Iberian Peninsula: Spain

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Iberian Peninsula: Spain

Spain, situated on the westernmost peninsula of Europe and opening to the Atlantic Ocean on the northwest, historically has been oriented toward the Mediterranean both in its climate and in the temperament of its people. First settled by Celts, then invaded by Phoenicians, Greeks, and finally the Romans, who consolidated the peninsula into one province, ancient Spain became one of the most important agricultural regions of the Roman Empire. Following the Romans came the Goths, then Nordic invaders, and finally the Arabs, so that during the Middle Ages the country fragmented into many small kingdoms. Those former kingdoms roughly correspond to the provinces and regional cultures comprising modern Spain. Each of the invading peoples added its own identity to the rich mixture known as Spanish cuisine.

The Main Cultural Regions

Galicia, which has Celtic roots, is in the far northwest of Spain, and to the east are Asturias and the Basque country, whose culture and language predate Roman Spain. To the east of Asturias are Navarre and Catalonia, two important kingdoms during the Middle Ages that established Spain as a major maritime power in the Mediterranean. Along the western border with Portugal is Extremadura, and in the Spanish heartland to the east are Old and New Castile. Along the Mediterranean coast in the South, opposite Africa, are Andalusia and the Comunidades of Valencia and Murcia, all with distinctive regional cookeries and internationally known wines. The Arabic influence was strong in these regions and lingered in many aspects of the culture, perhaps best typified by the great Moorish palace of the Alhambra in Granada. Of course many islands are part of Spain, among them the Balearic Islands of Minorca, Majorca, and Ibiza and the Canary Islands off the Atlantic coast of Africa. No matter how Spanish culture is studied, it is obvious that this huge diversity rather than any one element of it defines the cuisine of modern Spain.

Added to this diversity is the climate. In the northern coastal area the weather is generally cool, even rainy, whereas in the central and southern parts of the country the climate is hot and dry like other parts of the Mediterranean. Thus even in its kitchen gardens and agriculture, the country exhibits a great diversity. In addition several gastronomic riches of the New World, including the tomato, the potato, the capsicum pepper, cacao, and vanilla, reached Europe via the Spanish Empire.

The Characteristics of Spanish Eating Habits

Not until the late twentieth century did a "national" Spanish characteristic for the times and places of food consumption emerge. Previously the family determined such patterns locally, but new family structures and work customs shifted the patterns dramatically. The typical pattern became two main meals (midday dinner and supper), a light breakfast, and two optional meals (tapas and merienda ). Breakfast, the first meal, generally corresponds to the European continental breakfast, consisting of a quickly eaten, fortifying menu based on pastries, small breads, coffee, milk, butter, and marmalade, and it is essentially of French origin. Alternatively something totally Spanish, such as churros and porras (fritters) can be substituted.

Main meals. The most typical feature of the meal schedule is the tendency for Spaniards to delay the timing as much as possible. When midday dinner is adjusted to the work schedule, it usually takes place at around 2:00 p.m. On the other hand, when festivities or vacations allow more flexibility, Spaniards tend to postpone it until 4:00 in the afternoon for relaxation or friendly reunions or because of the earlier consumption of tapas. The most significant feature of the Spanish midday dinner is to prolong it as late into the day as possible with the help of desserts, liqueurs, and coffee. Its only rival activity is the siesta or midday nap. This dinner involves a major consumption of food. After the Spanish Civil War (19361939) families began to eat at the table three main dishes plus appetizers, cheeses, and dessert. Subsequently this pattern devolved into two main dishes and dessert.

The traditional Spanish supper usually takes place around 10:00 p.m., also in the home. It is characterized by its pretension of being light, although it consists again of two main dishes and dessert. Vegetables and fish are often preferred to assure that it is less heavy than the midday meal.

Meals between meals. Spaniards, being of a relaxed, Mediterranean temperament, have created a minimeal between breakfast and midday dinner. This meal, called an appetizer elsewhere in the world, is referred to in Spain by the verb tapeo (to eat tapas). Drinks and food are of equal importance to eating tapas. It is also popular among Spaniards to not eat the tapas in one establishment but rather to stroll through various eateries throughout the course of the morning.

A classical tapa can be eaten with a toothpick, in small pots or bowls with a fork, or on top of a piece of bread. All of these variations have their own descriptive nomenclatures based on appearance: pinchos, cazuelitas, and montados. Drinks of low alcoholic content, such as beer and wine, are always drunk with the tapas. In the South wines such as Jerez, Fino, and Mazanilla are served. Usually the higher the alcoholic content of the beverage served, the smaller the quantity of food consumed until, at the far extreme, tapas simply become dried fruits and olives.

Merienda. Merienda is the meal between the midday meal and supper. Generally it is a meal for socializing during afternoon visits or during a game of cards, or for children and the elderly who require extra nourishment between fixed meals. The drink most representative of the Spanish merienda is chocolate. Spanish-style chocolate is characterized by its thickness, although it is traditional to drink it in small cups called jícaras accompanied by absorbent cookies that can be dipped into the chocolate.

Another merienda, easy to eat during journeys, is the bocadillo. This is the equivalent of the sandwich, but it is prepared with a whole loaf of Spanish bread. During times of food shortages, bocadillos have been filled with sliced quince or a little grated chocolate. The more classical bocadillos are made of serrano ham and manchego cheese.

The bocadillo has undergone a gradual evolution. It is used as a quick meal suitable for any hour of the day since all of the basic types of nutrients can be put into the loaf, such as chorizo (a spicy pork sausage), calamares a la romana (squid fried in butter), sardines, or tortilla a la española (Spanish omelet). For excursions to the countryside something special is created, bocadillo filled with breaded filet of beef.

The weekly meal cycle. The Spanish housewife generally makes a clear distinction between the everyday meal and the festive meal, especially on Sundays. Traditionally it was possible for working husbands and school-children to eat in their own homes every day, and only manual laborers were obliged to eat at work. Housewives created a varied menu by distributing dishes representative of each day of the weekfor example, Monday macaroni, Tuesday lentils, Wednesday stew, Thursday broiled fish, Friday porridge, Saturday salads, and Sunday paella. Depending on the economic means of the family, beef could be a choice, especially for Sundays. This custom continues in the "dish of the day" on restaurant menus.

The Seasonal Cycle

In spite of the geographical diversity of Spain, a shared seasonal climatic variation is common to all parts of the country. Thus, except for the colder regions, summer tends to be hot throughout Spain, which defines the character of summer meals. The foods of the warm season favor easy preparation and light, refreshing ingredients, such as salads and gazpachos. The basic ingredients of a typical salad are lettuce and tomatoes, and the simple salad dressingolive oil, wine vinegar, and saltis prepared at the beginning of the meal by the guests themselves. This custom has continued in public restaurants. When the server places the cruet stand on the table, it is a sign that one of the dishes will include lettuce.

The "king" of all the first course dishes is gazpacho, one of the great contributions of Spanish cooking to hot weather cuisine. It is similar to a cold tomato soup, but in gazpacho all the ingredients, ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, green sweet peppers, garlic, olive oil, salt, and vinegar, are raw and are liquefied. Cold water is added to thin the soup. At restaurants it is served with garnishes, consisting of the same ingredients cut into small pieces, and small bits of bread.

In Spain the cold season is associated with the consumption of legumes. Lentils are part of a tasty repertoire of everyday meals, but when Spaniards want to feel satisfied, they think of garbanzo stew. When they want to feel extremely full, they think of the fabada asturiana. The fabada is a thick stew of white beans and pork products from the region of Asturias on the coast of northern Spain.

The Festive Cycle

The celebrations that have influenced Spanish gastronomy the most are the religious feasts, notably Christmas, a time when major excess prevails. The traditional feast days are Christmas Eve dinner on 24 December, Christmas Day dinner on 25 December, New Year's supper on 1 January, Three Kings supper (Epiphany Eve) on 5 January, Epiphany breakfast on 6 January, and Epiphany dinner on 6 January.

During the Middle Ages, Christmas Eve dinner followed a vigil, and from this period a light dish called sopa de almendras (almond soup) survived as a nostalgic relic. Only after midnight mass, or misa de gallo, could the great gastronomic excesses begin. Eventually this became the preeminent family dinner. The traditional dishes have continued, although they have evolved over time. Earlier the meal consisted of savoy or red cabbage and fish, usually red porgy, but grilled leg of lamb has become the porgy's competitor.

Certain Spanish confections, such as turrones, marzapán, and polvorones, convey a nostalgic dimension to Christmas, since they are only consumed at this time. The Christmas meal is family oriented, and turkey is the main dish. New Year's festivities tend to lose their family orientation, since New Year's Eve is a supper prelude to a party outside the home. Consequently it is light and easy to prepare, generally a cold meal of various seafoods, especially prawns. The cheapest and most common prawns are baptized with plenty of Catalan Cava (Spanish champagne).

Three Kings' supper on Epiphany Eve is a magical night for children, since they wait for gifts from the Three Kings of the East. The breakfast on Epiphany morning would not be of major importance were it not for the fact that the Magi have brought a roscón, a large, round, braided bread flavored with orange-flower water and decorated with crystal sugar, chopped almonds, and dried fruits. Spaniards give each other roscones de Reyes until every house has a great accumulation of them.

Lent is a period of recovery, forty days of penitence preceding the celebrations of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The traditional vigils and fasts during these forty days have developed many variations over time, yet the vigil dishes and the dishes of nourishment for days of fasting are a form of nostalgia or remembrance. The representative dish of a vigil is a potaje consisting mainly of garbanzos, dried codfish, spinach or cabbage, hard-boiled eggs, and a touch of cumin. During Lenten fasting one characteristic sweet, called torrija, is consumed. It is made with sliced bread soaked in milk and sugar, dipped in an egg batter, fried in olive oil, and drowned in wine, orange juice, or honey.

In addition to these great religious observances, each region of Spain has its own patron saint, who is celebrated with some characteristic meal. The confections made in the saint's honor add a special note to the extraordinary fare of the celebration and have given rise to numerous types of rosquillas, panecillos, and bollos ornamented with saintly symbols. Remarkably bakers invent new recipes for modern festivities, so many traditional observances are revitalized on a daily basis.

The Regional Cookeries of Spain

Because Spain has varied regional identities and diverse agricultural districts, regional cooking has acquired a special meaning. Besides the different languages and dialects, regionalism is thoroughly manifested in highly varied gastronomic traditions. In spite of this localization, many dishes have become popular over the entire country.

Local inns and taverns have a commercial interest in exposing consumers to dishes representative of the region. These can be identified by their last names, such as a la gallega, a la asturiana, a la riojana, a la catalana, a la valenciana, a la murciana, a la andaluza, just to mention a few specialties. Obviously these dishes are not always accurately prepared outside their regional settings, but they do allude to distinct culinary styles. Each regional capital has centers, called Casas Regionales, representing the cultures of other regions. These centers normally include restaurants that serve food typical of the regions they represent. All of Spain's regional cookeries are accompanied by an enormous diversity of wines that gradually have become certified by their nominations of origin, including sparkling Catalans, red Riojanos with a ribera del Duero body, and full-flavored Andalusians, plus a series of local liqueurs, the outstanding one being Anis.

Basque cookery. The importance of Basque cookery rests on the great Basque love for gastronomy and on the high quality of the natural products from that region, of which fish is the most important. In Basque country the clubs called Sociedad Gastronomica are exclusively for men. Whatever food they prepare themselves, they must also eat. The purpose of this society is to conserve traditional Basque cookery, but the members also are mindful of creative new cooking techniques. Out of this region great chefs, including those from the Basque part of France, given its close proximity, have emerged with innovative talents. In any city of Spain a restaurant run by a Basque chef will be well known for the high quality of its cookery.

Of the fish caught along the Basque coasts, the most notable is hake, which is also one of the most expensive. However, its closest relative, weakfish, is generally less expensive and equally tasteful. The best dark-fleshed fish also come from these waters, such as bonito and tuna. Basque sardines and anchovies have earned international popularity, and an industry has developed around preserving sardines and salted anchovies in oil.

Among the dishes most representative of Basque cookery, hake in green sauce stands out, as does marmitako, a stew composed of chopped bonito and potatoes with olive oil. The Basque secret of preparing codfish al pil-pil is the peculiar pan-shaking movement that must occur at the correct moment of cooking to emulsify the sauce. The typical wine from this region is txacolí, a young wine of low alcoholic content.

Castilian cookery. The central part of Spain is an extensive region known historically as the two Castiles. It is an area characterized by plateaus and a continental climate, cold winters and hot, dry summers. The area is rich in cereal products and herds of wool-producing animals, both sheep and goats. During the cold season residents consume legumes, most commonly garbanzos and lentils. Castilian-style garbanzos have given their name to the famous dish el cocido madrileño. Grain products hold an important place among the region's numerous shepherds, who make a light mealby frying flour or pieces of bread in olive oil, garlic, ground red pepper, and baconcalled migas de pastor.

From Castile comes the best quality Spanish lamb, which when grilled attains a level of specialty by virtue of its utter simplicity. This area of Spain is also famous for its traditional method of grilling lamb and suckling pig. The cold, dry winters are traditionally the time for pork butchering, resulting in the famous chorizo sausage. This region also produces the famous manchego sheep's milk cheese, which gets its aromatic flavor from the wild herbs growing in the pastures where the sheep graze.

The cookery of Valencia. This style of Spanish cookery is famous for its clever use of rice. It has been said that the region's cooks are capable of producing 365 rice recipes, one for each day of the year. The two most famous rice recipes from this region are paella valenciana and paella alicantina.

Spanish rice is cooked with a precise proportion of grain to water so, at the end of the cooking process, the grains are perfectly fluffy, with no stickiness from excess water. The bomba variety of rice is ideal for paella, since it absorbs the stock surrounding it, producing the best texture.

The classic paella valenciana is composed of elements from the kitchen garden, chicken, rabbit, vegetables, and snails. Paella alicantina is essentially composed of seafood. It is visually attractive, presented at the table with shellfish, lobsters, shrimp, and prawns arranged radiating from the center. In both types of paella, saffron is essential to give the rice a yellow color and a distinctive flavor.

Andalusian cookery. Andalusia is one of the world's major producers of olive oil, and it has a bountiful seacoast and hot Mediterranean weather. These characteristics have given the regional cuisine its primary features, the refreshing gazpachos, the fried fish, and a style of cookery generally easy to prepare and accompanied by richly flavored wines. Andalusian fish fries are especially famous, and the best cured ham comes from this region.

The high quality of the region's ham is due to the fact that the cerdo ibérico (Iberian pig) breed is raised mostly in this region. The pigs' special diet in the pasture and a unique curing process contribute to the fine flavor of these hams, which are classified as serrano (plain cured) and bellota (acorn ham). Bellota comes from Iberian pigs fed on acorns, which achieves a flavor somewhat on the sweet side. This ham is of such prestige that it has been called Spanish "caviar."

Other regions. In addition to the culinary regions already mentioned, Galicia includes the best seafood, Rioja produces the highest quality Spanish wines, Catalan cookery is notable, and many subregions are incorporated within the larger provinces. The cookery of Galicia in particular benefits from the rugged coastline, ideal for nurturing quality seafood. Furthermore, its inland prairies produce beef and veal famous throughout the country. The delicious empanadas of medieval origin are made with the products of both land and sea.

The cookeries of Navarre and of the Rioja region enjoy the benefit of being in areas with special microclimates, and they are privileged with many bays and river valleys, where rich soils produce appealing vegetables. These vegetables are the ingredients in excellent stews that have encouraged mammoth feasts.

Catalan cooks, in their desires to rescue local traditions and to blend them with an innovative curiosity, compete with the Basques for first place in the Spanish kitchen. Their emphasis on grills and wood-burning fires is most likely of Roman heritage. As in Roman times clay tiles are used in cooking mushrooms, vegetables, fish, and meats. Catalan sauces or picadas are made by pounding mixtures of aromatic ingredients, such as garlic, dried fruits, tomatoes, herbs, olive oil, salt, and even cookies to give them a surprisingly sweet flavor. The weight of tradition is also reflected in Catalonia's varied ornamental confectionery.

Other regional foods, of no less importance, include the Murcian, with its fish chowders and the cookery of the Balearic archipelago, probably the most ancient style of cooking in Spain. Extremadura on the Portuguese border and the Canary Islands possess culinary riches inherited from Spain's age of discovery. From their cities came the curious voyagers who inaugurated Spain's expansion into a world empire, the true beginning of globalization.


Balzola, Asun, and Alicia Ríos. Cuentos Rellenos. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Gaviota, 1999. (19 cuentos relativos a la tradición oral gastronómica española).

Ríos, Alicia, and Lourdes March, The Heritage of Spanish Cooking. New York: Random House, 1991.

Alicia Ríos

Translated from the Spanish by Enrique Balladares-Castellón

Paella valenciana

The paella is the pan used to cook this legendary dish, and valenciana refers to Valencia, the region of Spain on the shores of the Mediterranean where it originated. It is typically cooked outdoors in the countryside on a dry wood fire. The paella must be set at a suitable height to be surrounded by the flames during the first part of the cooking, and the fire must be kept burning at the correct strength.

Generally a good paella depends not so much on the quality of the ingredients as on combining all the components in the correct proportions. The five basic elementsoil, water, rice, heat, and cooking receptacleneed to be balanced with an almost mathematical precision. The experience and personal touch of whoever is in charge of the cooking are also of utmost importance.

The preparation of a paella in the countryside is a ritualistic festive occasion, which can sometimes turn into a gastronomic debate! The relaxed, lighthearted atmosphere is punctuated with jokes and comments on the progress of the food.

The experience culminates when the paella is deemed ready, removed from the fire, and carried to the table.


6½ oz. (200 gr) fresh or dried large lima (butter) beans, or fava (broad) beans, soaked overnigh

4½ cups (2 qt. / 2 l) water

cup (5 fl. oz. / 155 ml) olive oil

1½ lb. (750 gr) chicken, in chunks

1 lb. (500 gr) rabbit or lean pork, in chunks

8 oz. (250 gr) green beans, trimmed and halved

1 tomato (3½ oz. / 100 gr) peeled and finely chopped

1 teaspoon paprika


12 small land snails or 1 sprig rosemary

2 pinches saffron

2½ cups (13 oz. / 410 gr) medium grain rice.

Put the lima beans on to boil in 2 cups (16 fl oz. / 500 ml ) of water.

Heat the oil in an 18-in. (45-cm) paella (shallow metal pan) and fry the chicken and rabbit chunks, turning to ensure even cooking. Add the green beans and fry gently. Keeping the heat low, add the tomato, then the paprika, immediately followed by the rest of the water.

Add the lima beans with the cooking water. Add salt and bring quickly to a boil, then turn down the heat and continue cooking until the meat is cooked (4560 minutes).

Add the snails or rosemary. Check the seasoning and add the saffron. Turn up the heat and add the rice, spreading it out as evenly as possible. Cook quickly for the first 10 minutes then turn down the heat gradually for another 810 minutes.

Taste the rice to check if it is done. The grains should be soft but still quite firm inside. Remove from the heat and allow to rest 5 minutes before serving. Serves 4.

Lourdes March