Spain’s culinary heritage is inextricably linked to its history. From rustic seafood to Michelin-starred restaurants, Heidi Fuller-love samples it all
Backed by Portugal, fringing France and fronting Morocco across the Mediterranean, Spain’s culinary heritage has been deeply influenced by the successive peoples who’ve settled here.
From the rice and saffron that were introduced by the Moors, to exotic products such as peppers, corn and potatoes that were bought back from the Americas, you can expect a succulent blend of ingredients which vary dramatically from region to region.
From rice dish paella, invented in the seaside town of Valencia to the goose barnacles that are perilously harvested along the rocky coast of Galicia, fresh seafood is one of the foodie highlights you can expect to enjoy on the Iberian peninsula. When it comes to meat, Spain’s Ibérico ham – produced from acorn-fed black pigs – is the best in the world, but vegetarians will also be wooed by succulent dishes such as tomato-rich gazpacho and fluffy, potato-packed tortillas.
The choice of eating venues is bewildering, too. Whether you love grazing in food markets like Barcelona’s Boqueria and Madrid’s Mercado San Miguel, gourmet dining at Michelin star restaurants such as Martin Berasategui’s Arzak in San Sebastián, or atmospheric snacking in one of Madrid’s century-old tapas bars, Spain is a food lovers’ paradise.
Home of the world’s oldest restaurant, Botín, which is famed for its crunchy roast suckling pig, Madrid makes a good starting point for a gourmet tour of Spain. Specialities to try here include cocido madrileño, a hearty chickpea, chorizo and morcilla stew. It’s best sampled at award-winning restaurant La Cruz Blanca de Vallecas, or in more rustic surroundings at cosy tavern Malacatín where they’ve been making this meaty dish since 1895.
Not for the faint of heart, tripe dish callos a la madrileña, which has been made here since the 16th century, is another Madrid must-try: for the best plate-load follow locals to popular eatery La Tasquería. You should also fill up on the city’s iconic fast food bocadillo de calamares – calamari-stuffed baguette – at El Brillante, or snack on succulent soldaditos de Pavía – battered cod marinated in paprika and lemon juice – at Casa Labra , one of the city’s century-old cafes.
A high-speed train will whisk you through Basque country, famed for its sidrerías cider houses, to the seaside city of San Sebastian, which is heaven for seafood fans. Head for the old town or the Gros district to sup on tapas-snack pintxos, including the local specialty Gilda, made with a plump anchovy wrapped in a spicy pickled pepper and served with an olive.
San Sebastian is rightly renowned for its world-class food scene, but it’s also worth heading for the neighbouring towns of Hondarribia and Zarauz, and the cobbled streets of Vitoria-Gasteiz, where innovative young chefs dish up fine food in a slightly humbler setting.
A few hours’ drive inland, Logroño at the heart of the celebrated wine-producing Rioja region, is also a magnet for food lovers. Spend time in calle Laurel and calle San Juan, two streets teeming with top-notch tapas bars and restaurants in the city’s old town, and then stop off to sip and sup in a string of bodegas and wineries near the country town of Ezcaray which is famed for its Rioja-macerated steak dish solomillo al vino tinto.
Zaragoza, the often overlooked capital city of Spain’s autonomous Aragón region lying beside the Ebro River, is also a great place for galloping gourmets.
Home to the magnificent Aljafería Palace and other ornate Moorish architectural marvels, Zaragoza’s iconic food delights include succulent barbecued milk-fed baby lamb dish ternasco and chilindron, a chicken stew with a rich tomato, pepper and onion sauce. Try both dishes – accompanied by crisp red wines from the neighbouring cities of Cariñena and Borja – in restaurants near the city’s historic quarter clustered around the 17th century Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar.
Alternatively, head along the coast to La Coruña, in northwest Spain, where Albariño and Ribeira Sacra wines made from the region’s celebrated godello grapes marry perfectly with the seafood for which this city is famed.
Back in buzzy Barcelona make a beeline for the atmospheric barrios of La Barceloneta and El Ensanche, or the narrow mediaeval streets of the Gothic Quarter and order deep-fried baby squid chipirones, salted cod, olives peppers and onion salad esqueixada, or la bomba, a beef-stuffed fried potato croquette topped with a garlicky aioli sauce.
End your succulent trip of Spain in the southerly city of Murcia. Open since 1914, Murcia’s Mercado de Verónicas is a vast feast for the senses set across two floors, where you’ll find the raw ingredients used to make classic local dishes such as rice and fish arroz caldero, bean stew michirones and cuttlefish and broad bean dish, chipirones con habas.
Sample them beneath glittering chandeliers in the city’s elegant Real Casino de Murcia restaurant and then set out on the bodega-dotted wine route which leads through the neighbouring region of Bullas where you’ll finish your gourmet trip on a high note as you sup on some of the country’s best-known wines.