A Crash Course in Spanish Food & Wine

If you’ve been following along with us, you’ll know we had a few crash courses during our stay in Spain. We only had two weeks, but I’m confident we ate and drank more than most would do in a month. All burdens we bear for you, our loyal readers.

The rich history of Spanish cuisine dates back thousands of years, and is often still recognized as one of the top cuisines in the world. Each region of the country has its own ‘claim to fame’ in the culinary scene, and Michelin stars seem to come down like rain. From cured meats like Jamón (ham, this word is very, very important here) and chorizo, to patatas bravas and other famous Tapas, Spain is a playground for anyone who fancies themselves “food snobs”.

Side note – Pat HATES the word “foodie” and, thus, will not use it here. Or ever. Unless as a vicious insult. He had a bad experience once when a self-professed ‘foodie’ sent ceviche back, claiming it was “raw, and needed it sauteed  more.”

Let that sink in for a second.

ANYWAY.

So, obviously, food from Spain is intended for sharing. Regionally inspired dishes with seasonal ingredients, full of flavor but not complicated, largely make up the cuisine. The northern region is famous for bean stews mixed with pork, chicken or rabbit, all doused with ample amounts of peppers and paprika. Spicy and delicious.

The southeast region, known as the “Garden of Spain,” is chalk full of citrus trees and grape vines (more on wine below), while the western and central regions pick up more herbal ingredients such as saffron – the key to one of Spain’s most famous dishes, Paella.

We can’t write a food blog on Spanish cuisine without talking about Tapas. These little bites that come with your copa de vino blanco or cerveza are a tasty way to start off a meal, or can turn into a meal themselves. Just when we thought we couldn’t love Spanish culture any more, we learned the history of Tapas:

Back in the day, farmers and other workers in the city would have money to either eat or drink on their lunch break, but not both. Naturally, given that they are Spanish, they chose a liquid lunch and would head back to work, only to be sent home for being too drunk to finish out the day. The result? A law passed that anytime someone orders a drink in your restaurant or cafe, you have to give them a small snack to soak up the alcohol. That tradition is followed widely today, with small bites ranging from potato chips and popcorn to octopus carpaccio, Spanish sausage and croquettes (YES!). In fact, it’s said that it’s not a true Spanish dining experience if you don’t get a free tapa with your drink. Genius, right?

There are other historical assumptions on the origin of Tapas, but no one really knows. We like this story best, so that’s what we’re going with. So ‘Spanish’ of us, right? Ole!

The holy grail of Tapas is in Madrid, and it’s called the Mercado de San Miguel. We mentioned this magical place before, but it’s worth noting again for anyone who wants to experience literally EVERYTHING Spain has to offer food-wise, in pint-size portions, under one roof. From croquettes (at this point, a full on obsession of ours) to Spanish cheeses, artichokes on a toothpick with salmon and peppers, roasted pork drizzled in olive oil and foie gras with caramelized onions and mushrooms, there is literally no end to the combinations of tasty treats in this place. And all of the above only took us 10 minutes to devour.

In the inland regions of Spain, where the winters are longer and more intense than on the coastline, Tapas tend to be a bit more spicy. Perfect examples are “patatas bravas,” a wonderful dish of cubed potatoes served with spicy tomato aioli, and “pimiento rellenos,” peppers usually stuffed with cheese or sauce and meat. Croquetas also largely originated from inland Spain, but much like other dishes, are now served widely throughout the country.

Most coastal regions focus on seafood-based Tapas, such as tuna salad with paprika, red pepper juices and tomatoes, grilled octopus with paprika, salted cod and others that would be expected given the close proximity to the sea.

Something to clarify from our little story earlier, though. If you order Tapas, you will pay for them. When you order a drink, they will bring you a Tapa, but you have no say on what it is. As the saying goes, “beggars can’t be choosers,” which in this case, is totally fine with us.

Ham. Did we mention ham earlier? These people LOVE ham. They have full cafes dedicated to ham (jamoneria), and MUSEUMS of ham. Jamón ibérico is the pride and joy of Spain. The pigs are, in most cases, are free range and in western Spain, and are mostly fed acorns. They cure for 24-48 months, creating a distinct marbling and complex taste. We completely bought into the whole ham thing, and let us tell you, meat sweats are a real thing.

Not to get all Bubba Gump on you, but you can have ham all sorts of ways. Ham on crackers. Ham on french fries with eggs (Huevos roots con jamón). Ham sandwiches on a baguette. Or just ham by itself. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, sauté it. “Dey’s uh ham for everything.” Okay, I’m done now. We really love Forrest Gump.

Another staple in the Spanish diet, which quickly became one of our favorite breakfast foods, is the “tortilla de patata”. These can be served by the slice as Tapas, or whole servings. Kind of like pie, or pizza. The most basic recipes are just eggs, potatoes and salt, but variations include onions, cheese, mushrooms, spinach and chorizo. They are served hot or cold, but we think they’re better hot. The original recipe is said to come from the Navarra regions, as it was a fast and easy way to fuel the Carlist Army during the Siege of Bilbao. Again, there are different variations of how things went down depending on who you talk to, so others believe the Carlist general, Tomás de Zumalacárregui got lost in a field and stumbled into a farmhouse, where he demanded a woman to make him a meal. Since all she had was eggs, potatoes and onions, she mixed them up and baked them. To her surprise, he loved it and took the idea with him for future use…or so the legend goes. Either way, we love it.

Now, onto what Pat considers the best dish in the world: Paella. Paella is a traditional dish from Valencia that includes white rice, chicken, rabbit and/or chorizo, green beans or english peas, and a wide variety of seafood (mostly shellfish). It will typically have salt, pepper, lemon, a little paprika and the most important ingredient: saffron. There are many varieties of Paella, such as vegetarian, seafood, mixta (seafood and chicken) and arroz negro (black rice).

It is said that Paella dates back to the 19th century near the Albufera Lagoon near Valencia. There is a special pan that is needed to make Paella, and it is often served to the table in the pan that it’s cooked in to preserve the crunchy rice on the bottom (the best part). Once the initial meat and veggies are sautéed, you add in water to bring it to a boil, then add the rice to cook at a simmer. Add the seafood to cook along with the rice in the water. Once the rice is done, you’re ready to take it off the heat, but first, turn the heat up high for 45 seconds to allow for the crispness to develop on the bottom layer of the pan. Pat will share his personal paella recipe along with a few other favorites for you all to try and see what you think, so check back soon!

It’s worth noting that it typically takes twenty to twenty-five minutes to prepare, so if you order it at a restaurant have a glass of vino or two and relax while you wait for the greatness.

One famous dish that we didn’t get to try because we were there in February, and it wasn’t a necessity as it usually would be in the hot summer months, is gazpacho and salmorejo. Gazpacho you probably know about, so we won’t bore you there. Salmorejo, however, was interesting and Pat did have a chance to try a little bit on a warmer day in Madrid as a Tapa (in an espresso cup). The sister, or cousin to the more famous gazpacho consists mainly of pureed bread, tomatoes, garlic, pepper and vinegar. This is also served cold, sometimes with a nice piece of…you guessed it, HAM! As we mentioned, we didn’t get as much of this as we wanted, but the little bit Pat had was delicious!

It’s not all savory, guys. Spain has a SERIOUS sweet tooth. There was a bakery right down from our apartment with doughnuts that would make Krispy Kreme look healthy…and small. Dipped in chocolate, filled with chocolate, or with pastry cream, this is serious. We got one and ate it for five days. We had a piece of tarta de queso (cheesecake) at Restaurante Botin, and it was literally the best cheesecake we’ve ever had (Pat says sorry to all his old chefs, your cake is still very, very good). There are all kinds of pastries, slices of cinnamon-spiced fried bread, similar to drunken french toast, called “torrijas,” and everyone’s childhood favorite, churros.

Pat has a ‘thing’ for churros that developed into a full-on habit. For two euros you can get three or four of them with a small cup of melted chocolate for dipping (omg).

And now, WINE.

Think about your favorite Spanish beverage. Before you scream, “Sangria!” hear me out. Sure, you’ll never hear me complaining about a pitcher of sangria, but there is no substitute, for this wine nerd anyway, than classic Spanish wines. They are a great introduction to ‘Old World’ wines, but without the extravagant price tag of those in neighboring France or Italy.

If you’re new to Spanish wine, here’s a quick guide to help you prepare for a trip to Spain, or a new section of your local wine store.

Age before beauty – Spanish wine is divided by age group, and this is identified on the label. From youngest to oldest: Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Grand Reserva.

Categories of quality – Spain has the same wine labeling system as the rest of the European Union. Most often, you will see Denominación de Origen (DO), which has specific rules for its wines in terms of geography and what types of grapes can be planted. If you can’t find the DO on the label, look for a sticker on the back or over the cork.

If you’re looking for top quality, you want Denominación de Origen Calificada. Because of regional dialects, the abbreviations can be DOCa, DOC or DOQ, but the only two DOCs are Rioja and Priorat.

Where’s the grape? – The primary grape is usually front and center on a Spanish wine label, but if it’s not, it’ll be listed on the back. Again, because of the regional dialects, the same grape can be written in different ways. For example, in Catalonia, Garnacha will appear as Garnatxa.

Regions & Wines to know – Despite having the most land dedicated to vineyards in the world – over a million acres – Spain tends to fly under the radar in terms of wine production compared to its neighbor, France. If I were to go into all the grape varietals and producing regions, we would be here all day. Assuming we both have the same goal – spend less time behind the computer and more time holding a wine glass – I’ll make this a quick intro so you’ll know what to pair with some of the delicious aforementioned cuisine.

As you guys should know by now, I love geeking out about wine with other wine lovers, so I’d be more than happy to answer any questions or go into greater detail if anyone is interested – just shoot us a message!

CavaI’m a believer that eternal bliss can be achieved with the three C’s: crepes, croquettes and CHAMPAGNE. Whether it’s brunch, lunch, happy hour or an aperitif before dinner, some version of sparking wine is most likely going to be my drink of choice. Cava has been one of my favorite sparkling wines since I visited Barcelona for the first time in 2009. My grandmother and I went to a winery tour at a local cava producer, and it’s been love ever since.

Cava is the famous sparkling wine of Spain. It is produced mostly in the northeastern region of Catalonia, and just like French Champagne or Italian Franciacorta, it goes through the traditional secondary fermentation in the bottle. It can be white or rosé, and while it’s typically dry, the amount of sugar will be indicated on the label as either Brut or Semi-Seco. Cava is always my go-to for celebrating special occasions (without breaking the bank), or just because. You never really need a reason to drink champagne. As Churchill so eloquently put it, “In victory you deserve champagne. In defeat, you need it.”

Whites – Near Basque country on the northern coast you’ll find Txakoli (chalk-oh-lee). It’s a citrusy white wine, low in alcohol with a hint of bubbles, similar to what you’ll find with Vinho Verde white wine in Portugal. Txakoli also produces a small amount of red wine and rosé – a little harder to find, but worth it if you do.

On the west coast is Rías Baixas. Albariño is the king grape here, with Loureira and Treixadura serving as backup. All of these wines offer coastal elements reminiscent of their environment, with hints of briny ocean aromas and floral and melon flavors. Perfect partner for mild seafood.

Valdeorras is a tiny region east of Rías Baixas. Several styles of wine with the Godello grape are made here. Rich and textured with flavors of lemon and cantaloupe – these babies have enough body to carry you through even the heaviest of seafood or poultry dishes.

Southeast of Valdeorras is Ruedo, which sits along the Duero River (Castilla y León region). There are some reds made here, but the star of the show are whites made from Verdejo. Wines that are mostly Verdejo will indicate as such by saying ‘Rueda Verdejo’ on the label, otherwise it will be a blend of Viura and Sauvignon Blanc. We drank Verdejo most of the time while we were in Spain, and loved it.

The white grape of the Rioja region is Viura. It can be bottled as single-varietal, or blended with others like Garnacha Blanca or Chardonnay. A lot of white Rioja is aged and tannic, but even young wines from this region are incredibly full-bodied, albeit a little more ‘crisp’.

Reds – Even if you’ve never stepped foot in Spain, I’m you red wine lovers have experienced a bottle of Tempranillo at one point or another. Tempranillo is the most planted red grape in Spain, so it’s worth noting a few of its aliases. It’s also known as Tinto Fino, Tinto de Toro, Cencibel, All de Llebre, and Tinto del Pais. The two primary regions for Tempranillo are Rioja and Ribera del Duero.

I used to hate red wine, but the one I could always drink, for some reason, was a Rioja red. Located in north-central Spain, Rioja wines blend ripe red fruit and earthy flavors –a lot of people say it’s like having one foot in New World and one foot in Old World.

Producers are allowed to blend Tempranillo with Mazuelo, Graciano, Garnacha and Maturana Tinta grapes, and the law even has a little wiggle room for Cabernet Sauvignon in small amounts.

Ribera del Duero is the other region known for top-quality Tempranillo, but you won’t find any blends here. Most of these wines are entirely Tempranillo, and producers utilize oak as a major influence on the finish.

Tempranillo is grown in other regions as well, but these are the main players.

If you’re on a budget and looking for a nice red outside of Tempranillo, there are a few other grapes to look for including Garnacha, Monastrell, and Mencía. Garnacha is the third most planted grape in Spain and is often used for rosé, but also makes a ripe, delicious red. Monastrell is planted in southern Spain, and is a full-bodied red, paired well with heavy meat-based dishes. Mencía makes medium- to full-bodied wines that are reminiscent of Cabernet Franc.

Sherry – Sherry is a fortified wine that goes through a system of blending where wines from different years are mixed together over time. Sherry can be dry or sweet, with the dry pairing surprisingly well with food and the sweet being what you’d traditionally pair with dessert.

Needless to say, we weren’t able to cover all the ground we wanted to in terms of our food and wine knowledge during our two weeks in Spain, but we we did our best to taste as much as possible (and we have the tighter pants to prove it!). That being said, if any of you have spent time in Spain and think we missed something major, please comment below and share it with us!

Cheers!

– PS

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