Not only does food and drink taste amazingly good in Spain but it looks so enticing too! Gastronomic traditions are respected here and great thought often goes in to the appearance, ceremony and overall presentation of food. Catering professionals can spend years learning the necessary skills that we often take for granted so we thought we’d highlight just some of the artistry that we appreciate in Spanish Gastronomy and have been enjoying along with our clients since we set up Totally Spain in the year 2000.
Where do you start when writing about the art of gastronomy in Spain? Social media channels buzz with images of the stunning displays from the Boqueria food market in Barcelona and the mouth-watering pintxos lining the vibrant tapas bars in San Sebastian always look and are irresistible. But sometimes you don’t need to go any further than a local bar or restaurant where a simple platter of perfectly sliced cured jamon will have you appreciating all of the artistry involved in bringing the tasty and attractive dish to your table.
1 The Fine-Slicing of the Spanish Jamon
If you’ve ever tried to slice Spanish jamon at home, you know why we call it an art. The slices come out thick and chewy – exactly the opposite of what it’s supposed to be like. In any good Spanish bar or restaurant, the ‘cortador’ will have selected a jamon that its perfectly cured and secured in the ‘jamonero’ or ham stand. Special ham knives will be sharpened and the outer layer of the ham cut away and then, when you place your order, your ham will be sliced as thinly as is humanly possible. The difference in the look and taste of these slivers is astonishing. You can almost see through the translucent white part. Good jamon cutters are highly sought after and often work the wedding circuits where the fees for a ‘cortador de jamon’ are at a premium. If you can’t get invited to a Spanish wedding, don’t worry – we can recommend a good place to see a great ‘cortador’ in action and of course, taste the end result. If you think you have what it takes to carve a Spanish jamon and want to purchase one, check out this highly informative video. You might also be curious to learn more about the competitive jamon slicing events that take place all over Spain including this one run by the National Association of Ham Cutters at Valladolid (website in Spanish) here. And you can read our post all about Extremadura which is known for its great jamon here.
2 Sherry Serving with a Twist
Another skill to be admired is the art of serving sherry straight from its wooden barrel. The word ‘venencia’ is the name of the cylindrical container at the end of a long flexible shaft used to scoop the sherry out of the barrel and the person who does it is called a ‘venenciador’. You only need to look at the photo to see that the attire worn as well as the pouring skill involved is something beautiful to look at. If you’d like more detail on how and why it’s done you can see it explained and demonstrated in this video in English here. Sherry has been enjoying a renaissance in foodie circles over the past decade and we regularly arrange sherry tastings and winery visits for our clients. If you like your ‘oloroso’ or ‘fino’ or want to learn more about the different types of sherries, check out our post about the wonderful Jerez where many of Spain’s great sherries are produced. And you can check out the many different traditional costumes that are worn and the events where venenciadores are to be found.
3 The Perfectly Prepared Anchovy
Another speciality but this time from Cantabria is the hallowed anchovy. Filleting anchovies is really the simplest of tasks and processes but it’s only when you see one of the workers delicately yet swiftly prepare the fish and then taste the result that you’ll see why it’s regarded as a form of art here. The very best anchovies will have not one spine left in them. We can arrange for you to visit a top producer to see the process and we can also recommend many restaurants where the anchovy is treated like royalty. Once you’ve tried a plate of the best spineless anchovies, dressed with a top quality olive oil and served with delicious roasted peppers, you’ll never go back! See what else you should eat and drink in Cantabria, here.
4 Naturally Bubbly Asturian Cider
Something you’ll notice everywhere in Asturias is the unusual way they serve their cider to give it some fizz, either directly from the enormous keg, as you see above or from a large green (often unlabelled) bottle. You can, of course, pour it yourself from a height but after many attempts and significant spillage, we prefer to have the resident ‘escanciador’ or server pour it for us (see how it’s done here). That way we guarantee we won’t splash ourselves or anybody else and most of the cider gets inside the glass too! It’s a sight to be seen and one of the many reasons to visit Asturias. The art of pouring cider is recognised annually in Asturias when they hold the Campeonato de Escanciadores to select the region’s best pourer. If you’ve never been to Asturias, you should read our post about the Northern Spanish region here…
5 The “Oh So Pretty” Pintxos
You don’t need us to tell you that the tapas and pintxos bars throughout Spain are an art form unto themselves. The level and intensity of work that goes into so many of these miniature dishes is overwhelming and a credit to the imagination of chefs that produce them. In San Sebastian, it really is a form of high art (and exquisitely tasty too)! Check out our post on San Sebastian which was European City of Culture for 2016 to learn more about this great city. If you can’t make it to Northern Spain, we can recommend lots of great bars throughout Spain that are revered locally for the astonishing tapas that are also well worth sinking your teeth into. We can also arrange a tapas cooking class in either English or Spanish, if you’d like to try to make your own tapas!
6 When A Michelin-Star Chef Gets Their Hands on Your Plate
You can’t talk about San Sebastian without referring to the Michelin-starred chefs in the area who are internationally recognised for the presentation of their dishes as well as the taste of the food. What you see, is rarely what you get, and many dishes are deconstructed, re-constructed or at the very least re-interpreted. If you’d like to see just how spectacular and artistic the food is in the North, you should read our post about Northern Spain. We can book tables at a number of Michelin-starred tables in the San Sebastian area and throughout Spain and Portugal. See how one of our clients did exactly that combination here.
Of course, it would be unfair to suggest that all the Michelin action is in the North. One of the Michelin chefs attracting a lot of media attention is the Madrid-based chef behind DiverXO. David Munoz has just opened a place in London called StreetXO and if you find his own appearance a little unconventional, well, his restaurant interiors are the same and so are his dishes. A glance at the plate above suggests exactly that. We like this video where the chef even calls his dish a canvas and this even more artistically driven video is also well worth a peek if you’d like to get inside the brain of a Michelin-star chef!
8 Fish that Is Cooked to Perfection
Sometimes the art lies in the honesty of a well cooked meal. If you’ve been to Spain, you’ll know that fish is taken extremely seriously here, no matter what the occasion. Even the simpler dishes involving the likes of the humble hake – known as merluza – are beautifully cooked and served up in style in practically every bar and restaurant in the land. It’s only when you try to prepare it yourself that you appreciate the skill required to cook the inside to perfection while ensuring the skin is toasted brown. Well worth trying! There are lots of other ‘posher’ fish worth sampling, and of course the seafood is out of this world, but we always find ourselves amazed at the artistry at play in the ‘simpler’ dishes too!
9 Paella – Made to Order
And speaking of simple dishes, one of the simplest dishes (or the most humble in origin at least) is paella from Valencia but actually it’s one of the hardest to pull off properly. We’ve written about this Spanish classic and actually recommend waiting to order this in a place that specialises in rice dishes. (You should definitely avoid ordering this in anything that might be construed as a “tourist trap”.) We love twists on this typical rice recipe and one of these is fideua (see above) which is also a tricky one to prepare. We can recommend places for you to try both of these and we can tip you off on where to find a paella competition – which is a great way to observe the preparation and presentation skills used by the chefs.
10 Gazpacho – So Much More Than a Cold Soup!
Another simple dish that requires a little bit of artistry is the Spanish gazpacho. We love it when it comes chunky with ‘tropezones’ which are the finely diced vegetables, sometimes jamon and croutons that you can sprinkle on the soup. Some restaurants serve it with the ‘chunks’ on the side so you can tailor make it to your style. Whatever the presentation, you can be sure that on a hot sunny day, you can’t beat it for colour and more helpfully, for its hydration properties. You might come across gazpacho’s sister soup called ‘salmorejo’ which is another great one for those hot Summer evenings. Or the pure white ‘ajo blanco’ made using almonds, garlic and breadcrumbs.
11 Great Flavour & Texture Combinations
Another dish that makes our mouths’ water is octopus called ‘pulpo’. It’s often seasoned with smoked paprika known as ‘pimenton’ and served with a potato mash or purée. It’s a real treat for the senses. Again, it’s a dish that is simply prepared but the care and attention given to preparation is what makes it such a hit. Galicia is a region that specialises in octopus and you can see what else to see and do (and eat) in our post here.
12 Foodmarket Paradise
And to cleanse your palate after so many sensations – we adore the fruit markets. How they look, the variety, the colour, the smells, how everything is presented. Where else in the world is so much attention paid to not just the fruit but even the eggs and potatoes get to feel like celebrities on a red carpet. If you’re like us and adore visiting food markets, you should check out our post on some of the best markets in Spain.
13 And For Afters?
Desserts are also a pleasure to look at in Spain. (Of course, there are the traditional rice puddings and crème caramels that don’t always look so appealing but are delicious to eat.) We are huge fans of Spain’s pastry chefs and love visiting ‘pastelerias’ which are pastry shops. Often members of the town guild, these traditional bakers have to adhere to strict rules on what and when they can produce. The end result is always a pleasure for its aesthetics as well as the taste buds. And we love how much care and ceremony is attached to the wrapping or packaging of the pastries. The best time to see this is on a Sunday morning when shoppers are picking something up for Sunday lunch. Watch out for traditional cardboard boxes wrapped in string and you’ll find the best places wherever you are in Spain.
Have we got your mouth watering? Are you wondering where to Experience the Art of Gastronomy in Spain? Check out all our writing on Food & Drink in Spain and start planning your trip!