From the neon lights and vibrant party scene of Benidorm to the remote mountain villages of the Sierra Nevada, there is always a true taste of Spain to be enjoyed by any visitor to this diverse and fascinating country.
At least once a year I make the journey to Arboleas, a tiny town buried in the craggy hills near Almeria in Southern Spain, to visit my Aunt. As an enthusiastic “foodie”, the variety of dishes I sample while I’m in Spain never fail to disappoint or sate my voracious appetite.
My last two-week Spanish excursion flashed by in a blur of bustling local markets, homemade Sangria, and scorching heat. However, at the risk of sounding like a wino, all of the best memories I have of this trip came from the local bar a short distance from my Aunt’s house.
Hot and Hungry
The first time I ventured into this hole in the wall was on a particularly boiling hot afternoon on the way back from a hike up into the hills behind my Aunt’s home. I had, perhaps foolishly, tried to take the trail the local farmer’s wife followed every afternoon with her herd of goats, and after two hours of baking under the afternoon sun, I knew I was ready for a long, cool drink.
My first impression on walking into the bar was that I had walked into an advert for San Miguel. A small group of elderly men were clustered in the corner around a television, all sipping from chilled bottles of the famous brew, which I have since been told is not even Spanish anymore, but brewed in the Philippines and partly owned by the Japanese! Anyway, there was an air of excitement in the air, and I soon realised from the barman’s preoccupation with the screen that today was one of the most important events in Spain’s sporting calendar – Le Classico! Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.
Having no particular allegiance to either team (impossible, of course, if you are Spanish) I allowed my attention to drift around the bar until my eyes fell upon the old chalkboard menu, and I realised that I had stumbled on the weekly tapas evening. Delectable thoughts of spicy choritzo, stuffed tomatoes and creamy ensaladilla rusa (Spanish potato salad) flooded into my mind, and I instantly knew where I was dragging the family to for dinner that night.
A local feast
Later that evening, heading back to the bar with family in tow, I was very impressed with the concept behind this village tapas night. Paying a fifteen Euro entrance fee to the bar allowed you to munch on as many of the dishes as you liked and it was certainly promising to see that the majority of the local community had turned out for the occasion – including the farmer’s wife, but without her herd of goats.
After what seemed like a lifetime of watching my uncle and the barman communicate in wild hand gestures as they re-lived the afternoon’s on-screen action, delicious fragrances eventually wafted out from the bar’s tiny kitchen. The first dish I managed to get my hands on was morcilla frita – a rich, spicy sausage. I was informed in broken English by the barman’s wife that morcilla frita is the first sausage to be made from a freshly butchered pig. After learning this delightful piece of trivia, I tried to ignore the photos of the plump prize winning pigs displayed behind the bar as I gorged myself on the intense flavour.
As the evening progressed, I found myself increasingly impressed by the wide array of dishes brought out from the kitchen, many of which I had never sampled before. One of my new favourites was undoubtedly the salted cod fritters with aliloi – small chunks of tender cod dipped into a creamy garlic sauce. The smoked fish and fruit pintxos was also a highlight, even though I would never have thought to eat a pair smoked mackerel with fresh fruit I was pleasantly surprised by the mouth watering result.
Of course, all of the usual favourites were present as well, including patatas bravas (Spanish fried potatoes with spicy tomato sauce), Catalan style beans and black olives, all seasoned with fresh garlic. It was a challenge for me to keep the urge to gorge at bay and move with the slow pace of the other diners in the bar. Spanish eating culture is a very slow, relaxed affair and something that I am certainly not well trained in. In fact, the only dish that slowed me down was the boguerones en escabeche – pickled and fried anchovies, which I skipped in favour of a what felt like a gallon of fruity, homemade Sangria.
When I was just about full to bursting and ready for bed, I discovered the food was only the start of the evening for the cheery crowd of locals from the village. Before I knew it, there was a guitar and everyone in the crowded bar was singing whilst clinging onto their neighbours, swaying merrily from side to side – myself included.
Of course, the morning following this decadent evening of over indulgence was not nearly as much fun, so rather than exploring any more of the local wildlife trails, I decided a day spent relaxing by the pool was definitely in order.
Fill your face in Spain
If your schedule allows, try and extend your culinary experiences from the tourist trap of set menus in cities like Madrid and Barcelona. Even though a plate of paella and a glass of wine for 10 Euros may feel like excellent value for a hearty meal, it is perhaps not an accurate reflection of the very social and incredibly diverse Spanish dining culture.
It may sound like an obvious hint, but take it from a seasoned tapas eater – don’t fill up on bread. Good tapas restaurants offer a delectable array of dishes, so while bread dipped in olive oil may seem like a reasonable option at first, it is much more rewarding to wait for the more unusual dishes that are served later on.
Keep an open mind when it comes to new tapas dishes and remember that the way it looks may not necessarily reflect the luscious treat it really is. That’s the great thing about tapas – if you don’t like the dish, then nothing is wasted as you can be sure someone in the vicinity will enjoy it and there is another tasty morsel waiting for you to try.
Top tapas in the heart of the city
If you don’t think you’ll make it out to the Spanish countryside to savour the flavours of authentic home cooked tapas, Madrid and Barcelona boast gastrobars a plenty and many of them offer a delicious contemporary take on Spain’s legendary cuisine. Here’s a selection in each of Spain’s glorious cities, all well worth hunting down: