Foods of Spain

An introduction to the typical Spanish foods, from tapas and paella to the famous Spanish produce including olive oil, chorizo and serrano ham...

Spain's cuisine, inevitably, is inseparable from the country's varied ethnic and cultural roots. Culinary traditions date back to the Phoenicians and Greeks – the former introduced that small but heroic staple of the Iberian diet, the olive, and the Romans would later export thousands of amphorae of olive oil to Rome from Spain. The Romans in turn shared their vast knowledge of viticulture and of preserving fish, an art form currently enjoying a revival.

Some of Spain's most enduring culinary legacies, particularly the use of spices, herbs and fruits in savoury dishes, stem from eight centuries of Arab and Moorish rule. Trading with the Persians, the Arabs introduced pomegranates, rice and aubergines from India, melons from Africa and figs from Constantinople. The Moors also had a sweet tooth, a trait that most Spaniards have inherited (they're particularly partial to honey and almond laden desserts).

In the 13th and 14th centuries Spanish conquistadors returned from the New World with potatoes, beans, courgettes and peppers, all still store cupboard staples in kitchens across Spain. as used by most other countries.

Spanish Food: Key Dates

  • 8th century: The Moors cultivated plants such as apricots, carob, quinces, almonds and pistachios. Words such as naranja (orange) and zanahoria (carrot) have Arabic roots.
  • 1324: The first Spanish cookbooks came from Catalonia and were written in Catalan. In 1324 Libre de Sent Sovi was written, containing an assortment of Catalan recipes as well as cooking techniques.
  • 1519: Hernán Cortés conquered Mexico: chocolate, tomatoes, vanilla, turkey and chillies were introduced to Europe.
  • 1520: Rupert de Nola produced the first printed cookbook: Libre del coch is filled with Mediterranean-style recipes.
  • 19th century: Olive oil, promoted in cookery books like Angel Muro's famous El Practicón (1894), began to replace lard as the dominant cooking fat around Spain.
  • Second half 20th century: Spain developed the DO system of classification, notching up more than 100 protected foodstuffs.
  • 1970s and 80s: Basque chefs influenced by French nouvelle cuisine created nueva cocina vasca, a lighter version of stout peasant food. Within a few years the rest of Spain has followed suit.
  • 2007: Ferran Adrià's visionary cooking earns "el Bulli" the Best Restaurant in the World title for a third year.

The Denominación de Origen (DO) System

The Spanish government is keen to protect its regional produce from imitation, in line with wider concerns over food provenance. The Instituto Nacional de Denominaciones de Origen came up with the DO (denominación de origen) system, covering a range of foodstuffs including rice, olive oil and cured ham. The body also devotes considerable time to classifying Spanish wine. Before anything can be labelled with the DO standard, strict criteria must be met. Each product must display characteristics specific to its region of origin and conform to an established list of ingredients.

DO foods include:

  • Manchego: The famous sheep's milk cheese from La Mancha
  • Aceite Monterrubio: Olive oil from Badajoz in Extremadura
  • Jamón serrano: Dry cured mountain ham from Guijuelo and Huelva
Extract from Speak the Culture Spain, a Thorogood publication Speak the Culture series website / Buy online [si]Copyright © 2009 Thorogood Publishing[/si]