Spanish cuisine: special and spectacular
The Spanish are regarded as a passionate, family-oriented and deeply religious people, but did you also know that they are Europe's foodie fanatics, spending more on food per head than any other nation in Europe?
The Spanish are regarded as a passionate, family-oriented and deeply religious people, but did you also know that they are Europe's foodie fanatics, spending more on food per head than any other nation in Europe? When you consider how inexpensive it is to eat in Spain, this fact seems even more mind-boggling. Until, that is, you actually experience a true Spanish dining extravaganza for yourself – you'll soon be hooked and will wonder how you ever managed without your daily dose of Spanish cuisine.
Spaniards' attitude to food is extremely healthy. They do not obsess over calorie-counting or low-fat options, nor do they suffer from obesity epidemics, making the whole experience of eating in Spain so far-removed from life in the 'Anglicised' world that the two are almost polar opposites. That's not to say that you can't grab a quick burger in pretty much every town in Spain, but rather the mass-marketing that makes the western world's awful diet so ubiquitous everywhere else hasn't really penetrated Spain. The big chains have tried but, faced with competition from locally produced, fresh, tasty and wholesome dishes in every corner of the country, they've admitted defeat.
Because of this, food in Spain is likely to remain rigidly traditional for many decades to come. Not great news for vegetarians or lovers of some of the more exotic cuisines that are now so prevalent in the UK and much of Europe (getting a good curry in Spain can prove quite troublesome, for example), but heaven for everyone else.
Eating in Andalucia
As ever with Spain, the country's sheer scale means there's huge regional variety throughout, and the nation’s cuisine is no different. Up in the north – where winters can be surprisingly wet and cold – meals are extremely hearty affairs, where suckling pig, steaming broths and rich stews dominate. Catalonia has a cuisine all of its own, as does Valencia, while every inland pueblo will have its own take on a number of classics.
Andalusian cuisine, though, is undoubtedly the most iconic in Spain. We've made it this far without mentioning the famous tapas, but they really are unavoidable in any discussion about Andalusian cuisine, for this is the tapas' homeland. The same could be said for Paella, which, although a Valencian invention, is extremely commonplace throughout Andalucia.
Tapas (meaning 'lid' or 'cover' in Spanish) originated from the bodegas of Granada, Cordoba and Castille as free pieces of bread for patrons to place over their drink to keep off the flies. Over time, these 'lids' became more decorative and were soon just as important as the drink they were protecting beneath. Today, every right-thinking bar in Andalucia will serve some form of tapas (although the British and fellow expatriate bartenders have yet to fully embrace this oh-so social way of dining), sometimes free with every round of drinks, although most likely sold at an extremely reasonable price.
Additional dishes and drinks that can trace their origins to Andalucia include sherry, gazpacho, Spanish omelette (Tortilla), migas de Harina, jamones de Jabugo and all manner of olive oils and dishes.
Breakfast in Andalucia
On any bright, sunny morning in Andalucia, along the paseos of the Costa del Sol, through the tapestry of winding streets in ancient Seville, or while filling up with gas at some faceless service station in the heart of the dusty sierra, it's not unusual to catch a whiff of something rather familiar.
The unmistakeable aroma of dough and sugar fusing together over heat will transport your sense instantly to a donut vendor from some faraway fairground of your past; sweet and enticing, your interest is immediately piqued, your appetite shook from its slumber and cranked into overdrive.
That's churros you can smell, and they're a Spanish breakfast staple, from Barcelona to Cadiz. Churros are fried lengths of sweet dough, rolled in sugar and dipped into a steaming mug of hot chocolate. Eaten for breakfast. And by everyone: from stick-thin catwalk types to those whose health might be better served by chowing down on something less calorific. Inexpensive, delicious and great either on-the-go or as part of a relaxed cafe breakfast, churros are one of Spain's best-loved dishes, and an increasingly popular sight throughout the rest of the world.
Still, not everybody appreciates or enjoys a dish so sweet for breakfast. Savoury dishes abound in every cafe throughout the region, including all manner of omelettes, eggs benedict, toasted rustic bread topped with garlic, fresh tomato, olive oil and thin serrano ham, classic toasted sandwiches and, of course, your classic Full English, available everywhere along the Costa del Sol.
Lunch in Andalucia
The growing influence of the expatriate community in the Costa del Sol has impacted upon the traditionally sedate pace of life in Andalucia: traffic jams, morning rushes, school runs, long lines – jams, rushes, runs and lines – not the greatest cultural import, but a necessary evil in this increasingly competitive world of ours.
Yes, Spain's “mañana” lifestyle is endangered; the Grey Squirrel of Anglo-Saxon business practices has landed, threatening the very stability of Spain's indigenous way of life. But one stronghold remains – lunch. And it shall never be taken, at least not while the sight of previously stressed out businessmen in suits relaxing in the sun and enjoying a lengthy al fresco lunch remains so commonplace throughout Andalucia.
Lunch in Andalucia is the most important meal of the day, and is something that is treasured by one and all, even (especially?) by those ‘ignoramus’ expats who traditionally ignore most of Spain's cultural kinks and are evidently here for the climate, property, healthcare, and nothing more. An Andalusian lunch is something to savour and cherish, and even the immigrants think so.
This is how it works: at approximately 2pm, pick a cafe, restaurant, bodega or bar, grab a table outdoors and ask to hear the Menu del dia (menu of the day). This three-course offering will be fantastically well-priced (expect to pay between €7 and €10 anywhere along the coast, and even less inland) and consists of either a soup of the day with bread, a salad or a tortilla for starters, a choice of three or four mains (usually a grilled meat with fries, or a fish dish) and topped off with a fresh dessert, coffee and wine or water. Washed down with a quick caña (small beer), there really are few better ways to dine than this.
You may need an hour or two to finish it all, then definitely a little siesta afterwards, but it's all well worth it.
Tapas treats are more a weekend thing in Andalucia. They make for the perfect snack as you and your friends hop from bar to bar, sampling the delicacies on offer in each. Some bars will be tapas-centric, whereby the entire experience is centred around selecting and devouring any one of potentially hundreds of different tapas. In other bars, they're a side order: on offer, but not the reason for visiting.
Either way, you cannot help but fall in love with this wonderful tradition. All tastes are catered for (although again, vegetarians may be restricted to Russian salad, tortilla and patatas brava) and every dish imaginable can be rustled up, including many that will be new to even the most seasoned tapas aficionado. This is the beauty of tapas – the endless invention, the endless discovery, the wide array of flavours and influences. Enjoy with a cool San Miguel, a refreshing sangria or a sturdy glass of red wine; you'll not forget this experience in a hurry.
Dinnertime in Andalucia
The main thing you will have to get used to when dining in Andalucia are the time differences. While breakfast and lunch are taken at roughly the same time as the rest of Europe, dinner occurs much later in Spain than elsewhere on the continent. If you are eating at a restaurant or have been invited for dinner by friends, don't expect to be tucking into anything – not even a starter – before 9pm, and even 10pm might only bring bread, a dish of olives and the first glasses of wine or beer.
Even during weekdays, dinner can run way past midnight, and don't be surprised to see the entire family (children included) laughing together until the early hours of the morning at weekends. Therefore, if you are lucky enough to receive an invite to a typical family gathering in Spain, NEVER refuse, and be sure to set your internal clock to their time: baling early after nibbling on your host's tablecloth is never a good look.
Alcohol in Andalucia
The Spanish are a very headstrong people so, despite their undoubted love for their own family and friends, they're also always right. They know best. So when Juan tries to grab his car keys after a night on the tiles, gentle dissuasion isn't going to work. Not every Spaniard drinks and drives (it's actually the minority that do so), but drink-driving is noticeably less taboo than in the UK and Ireland. The dangers are evident, the Guardia Civil presence visible, yet the urge to 'do as the Spanish do' can sometimes be just as intoxicating. Hence, if you're driving, don't even be tempted to drink.
In terms of attitude towards alcohol, the Spanish appear to have a much more mature relationship with it than many northern Europeans. It's cheaper, which is perhaps why it's seen as less of a treat and more of an everyday thing. Spaniards grow up with wine at their table from an early age, so perhaps don't really feel the urge to go out and get blind drunk at every opportunity.
Still, there's nothing wrong with enjoying yourself, and the alcohol of Andalucia certainly allows for that. Spanish Rioja is among the most full-bodied of reds there is, and is often served chilled throughout Andalucia, with all classifications (joven, crianza, reserva and gran reserva) fantastically delicious. For a twist, the Spanish sometimes add cola to their red wine to create Calimocho; Fanta or Sprite to create Tinto de Verano, or fruit juices to create the iconic sangria. Sherrys and Manzanillas are also wonderfully crisp and delightful specialities of the region.
Then there's the beer. San Miguel, Cruzcampo, Mahou, Alhambra – all Spanish, all excellent when chilled by the beach, accompanied by food or clasped tightly in hand as you totter over the dancefloor to the pulsating basslines of the latest chart-topping Europop hit.
Supermarkets in Andalucia
Extensive research has been done by British and American firms into creating the perfect supermarket experience. Polls have been taken, focus groups have been consulted, and many millions have been spent. The result, in their eyes, is perfect: blast the shopper with warm air as they enter (reverse with cold air if it's a warm day outside), fill their nostrils with the aromas of coffee, freshly baked bread of flowers, and have them enter at the fresh fruit and veg aisle, always.
Not so in Spain. Most supermarkets appear to care little about their appearance, let alone their first impressions. Smells upon entering range from bleach to pungent fish, and the layout is guaranteed to be different in each and every one. This is their charm: they're not trying. They're not competing. They're just selling goods. Everyday goods and groceries that they know you need, so why try harder? There's something uniquely Spanish about this approach.
So, forget your ready and washed bags of fruit salad; your aisle upon aisle of ready-made microwaveable meals; your ethnic food section; your two-for one offers and weekly deals; your world cheeses and wines... all you'll get is Spanish produce (maybe some British stuff, if you're prepared to pay a hefty premium), with no-frills displays and uniformly low prices rather than offers or discounts. This is fine, but as a British expat, the lack of choice (or perceived lack of choice) in your typical Spanish supermarket is likely to be one of your main, perhaps only, bugbears of life in Spain.
Still, prices are cheaper and eating out is always an inexpensive delight, so we can't really complain now, can we? Tuck in!