Spanish cuisine has come a long way in recent years, and Spanish chefs are currently at the forefront of contemporary European cooking. You know a power-shift has taken place when Restaurant magazine’s annual “World 50 Best Restaurants” list regularly cites three or four Spanish eateries in the top ten, and when there are more gourmet places in the Basque Country worth making a special trip for than in Paris. There’s some fantastic food to be had in every region, and not just the fancy new-wave stuff either – the tapas, gazpacho, tortilla and paella that you may know from home are simply in a different league when made with the correct ingredients in their natural surroundings.
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Of course, not every restaurant is a gourmet experience and not every dish is a classic of its kind. Tourist resorts – after all, where many people go – can be disappointing, especially those aimed at a foreign clientele, and a week on one of the costas can just as easily convince you that the Spanish national diet is egg and chips, sangría, pizza and Guinness. However, you’ll always find a good restaurant where the locals eat, and few places in Europe are still as good value, especially if you have the menú del día, the bargain fixed-price lunch that’s a fixture across the country.
Breakfast, snacks and sandwiches
The traditional Spanish breakfast (desayuno) is chocolate con churros – long, extruded tubular doughnuts served with thick drinking chocolate or coffee. Some places specialize in these but most bars and cafés also serve cakes and pastries (bollos or pasteles), croissants and toast (tostadas), or crusty sandwiches (bocadillos) with a choice of fillings (try one with omelette, tortilla). A “sandwich”, incidentally, is usually a less-appetizing ham or cheese sandwich in white processed bread. Other good places for snacks are cake shops (pastelerías or confiterías) or the local bakery (panadería), where they might also have savoury pasties and turnovers.
Bars, tapas and raciones
One of Spain’s glories is the phenomenon of tapas – the little portions of food that traditionally used to be served up free with a drink in a bar. (The origins are disputed but the word is from tapar, “to cover”, suggesting a cover for drinks’ glasses, perhaps to keep the flies off in the baking sun.) Tapas can be anything – a handful of olives, a slice or two of cured ham, a little dish of meatballs or chorizo, spicy fried potatoes or battered squid. They will often be laid out on the counter, so you can see what’s available, or there might be a blackboard menu. Most bars have a speciality; indeed, Spaniards will commonly move from bar to bar, having just the one dish that they consider each bar does well. Conversely, if you’re in a bar with just some pre-fried potatoes and day-old Russian salad on display, and a prominent microwave, go somewhere else to eat.
Aside from a few olives or crisps sometimes handed out with a drink, you pay for tapas these days (the cities of Granada and León are honourable exceptions), usually around €1.50–4 a portion. Raciones (around €6–12) are simply bigger plates of tapas, perfect for sharing or enough for a meal – you’re sometimes asked if you want a tapa or a ración of whatever it is you’ve chosen.
There are big regional variations in tapas. They are often called pinchos (or pintxos) in northern Spain, especially in the Basque provinces, where typically tapas come served on a slice of baguette, held together with a cocktail stick. When you’ve finished eating, the sticks are counted up to arrive at your bill. This kind of tapas can be as simple as a cheese cube on bread or a far more elaborately sculpted concoction; they are also known as montaditos (basically, canapés). Famously good places across Spain for tapas-tasting include Madrid, León, Logroño, San Sebastián, Granada, Seville and Cádiz.
Most cafés and bars have some kind of tapas available, while you’ll also find a decent display in tascas, bodegas and tabernas (kinds of taverns) and cervecerías (beer-houses). It’s always cheapest to stand at the bar to eat; you’ll pay more to sit at tables and more again to sit outside on a terrace.
The simplest kind of restaurant is the comedor (dining room), often a room at the back of a bar or the dining room of a hostal or pensión. Traditionally, they are family-run places aimed at lunching workers, usually offering a straightforward set meal at budget prices. The highway equivalent are known as ventas or mesones (inns), dotted along the main roads between towns and cities. These have been serving Spanish wayfarers for centuries – some of them quite literally – and the best places are immediately picked out by the line of cars and trucks outside. Proper restaurants, restaurantes, come in a myriad of guises, from rustic village restaurants to stylish Michelin-starred eateries; asadores specialize in grilled meats, marisquerías in fish and seafood.
Almost every restaurant serves a weekday, fixed-price lunchtime meal, the menú del día, generally three courses including wine for €8–15, occasionally even cheaper, depending on where you are in Spain. This is obviously a terrific deal; the menú del día is only sporadically available at night, and sometimes prices are slightly higher (and the menu slightly fancier) at weekends. The very cheapest places are unlikely to have a written menu, and the waiter will tell you what the day’s dishes are. In smarter restaurants in bigger cities and resorts, there will still be a menú del día, though it might be a shadow of the usual à la carte menu, and drinks may be excluded. Even so, it’s a way of eating at a restaurant that might normally cost you three or four times as much. Top city restaurants often also feature an upmarket menú called a menú de degustación (tasting menu), which again can be excellent value, allowing you to try out some of the country’s finest cooking for anything from €50 to €100 a head.
Otherwise, in bars and so-called cafeterías, meals often come in the form of a plato combinado – literally a combined dish – which will be a one-plate meal of something like steak, egg and chips, or calamares and salad, often with bread and a drink included. This will generally cost in the region of €5–9.
If you want a menu in a restaurant, ask for la carta; menú refers only to the fixed-price meal. In all but the most rock-bottom establishments it is customary to leave a small tip, though five percent of the bill is considered sufficient and service is normally included in a menú del día. IVA, the eight-percent tax, is also charged, but it should say on the menu if this is included in the price or not.
Spaniards generally eat very late, with lunch served from around 1pm (you’ll be the first person there at this time) until 4pm, and dinner from 8.30pm or 9pm to midnight. Obviously, rural areas are slightly earlier to dine, but making a dinner reservation for 10.30pm or even later is considered perfectly normal in many cities in Spain. Most restaurants close one day a week, usually Sunday or Monday.
Vegetarians generally have a fairly hard time of it in Spain, though there’s an increasing number of veggie restaurants in the bigger cities (including some really good ones in Madrid and Barcelona). In more rural areas, there’s usually something to eat, but you may get weary of fried eggs and omelettes. However, many tapas favourites, especially in the south, are veggie (like fried aubergine, or spinach-and-chickpeas in Seville), while superb fresh fruit and veg, and excellent cheese, is always available in the markets and shops.
In restaurants, you’re faced with the extra problem that pieces of meat – especially ham, which the Spanish don’t regard as real meat – and tuna are often added to vegetable dishes and salads. You’ll also find chunks of chorizo and sausage turning up in otherwise veg-friendly soups or bean stews. The phrases to get to know are Soy vegetariano/a. Como sólo verduras. Hay algo sin carne? (“I’m a vegetarian. I only eat vegetables. Is there anything without meat?”); you may have to add y sin marisco (“and without seafood”) and y sin jamón (“and without ham”) to be really safe.
Some salads and vegetable dishes are strictly vegan, but they’re few and far between. Fruit and nuts are widely available, nuts being sold by street vendors everywhere.
Coffee, tea and soft drinks
Café (coffee) is invariably an espresso (café solo); for a large cup of weaker, black coffee, ask for an americano. A café cortado is a café solo with a drop of milk; a café con leche is made with lots of hot milk. Coffee is also frequently mixed with brandy, cognac or whisky, all such concoctions being called carajillo. Iced coffee is café con hielo. Chocolate (hot chocolate) is a popular breakfast drink, or for after a long night on the town, but it’s usually incredibly thick and sweet. For a thinner, cocoa-style drink, ask for a brand name, like Cola Cao.
Spaniards usually drink té (tea) black, so if you want milk it’s safest to ask for it afterwards, since ordering té con leche might well get you a glass of warm milk with a tea bag floating on top. Herbal teas (infusions) are widely available, like manzanilla (camomile), poleo (mint tea) and hierba luisa (lemon verbena).
Local soft drinks include granizado (crushed-ice) or horchata (a milky drink made from tiger nuts or almonds), available from summer street stalls, and from milk bars (horchaterías, also known as granjas in Catalunya) and ice-cream parlours (heladerías). Although you can drink the water almost everywhere, it tastes revolting in some cities and coastal areas – inexpensive agua mineral comes either sparkling (con gas) or still (sin gas).
One of the great pleasures of eating out in Spain is the chance to sample some of the country’s excellent wines. Over fifty percent of the European Union’s vineyards lie in Spain and vino is the invariable accompaniment to every meal. At lunchtime, a glass or small pitcher of the house wine – often served straight from the barrel – is usually included in the menú del día; otherwise, restaurant wine starts at around €5–10 a bottle, although the sky’s the limit for the really good stuff. And there’s plenty of that, since in recent years Spanish wine has enjoyed an amazing renaissance, led largely by the international success of famous wine-producing regions like La Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Other regions – not perhaps so well-known abroad – are also well worth investigating, like Galicia or the Priorat in Catalunya, and every wine-producing area is set up for bodega (winery) visits, tastings and tours. In Andalucía, meanwhile, the classic wine is sherry – vino de jerez – while champagne in Spain means the Catalan sparkling wine, cava.
The festival and tourist drink is, famously, sangría, a wine-and-fruit punch that’s often deceptively strong; a variation in Catalunya is sangría de cava. Tinto de verano is a similar red-wine-and-soda or -lemonade combination; variations on this include tinto de verano con naranja (red wine with orangeade) or con limón (lemonade).
Beer (cerveza) is nearly always lager, though some Spanish breweries also now make stout-style brews, wheat beers and other types. It comes in 300ml bottles (botellines) or, for about the same price, on tap – a caña of draught beer is a small glass, a caña doble larger, and asking for un tubo (a tubular glass) gets you about half a pint. Mahou, Cruz Campo, San Miguel, Damm, Estrella de Galicia and Alhambra are all decent beers. A shandy is a clara, either with fizzy lemon (con limón) or lemonade (con casera or con blanca).
Spirits and shots
In mid-afternoon – or, let’s face it, even at breakfast – Spaniards take a copa of liqueur with their coffee, such as anís (similar to Pernod) or coñac, the local brandy, which has a distinct vanilla flavour. Most brandies are produced by the great sherry houses in Jerez (like Lepanto, Carlos I and Cardinal Mendoza), but two good ones that aren’t are the Armagnac-like Mascaró and Torres, both from Catalunya. Instead of brandy, at the end of a meal many places serve chupitos – little shot glasses of flavoured schnapps or local fire-water, such as Patxarán in Navarra and the Basque Country, Ratafía in Catalunya or Orujo in Galicia. One much-loved Galego custom is the queimada, when a large bowl of aguardiente (a herb-flavoured fiery liqueur) with fruit, sugar and coffee-grains is set alight and then drunk hot.
You should order spirits by brand name, since there are generally less expensive Spanish equivalents for standard imports, or simply specify nacional. Larios gin from Málaga, for instance, is about half the price of Gordon’s. Measures are staggeringly generous – bar staff generally pour from the bottle until you suggest they stop. Long drinks include the universal Gin-Tónic and the Cuba Libre (rum and Coke), and there are often Spanish Caribbean rums (ron) such as Cacique from Venezuela or Havana Club from Cuba.
It’s food, Jim, but not as we know it
King of molecular gastronomy, and godfather of Spanish contemporary cuisine, Ferran Adrià, started it all, with his liquid-nitrogen-frozen herbs, seafood-reduction Rice Krispies and exploding olive-oil droplets. His multi-Michelin-starred El Bulli restaurant on the Costa Brava might now be gone, with plans underway to turn it into a cookery foundation and “centre for creativity”, but the influences of Spain’s best-known chef have shaken the restaurant scene, as his former employees, acolytes and disciples have gone on to make the country one of the most exciting places to eat in the world.
The style-city of Barcelona, not surprisingly, is at the forefront of this innovative form of cooking, with Carles Abellán ’s Comerç 24 typical of the breed, while the Roca brothers’ celebrated El Celler de Can Roca in Girona keeps Catalunya firmly in the vanguard of new-wave cuisine. However, it’s in the Basque Country that many of the hottest chefs are currently in action: Andoni Aduriz at Mugaritz, Errenteria, San Sebastián, father-and-daughter team Juan Mari and Elena Arzak at Arzak, San Sebastián, and Martín Berasategui at Restaurante Martín Berasategui, Lasarte-Oria, San Sebastián, are all cooking sensational food in restaurants that regularly feature in lists of the world’s best. Maybe it’s a northern thing, but there’s less fuss in the south of the country about the so-called cocina de autor; in the capital, perhaps only Sergi Arola cuts the new-wave mustard with his Sergi Arola Gastro in Madrid, while Dani García is making waves by the sea at Calima, Marbella.
There really is no such thing as traditional “Spanish” cuisine, since every region claims a quite separate culinary heritage. That said, lots of dishes crop up right across the country, whatever their origin, while typical Mediterranean staples are ubiquitous – olive oil, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, onions, lemons and oranges.
It’s usual to start your meal with a salad or a plate of cold cuts, while soups might be fish or seafood or, in the north especially, hearty broths such as the Galician cabbage-and-potato caldo gallego. Boiled potatoes with greens, or a thick minestrone of vegetables, are also fairly standard starters, while depending on the season you might be offered grilled asparagus or artichokes, or stewed beans with chunks of sausage.
Anywhere near the coast, you really should make the most of what’s on offer, whether it’s the fried fish of Málaga, Basque shellfish or the seafood specialities in Galicia, notably octopus (pulpo). Fish stews (zarzuelas) can be memorable, while seafood rice dishes range from arroz negro (“black rice”, cooked with squid ink) to the better-known paella. This comes originally from Valencia (still the best place for an authentic one), though a proper paella from there doesn’t include fish or seafood at all but things like chicken, rabbit, beans and snails.
Meat is most often grilled and served with a few fried potatoes. Regional specialities include cordero (lamb) from Segovia, Navarra and the Basque Country, as well as cochinillo (suckling pig) or lechal (suckling lamb) in central Spain. Cured ham, or jamón serrano, is superb, produced at its best from acorn-fed Iberian pigs in Extremadura and Andalucía, though it can be extremely expensive. Every region has a local sausage in its locker – the best known is the spicy chorizo, made from pork, though others include morcilla (blood sausage; best in Burgos, León and Asturias), and butifarra, a white Catalan sausage made from pork and tripe. Stews are typified by the mighty fabada, a fill-your-boots Asturian bean-and-meat concoction.
Cheeses to look out for include Cabrales, a tangy blue cheese made in the Picos de Europa; Manchego, a sharp, nutty cheese made from sheep’s milk in La Mancha; Mahon, a cow’s-milk cheese from Menorca, often with paprika rubbed into its rind; Idiazábal, a smoked cheese from the Basque Country; and Zamorano, made from sheep’s milk in Castilla y León.
In most restaurants, dessert is nearly always fresh fruit or flan, the Spanish crème caramel, with the regions often having their own versions such as crema catalana in Catalunya and the Andalucian tocino de cielo. There are also many varieties of postre – rice pudding or assorted blancmange mixtures – and a range of commercial ice-cream dishes.