisine employs anchovies and other small fish as an appetizer or 'tapa', traditionally battered in wheat or chickpea flour and fried in olive oil. Seville is known as the 'capital of the tapas', but they can be experienced in most of Andalusia's bars, cafés and restaurants.
Although sparsely-populated Aragon has been historically linked with Navarre to its west, Catalonia to the east, the Frankish empire to the north and the Moorish caliphate to the south, Aragonese cuisine is straightforward and shows relatively little external influence. The community is dissected by the massive, fertile Ebro river valley which provides bounteous crops of wheat, barley, rye, fruit and grapes. Cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and poultry are raised in large numbers and meat is central to Aragonese cuisine. Chicken, lamb and pork (including local longaniza sausage) are cooked with peppers to produce the traditional chilindrón stews. Ham, olive oil and tomatoes combine to produce Aragon's classic dish 'las magras con tomate' and an endless variety of accompanying breadcrumb 'migas' are made with croûtons of ham, chorizo and morcilla, with chocolate and grapes. Chocolate also accompanies partridge in the regional dish 'perdiz en chocolate'. The Pyrenean rivers yield excellent trout and salmon and the high valleys feature the unique local haggis 'chireta' and a variety of river crab pastes. As with neighbouring Navarre, the northern hills and forests provide plentiful wild boar, truffles and wild mushrooms.
Aragon - land of royalty
Asturias - land of enlightenment
Although Asturias is associated with seafood, including squid, crab, shrimp and sea bass, the coastline of the Principality has spectacular fjords and the rivers that flow through these provide fantastic salmon and other river fish. Asturian cuisine is based on the use of best quality produce with a minimum of added spices to make dishes that are generally slow cooked over low heat to retain all the natural taste of the ingredients. Amongst Asturian stews the white bean, pork and potato 'fabada' is the most famous. Maritime Asturias provides Spain's finest clams, while inland Asturias is famous for dishes based on beans and peas, washed down with (and often cooked with) 'sidra' cider. The western region close to Galicia is noted for its potato stews and quality pork and the eastern region close to Cantabria is particularly famous for its wide variety of cheeses, notably 'cabrales' which is known for its pungent odour and strong flavour. Asturias is often called 'el pais de los quesos' (the land of cheeses) due to the diversity and quality of the product to be found in this northern autonomous community. Notable dairy-based desserts include cheesecake 'tarta de queso' and Asturian rice pudding 'arroz con leche'.
Balearic cuisine reflects a history of two millennia of successive occupations. The vulnerability of the largest island, Majorca, led to it turning its back on the sea, with most of the population in walled towns inland. For this reason fish plays a minor role in Majorcan cuisine, although the importance of lobster in Minorcan cuisine indicates greater use of coastal resources despite a similar history of conquest. Pork is the central product of the Balearic diet, with roast suckling pig a great delicacy. Before modern times the peasant diet was focused on vegetables, cereals, fruits and legumes. Typical dishes include 'sopes' (bread with vegetable soup), 'frit Mallorquí' (fried pig offal with fennel, pepper and vegetables) and flaó: (cottage cheese tart). The Minorcan town of Maó gave its name to mayonnaise, imported by C18th French colonisers. Marmalades, honey, and confectionery are commonly found, especially 'pastissets', 'crespells' and 'robiols' of Arabic origin. In recent years traditional Balearic cuisine has undergone a renaissance, well illustrated by the return of the dish 'pa amb oli' (similar to the Catalan 'pa amb tomàquet') - bread rubbed with garlic, tomato and olive oil and sprinkled with salt.
Balearics - land of conquests
The Basque Country - land of art
Despite the high level of sophistication that haute Basque cuisine has reached in recent years, the traditional cuisine of the Spanish autonomous community of The Basque Country (Euskadi) is relatively simple, with strong popular roots and many local specialties. Inland Basque cuisine is similar to that of adjacent Navarre, the gastronomy of both featuring hot and cold meat dishes (chorizo, lamb, ox, quail, duck and bull) and a wide variety of vegetable dishes including asparagus, artichoke and pimiento. Traditional dishes found across the maritime areas of Euskadi include cod in garlic, pepper and tomato sauce, hake with clams, tuna stew, squid, grilled anchovies and sardines, stewed tongue, beef chops and a range of vegetable dishes including wild mushrooms and bean stews. Common to much Basque cuisine is the use of produce and spices to create brightly coloured dishes, reflecting the huge importance of visual art to Basque culture. Desserts include frangipane tart, ewe's milk curd with honey and smoked ewe's milk cheese. Jews expelled from Iberia by the Spanish Inquisition settled in the French Basque Country and created a confectionery industry that impacts both sides of the border today.
Although known to ancient civilisations and claimed during different historical periods by many countries, the 'Fortunate Islands' were colonised intermittently until incorporation into Spain. Earlier Spanish conquerors introduced a sugar cash crop economy which survived until collapse of the sugar market led to mass emigration in the C19th. Unsurprisingly, Canarians never developed a sophisticated cuisine and the traditional food of the islands reflects the poverty of its native occupants. 'Papas arrugadas' is a classic dish of small potatoes boiled in salt water, served with chicken and topped with 'mojo'. This is an orange, red or green garlic sauce - depending on use of local saffron, cochineal and parsley - known as 'mojo picón' when spiced. Mojo was brought to Latin America during the period of emigration and remains popular there today. In the absence of wheat, Canarians developed 'gofio', a flour made by grinding roast sweetcorn. Gofio is used in many recipes, made into a dough-like food accompaniment and added to warm milk to make a drink. Other typical dishes include 'ropa vieja', a dish of chicken and beef mixed with potatoes and garbanzo beans, 'potaje', a stew with variable ingredients.
Canary Islands - land of colour
Cantabria - land of hospitality
Cantabrian cuisine owes much to the region's peculiar climatology. Although a land of glacial mountains and narrow coastal plain, the Gulf Stream means the climate of the 'Costa Verde' of Cantabria and Asturias is more temperate than would otherwise be the case and results in similar cuisines. The verdancy supports extensive cattle rearing, making Cantabria the dairy of Spain, with beef and ox featuring highly in the cuisine alongside mountain deer, chamois goat and boar. Traditional dishes include 'cocido montañés' (highland stew) made with beans and collard greens, 'cocido lebaniego' made from chickpeas and marmita and 'olla ferroviaria' (railway pot). There are excellent and diverse fish dishes using local anchovies, hake, sea bass, sole, mackerel, sardines, bream and red mullet, alongside trout and salmon from the mountain streams and rivers. 'Rabas' (fried calamari) and 'cachón en su tinta' (cuttlefish in its own ink) are specialities and other seafood dishes utilise clams, mussels, cockles, crabs and lobster. Locally grown maize gives rise to the popular 'tortos de maíz' (corn tortillas). As with its western neighbour, a large variety of soft, hard, spicy and blue-veined cheeses play a major role in the cuisine.
Although Castile-León is one of the two largest regions of Spain, a uniform cuisine can be found across much of the autonomous community. Bold, austere dishes based on local, natural, good quality products are typical of Castile-León's cuisine. Castile-León is known gastronomically as 'the land of the roasts'. The dishes which most typify Castilian cuisine are suckling pig 'cochinillo' roasted in a clay dish and Castilian lamb roasted in an oven with thyme. Pork is popular in the east, along with derivative sausages and black pudding. Fundamental to the cuisine of Castile-León is the chickpea, brought to Spain by the Carthaginians and the main ingredient of stews in which it is prepared with cabbage, mocilla, chorizo and meat. Other important vegetables are 'alubias' (large white beans) and lentils, which are prepared with chorizo, ox tail or pig's ear. Bread is the symbol of Castile and is considered to be tastier than elsewhere in Spain. Although Castile-León is land-locked, it has some excellent fish dishes. 'Bacalao al ajo arriero' (salt cod with garlic) is popular, as are some splendid trout dishes. Also popular is crayfish, often served with a tasty red sauce made from chili pepper, tomato and chorizo.
Castile-León - land of nature
Castile-La Mancha - land of valour
Castilian-Manchego cuisine is based on the fresh local agricultural produce, especially beans and pulses, and the abundant supply of furred and feathered game to be found in this land-locked community, once part of the Moorish empire. La Mancha produces Spain's best sheep's milk cheese ('queso manchego'), saffron and marzipan. Olive oil and wine are also extremely important, with olive groves stretching right across the western provinces and vineyards extending over large parts of the region. Local dishes include 'pisto manchego' (ratatouille), 'migas' (similar to that of Aragon), 'sopa de ajo' (garlic soup), 'gazpacho de cazador' (a variation of the Andalusian cold soup garnished with diced cucumber), 'sopa castellana' (consommé with egg and bread) and 'tortilla a la magra' (ham omelette); meat dishes include partridge and quail casserole, venison, wild boar, 'caldereta de cordero' (lamb stew), and 'cuchifrito' (fricassee of kid). Locally abundant partridge is served either in stew or with beans or cold. La Mancha is famous for fine pastries such as 'miguelitos de La Roda', 'flores manchegas' and 'delicias de Almansa' - despite the fact that the iconic windmills are for grinding maize rather than wheat.
While Catalonia has reached the world pinnacle of gastronomy in recent years, the traditional cuisine is relatively simple with its roots anchored in maritime history. Catalonia's C13th status as Aragon's gateway to the sea led to the conquest of the western Mediterranean including Valencia, the Balearics, Sardinia and Sicily. Catalan cuisine is Mediterranean, based on wheat products, olive oils, tomatoes, fresh vegetables and wines. The maritime cuisine is based on cod, tuna, sardine and anchovy while inland, as with much of Spain, the cuisine is based on legumes, pork sausages, ham, cheeses, poultry and lamb. Dried fruit and nuts are included whole or chopped in many meat and fish dishes and dishes also use a lot of pasta (second only to Italy) and cod (salted as well as fresh). The cuisine includes many preparations that combine sweet and salty ingredients, stews with sauces based on 'botifarra' (pork sausage) and 'picada' (ground almonds and hazelnuts with garlic and herbs). 'Escudella' is a stew using botifarra or pieces of meat spiced with peppers and cinnamon with added beans, potatoes, cabbage and eggs. Tarragona is home to 'calçots' (local spring onions) and hosts annual calçot festivals.
Catalonia - land of creativity
Extremadura - land of conquest
Extremaduran cuisine is undergoing a renaissance at present as a result of the development of modern Spanish cuisine combined with the rejuvenation of regional culture. The king of Extremaduran culinary products is jamón ibérico, which comes with 'Denominación de Origen' certifying bloodstock and curing quality. The regional sheep milk cheeses, olive oils and vegetables are also of excellent quality. Lamb, goat and game are important meats, with typical dishes including 'caldereta de cordero' (lamb stew), 'perdiz con criadillas de tierra' (partridge braised with truffles) and 'pata de cabrito' (roasted kid goat) being very popular. Other dishes include chorizos, 'gazpacho extremeño' (a version of Andalusian gazpacho with added ingredients) and 'cocido extremeño' (a stew of chickpeas, lamb and sausage). Although tench and other river fish appear in traditional dishes, seafood plays little part in the cuisine of this mountainous land-locked region. Extremaduran cuisine is noted for several products introduced from elsewhere, especially paprika brought back from America by the local conquistadors, extra-virgin olive oils originating in north Africa and cherries first introduced by the Romans.
With a coastline known as 'A Costa do Marisco' (The Seafood Coast), it's no surprise that sea produce plays a major role in the cuisine of Iberia's most north-westerly region. Galicia produces abundant sea fish, especially hake, turbot, bass, grouper and sole, classically served grilled or stewed. Local shellfish includes shrimp, squid, cuttlefish, crab, barnacle, clam, oyster, crayfish, lobster, prawn, scallop and mussel. Octopus, the region's favourite, is boiled, chopped, seasoned with pimentón (local paprika) and salt and sprinkled with olive oil to create the classic 'pulpo á feira' (fairground octopus). Galicia is also a land of unspoilt forests, good grazing and clean river valleys, leading to a strong tradition of beef, pork, freshwater fish, poultry, vegetables, game and cheese. Maize and wheat complement potato as the starch staples. Galician cuisine employs simple ingredients in a wide variety of uncomplicated but subtly different, dishes. Typical of winter is a stew made with ham, beef, chicken, chorizo, cabbage, potato and chick peas or 'alubias' (white beans). Galician 'empanadas' are pies made from pastry with cold meat or fish fillings mixed with saffron, oil, pepper and onion. The cuisine is also noted for its cakes and pastries.
Galicia - land of the sea
La Rioja - land of irrigation
Of all the regions of Spain, La Rioja has probably experienced the most frequent and lengthy periods of occupation and territorial dispute, even failing to be united under Roman rule. Squeezed in-between Navarre, The Basque Country, Castile and Aragon, external influences on La Rioja have been extensive. So it is surprising that the cuisine of the community is more a function of the region's ecology than its political history. With a temperate micro-climate and agriculture driven by irrigation of lands surrounding the Ebro river, the region produces the highest quality seasonal vegetables, including artichokes, eggplant, squash, peppers, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, peas, carrots, asparagus, cauliflower, celery, endives and chard. Of the meats produced in the region, pork and its derivative product chorizo are the most common. Amongst the specialities of the region are the edible snails cultivated commercially in Tricio and the marzipan from Sierra de Cameros made from almonds and sugar syrup. The higher areas of Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa are famous for their lighter, acidic Rioja wines, while the lower lands of Rioja Baja produce heavier vintages stronger in alcohol and used more for blending.
Madrid is a melting pot for cuisines from across the Iberian peninsula. The traditional gastronomy of Spain's modern capital of Madrid and the autonomous community that surrounds it has been enriched by the contributions of Andalusians, Galicians, Asturians and other migrants. Typical dishes include 'cocido Madrileño' (meat stew with chickpea, cabbage, celery, carrots, turnips and potato), 'callos' (tripe), 'sopa de ajo' (garlic soup), 'caracoles' (snails) and 'tortilla de patatas' (potato omelette). Despite being as far from the sea as it is possible to be in Spain, 'besugo al horno' (baked bream) and 'bacalao' (cod) dishes are extremely popular in Madrid and the city boasts the second largest fish market in the world, after Tokyo. The capital's autonomous community also has a strong sweet tradition, with favourite desserts including 'torrijas' (French toast), 'barquillos' (rolled wafers), 'bartolillos con crema' (custard pie) and 'buñuelos' (fritters with whipped cream). 'Mazapán' (marzipan) and 'turrón' (nougat) are popular at Xmas and 'rosquillas de anís' (anise-flavoured doughnuts) during the San Isidro festival. As elsewhere in Spain 'tapas' (savoury tidbits served as appetisers) are a gastronomic tradition.
Madrid - land of fusion
Murcia - land of development
As with La Rioja, 500km to the north, the culinary produce of the autonomous community of Murcia is centred on large-scale agriculture made possible by extensive irrigation of the lands surrounding the region's major river - in the case of Murcia the Seguria. Vegetables are found in nearly every Murcian dish. Garlic is used in most casseroles and in 'tortilla Murciana' (potato omelette), courgette in 'zarangollo' and sweet broad beans are cooked in the famous 'michirones' (ham and chorizo stews) and accompany salted meat, fish or sausage as a starter or tapa. High average temperatures and lower rainfall levels mean that much local produce is of a Mediterranean character, with 'pimentón' (paprika), capers and apricots widely cultivated. Typical dishes show the influence of earlier occupiers - roasts and stews reflect Castilian and Aragonese control and a large variety of rice dishes reflect the association with Andalusia and Valencia under Moorish control. With a Mediterranean coastline, seafood is also important, the roasting of fish in salt having been introduced by the Carthaginians together with 'matanza' (ritual slaughter of pigs) and the 'garbanzos' (chickpeas) used in winter stews.
Once the homeland of the Vascones, ancestors of today's Basque peoples, Navarre is almost unique amongst the regions of Spain for never having been fully subjugated. As with La Rioja to the southwest and Aragon to the east, the produce of the autonomous community of Navarre is largely determined by Spain's most voluminous river, the Ebro, the fertile valley of which supports wheat, vegetables, wine and even olive groves. But the cuisine is culturally driven by the Basque heritage, to the point where the term Basque-Navarrese cuisine is frequently employed. The mountains provide fresh trout and salmon, as well as wild game for dishes often presented with a variety of Navarrese sauces based on sweet peppers, onions, garlic and wine, bound with egg yolk. A delicious and healthy bean called 'pochas de sanguesa' provides a base for many of the region's local dishes, often accompanying lamb or goat and with a wide range of fresh vegetables. As well as local wine, the Navarrese drink 'pacharán', a sloe-flavoured liqueur made by soaking sloe berries in anisette with coffee beans and vanilla pod. This is also used to marinate fruits such as mango and strawberries to make delicious fruit liqueur desserts.
Navarre - land of tradition
Valencia - land of the sun
Although many ingredients play key roles in Valencian cuisine, reflecting the variety of products from local market gardens, the produce most associated with the region is rice, originally introduced by the Moors. The local dish 'paella' (Valencian for 'frying pan') is made by simmering rice with chicken, rabbit, tomatoes and saffron and optionally duck and snails. There are many other rice dishes including 'arroz de marisco' made with seafood (frequently prepared for tourists in a paella dish and widely described as 'paella') and 'arroz negro' made with squid ink. Traditional but less well known is 'fideua' or noodle paella. Other traditional dishes are eels in garlic and sweet pepper sauce, sweet red pepper and codfish salad and fisherman's stew. Typical winter cuisine includes eels, duck and tuna baked in the oven with local vegetables, chorizo and black puddings, with flavours depending on the locally grown herbs and spices and the recipes handed down from generation to generation. The queen of Valencian fruit – the orange – is used in many desserts and Valencians make a range of confectionary including pumpkin cake, anisette cake, sweet potato turnovers, almond crumbles and a variety of sweetmeats.


Pete said...

Thanks Trig, very useful. Spanish food is something I know very little about so I'm going to Andalusia on Wednesday for my first foodie tour. I'm looking forward to some sherry in Jerez, seafood in Cadiz and some rabbit paella and gazpacho along the way too. I have high hopes for my birthday dinner at Tragabuches in Ronda which I've heard is very good.

Moultrie Creek said...

Minorcan cuisine even made its way to the New World thanks to a group of indentured servants who helped build Florida. They adapted their heritage recipes to the local resources and the results include clam chowder, shrimp pilau and pan-fried mullet.

A local favorite here in St. Augustine is Minorcan clam chowder which has our local datil pepper as its star ingredient.

namastenancy said...

Fabulous post; I'm taking a Spanish history class and this just highlights all the geographical and historical differences between the various regions.

Trig said...

Pete - I don't have personal knowledge of Tragabuches but it's certainly got some great writeups on the web. Andalusia is a good place to start your culinary exploration of Spain, especially if you've eaten British "paella" as I'm sure you have.
Denise - I had no idea about Minorcan cuisine and Florida, though I did know about the mass migrations so I guess it all hangs together.
Nancy - many thanks for your kind comment. I just hope I got it all right as it was a learning experience for me.

Helen said...

That was really interesting Trig, very informative. I can't stop thinking about jamon iberico now though. Just, can't, stop.....

I made scallops with Amaretto the other day by the way, bloody delicious!

Trig said...

I hope they let me back into Spain after I admit this, but my first visit on getting back to London was to see Michael at the Italian deli for some of this herb roasted produce from Tuscany. Very different from a cured ham such as jamón ibérico, but absolutely brilliant all the same.

Amanda at Little Foodies said...

Great post, you've left me with a feeling of wishing I was in Spain. I'm very envious of Pete's holiday. I lived just outside Ronda for a few months and Hubs lived there on and off for a few years. His best friend did the PR for Tragabuches when it first opened so we ate there before it got a star. At the time I thought it was a bit too different for Ronda and wasn't sure it would survive but then a McDonalds opened too. I never thought that would happen - things change - and I must remember not to live in the dark ages!!

Thanks for the offer of booking a table at C24. When we firm up our plans for the Summer I'll let you know. I'll be very excited if Hubs and I have a night on the town without the children. It's years since we've done that.

Jeanne said...

Wow - impressive and info-heavy post! I was recently asked what country is my favourite foodie destination, and much as I love France and Italy, it had to be Spain. I was there at Easter and now you make me want to head straight back there!!

DobleZero said...

I am a sucker for Cod Pil Pil (bacalao al pil pil) but I am Basque - that may be why!

I live abroad but I tend to travel back to Spain on a monthly basis and I always bring back some treats.

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